We humans are so predictable. No matter a person’s beliefs about the existence of God, we can’t help ourselves. We have a need to contain, organize, and explain the unknowable. From the get-go this is an impossible task, so we find ourselves in a world filled with different, often contradictory, approaches to both belief and non-belief.
One example is the amount of discussion today around what is means to be an agnostic or an atheist. Some people see them as two distinct approaches, and others see them overlapping. In addition to atheism and agnosticism, there are other, more nuanced terms that attempt to contain non-believing: humanist, secularist, freethinker, rationalist, skeptic, bright.
The website agnostic.com states on its homepage that it is “The Social Network for Atheists, Agnostics and Skeptics,” placing the term “atheists” before “agnostic” on an agnostic website. The American Humanist Association’s website states that it advocates “Progressive Values and Equality for Humanists, Atheists, and Freethinkers,” leaving agnostics out altogether, while the website, American Atheists, offers this intriguing commentary:
“If you call yourself a humanist, freethinker, a bright,
or even a “cultural Catholic” and lack belief in god, you
are an atheist.”
The flip side of the coin is no less muddled. Believers have as many ways to contain God as those who do not believe. Are Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, and the Great Spirit imaginings of the same God that I identify with as a Catholic Christian? I like to think so, but some would disagree with me.
Within my own tribe of Christians, you will find mainline protestants, evangelicals and Catholics; orthodox, progressives, traditionalists, charismatics, and fundamentalists. We have Bible literalists and those who see the Bible as more metaphorical, and never the twain shall meet. An old joke goes like this. St. Peter is showing a group of new arrivals around heaven. When they pass the place where the Catholics live St. Peter says, “Shush, we need to be quiet…they think they’re the only ones up here.”
At times we believers think we have a grasp of what God is like, but when we think this way, we are likely using the same set of categories to understand God that we use to understand ourselves. We are creating a god in our own image and likeness.
It is worthwhile noting that believers often experience some level of agnosticism. Fr. Ron Rolheiser calls this “limited agnosticism.” Rolheiser suggests that people struggle at times to believe in God because they fail to persist long enough in their courage and questioning.
“Many of us today, for all kinds of reasons, are uncomfortable with God’s holiness as scripture defines it when it tells us that God is totally beyond our imaginations, concepts, language, and feelings: ‘God’s ways are not our ways [Isa 55:8].’ If the scriptures are to be believed, then God can never be figured out or second-guessed. You can shake your fist at God, or you can bend your knee in worship of God, but you can never understand God.”
All of us, believers and non-believers alike, pursue God up to a point – the point where God’s ways are no longer our ways. At that point we all reach a crossroads – the land of unknowability. We reach the point where mystery enters and, like Moses before the burning bush, we are asked to take off our shoes before it. This is where the rubber meets the road for all of us and we ask ourselves: Do I stop here and walk back down the path to agnosticism or atheism? Or do I accept the restlessness that is required to allow the questioning even more leeway?
The fact that we cannot rid ourselves of doubt and uncertainty does not make God any less likely. Sr. Elizabeth Johnson put it this way, “Which do we love better: the little island of our own certitude or the ocean of incomprehensible mystery?”
Uncertainty is what makes us who we are and, God knows, we may even be the better for it. It may be, as Thomas More says in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons, “Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.”