r m p

SERMON ARCHIVE

 

 

AGNOSTIC PIETY

 

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 33:18-23

New Testament Reading: Acts 17:22-23

Text: Galatians 4:8-9 "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elements, whose slaves you want to be once more?"

Once the young Thomas Henry Huxley found himself at a loss among a group of his friends: all of them had some sort of dogmatic philosophy with arguments at the ready to defend it! All rejoiced to place themselves in tried-&-true categories. But poor Huxley did not feel it was so easy to make up his mind, and as a result he had no neat convictions nor ready label for them. But he felt he wanted to give his position, such as it was, a name. He decided that the chief thing about his view was that he felt keenly his lack of knowledge about the great questions of philosophy and religion. Gnosis, knowledge, was what he did not boast. He was decidedly no gnostic, the ancient label claimed by those "in the know." So why not coin a new term with precisely the opposite denotation? He christened himself an agnostic. The prefix "a-" negates whatever follows it, just as an atheist is one who believes there is no theos, no God.

What is the difference between atheism, now that I've mentioned it, and agnosticism? In popular usage, an agnostic is one who holds open the theoretical possibility that there is a God, but he or she believes there is no way of finding out one way or the other.

This, for what it's worth, is not what Huxley meant. He recognized that definition of agnosticism as simply one more brand of dogmatism, a belief that he could not justify. He was without knowledge on the ultimate questions, including the question whether one may know about God. Maybe you can! He just didn't yet see how. But he'd be happy to listen to your argument.

I have called this sermon "Agnostic Piety," and that phrase, which I did not coin, appeals to me because of its wide range of applications. I want to consider a few of these briefly with you.

First, as Huxley claimed, agnosticism might in and of itself be deemed a kind of piety. Its essence, after all, is intellectual honesty. Huxley warned that it was sheer immorality and fraud to accept a conviction on inadequate evidence. You dare not permit yourself the luxury of believing something just because you like the sound of it, the implications of it. You are deceiving your self when you buy the religious pitch of some spiritual barker just because if true it promises peace or salvation. The point is, how do you know it's true in the first place?

If we approached what one writer called the "spiritual supermarket" with such a critical attitude, we might wind up with a lighter load, an emptier cart, at the checkout, but we could at least pay for what we were buying! Like Huxley, we might not be able to impress our friends with what deep convictions we have, but we would be honest! And Huxley added, if we approach belief this way, we will be able to look one day into the face of the Truth or of God unflinchingly. What else could a God of Truth require of us?

The agnostic, one might add, is being not only intellectually honest, but intellectually humble as well. Of the Promethean knowledge of heaven and the gods he says, like the Psalmist, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high. I cannot attain it." That is, I would say, agnostic piety.

But if the agnostic is truly open as he says he is, as Huxley said he was, he will sooner or later get around to seeking sincerely after the possibility that God exists and rewards them who diligently seek him, as the Writer to the Hebrews put it.

Perhaps the pious agnostic will pray, "God, if there is a God, help me." or "God, assuming you exist, reveal yourself to me." This may seem to you, Christian or agnostic, a rather anemic prayer. Whether it is or not, I will consider in a moment.

But first I must read you surely the most elaborate agnostic prayer ever composed. It occurs in a wonderful fantasy novel called Creatures of Light and Darkness, by Roger Zelazny. In it there is a character who is a hardened agnostic. He has long since despaired of knowing God. Yet by trade he is a chaplain! Here are the last rites as given by the agnostic to a man about to die:

"Insofar as I may be heard by anything, which may or may not care what I say, I ask, if it matters, that you be forgiven for anything you may have done or failed to do which requires forgiveness. Conversely, if not forgiveness but something else may be required to insure any possible benefit for which you may be eligible after the destruction of your body, I ask that this, whatever it may be, be granted or withheld, as the case may be, in such a manner as to insure your receiving said benefit. I ask this in my capacity as your elected intermediary between yourself and that which may not be yourself, but which may have an interest in the matter of your receiving as much as it is possible for you to receive of this thing, and which may in some way be influenced by this ceremony. Amen."

Here is someone sending out a prayer as a message in a bottle to whom it may concern!

But what of the more typical agnostic's prayer? It may be a foxhole prayer; it may be a disinterested request of an inquiring spirit who would not want to neglect a God if a God may be known. I have said that such a prayer may seem pallid, bloodless. If that be so, then the surging red blood the prayer would lack would have to be faith.

But I ask, is the prayer so lacking in faith as it first seems? No, I say the tentative prayer of the agnostic contains the essential element of faith: the recognition that "all things are possible!"

If he didn't believe that a God might exist and might deign to reply, the agnostic would never pray in the first place!

And how is any ostensibly meatier prayer than our agnostic prays any more pious? If it seems more venturesome, if it dares to claim this or that from God, does it not run the risk of presumption? Then is it not less pious than the prayer of the agnostic?

Now suppose our questing agnostic should find what he seeks. Suppose he should penetrate the great epistemological barrier of skepticism and come to believe in God. Is he done with doubt?

Does he now know in the way Huxley denied he knew? Well, no, he does not. Because faith and knowledge are not the same thing. We have faith; we yet lack knowledge. "We walk by faith, not by sight," says the Apostle Paul.

Here I think of some wise words by psychologist Gordon Allport, in his little classic, The Individual and His Religion: "It is characteristic of the mature mind that it can act whole-heartedly even without absolute certainty. It can be sure without being cocksure. We are not positive that we shall be alive tomorrow but it is a good hypothesis to proceed on. ... What many unbelievers do not realize is that the mature believer's eyes are wide open. The latter knows that he is finally uncertain of his ground. But he feels, reasonably enough, that in a world where optimistic bias and faith are largely responsible for human accomplishment, it would be silly for him to lapse into unproductive skepticism, so long as he has a chance of being correct. The believer is often closer to the agnostic than we think. Both, with equal candor, may concede that the nature of Being cannot be known; but the believer, banking on a probability, slight though he may deem it to be, finds that the energy engendered and the values conserved prove the superiority of affirmation over indecisiveness."

You see, Huxley, that modern Diogenes looking for an honest religious person, is being paid his debt here. Because the believer, as Allport paints him, is not dogmatizing. Rather he is pursuing a working hypothesis, which seems more and more to prove itself pragmatically. But he admits it is a wager. It is what Tillich calls the existential risk of faith. It may be that you have staked all on what will prove to be an illusion, but unless you stake all on something, your existence will never be authenticated. Life for you will be merely the object of the detached scrutiny of the butterfly collector.

But the inescapability of doubt is not the only reason that all piety must be in the end agnostic piety. A more profound reason is that the God we seek is Theos agnostos. Even after Paul on the Areopagus and twenty centuries' worth of theologians have had their say, God, the real God, the God beyond the God-constructs of Sunday School, is still the Unknown God, a God finally unknowable. "I found an altar with this inscription, 'To an unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you."

But once proclaimed he does not become any less unknown. For God is no mere problem that might be solved with enough ingenuity, like the problem of space flight. No, God is a Mystery, which may indeed be revealed -- indeed Jesus Christ reveals him -- but who is revealed precisely as a Mystery. And the overwhelming greatness of it is what nourishes the soul. "Immortal, invisible, God only wise! In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes!"

Dionysius the Areopagite called him divine darkness, Meister Eckhart a desert inhospitable. Calvin warned that we can know of God only what he reveals to us. Schleiermacher, called by scholars an "agnostic pietist," agreed we can know nothing of God himself but can only infer his likeness from our religious experience of him. We call him creator not because we were present at time's dawn and saw him creating. We were there no more than Job. Rather we call God creator because we sense that we, like all things, are absolutely dependant upon him in every moment.

There have been mystics and pneumatics in every age who, like the Apostle Paul, claimed to have the very mind of Christ, to have penetrated even unto the Deep Things of God! I will not be so bold; I will never attain such a height on the dark summit of Sinai.

But from my perch down below I testify that the best theology is the most modest. The best theology is the one that at least refuses to caricature God, to make him into a poor idol, by saying unworthy things about him!

Have you ever noticed how the great creedal statements about God and his Christ contain at least as many negations as affirmations? We may not know what God is, but we will be closer to the mark if we do not imagine him to be, for example, bound by time.

Thus we affirm, or rather we negate, saying that God is eternal, that is atemporal. We know at least that he is not going to perish, so we say he is immortal. We can be pretty sure that whatever else may be true of him, he is not dependent on us for anything, so we speak of his aseity. We cannot know the mystery of the Incarnation, but we can at least reason that it did not entail the confusion of divine and human, or the obliteration of either nature by the other. But we are in deep water even in our negations. Let's go back to shore.

Paul says that the Galatians were once in bondage to beings that were not true gods at all. In modern terms we might say they were laboring under certain delusions about God. One of these might be that God is a stern taskmaster who does not love you, and whom you must appease. But Paul says with a note of relief that they have gone past that now, to what Allport would call a more mature religious sentiment. Having graduated from these childish misapprehensions about God, they now know better. They know God.

But then Paul pauses to retract what he has just said, at least to modify it. On second thought, they have come not so much to know God as to be known by him! That is as if to say that what we casually call knowing God is really a matter of being the object of his knowledge. And why is this? Because God, being infinite, can never be the object of your knowledge at all. Only finite things and limited concepts can be the object of knowledge, can be grasped and comprehended by the human mind.

So you cannot know God! But God can know you! God is always I, never it. He is always the subject of knowledge, the knower, never the object of knowledge. Psalm 90 says we are no more substantial than a dream when one awakes, a phantom in the mind of God.

This is why religious experience need not wait upon theology. You do not need to be able to figure God out before you can bless and praise him. Because you can never figure him out at all! He is not an object of your knowledge and never can be! But you can receive the gifts of God in grateful and humble passivity, because you are the object!

Are his ways, his providence, a mystery to you? That's as it should be! Unless you yourself are God! He is not the object of your knowledge, but you are the object of his grace!

Here is a passage from Paul Tillich that I have read before, more than once. I am assuming it is not altogether unfamiliar to you. But I want to use it to illustrate what I mean this morning. [Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, pp. 161-163] He describes the appearance of grace to the needy soul. He stresses that to accept it one hardly need know aught of whence it came. You need not trouble yourself as to the nature of the God of grace, or whether you deserve it, or on what basis it comes to you. The source of this grace, whether God or your subconscious (as if one were not the door to the other!) is not available to you as an object of knowledge. But you are available to it, to him, as the object of his love! Act the part of an object, won't you? Simply accept it.

Robert M. Price

 

Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design

 HOME

SERMON ARCHIVE LIST