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We Don’t Know ‘Right Now’

November 18, 2010

Where I tend to view myself as both a Christian and an agnostic (see the post below), I just came across a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog thoughtfully arguing for an important distinction between Christian faith–even non-fundamentalist Christian faith–and agnosticism. I think this anonymous reader makes the case eloquently, but I also think he/she is too dismissive of the spirituality of non-religious but still thoughtful and spiritual agnostics. I have so many good friends who fall into that non-religious, thoughtful and spiritual agnostic category. And I would uphold them as exemplars of what Jesus teaches and what God has revealed to be righteousness–right alongside any super-virtuous religious folks one might point to. So even though I really like this person’s description of non-fundamentalist Christian faith, I cannot endorse his/her armchair head-shrinking of non-religious agnostics.

Here’s Sullivan’s reader:

The non-fundamentalist Christian experiences doubt within the framework of faith, and above all hope.

We see through a glass darkly; but one day we will see Him face to face. Our unknowing is intrinsically related to eschatology — we experience doubt but dwell within it hopefully, waiting humbly and patiently for the day when all things will be made new. In other words, the uncertainty and humility of the Christian is not a mere admission that we “just don’t know,” but instead is given intelligibility by our hope. It might be better to put it this way: the Christian acknowledges that we don’t know right now. I also suspect — or at least this holds for me — that humility is related to original sin, our flawed and fallible post-lapsarian natures. It is not that our questions are unanswerable, or meaningless, it is that we can’t answer them as finite, fallible beings with minds that still bear the imprint of our aboriginal catastrophe. So we hold our beliefs with some critical distance, knowing that a belief in any God that does not slip into utter anthropomorphism will be aware of the limits of language, of marking with mortal words immortal things.

I’m not sure a simple agnosticism ever can really be sustained. I’m not sure why, apart from a kind of existential self-positing, and thereby probably delusional willfulness, it does not turn to cynical despair. I’m not sure it is ever non-parasitic on more robust forms of faith (including non-fundamentalist religious faith). I’m not sure why you would continue to attend to questions that you think are not open to some kind of provisional answer, even the answer of humble faith. The Christian who doubts has reasons for both believing and struggling, and the two are held together and given intelligibility by sustaining hope.

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