Friday, February 29, 2008

A different kind of faith?


I was at a home group Bible study and we were discussing the previous week’s sermon. Our pastor had made the admission that there are times where he suddenly gets the realization that ‘all this’ (His conception of God, Christianity, etc.) could be wrong. There might not even be a God. He said this to reassure the congregation that most of us have these issues with our faith from time to time. So the question in our group was whether this was a common thing. Shockingly (to me) two people said they never had this sort of thought. I’m trying really hard not to be judgmental here. … How in the world can you live your entire life and never once question your assumptions? I hope it’s a personality thing rather than an intelligence thing. Anyway, for the rest of the group that said they have had those questioning moments, the underlying assumption was that those moments are bad, and that we should hope to never have them again. Sort of a “God grant us the grace to not have to think too hard.” Or at least that’s the way I see it. And that makes me a judgmental ass.

So let me try to analyze it a different was so as to de-assify myself. I think I can do that by looking at my answer to the question, “Do you ever question your faith?” Well, if you’ve read more than a couple of my entries on this blog you will know the answer is “Pretty much all the time.” But then, the question isn’t that simple because the terms are not defined. What is meant by questioning? What is meant by faith? And this is where I think my definitions create a different experience for me than the one experienced by my fellow home group attendees.

I’ve already pushed past the discomfort of questioning the religious framework that I was born into. That sounds a little arrogant… maybe it would be better stated that I was already pushed through the discomfort. It seems like most of the people around me believe the things they do without having gone through this process. Either by birthright or conversion from the modern American haze of general apathy to the defined and delineated dogma of a church system. I would like to say that the conversion process is one of deep introspection, but it seems to be more a recognition and embrace of specific ideas from the panoply of universal sentiments out there. People go from “Oh I believe there is a god or something.” To “I believe in the doctrine of X denomination of Y religion.”

As far as I can tell there are so many reasons for shifting from A to B that it’s nearly impossible to determine how much thought went into the decision. It could be everything from: “My fiancé won’t marry me unless I convert.” To “I want to raise my kids with religious values.” To “I can make good business contacts in church.” To “Jesus appeared to me and struck me blind then directed me to a guy who confirmed the vision and healed my blindness.” (Most of us aren’t lucky enough to get that last one.) I suspect that for most people their conversion is a mixture of many reasons, spiritual and non.

I’ll bet you thought I lost track of my point. And you are correct. Let’s see here… ah yes, this observation applies to my idea that my definition of “faith” and “questioning” is different than those in my home group. And I think the reason it is different is because I think I’ve thought about my faith a lot more than they apparently have. It would be better to say I’ve thought critically about it more.

Being critical about my own thoughts and beliefs was very disconcerting the first couple times I tried it. (Although honestly, I can’t vouch for how critical I actually am with myself.) There is a fear I think all us religious folks share, that too much critical evaluation is like putting God on trial. What freed me from this fear was the idea that it is certainly not God I’m questioning. It is my -or my faith community’s- conception of God that I’m deconstructing and analyzing. I can’t very well say: “Which is more important to me… God or Truth?” The statement used to worry me, as though Truth could overcome God. What I came to recognize is that if Truth did not affirm God then there was nothing to worry about. It’s not a matter of putting a search for Truth before God. If God exists, then the search will inevitably lead to Him. (Unless our methods are flawed. Which I’m sure everyone’s is to some extent. I’ll come back to this.) If He does not exist than the search can’t help but be more important than that which does not exist.

I am extrapolating based on my own experience, that the others in my group who expressed emotional distress over the times of questioning their faith; that the distress comes from fear. Fear that they will anger or disappoint God. Fear that they may realize something that undermines one or more of the reasons for their belief. Fear that they are being fools and wasting time, money and energy for nothing. Fear that they are losing their salvation. Fear that they never had it to begin with. Mostly, it is a fear that everything in their world could change. At least that’s what it was for me.

Let me tell you why I don’t have those fears any more. The sweet, forbidden fruit of agnosticism. I finally took and did eat of it. And I did not die. Well, not yet anyway. I once wrote on this very blog that this was the most tempting world-views to me, that could sweep me away from Christianity. (http://joshuaforeman.blogspot.com/2005/07/moderation-in-all-things.html )

In fact, I’ll quote myself now:

“I admit that were satan to tempt me with any forbidden fruit, it would be the Banana of Agnosticism. It's the ultimate wishy-washy, sweet fruit of uncertainty. A panacea of soul-searching weariness. I could gorge myself and never again have to worry about the big questions, because golly, there's no way to know for sure! But here is the problem I see with agnosticism… It clears the head of worrisome issues, but clouds the heart that God is pulling on. “

And:

But agnosticism aborts that heart-tugging process by sending an automatic shut-off signal from the brain saying, "Nope. Already considered it. Can't be proven. Never mind." And therein lies the folly of agnosticism: it's billed as a search for truth, but has a built-in mechanism for avoiding the Truth.”

But for me, as one who has been convinced, to fall into agnosticism would be to slap God in the face. As one who has been given so much evidence of all variety- experiential, revelatory, testimonial, and intellectual- turning my back on that because none of it can be proven would be fool-hearty.”

I love being able to go back to 2005 Josh and see exactly what he was thinking and why. Reading this, I still agree with 2005 Josh. I have just discovered what I believe to be a better definition of agnosticism.

Or perhaps my definition is simply an idea that is close enough to agnosticism that there is no point in making a new name for it. I’ve established in previous entries why I think that nothing is -in the absolute sense- ‘knowable’. I believe this is the case not because I’m under the illusion that I am smart enough to see through everything. I believe this because I see it as a God-given position. God could have conceivably given us more powers with which we could ascertain ultimate reality. Things like time traveling, smarter brains, fewer fleshly obstacles that always trip us up in the quest for Truth, the ability to see the spiritual world, etc. But He didn’t.

Since I don’t believe an all-powerful entity such as God makes mistakes, I take our position as unable to ‘know with certitude’ as positively affirmed by Him. In other words: God made us pathetic for a good reason. I don’t see a need to pretend He made us differently by claiming that I KNOW x,y and z.

So let me tell 2005 Josh why my current form of agnosticism is not the bugaboo he was so afraid of. The agnosticism that 2005 Josh was railing against was the cultural phenomenon and ideology that has grown up around the concept. Not the concept itself. 2005 Josh was concerned that the concept was the platitudes expressed by so many who call themselves agnostics. What I’ve come to realize is that agnosticism is simply a big convenient tent for people who just don’t care much about religious ideas to gather in. To simply say you are an agnostic makes deflecting soul-searching questions a breeze.

Now I say: “Who cares who is in this tent, and who cares what they say?” I am not one of them. I’m not here because I don’t care. I’m here because I spent a lot of time asking myself and others really hard questions.

2005 Josh assumed that you couldn’t be an agnostic and a Christian. I’m here to tell you that you can be. If agnostic simply means that you don’t know with certainty, then I have no problem signing on the dotted line. Ironic isn’t it? See, I’m not saying that I certainly know that I don’t know with certainty. I’m saying my intense questioning has led me to believe that I don’t know with certainty. I’m not saying that since I can’t know Truth for certain that Truth does not exist. I’m saying I believe that I can’t know it when I have it. I can only believe that what I have is it. But since I can’t trust my faculties to be fool-proof, (As God intended.) I have to take all my beliefs with a grain of salt.

So when I say that agnosticism helps me with my faith, I simply mean that I’m comfortable enough with my frailties to acknowledge that I could be wrong about anything. Therefore when the dark doubts about God or Christianity come knocking I don’t draw the shades and pretend I’m not home. I open the door and invite them in for tea. Or in my case: Strawberry Diet Pepsi Jazz.

With this different kind of faith I’m not afraid to confront the idea that I could be wrong because I’m already embracing it as a God-given station in life. I don’t have a choice in the matter. (Unless someone can come along and prove to me that we can know something with absolute certainty.)

This is a faith that is ok with not knowing. It’s ok with being wrong. It’s ok with questions of any kind because this faith is not based on the false assumption that I know a thing with certainty. So I am a convinced agnostic. Not an unconvinced one. I guess that’s all I really wanted to say here. (It’s amazing how long it takes me to say stuff.)

2008 Josh, Signing off.