We are all Agnostic

And I think I mean that quite literally.
The word comes from the Greek agnosis [α-γνωσις] which simply means “not knowing.”

Is there a God? Is there no God? We simply don’t know, if by “know,” we mean, “are certain about the facts.”

I am not sure why this is a scandalous thing to say. It seems quite biblical to me. In fact, the famous passage on faith in Hebrews 11 seems to say that faith can only exist for those who are agnostic.

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible . . . By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance,obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going . . . 13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised . . .”

If we believe that our Christianity consists of what we know then you will not be able to accept what I am saying here. But if our Christianity consists of how we live, then what I say may be more palatable. What makes one an agnostic, a Christian, or an atheist, is not whether or not we “know,” it is what we do with our “not knowing.” Or, as I have become accustom to saying, our faith is not in our “certainty” but in our “confidence,” and the difference between those two terms is relational trust

As such, to me those who claim agnosticism are the least courageous of all. What they say is, to me, mundane, redundant and uninteresting. “I am agnostic. I don’t know if there is a God or not.” Yes. And?

Of course, what they generally mean is, “and so I will choose to stay as detached as possible from the whole conversation. I will hedge my bets.” And I find that to be an uninteresting mode of living. The atheist and Christian then are like the man who knows that he cannot know for sure if he will get hit by a car today, but goes out to live his life anyway. The agnostic is like the man who knows that he cannot know for sure if he will get hit by a car today, so he stays home. The atheist and Christian may calculate the odds differently, but they still go out.

And in this way, the Christian and the atheist are more alike than different. We are all agnostic. But it is only the Christian and the atheist who are willing to take a risk with their lives. They both courageously make an existential stand when no conclusions are available. Of course, I would argue that the atheist is only slightly more courageous than the agnostic and lacks imagination; they are not able to imagine that “with God, all things are possible,” and that “there is more to it than just this.

So that the Christian is the most courageous of them all (as Hebrews 11 attests). The Christian thrusts her agnosticism onto God, not knowing, but believing, not understanding, but trusting. Instead of living by the rules of others, out-rationalizing the rationalists, out-sciencing the scientists, the Christian ought to celebrate her ability to create new rules, to out-imagine those without imagination. And this is not because we have more knowledge, it is because we have more trust.

I understand this may not be the Christianity that most Americans are used to.
In fact, everything I have said might sound downright anti-Christian. And maybe it is. I just don’t know.

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7 responses to “We are all Agnostic

  1. Great post Jared, as always. I’ve certainly enjoyed my time spent reading all of your postings. However, I am a bit perturbed by your car analogy that paints agnostics as paralyzed by lack of information. As an agnostic, I certainly have beliefs about morality and ideals that I stand for. I cannot know for certain whether these ideas are even remotely correct, nor can I know the long term effects of my ideals. I can only act in the way I think is best based on what I currently know and believe about the world and the people who inhabit it.

    Those knowledge and beliefs have certainly grown and changed throughout my life, and will no doubt continue to do so. Because of the inevitability of this change, I find it best to not hold too much conviction in regards to anything. This certainly does not mean that I won’t ever stand up for what conviction I do have. It simply means that I am always open to new (and new ways of looking at old) ideas. If beliefs do indeed have consequences for myself and those around me, I must be wary of those effects, and alter my beliefs accordingly if needed. If that is living by the rules of others, so be it. I’m not much of one for lots of control anyway.

    • Thanks Troy. I didn’t mean any offense, though now I see how my phrases could certainly mean as much. I guess my point is that many of us are “agnostic” in the way you describe, but that doesn’t preclude being a “Christian” either. I read what you say as a “way” of knowing, not really talking about any content specifically. And as such, we should all subscribe to being agnostic in the way of being wise and open to new information, but not in the way of detachment, as it seems you too are not interested in. Does any of that make sense? If not, just know that I appreciate your post and think we agree to a large extent!

      • You are right in that being Christian does not preclude being open-minded. To a point, at least. You cannot truly consider ideas that are directly contradictory to your most indispensable beliefs. However, based on what I’ve read from you, you’re definitely on the more “open” side of things, which is certainly nice to see. I have absolutely no problem with Christians such as yourself.

        Personally, I’d rather judge actions by whether they are wise or foolish, rather than right or wrong. In that vein, I generally agree with the vast majority of Biblical values. There’s certainly a heck of a lot of wisdom to be found there. I’m just not comfortable declaring it the absolute, unquestionable, divine word of God. Ultimately, we’re all just trying our best to live good lives and do our best unto others (hopefully).

    • Troy, just want to point you towards Kent Sparks’ “Sacred Word Broken Word…” and/or Peter Enns’ “Inspiration and Incarnation”. Both books try to address issues with the typical definition of inerrancy.

  2. In regards to faith and the assumption that we make, I would quote Van Til:

    “(T)he only proof for the existence of God is that without God you couldn’t prove anything.”

    Our faith allows us to reason, because to even contemplate as to what reason of any kind might be, we must take a leap of faith of some kind when we establish any kind of base concept of what it even is. It’s all in the presuppositions.

    • God is the necessary, the universe is necessary, and/or mathematics is necessary. You can pick any or all of those to be your starting point. If math and reason need an explanation, than God needs an explanation as well.

  3. As an atheist, I do not think that we are any less imaginative or courageous than Christians. We are just as full of wonder, uncertainty, and awe at our existence as believers, we just choose to look at the world with a different prism. Now, I have been referring to myself as an agnostic atheist for many years and I cannot count how many times people have misunderstood that distinction. My mother takes that to mean that I am a true neutral Agnostic and have not made my final decision about the existence of God. I think it is great that Jared is trying to bring edification about the differences between Gnostic and Agnostic beliefs. There are Agnostic Atheists, Agnostic Theists, Gnostic Atheists, and Gnostic Theists. This torpidity to change and impedance to different world views that many congregations hold might disappear if more people embraced the jubilance of the unknown versus the trepidation of the known.

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