What is Faith to an Agnostic?
by Jim Stringer
The author plays guitar in and around Austin, Texas. In a performing career that now in its 5th decade, Stringer has played styles ranging from rockabilly to country, blues to jazz. Information on him, his career, his music, along with some strong opinions can be found on his website
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Late in the 19th century, the great thinker, Thomas Henry Huxley, eloquently coined the word, agnostic, and proposed an agnostic philosophy. He was attacked by both atheist and theist. One outraged Anglican cleric suggested Huxley should be called by his true name, “infidel.” Perhaps this simply shows that fundamentalism has remained unchanged through the intervening years. From the other side, atheists accused Huxley of indecision and lack of commitment. However, Huxley had at least one avid young reader who not only found his writing intellectually stimulating, but spiritually deep an outline for an examined life. I still return to my little blue Huxley book as a reminder or to bolster my “faith” as some would their Bible or Koran.
How can I consider agnosticism a faith? After all, the very word comes from Greek roots which mean “without belief.” Like that sorry-assed country song says, “You’ve got to believe in something or you’ll fall for anything.” Right?
Agnosticism as a philosophy or as a way of life is not absence of belief. Quite the opposite… it’s more like belief in everything! I accept the there are many things that I can’t know and that there are many equally plausible explanations for metaphysical questions. What is the purpose of life? What or who is God? Is there something that lives on when we die? What’s the true nature of the universe?
I do have some a priori concepts more like metaphors which help me to sort things out. One of these is that my belief that the universe is like ripples in a pond -- changing, interfering, reflecting, defining patterns, and creating an existence. But I don’t know what the pond is or who threw the rock that started the ripples. And, I believe that each of us is like a thread in a very great and complex tapestry. What comprises the tapestry or the tapestry artist’s intent is as incomprehensible to me as is this essay to a silicon atom in the computer chip that’s helping me to compose it. These are not “scientific” theories. I can’t test them through experiment nor do they even satisfy the criteria to be called a hypothesis. I’ve just found these to be useful analogies and harmless imagery at worst. I certainly wouldn’t begin an evangelical movement and try to convince others that unless they also believe these things then they will suffer eternal torture! And I wouldn’t declare war on and try to destroy a general population that believed otherwise. I don’t have any rationale for believing I’m any more right that anyone else.
Consequently, I bristle at the arrogance of Christians who think that I must just not know about their “truth” as they naively try to convert my heathen mind. The fact is, I know more about their Bible than many practicing Christians. And certainly, I know more about their thinking than they know about mine. I’ve read the Old and New Testaments, The Book of Mormon, The Teachings of Buddah, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Tillich. I’ve learned at least the rudiments taught by the Vedas, the Koran, and Wycka. All are filled with wisdom, history, poetry…. and a good measure of pure baloney! It’s wrong to suggest that those who adhere to dogma and conjecture are somehow endowed with a greater “faith” than I. Let me illustrate by example.
Suppose a good friend recommends a certain record. You ask for a description and he replies that it’s impossible to describe, but he’s sure you’ll like it. If you have faith in your friend, you’ll buy the record based only upon his recommendation. My faith is similar to the record buyer. I don’t have to be told what or who “God” is, what the true nature of the universe is or what happens when we die.
What I know is that I’m inescapably part of the “universe” that which is (which, by the way, is a fair translation of the name Yahweh, the biblical name of God.) My body, my mind, my past, my future are a small, but intrinsic part of that which is. It’s neither good nor bad that which is encompasses everything -- all that we’ve sub-classed as good and bad. Furthermore, try as we might, we can’t pin down the “true” nature of the universe… it just can’t be done.
What we call knowledge might be defined as a description of a phenomenon, object or concept in the lexicon of an encompassing context. For example, we know what a “book” is… it’s a collection of words (a member of the super-set of word-things), printed (a member of the super-set of printed things) on paper (yes… we know what paper is and we get the point.) Each of the defining sets could, in turn, be described in the lexicon of its encompassing context.
But, in order to adequately describe that which is, we’d have to use the encompassing context of that which contains that that is. We have no lexicon for that context nor can we have. We must accept that it is what it is…period!
So… my faith? I’m satisfied with the certain knowledge that I’m part of that which is. What happens when I die is whatever happens when I die. There might be things that hurt, things that make us sad, things that cause the grass to turn brown, things that make loud noises, things that smell like rotten eggs, things that make it hard to sleep… but these aren’t “bad” things. They’re just part of that which is. And so are we all.