I Am a Faithful Agnostic

Joseph S. Willis (2001)

When I was a boy, the most powerful member of our family was my grandmother, who lived next door to us. I was about twelve or thirteen years old when I realized that everything our family did revolved around her. My mother was constantly taking her to the doctor, buying her groceries, cleaning her house, bringing meals to her. If my mother and father wanted to take us three kids for a rare weekend trip to the mountains, it all had to be checked out first with Grandma. Could she be left for three days? Could she go along for the little vacation?

My grandfather also, when he got home from work, first attended to her before he went out and worked in his yard. I wondered how she acquired so much power over us. It finally dawned on me: she was so powerful because she was so weak! Her continuing illnesses were the source of her strength. I had discovered paradox, though at the time I did not know the name for it.

The World of Paradox

A paradox is a statement that seems to say opposite things: “She was strong because of her weakness.” I am not implying that she was not really ill, though I think she magnified her illness and was preoccupied with her ailments. In any case, she took advantage of her disabilities and of her family. My brother and I and our younger sister came to resent it.

Life is full of paradoxes.

  • Some people work very hard to avoid work.
  • Some people are smart enough to pretend to be less smart, and thus avoid responsibility.
  • Some people seem to enjoy being unhappy.
  • Some people are overly proud of their humility.

Sometimes when I am asked what my theological position is, I often — and paradoxically — call myself a faithful agnostic. I say it quite seriously, though I enjoy the consternation it sometimes produces.

Matt, a young man in one of my classes, was almost angry at my words. “A faithful agnostic is a — what do you call it? An oxymoron? That’s like an honest thief or a gentle bully or a brave coward. In real life, you can’t be two opposite things at the same time!”

“But you can,” I insisted. “Suppose I was forty-five years old and said I wanted to join the kindergarten class in the charter school. They would say I was too old, and of course I would have to agree with that. But then I might say that since I seemed to be too old, maybe I should start drawing on my retirement plan next year. Then they would say that I was too young. I would be too old and too young at the same time, wouldn’t I? Or suppose that I wanted to be a jockey and ride a racehorse; they would say I was too big. If I agreed to settle for being a tackle on a professional football team, they would say I was too small. I would be too big and too small at the same time.”

“Yes,” he objected, “but that is only because you are talking about two different situations: you can’t be too big and too small at the same time about the same thing. So how can you be agnostic and have faith at the same time?”

“That’s not too tough,” I said, “though it is a little subtle. To be agnostic means you don’t know whether a thing is true or not; you don’t know for sure that God exists, or that there is life after death, or whatever. Right?” He nodded in agreement.

“Okay. So now, what does it mean to be faithful?”

“Well,” he said, “it means you can be depended on. And it also means you believe in something. You believe in some ideas, some religion, some kind of theological stuff.”

“All right,” I responded. “Matt, you didn’t want me to say I could be different things at the same time, but you are saying that faithful means two different things at the same time. And that’s okay; I agree with that. I am just pointing it out. But which one do you want to talk about when you say I can’t be a faithful agnostic?”

“I was thinking mostly of believing something,” he responded. “‘I have faith in God’ is different from ‘I am agnostic about God.’ How can you believe in something if you don’t know whether or not it exists?”

Faith vs. Knowledge

Having faith in something is not the same as knowing it. For instance, you know that your doctor has many skills, and you even know what some of them are. Also, she has skills that you don’t know about. What you do know is that she is a competent and caring person. You trust her integrity and honesty and that she will do the right thing to the utmost of her knowledge.

Now suppose that your doctor tells you to see a certain specialist for a complete diagnosis. You don’t know anything about the other doctor, and you don’t know much about the cause of your own health problem. Nevertheless, you would probably go see the specialist and follow his recommendation for treatment even if there were no guarantee of a successful outcome.

That is a good example of faith. Faith is not just agreeing to a set of propositions or saying a creed. If you recited a phrase or two, such as, “I believe that my doctor is trustworthy,” and “My doctor recommends this specialist,” or “I believe that the specialist is competent,” but then refused to see the specialist, that would not show faith. The decision to trust your welfare, maybe even your life, to that person’s skills is an act of faith.

The great theologian Paul Tillich says that faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. I take this to mean, in part, that the fundamental idea on which you base your perception of the universe is the idea from which all your actions and reactions flow. If you commit yourself to the idea that the Ultimate Reality is, for you, a personal loving God, you will think and act one way. If, on the other hand, you conclude that the Ultimate Reality is the physical universe itself, then you will think and act another way. From your ultimate commitment all subsequent commitments flow. If success is your ultimate value, then you will devote your life’s energy toward serving success. If your nation is your central value, then you will devote your energies to the service of the nation.

The agnostic does not know whether God exists or if prayer does any good or if God has a plan. In fact, what she knows is that she does not know. Can a person build a faith on that? How is that related to ultimate commitment? I start with my own experience as a faithful agnostic. Of course, this is not the exact process I actually went through, for it was not a one-time series of logical steps. It developed slowly through time. However, I reconstruct it this way in order to make sense of it. First, I asked myself, is there anything beyond the physical universe? Before I answered, I needed to clarify the question. Does “beyond the universe” mean other universes outside the one we belong to? Or does it mean some sort of source, some sort of Creator, something that holds it together?

But I want to be honest and not play tricks with words. I looked at a few other questions. What enables the universe (or universes) to exist? If there were more than one, do the same laws govern them all? How can we find that out? If there were other universes completely outside ours, we would have no way to learn about them. And if they were connected, they would form a single, much bigger universe.

I also must remember that the universe is not just physical matter like galaxies and stars and planets and clouds of gas. Whatever laws make it work are part of the universe too, so the universe is also forces and energy. It is gravity, the strong force and the weak force, and the processes that determine how energies flow, and all the rest of it. That raises other questions: Did the universe itself make the physical laws by which it works? Or were they already there when the universe began? Before space and time began, where was “there”? Are universal laws self-existent whether the universe exists or not? Do they operate in all universes — if there are other universes? I found even the questions mysterious, and I surely did not know the answers!

Where Did God Come From?

People who believe in the biblical Creator believe that whatever laws operate in the universe came from God. Back when I believed that God was a person, I thought that the answer to all such questions had to be, “God did it.” That one act of faith, believing in God as Creator, simply answered all the questions and avoided the unanswerable. I came to realize, however, that there was still a question that loomed beyond this affirmation. It is a question that is usually asked by little children, but when I got older, I asked it again. “Where did God come from?”

The answer is, “There is no answer,” which brings us to the ultimate mystery: What was there before there was anything? How could anything, even God, be without beginning? What was it like before creation? Was there any time when there was no universe? If time began with the universe, could there be any before-time-existed? Such questions lead us into mysteries that we can’t know, questions that we can’t answer. 1 realized that thinking about God brought me into more levels of mystery.

Now let us suppose that there is nothing beyond the universe. What if the Big Bang didn’t come from anything? If the principles and laws originated with the universe, then the universe itself is the Ultimate Reality, and there is nothing beyond it. That would mean that the universe produced whatever it was that suddenly expanded in the Big Bang and became the universe. But how could it produce what was there before it began? How could it start its own beginning? That also is very mysterious. But after all, that’s why I’m an agnostic! In a real sense, we all have to be agnostic when we deal with the idea of the Ultimate.

Edward Harrison, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Massachusetts, writes of the Big Bang in his book, Masks of the Universe. He says that if we follow the best theories back to a time about one ten-million-trillion-trillion-trillionth of a second after the beginning, “we can go no farther. An orderly historical sequence of events has ceased to exist, and past and future have become meaningless. Here, in the realm of quantum cosmology — the chaosmos — lie the secrets that foretell the future of the universe.”‘

If a person holds that the universe is the Ultimate Reality, that there is nothing beyond the universe, she confronts a mystery that our logic and reason cannot penetrate. And he who believes that God created the universe still faces unknown mysteries. He bets his life that there is a Creator, but to say that “God did it,” is still to say that the start of it all is beyond our comprehension. God is the greatest of all mysteries.

Sometimes people claim to know too much about God. They have the Ultimate Reality outlined like a term paper, with roman numerals and capital letters and numbered subparagraphs. That kind of carefully organized Ultimate Reality is a creation of the human mind, not the great mysterious Ground of Everything. A thoughtful person cannot have much confidence in a God who is too clearly defined. The human mind has great difficulty in comprehending the physical universe itself, let alone the mystery that shrouds the Ultimate!

I bet my life on the reality of the mystery. I am confident that whatever processes empowered the beginning of the universe are beyond any human explanation. (By the way, our word confident means “with faith.”) So I do have faith that the Ultimate is a mystery, and I also have faith that it is not given to human beings to understand that mystery, though future discoveries may shed more light on it. New bits of knowledge are unveiled as science moves ahead, and every day we learn of self-organizing systems and theoretical strings and superstrings.

But these insights will not answer what John Horgan, staff writer for Scientific American, calls “The Question,” which, he says, is, “Why is there something rather than nothing? In its effort to find ‘The Answer’ to ‘The Question,’ the universal mind may discover the ultimate limits of knowledge.”

All over the world and all through history, human beings have thought about Ultimate Reality. Some of them have proposed answers, but their answers are not all the same. Here we have another paradox: the people who do the most thinking finally come to understand that the Ultimate is beyond human understanding. They understand that they cannot understand. We are all agnostics.

Embracing the Mystery

If we are all really agnostics, then why should we even bother asking such questions? It’s not as though we have a duty to ask them; it is simply that our human minds move in that direction because that is the way human minds work. We are a part of the universe that wants to know what the universe is all about. We want to know who we are and how we fit in.

That mysterious reality is a primary part of my life. I am committed to the reality of the mystery. Actually, the universe contains multitudes of lesser mysteries that we encounter all through our lives. Some of us refuse to think about them because we cannot explain them, but we need to be open to their reality. There are also many proximate questions that we probably can never fully answer. So I consider myself a faithful agnostic. It is not without pain, because no way of life is painless, but it is honest. It is also an exciting and strong way to live.

Every human being is equipped with a mind that reaches out through the stars and galaxies, hack through time to the beginning of the universe and before, and ahead to the end of the universe and beyond. Every human mind asks, “Who am I and how do I fit in? What, if anything, does it mean, and what is life about? How should I live and why?” When we try to answer these questions, however, we find that we honestly don’t know.

We Know We Don’t Know

When I say that we know we don’t know, that does not mean we don’t know anything! Philosophers have argued about the relationship between what we think we know and the reality in which we live. What is the connection between whatever is out there and the thoughts and ideas that occur within our skulls? How do the vibrations in the air around us become our enjoyment of the music we hear? Sometimes a dream is so vivid that we react as if an external world were threatening us. The dream snake, a product of our inner mental processes, may be so frightening that we awaken in a sweat.

George Berkeley, the seventeenth-century Irish Bishop, held that God is real and our mental experiences are real. The external world is an illusion, emanating from God. Matter does not exist. When Samuel Johnson was asked by his biographer, James Boswell, how he would refute the argument of Berkeley, he kicked a large stone so forcefully that his foot rebounded from the contact. “I refute it thus!” Johnson said. But modern physicists tell us that the stone is a distribution of mathematical probabilities. We experience the solid hardness of stones, but actually the stone is mostly space. What our experiences tell us is, at best, only partially true.

Is it too flippant to say that what we can really know is that we don’t know? At the level of existence in which we live, we can know some things. I know that as I write this I am sitting on a not-too comfortable chair, pressing my fingers into keys that put electronic impulses into a computer, even though I really have no real idea how my computer works. However, we can know a number of things about the lives we live. My wife and I both know that we had a conversation last night. We both know — no, we and the couple who had dinner with us — that we talked about the church we all attend while we enjoyed coffee and dessert.

I know that I am happily married to Nancy, and I know that Meg and Jeremy live together. I almost said that I knew they were married. I think they are married, but I really don’t know, and I know I don’t care; that is their business, not mine. I know I hope that they are happy; I know that I think they are happy, because they seem to be happy. At least to me they seem to be happy. I think that Nancy thinks they are happy, but now I realize that we have never actually discussed it. Besides, she probably doesn’t know any more about that than I do.

Countless times before now, I have thought a lot about what we know and how we know it. And now, without intending to, I have just reminded myself that we take many things for granted even in our everyday lives. We assume things about how the day will go, about when we will see one another, what time we will have dinner.

And yet we know that we don’t know these things. Every time we say good-bye may be the last time we will speak to each other. Too many things happen on the streets, on the freeways. At any second, we may be inches from death. A driver coming the other way may be seized by a violent paroxysm of sneezing or startled by something she hears on her cell phone and unwittingly swerve across the median. Another driver may turn in front of someone who automatically cuts the wheel to avoid him, only to run into me. How often have I heard people sum up a close call with the phrase, “We just never know.”

So I really do know that often we don’t know. Reality is beyond our comprehension. The Tao Te Ching says, “The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao.” Thomas Aquinas writes, “[God] exceeds . . . every form which our intellect attains.” No human words or thoughts can really be the Ultimate Reality. Our words are like stubby little fingers pointing out to the distant galaxies, so we must not think that we have the universe in our hands! Even the closest reality is mysterious, and the Ultimate Reality completely eludes us. We know that we do not know.

Of course there are people who disagree with that idea. They don’t know that they don’t know, so they may therefore want everyone to accept what they see as truth: “We hold to an eternal principle, but you simply make personal decisions. If you admit that you don’t know, then how can you take a stand? We at least have a basis for doing what we do. What basis do you have?”

When I say that I know that I don’t know, I also mean that they don’t know either. Nobody knows ultimate truth. Any declaration of ultimate knowledge is a form of idolatry, a manufactured deity, a human-made “ultimate.” They have reached their position by making a personal decision. They accept what somebody tells them, or what they read somewhere, or maybe they form an idea of their own and decide that it is true. Then they commit their lives and well-being to their decision. If they encounter other people who believe some other authoritative source, they will simply maintain that the other source is in error.

Once I find out that I face an important choice in commitments, I must decide which idea I own or which owns me. My values are those values that I affirm, that are part of my identity. I choose this and not that, because I think that this is better. If I felt the other were better, I would choose it. Our word heretic is derived from the Greek word meaning “to choose.” A heretic is someone who chooses not to accept the majority view. It is equally true, however, that if someone chooses to follow the majority viewpoint, he or she is still choosing and is also therefore technically a heretic. Thus, Pascal could say that what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other.

A similar situation is found with our word protest. We generally think that a protest is against some action or idea. A baseball player can protest an umpire’s decision; citizens can protest a new law. Church members may protest developments in a church, as was the case with Martin Luther. However, if you protest something, you are actually testifying for something else, another idea. In Latin, the root meaning of protest means to witness for something. If you are for something, you are against its opposite.

We all have to make decisions; some are clear and others are confused, but we all have to make them, even though we don’t know the ultimate answers. Part of being human is to decide what our values are. I may decide, let us say, that honesty and integrity are essential, that human relationships and human society can endure only if people can trust one another. A tyrant, of course, can run a society without the trust of the people, because he can force them to comply. But he also knows he has to be able to trust the people he chooses to assist him. If he cannot trust them, he can get no sleep. If he hires guards to protect him against his other guards, he fears that he will eventually hire one who cannot be trusted. Such unknowns are built into the universe, part of the way things are. So I am sure that honesty and integrity are fundamental values and that trust is a necessity of life.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions. For example, if you were a citizen of a country ruled by a dictator, would it be right for you to pretend to be loyal in order to eliminate him? Can it be right to violate a fundamental ethical principle for the good of the whole society? Put another way, can treason under certain conditions be more honorable than cooperation? The Americans who signed the Declaration of Independence thought so.

You may well object, “You are saying that the end justifies the means. We have always been told that is wrong.” My response must be, “Yes, and I agree that the idea is dangerous. But sometimes it can be wrong to follow a rule too rigidly. We should not forget that laws are made for people; people are not born in order to obey laws. Jesus pointed that out when he said, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humanity for the Sabbath.'”

Look at a different situation. One of the basic rules of civilized society is that it is wrong to kill another human being. But suppose that you were to see a person with a knife sneaking up on a group of children. Suppose that you have the means and opportunity to stop him. If you had to choose, would it be better to kill him or to allow him to attack the children? Based on what I have said thus far, you cannot know for certain that he intends to attack the children. At best, it is hard to judge what another’s motives might be. Perhaps you wait and watch for a while, to be as sure of the situation as you possibly can, but as you watch, it seems more obvious that he intends harm. Finally, you have to decide. Leave aside how you see your own personal courage. Look only at what you believe would be the right thing. Is it better to kill than to allow certain harm to others? Which is more important, the basic rule against killing or the lives of the children? I am not in favor of vigilante justice, but the point is that even our unchanging rules must change some of the time.

Dilemmas come with the human territory. A dilemma is a situation in which we don’t know what to choose. Still, we have to make decisions. Usually they are not as extreme as in this imaginary confrontation with a knife murderer, but they could be. We have to live and act in this world even though we don’t know all the answers. This principle applies not just to matters of life and death and morality and ethics. It also includes the need to act without all the required information when it comes to choosing a life partner or a career or deciding when to move to another job, another city. It’s about how we decide to join a church, vote in an election, buy a house or car.

Knowing that we do not know does not mean we don’t have to decide, but it can keep us from being arrogant about our knowledge, our virtue, or our own rightness. Knowing that other people have to make decisions under the same conditions, we can make necessary judgments without being judgmental.

Sometimes people break the rules in order to take advantage of others, and that is what is meant by criminal action. Other people break rules because they believe that a higher good will be served. For example, Martin Luther broke the rules of the Catholic Church because he believed that it had become corrupt and needed to he changed. When he was ordered to appear before a church council to retract what he had written, he obeyed the rule and appeared, but he refused to retract what he had said. “Here I stand,” he concluded. “I can do no other, so help me God.” His action changed the course of the world.

Rule breaking, however, is not to be undertaken casually. Sometimes people are punished, even killed, because of it. In the American civil rights movement, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and many others risked imprisonment and death. It’s not an accident that the early Christians who died for their faith were called martyrs. The Greek root word is the same as the word that means “witness.” You bear witness to what you stand for, and that may mean that you have to pay a price. You never know.

This article was excerpted from Finding Faith in the Face of Doubt, ©2001, by Joseph S. Willis.


About the Author

Joseph S. Willis is Minister Emeritus of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado. A former Presbyterian minister, he was campus pastor at the University of New Mexico where he worked with Catholic and Jewish groups to create the Interreligious Council. He taught college theology courses and, now retired, still teaches at Unitarian and Methodist churches.

2 thoughts on “I Am a Faithful Agnostic

  1. Thank you for writing this, and thank you for your website. It has given me insight into my beliefs, or lack thereof.

  2. Thanks for visiting. I see truth and wisdom in acknowledging that we don’t actually KNOW and that is all I’m trying to share with everyone. Our lack of knowledge should mean that the only honest answer is disbelief when presented with the requirement to “have faith.”

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