Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Faithful Agnosticism

"Shrouded in Mystery"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Almost every day, after I post a blog article, I am almost certain to come across some debate or other between strong believers and strident atheists about how “certain” they all are regarding what they believe in or what they do not believe in.

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 being “certain” about anything is just not possible. In a very real sense every faithful person must also be an agnostic of sorts;  and from my perspective, a thoughtful atheist should also be somewhat agnostic when it comes to their degree of certainty about who God is “not.”

An agnostic is someone who is unable or unwilling to express belief in a no-doubt certainty regarding the claims of faith- claims about the divine or supernatural. 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.”

The contemporary theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, observes:

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

As I see it, these are wise words of wisdom and they provide an important “corrective” to any language, discourse or discussion regarding the truth about “God.”

Over the ages theologians and scholars have generated volumes and tomes of words and ideas, systems and categories, attempting to come to an understanding of the “Great Mystery,” the transcendent experience we call ‘God.” But every theologian and scholar worth his/her salt have always known 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.”

Every day of my life I experience a “Holy Abiding Transcendent Presence.” I experience a truth that all the many are in fact the “One.”  But, this presence might perhaps be 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 certainty. I can no more prove the existence of and accurately “capture” 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 is a  “faithful agnosticism.” It is an untamed place of abject desolation and excruciating beauty. I can walk out onto a desert canyon and encounter “absolutely nothing” - miles and miles of nothing but sand and rocks; and everything is totally silent.  Yet, in the silence and in the nothingness I always experience a thunderous presence.  I have no idea as to what this “Presence” means, I can't describe it, I can’t analyze it and I certainly can’t prove that it exists, so I don’t even try to talk about it - I just allow myself to take it all in.  

I guess I am an agnostic, but I am a faithful agnostic.

I am reminded of a little story that comes out of the “Sayings” of the ancient 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers. I believe they knew a great deal about what it means to embrace a faithful agnosticism:

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.’


  1. Outstanding contemplation, father Paul. From my limited exposure to Desert spirituality, I fully understand when you say: "Yet, in the silence and in the nothingness I always experience a thunderous presence." For me, Desert spirituality is God revealed, raw and stripped of unnecessary baggage. It's a stark realization, a shock really, a "God in your face" sort of encounter.. I love your expression "a faithful Agnostic". This really describes where I'm at now. My journey now seems to be one of Unknowing/unlearning. Thank you for serving as a "rest stop" on this wilderness path.


  2. Mike, I think many if not most faithful people I know are faithful agnostics.