Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An Agnostic Spirituality

"Great Mystery"
-Daybreak at the Desert Retreat House'

One of the things I enjoy most about writing a daily reflection on my blog are the comments I get after the article is posted.  Each day I try to address the various questions and observations people often make online. 

Yesterday I received a very thought-provoking comment as someone told me how exasperated he was that his two sons who grew up in the church had now become agnostics.  My first thought was that maybe being an "agnostic" was not such a bad thing. 

An agnostic is someone who says "I don't know" when it comes to "God." Agnostics are people who believe that nothing about "God" can ever be known or explained.  The thing is that "agnostics" are in pretty good company because, historically speaking, the most prominent theologians in Christendom have essentially been "agnostics." 

Back in the 4th century the renowned theologian, Saint Augustine, argued that "God" is essentially unknowable. 

In talking about God, if you claim to understand what you are talking about, 
then, what you have 'understood' is not God.

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, who arguably wrote more words about "God" than any other theologian in history, ultimately admitted that all his many books and tomes and words were nothing more than "a pile of straw," because "God" is unknown and unknowable. His avalanche of words, intricate ideas and complicated theological explanations were just feeble attempts at "getting at" a great unknowable mystery.

Contemporary theologian, Elizabeth Johnson puts it this way:

God is outside of all classes and categories
and beyond the possibility of being imagined or conceived.

As I think about it, in one sense, "agnosticism" is the goal of all religious thought. When you can finally be aware enough to understand that "transcendence" can never be neatly bottled up into categories and classifications, you arrive at a deeper wisdom.   

It all reminds me of the Buddhist notion of "Beginner's Mind" as a goal of wisdom.  When you have finally arrived at the point in life where all your answers turn into questions, when all your expertise and experience leads you to the point of  saying "I don't know," you have acquired the greater wisdom of a "Beginner's Mind."  Now every day is a new beginning and every moment is brimming with surprises. 

The desert where I live is a place that fosters "an agnostic spirituality."  The desert is a wild and untamed place of excruciating beauty. I get up every morning and gaze upon the sun rising over the eastern mountains and I turn into an "agnostic."  How can I possibly ever claim to "know" or understand the" Great  Mystery" I experience every day? 

 Maybe a song, maybe a poem might help me "get at" the experience, a theology book isn't much help. 
 So I just sit in the moment - a time of sacred silence. I bask in the experience of a Presence far beyond my comprehension, and I try not to give it a name. 


  1. Paul I resonate a lot with your thoughts. I have been a fundamentalist who knew the 'Truth'. I saw that same 'Truth' become much like a fairy tale in the face of observation and reason. Yet knowing intuitively there is a 'God',a reason for my existence, I know what you said is right on the money.

    God IS. That is the whole truth, but as soon as something has been said about God he is lesser than the God we are talking about by virtue of what we know about him / her.

    I'm sure there is a way to 'know' God. But as far as I can tell it is a personal and intimate way rather than a corporate and community based way.

    The Buddhists are really on to something in the way they approach the experience of being alive. Jesus's teaching is essentially the same at it's core. It is a means to escape suffering. Jesus acknowledged that everyday comes fully packed with the probability of trouble. How different is that from declaring life is suffering? Not much.


  2. Thank you for your faithfully "agnostic" insight.

  3. Thank you for this. I start with the mystery of the Eucharist. It must remain a mystery. Our minds can no more conceive of the Kingdom of Heaven than a fetus in the womb can conceive of the Grand Canyon. I don't know much, I simply know that my redeemer liveth, and that has to be enough for me. :)

  4. I am unsure that anything 'must' remain a mystery. The idea that there are hidden things behind the curtain of the reality we see for me runs counter to incarnation. It's a bit dualistic.

    We see, but we don't know what we're really looking at.

    1. Yes, very true. My point is that we can access transcendence through our experience, but the minute we try to "explain it," it ceases to be a mystery--I think this is what Augustine is saying. I don't at all think dualistically, I believe that the Great Mystery, "God" is totally enfleshed in everything that is. Thanks for the great comment. I like your line about "we see but we
      'don't know' what we are looking at."