The use of the word “agnostic” raises the question of knowledge. How do we know things?
The word “agnostic” is made up of the prefix a, meaning “without”, followed by the word gnosis, which means “knowledge”. An agnostic is a person “without knowledge”. As the term is most commonly used, the “knowledge” an “agnostic” claims to lack is “knowledge” of the existence of God.
The verb “to know” signifies a range of human experiences. The range of knowing occurs on a sliding scale between absolute certainty at one end and at the other, an uncertainty that verges on doubt.
I say, “I know one plus one equals two” because I learned as a child to count and I know that there is virtually universal agreement that when I take one object and add another, I have two objects. About this I am absolutely certain.
I say, “I know it is raining” when I stand outside and feel my clothes getting wet. But here there might be a moment of doubt. Perhaps someone is watering their lawn and I am in the path of their sprinkler. With a little investigation any uncertainty in this case can be cleared up.
I say, “I know Tom is reliable,” because Tom has always been reliable in the past. But, when he fails to keep an appointment, suddenly my confident knowledge is thrown into doubt.
None of these uses of the verb “to know” comes close to my intention when I say, “I know there is a God,” or “I know God”. If the only possible meaning of “to know” is the one that I use when I say “I know one plus one equals two”, I am lying if I say “I know God.” I do not “know God” in the way I know that one plus one equals two.
On the level of mathematical certainty, the only option in relationship to God, is agnosticism. God is not a knowable entity on the level of mathematical equation, or the observable state of the weather, or even reliable conjecture about the nature of a friend.
When I say “I know God” the verb “to know” is operating in an entirely different realm than scientific observation, mathematical equation, or predictable patterns of human behaviour.
When I say, “I know God” I am saying something a little closer to “I know my wife.” The statement “I know my wife”, means much more than simply “I recognize her body”. It means I am committed to her. We share intimacy and live together in a loving relationship. When I say “I know my wife”, I am saying that I am determined to hold my heart open to her, to make myself vulnerable to her, and to grow more deeply in my awareness of the mystery of her being.
On this level, labels are meaningless. I do not say that, because I know my wife, I am a “wifist”, the way a believer in God is sometimes called a “theist”. If I turned away from my wife and rejected her, I would not suddenly become an “awifist”. When I don’t know what my wife is up to, or find it difficult to understand her behaviour, I do not call myself a marital agnostic.
I say simply that I am in a relationship of love with my wife. Much of that relationship is carried out in a degree of uncertainty, unkowning, even confusion. At times I am not sure what my wife means. There are moments when we mis-communicate, sometimes desperately. Even after over thirty years of marriage, there are still times when we find each other utterly incomprehensible. But we carry on together in relationship.
This is how I “know God”. I “know God” because despite all the uncertainties, doubts, and confusions of my life, I know myself to be living in relationship to a mystery more vast than anything I can begin to comprehend. I know that hints of love and beauty stir in my life every day. I know in the depths of my being that I am called into something much bigger and more true than can be confined by the narrow limitations of my temporal material existence. I am not an “agnostic” because I choose to commit myself to living in relationship to this mystery and growing in my ability to perceive the depths in which this mystery dwells.