- At the Desert Retreat House -
The other day I came across the title of a newly published book: Faithful Questions, and it struck me that in my younger years such a title would seem very odd to me, maybe even scandalous
As a boy growing up in a traditional “Christian-Catholic” tradition, I was always taught that the stronger your faith, the less questions you asked, and I equated “faith” with an unswerving belief in the doctrines and teachings of the church. I still remember one of my teachers in elementary school telling me that absence of doubt was a sign of a person who has a rock-solid faith. I have since come to believe the opposite is true.
On some level I think it’s good to have some relatively strong commitment to one’s beliefs and principles; but as I see it, when it comes to faith and belief, “certainty” is never possible. In a very real sense every faithful person must also be willing to constantly ask questions. In fact, as I see it, a faithful person is always somewhat “agnostic.”
As I see it, an agnostic is someone who is unable or unwilling to express unquestioning belief in any certainty regarding the claims of faith. In the mind of an agnostic, you can never be certain about God because “God” is a mystery. In fact, in a very real sense, “God” is unknowable. So when it comes to “God,” the agnostic says, ‘I don’t know.”
When it comes to God, there are always way more questions than there are answers and so that’s why I think that a vibrant faith and healthy agnosticism go hand in hand.
The contemporary theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, observes:
God is outside of all classes and categories
and beyond the possibility of being imagined and conceived.
Over the ages theologians and scholars of all religious traditions have generated volumes and tomes of words and ideas, systems and categories, attempting to come to an understanding of the “Great Mystery” we call ‘God.” But every theologian and scholar worth his/her salt were always “questioners” who knew that their words and concepts were, in fact, nothing more than “feeble attempts” at describing that which cannot be described and naming that which cannot be named but only experienced at some deep level of awareness.
Back in the 4th century Saint Augustine, celebrated today as one of the “all-time” greatest theologians of the Christian tradition, once said:
In talking about God if you claim to understand what you are talking about,
then, what you have understood is not “God.”
There have been many times in my life when I have experienced the “reality” of “God,” a “Holy Abiding Transcendent Presence.” But, I often find that this presence is often best articulated through a song or perhaps a poem, a story, a work of art rather than with theological or scientific words that demand accuracy and logical certainty. I can no more prove the existence of who “God” is than I can describe or prove with logical certainty that I love my wife or my children.
The desert where I live is a wonderful place for embracing a faith in “God” that always leads me on a path of asking the deeper questions about what my faith really means and continually fosters my own sense of agnosticism. The desert is an untamed place of abject desolation and excruciating beauty, a place where I often encounter “absolutely nothing” - miles and miles of nothing but sand and rocks where everything is totally silent. Yet, in the silence and in the nothingness I often experience a thunderous presence. I have no idea as to what this “Presence” means, I can’t describe it and I certainly can’t prove that it exists, so I just allow myself to take it all in as I live with the deeper questions and bask in the One whom I do not and cannot ever really “know.”
I am reminded of a little story that comes out of the “Sayings” of the ancient 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers:
Once some monks came to visit old Abba Antony
and young Brother Joseph was with them.
Abba Antony, wanting to test them, began speaking about the Holy Scriptures.
He asked the monks to explain the meaning of each of the texts,
and each of them gave lengthy answers.
But to each he said,
‘you have not yet found the right answer.’
The old Abba Antony then asked young Brother Joseph,
‘What do you think these scriptures mean?’
Joseph replied, ‘I don’t know.’
Abba Antony said,
‘Indeed Joseph alone has found the true way, for he has said, he did not know.’