Over at Patheos, several people have been explaining “Why I am a __________,” in 200 words or less. It combines drabbling (well, double-drabbling) with talking about your religious identity, so it was always something I was going to be interested in. I’m not a Patheos blogger but I wanted to take up the challenge myself.
Why I Am An Agnostic
In many church circles, doubt is a big no-no. Sarah doubted she could give birth, old and withered as she was, and God struck her mute. Ditto for Zechariah (John the Baptist’s dad). And when the disciple Thomas heard Jesus wasn’t dead anymore and demanded proof, his very name got turned into a kind of slur.
Still, I can’t quite keep myself from doubting. I’m a philosopher by nature, and following in Socrates’s tradition that requires a certain degree of humility. The truly wise man knows how little he knows, even that he doesn’t really know anything. Of course, we can learn quite a bit about the world, through science and logic and dialogue. I definitely think we all have a duty to understand and know as much as we can. No question.
For me, agnosticism is about a healthy dose of skepticism and intellectual humility. It is about recognizing the limits of my understanding. After all, faith is the evidence of things unseen – perhaps things that can never be seen. It helps me resist dogmatism, since anything they could understand can’t be God. As a human being who chooses to believe in God, I could do a lot worse.
… and a Christian …
So why do I call myself a Christian? Partly I’m just incorrigible. Anne Rice “quit” Christianity because she refused to be part of anti-gay, anti-feminist, and so on; I refuse to quit because I don’t want those folks setting the agenda. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
But there’s more to it, really. At its best, Christianity shows us that humans (all of us) are worth fighting for – so good that God Himself would die for us. For every Christian holding “God hates fags” signs, others are hiding Anne Frank in their attic, marching with MLK and against Vietnam, and generally trying to push the moral arc of the universe toward justice.
Christianity also teaches that good works are never enough. We need less justice, more mercy and loving acceptance: not because we’re bad, but because no one can be perfect. And no one should have to be. That’s a liberating thought, but it also challenges us to forgive those who have wronged us. It’s the only way I’ve seen to break the cycle of revenge.
Christianity often falls short of that goal, no doubt, but it’s still worth fighting for. Claiming the name is one way I try to do that.
… and, specifically, a Methodist
John Wesley purportedly wrote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This quote is at the heart of why I love Methodism. We share a theological and ethical core but we’re each responsible for working out our beliefs on “non-essentials.” It’s a big tent (both Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush are Methodists), and we’re more committed to a common method – hence the name – than a shared end-product.
Methodists take the Bible seriously, but that we don’t read it in a vacuum. Wesley taught that “the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” Rather than reading Scripture literally, we dig deeper, taking our cues from logic and the trajectory of history. It’s a natural fit for a philosopher like me.
Finally, Methodism is a call to action. John Wesley’s probably most famous for a poem: “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can,” etc. Belief is important, but so is a practical love of neighbor. Small wonder that Methodists were at the heart of the abolition movement and first-wave feminism, among other things – another big selling point for me.
On agnostic, because it seems a lot of people use this word in different ways: I’ve had a really interesting discussion of this point over at FB, which FB readers, see the latest version here. (If anyone else is interested, let me know and I’ll make a screencap.) Anyway, the upshot is that when I talk about being an agnostic I’m talking about precisely what the etymology means: someone who doesn’t know. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe God exists. It doesn’t even mean I lack certainty here. It does mean that I deny knowledge of God. As a philosopher, I take knowledge to be something you believe is true and that this belief is “grounded” or “warranted.” In Plato’s language, you can provide an account of why you believe its true, a logos – and this account actually shows why it’s rationally true. It gives us good reason to believe something’s true. I know that two is the largest even prime number because I understand mathematical theorems that establish this fact. And I know that in general cats are four-legged mammals that meow because I have observed many such instances of what people use this word to describe and they all have met this description. (Although on the latter point there are some exceptions…)
Now, the problem is with God I’m simply not capable of understanding the concept well enough to tell you that kind of story. I mean, I could tell you about the personal experience I have of God, but I have no way of distinguishing experience from psychosis. Even assuming something’s behind the experience, I have no way of knowing it’s actually God rather than some being that’s so far beyond my ken I can’t imagine anything greater but that still has limits. I’m sure that if someone with an iPhone and a camera and an airplane appeared to prehistoric humans he’d seem very much like a God. No, for me, God is something that I can’t entirely figure out, give you reasons for why I believe He exists, and I think that if there was something I could wrap my human mind around to the extent I’d need to to prove its existence – and beyond that, to prove what kind of thing He is – it wouldn’t really be a good candidate for Godness. What I do know is I am psychologically incapable of fully rejecting the idea of God. There are some things I can’t prove, like (per Hume) that the me who exists when I fall asleep is the same me that’s here when I wake up. I can consider the logical possibility that God exists, but in the same way I can’t really imagine myself blinking out of existence when I’m not observing myself, I can’t imagine God not existing.
This is the essence of faith for me: to believe in something I am sure of but am unable to prove. But while I am certain something exists and try to understand it as far as I’m able (this is a large part of what I do as a grad student doing philosophy of religion), I reject people who think they can work out exactly what God is like and speak with the same precision we reserve for knowledge. I’m very much against dogmatism, people thinking they can speak for God, and try to maintain some intellectual humility. It’s in this sense I claim the “don’t-know” label, not as a stepping-stone toward atheism.
What about you? Does anyone else want to take up the challenge? It’s kind of fun to boil as much of it down to 200 words as you can. I also reckon it would be equally fun to read, and on topics different than religion. Why I am a …. hobbit fanfic writer? Closet Feanorian afficionado? Backyard gardener? SCA enthusiast. Drop me a comment if you do anything along these lines and I’ll post some links in a week or so.