My Theological Eccentricity
(Explaining It to a Friend)
by Shane Hayes
This is an email I sent last May to an old friend and frequent correspondent. It was part of a multi-party multifaceted exchange that led someone to suggest my starting this blog. It announces several of the themes enlarged on in the postings below.
In your email of 5/17/09 you said, among other things:
I am also a bit confused by your reference to agnosticism - since it is not pure atheism - but an admission or statement of "not knowing God" or that “God cannot be known." Isn´t the first question out of the Baltimore Catechism "why" and the first part of the answer "to know"?
Thanks for your comments and reflections. This was the part of my letter you found confusing:
To further compound my theological eccentricity I am also an agnostic, philosophically. Not an atheist (though I once was) but an agnostic. “[An agnostic is] one who says we can’t know whether there is a God or not. His existence can’t be proven and it can’t be disproven.” That quote is from my essay “An Agnostic Argues for Faith.”
I don’t say we can’t “know God” or that “God can’t be known.” I say his existence can’t be proven. Since we can’t know whether there is a God or not, we must choose to either believe or disbelieve. Those who disbelieve are atheists. Those who believe are theists. A theist can “reach out to God” in faith and form a vibrant sense of God’s presence in his life; the faith can be so strong that it banishes all doubt and so compelling that he would die for it.
Here’s my agnostic view (with which Christians who claim certainty disagree): Our religion is based on faith, not on knowledge; on believing, not on knowing. Only after we pierce the veil of death will we stop believing that there is a God and begin to know there is a God. The atheist says no, when you die you will know nothing, you will cease to exist. I believe the atheist is wrong, but I won’t know he is wrong until I pass through death into another life. In that sense I am a believing agnostic. Maybe I should call my book The Believing Agnostic.
You mention The Baltimore Catechism, which we were taught from in Catholic grade school. In answer to the question “Why did God make us?” it says: “God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world and to be happy with him forever in heaven.” I believe that is true, but I don’t yet know that it is. I don’t think Christ called us to know, he called us to believe. He said to Mary by the tomb of her brother Lazarus: “’… whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God, he who is coming into the world.’” I believe that too.
Why do I even mention that I’m an agnostic and raise the issue of knowledge versus faith? To make the point that agnosticism, as a philosophical position rightly understood, is no barrier to faith. An agnostic can become a believer without shedding his agnosticism. We don’t have to argue him out of it and prove there is a God, to win him over. Religion is not for only those who think God’s existence can be proven and known beyond any doubt. It is also for those who see weakness in the “proofs” of God’s existence and weight in the arguments against it. So long as the latter, like the former, are less than proofs, we can believe in spite of them.
It took years for that to dawn on me when I was an atheist. Until I could see that it was intellectually respectable to believe I was imprisoned in atheism. The Gospel couldn’t penetrate the rational walls that seemed to shut it out. These agnostic arguments I make were liberating for me. To disprove the atheistic position and prove the theistic one is much harder than to show that no one -- on either side -- knows, so belief is a matter of personal choice. It is just as rational to believe there is a God as to believe there isn’t. Moreover the benefits of believing far outweigh the benefits of not believing.
This line of argument raises a lot of questions I can’t answer in a letter like this (already too long). But I’m confident I can answer them, and that the approach I will take in my book (or booklet) is a needed, though tiny, supplement to the splendid outreach of the Christian churches. That outreach generally targets the apathetic and indifferent rather than hardcore unbelievers. Newsweek’s cover story announced in April that “the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation has nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent.” Hardcore unbelievers – witness the New Atheism -- are multiplying at an alarming rate. Something beyond traditional outreach is needed to penetrate their defenses. Having been one of them for eight years I speak their language better than those who have never strayed from the faith. In any case I feel a growing urge to try.
I make this sound consequential. It is, but only for me. The odds against publication are high. Should this deter me? No. Only the writing part is in my power. I will attend to that.