People who are committed to the institutional expression of the religious impulse spend a lot of time sitting around lamenting the rush away from formal religion that is such a marked trend in current western culture. I am beginning to wonder if atheists are experiencing some of the same anxiety. It seems the atheist expression of faith is beginning to lose adherents, or at least be forced to admit that some of the faithful non-believers they claimed as their own were in fact not entirely in the atheist camp.
The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson in a video posted at the “Big Think” blog and linked on Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/05/why-choose-agnostic.html disowns the label “atheist” in favour of “agnostic”. It is a delightful 3 minute and 49 second piece worth listening to.
The famous atheist combatant Christopher Hitchens, who tragically died on the 15 December 2011, was not impressed with the move towards agnosticism. In his debate with the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig at Biola University (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FofDChlSILU&feature=related), Hitchens rejected the label “agnostic” as somehow a dodge taken by those who lack the courage to honestly acknowledge their non-belief. Htichens argued,
If you don’t think there is any evidence (for the existence of God) you are wrong to take refuge in saying you’re neutral. You ought to have the courage to answer the question which one is regularly asked, “Are you an atheist or not?” “Yes” I will say, “I am.”
I disagree with Mr. Hitchens. The choice to identify as an agnostic is a courageous choice. The agnostic who chooses to authentically occupy the uncomfortable middle, settling neither with the easy answer of rejecting transcendence in favour of a purely materialist universe, or the unquestioning conviction that the evidence for God should be obvious to any honest person, has made a difficult and lonely choice.
The word “agnostic” comes from the Greek word, “agnostos” meaning “unknown, unknowable,” from a- “not” and gnostos “(to be) known”. So, an agnostic is a person who acknowledges the profound limitations of human knowing and is willing to live with the uncertainty that exists at the edges of the human ability to understand. A genuine agnostic is a person who is willing to admit that there may be more to life than can be easily grasped by limited human concepts, yet remains unable to find comfortable language to penetrate the depths of that dimension that transcends the human mind.
Some of the greatest writers in the spiritual traditions might find themselves comfortable with the label “agnostic”.
The great 5th/6th Century anonymous Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysius wrote,
I pray we could come to this darkness so far above light! If only we lacked sight and knowledge so as to see, so as to know, unseeing and unknowing, that which lies beyond all vision and knowledge. For this would be really to see and to know: to praise the Transcendent One in a transcending way, namely through the denial of all beings. We would be like sculptors who set out to carve a statue. They remove every obstacle to the pure view of the hidden image, and simply by this act of clearing aside they show up the beauty which is hidden.
(Luibheid, Colm (trans.). Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. NY: Paulist Press, 1987.)
The late 14th Century anonymous author of the English Christian classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote,
of God Himself no man can think. I would therefore leave all those things of which I can think and choose for my love that thing of which I cannot think. And why is this so? He may be well loved, but he may not be thought of. He may be reached and held close by means of love, but by means of thought never.
(Anonymous. Ira Progoff (trans.). The Cloud of Unknowing. NY: Dell Publishing, Co., 1957.)
The great 20th Century monastic Thomas Merton wrote,
It should be remarked that in the contemplative life, while study and intellectual development are of great importance, there is something else more important; still: the realm of personal experience which penetrates beyond the limits of speculative thought to “taste” the ultimate realities and to penetrate the inner meaning of what is believed and yet remains obscure. For the contemplative, then, what matters is not speculative discussion of the “problem of God”… The Christian contemplative is aware that in the mystical tradition both of the Eastern and Western Churches there is a strong element of what has been called “apophatic theology.” This “apophatic” tradition concerns itself with the most fundamental datum of all faith…the God who has revealed Himself to us in His Word has revealed Himself as unknown in His intimate essence, for He is beyond all merely human vision…. The heart of the Christian mystical experience is that it experiences the ineffable reality of what is beyond experience. It “knows” the presence of God, not in clear vision but “as unknown”…Christian faith too, while of course concerning itself with certain truths that have been revealed by God, does not terminate in the conceptual formulation of those truths. It goes beyond words and ideas and attains to God Himself. But the God who in a certain sense is “known” in the articles of faith is “known as unknown” beyond those articles.
(Merton, Thomas. Contemplation in a World of Action. NY: Image Books, 1965.)
No less an authority than the soon-to-be ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in his beautiful book, The Wound of Knowledge, lends his voice to the chorus that affirms the way of unknowing as the way to communion with God.
no ‘spiritual’ experience whatsoever can provide a clear security, an unambiguous sign of God’s favour. Real knowledge of God cannot be put into words with any approximation to completeness; thus real and personal knowledge of God cannot be identified with words in the understanding.
(Williams, Rowan. The Wound of Knowledge. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000.)
Faith operates in the realm of intuition. It is a land of shadows, a terrain of barely glimpsed realities. We are opened to this mysterious domain by recognizing the limits of human reason. This dimension of life is stirred within us by an encounter with beauty, or by the unexpected rising of tenderness and love. Inexpressible sorrow can serve as an uneasy bridge to the place of faith, as can the sudden arising of unexplainable joy.
We walk in the territory of faith not with the certainty of absolute knowledge, but with trust that reaches forward into the darkness and feels its way with a confidence that does not depend upon intellectual proof or scientific demonstration. The journey of faith walks the path of surrender. We move forward, not by acquiring more knowledge, but by laying down our human powers and abilities and opening to that deeper awareness that can be found in the depths of our being.
As Thomas Merton famously wrote in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,
At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will.
This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written is us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…
I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere