Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Christian agnosticism, Christian atheism

At the beginning of January, a post by X-Cathedra at Well at the World's End, on Christian atheism, followed fast upon the heels of a discussion of agnostic Christianity by James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix. This is a very late (in internet-time) reflection, and given other commitments is somewhat unfinished too. Some of this is expanded from a comment I wrote on the latter blog. First, some quotes.

From Well:
God may indeed have survived the tug-of-war between liberal Protestantism and post-liberalism... but it is clear that atheism, agnosticism, and secularism are more culturally ingrained and conceptually viable than they have ever been in history. And how full the pews are does little to affect this. As Charles Taylor notes, what's distinctive about our secular age is that God is understood to be simply one among many competitors in the marketplace of ideas.
From Exploring:
not only can be Christian agnosticism, but that in fact that is all we have. There are no people who have actual historical certainty about every historic Christian claim about Jesus. There are only people who have managed to attain a feeling of certainty. But being honest about the uncertainty, even though it can be unsettling to feel it, is not at all something to be ashamed of. Instead of describing it as "agnosticism" we could also call it "honesty."

Whether or not we agree that Christian agnosticism is "all we have," (this again depends on "how we define" the terms), it is certainly not an unprecedented position. See, e.g., the writings of Leslie Weatherhead, EH Johnson, HG Curteis, Alexander Mckennal, etc. Before anyone responds that there are no new heresies under the sun (or indeed among the clergy), I'll just offer my own favorite formulation of this position, from (non-cleric) Eric Voegelin -- hardly an accommodationist apostle for the latest wind of doctrine -- who said in The New Science of Politics that "uncertainty is the very essence of Christianity." (p 122.) (Voegelin called himself a "pre-Nicene Christian," for what that's worth). It is worth recalling that the early church had a life-&-death struggle not with atheism (a label often applied to Christians back in the day), but with, as St. Irenaus referred to them, "Gnostics, so-called."

I have already had recourse to Voegelinian uncertainty (e.g here), so let me add here some remarks on "Christian atheism".

To speculate loosely about the connection between these two developments, I would hazard that Christianity itself, with its emphasis upon the historical Incarnation ("under Caesar Augustus," "while Quirinius was governor of Syria"), made almost inevitable the eventual short-circuit that would give us "Christian agnosticism." The strange marriage between the historical and eternal that Lessing found to be so problematic is the very center of the faith.

And this claim is also at the center of the death-of-God theologies. Altizer, Hamilton, and so on are all too often read as symptoms of their cultural moment, but what makes their claim radical is a certain ambiguity. It is not always clear whether and how these theologies are referring to "God", and in fact one often gets the impression that the claim is that God really had died; not the idea of God, not the cultural currency of God, not a believable story about God. This was, it will not be missed, also the claim of the New Testament. The New Testament invented the "death of God," to the scandalization of the world. In one motion the church proclaimed that God was the creator of the cosmos, of an ontologically different order; and then that this creation had pulverized Him into as little as it makes of everything; a corpse.

And then, of course, the claim is that this order, the order of fallen creation, found itself turned inside-out. This is the part of the story that the death-of-God theology left out. At this point, we suddenly revert to the terms of the world that was scandalized by the claim that God could die. Now we are back to a world in which death remains death, and the death of God just is the revelation that all God ever was was the idea, the cultural currency, the no-longer-believable story. This is why it is not surprising that a kind of "agnostic Christianity" arises.

The paradox at the heart of Christianity is inverted by the death-of-God theologies in such a way that finitude is (impossibly) absolutized. I can think of no better summation of this than Sartre's argument towards the end of Being & Nothingness that the project to be God is contradictory. But Christianity has been there ahead of him.

Yes, there was a claim that this made humanity ultimately responsible for itself. And this was true; but in what context does this responsibility obtain? If such "responsibility" means bravely building our fires until an inevitable infinite night, it is only another name for despair. This is why, for all my respect for Altizer (and I will insist on this; if you just shrug him off, you have not understood him), the so-called radical Christianity that was the scandal of 1960's American theology is a capitulation, not an articulation, of faith.

And given this, it is hardly surprising that some prefer the illusory safety of the halfway-house of agnosticism. Having said this, I'll add the caveat that this sort of retreat to agnosticism seems to me to be more frequent among onetime (what is sometimes semi-disparagingly called "recovering") evangelicals and/or fundamentalists. I do not know as many Catholics or Orthodox who would feel the need to qualify their faith in these terms. But I emphasize this is just an unscientific impression.

I'll also add that McGrath's valorization of mysticism and apophaticism in the face of skeptical critique of historical claims is well-taken, but equates only loosely with agnosticism. Agnosticism as the claim that one does not know seems to be more or less amenable to apophatic theology, but a strong agnosticism (a.k.a. "skepticism") is (despite appearances) less so. This is counter-intuitive. Because apophatic theology insists that God's nature remains unsearchable, one might at first glance assume it is simply skepticism applied to theology. But the kind of knowledge in question differs. It would take us far afield to explore this very deeply, so I will avoid generalizations about ancient conceptions of knowledge, but in general it strikes me that modern agnosticism sees knowledge as a primarily intellectual affair. Knowledge here is the kind of thing that one gives in answer to questions; it is formulatable. Augustine famously said that he knew what time was, so long as no one asked him. To the modern agnostic, knowledge is the sort of thing Augustine did not have when he was asked. To the apophatic theologian, knowledge may well be the sort of thing Augustine did have when he was not asked.

Even this knowledge, of course, fails when it comes to God. But the distinction is vital. If I retreat to agnosticism in the face of skeptical critique and think I am validated by virtue of the great examples of apophatic theology, I am mistaken. The cloud of unknowing is deeper than any intellectual skepticism. As a Zen proverb has it: No doubt, no enlightenment. Small doubt, small enlightenment. Great doubt, great enlightenment.

But then again, if we use knowledge to mean this sort of mental event that modernity means by it, rather than the noetic event of understanding the ancients have in mind (and I know, I know I am begging the question of just what that distinction implies), then it has to be said that the modern agnostic, "Christian" or no (McGrath included), is right. That really is "all we have." The question is, is it all we have to settle for?


  1. I have a friend, a good friend, who, if you mention God or the Church to him, gets almost violently angry. I think you know the type. It’s best not to bring up the topic. Once I did talk to him of the White Goddess of Robert Graves and he seemed to like the idea (he’s a very cultured man) and he thought he really could be a devotee of that. What to do. It seems to me it’s all a matter of taste. Still, though, I do find it to be a pleasing pastime to think up arguments for God’s existence. I really am a believer—or maybe, not a believer, but an obsessive, at times manic, lover of the God of my daydreams. I do, moreover, know that if God actually turned out to be only as I imagine Him to be, that few would want to love that, but would rather run to the folds of disbelief.

  2. Skholiast, (on the gnostic theme)
    It might interest you to know that core advaita rejects the docetic/gnostic view of the perfect sage viz. that his mind has no use for the normal means of perception and that he knows without the mediation of the senses as an s.o.p. In this view the spectacles of the Sage of Kanchi are an absurd affectation. The difficulty is that the gnostic incarnation is a paradox and therefore unknowable which makes the reaction position the agnostic one in any tradition where it takes root.

    I particularly like:
    "Knowledge here is the kind of thing that one gives in answer to questions; it is formulatable. Augustine famously said that he knew what time was, so long as no one asked him. To the modern agnostic, knowledge is the sort of thing Augustine did not have when he was asked. To the apophatic theologian, knowledge may well be the sort of thing Augustine did have when he was not asked."

  3. Great post, thanks for your comment on mine. It's strange isn't it that "soft" agnosticism is more genuinely "unknowing" (to use a loaded term) than the "I won't be convinced until all the evidence is in." (Which already knows what the answer is, in a sense—the empricist filters are on.) I'm sorry mate that you thought you had resolved this "atheist Christianity" issue: so had I!

  4. On the subject of hoarding all knowledge for the intellect...

    When McGrath says, "There are no people who have actual historical certainty about every historic Christian claim about Jesus. There are only people who have managed to attain a feeling of certainty," I suddenly realized why I don't know what the argument is half the time. Since when did actual historical certainty about every historic Christian claim about Jesus become a definition for a Christian?

    Am I permitted to claim actual historical certainty about moments in my own life? Well of course I hope so, when I want to convince others of those events. Then again, the saving grace of any relationship might be the ability of both partners to say, "I might not be remembering correctly." But what about an experience which was passed through, or passed through you, and was known in the passing, and in a sense is still being experienced?

    Sorry to sound so woo-woo-mystical, but my intellect lives very happily with things it rolls its eyes at, just as my bloodstream thanks me every time I eat something healthy but unappealing. The intellect, in my opinion, has very unsophisticated tastes. It wants very salty and/or sugary foods all the time because they announce themselves so clearly.