Western society is increasingly post-Christian. There will be many ingredients for this turn away from Christianity, but at least one of these is epistemic in nature. Post-Christian Westerners are skeptical. Christians are seen as having a kind of easy certainty undergirding the knowledge of religious faith, which is highly offensive for those who feel they have intellectually outgrown faith.
Vocal opponents, such as the new atheists, attack the rationality of Christianity, and a host of supporters subsequently defend it. Some of these defenses directly counter arguments at the rational level, whilst other defenses transcend them by claims to personal revelation or experiences of various kinds. Meanwhile, another response to this dynamic is the increasing category of those who identify as “spiritual not religious”, which seeks to gain all of the spiritual benefits without having to bother with all of the religious certainty. Such is the landscape of belief at the popular level.
The purpose of this blog is to propose and give language to a spectrum of belief. It will have the basic dialectic shape of Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, with flanking vices on both sides of a virtue. I will propose that a virtuous Christian epistemology must claim the right amount of knowledge, and thus avoid the epistemic vices on both sides.
Agnosticism is a reaction to a claim of knowledge. This is to say that Agnosticism, as negative activity, is in some sense always posterior to the claim of knowledge that it rejects. Belief in God must be intelligible before that belief can be resisted.
Belief < – – – – – – – – – – – – – Agnosticism
There are a few things we wish to observe concerning Agnosticism. First, being specifically agnostic about a particular knowledge claim is not a vice. Jesus stated that the Son was ‘agnostic’, or did not know, of “that day or hour” (Matthew 24:36). We are all agnostic about many things. The kind of ‘Agnosticism’ we are calling a vice here is that which is of a more general and ultimate nature – with specific reference to God.
This leads to the second observation about general Agnosticism. The line between Agnosticism and what is called atheism is often very blurred. Only the most convinced of atheists would say they know that the universe was not created by a being fitting of the word God. What atheists and agnostics share is a rejection of positive knowledge claims concerning God’s existence and nature.
The third observation relates to the strongest and most negative forms of Agnosticism and atheism. Arguably, it takes just as much faith to believe either a) that Nature is self-existent, uncreated and eternal, or b) that something-that-is-not-a-God created Nature, as it does to believe c) that the intricate qualities and properties of Nature reflect the intent and intelligence of a Creator. It is one thing to critique an explanation, and quite another to argue for an alternative explanation. Further, although it is not always the case, it is not out of place to suggest that when one doubts an explanation or idea, they tend to have an implicit belief that a different explanation or idea is more feasible.
Fourth, the general Agnosticism of which we speak here tends to trust the facts of physics over the values of metaphysics. Philosophically, it is within the camp of Phenomenalism, which in many forms, rejects any non-empirical forms of knowledge. Agnosticism and Scientism go hand in hand. The argumentation ends up being circular, as the possibility of non-scientific knowledge is rejected on the basis of not being scientific.
Finally, Agnosticism is practically impossible. Just as facts do not give magical birth to values, nor can a tidy trusted bridge be built from the descriptive domain of ‘is’ to the prescriptive world of ‘ought’. Yet we simply cannot practically live without values, metaphysics, and such necessary assumptions as dignity, rights and love. The chasm between the scientific truth of the height of one’s lover and the metaphysical instinct that caring for them is ‘right’ cannot be traversed. A true agnostic, must confess that their strong preference for ‘love’ (however defined) has utterly no empirical basis, and is no more ‘true’ an ethic than genocidal, “might-is-right” totalitarianism.
Indeed, there is good reason to be sceptical about Agnosticism.
At a popular level, the epistemic dialectic is between un-believers and believers. Agnostics and the Religious. But logically, as well as linguistically, the opposite of Agnosticism is Gnosticism.
Agnosticism < – – – – – – – – – – – – – > Gnosticism
The first thing to observe is that Gnosticism is an “ism”; meaning (like Agnosticism and Atheism) it reflects a positional stance to general, ultimate realities, including God. We are not talking about simply having ‘knowledge’ (Greek: gnosis) about something, but a life-orienting claim to a world of knowing that is superior, secret and special.
Second, although we are using the term ‘Gnosticism’ in a very wide sense as the equal opposite to Agnosticism, it is worth observing some more concrete forms of it. The Gnosticism of early Christians (including Marcion) saw Jesus as superior to the Old Testament God, and the spirit as superior to the flesh. Gnosticism remains alive and well today. Modern Christians, like Marcion, continue to play Jesus (as they interpret him) off against the OT God. Or other times, they discover secret ‘keys’ to interpret the Bible and progress well beyond basic Greek or Hebrew numerology to detect secret ‘codes’ that find the names of modern nation-states or world leaders in the text of prophetic Scriptures. Outside the church, secular Gnosticism invites seekers to understand the ‘Secret’ to control your own destiny and find financial freedom (from the mundane realities of consequences, hard work and cause-and-effect).
This leads to the main and third observation about how we’re using the term Gnosticism. Gnosticism is about claiming to know the truth. Whereas Agnosticism trusts only scientific fact and is sceptical about all truth claims (other than the truth claim that only scientific truths are true!), Gnosticism trusts its truth claim and is sceptical about what others see as ‘real world’ facts. As indicated above, Christians are not immune from Gnosticism. Fideism, or ‘faith in faith’ is very real. Christians can retreat into an impenetrable fortress where every belief is defended by the conversation stopper ‘I just have faith’. If God made the world, including the world of facts and science, then the world of faith should have no problem engaging with the world of facts.
This leads to the fourth and final observation about Gnosticism. Like historical Gnosticism, there is a fundamental element of distrust in its modern version. This links Gnosticism with conspiratorial thinking. ‘Alternative’ is always more true than the ‘mainstream’. Alternative theories about 9-11. Alternative medicine. Some use the term ‘conspirituality’ to describe the link between those who embrace both fashionable alternative spirituality and conspiratorial alternative news.
So far, we have made observations about two wildly different approaches to life and meaning and God. We’ve seen how Agnosticism can be so confident in its rejection of truth that it cannot see its own truth claims, and how it cannot provide a foundation for deeply human values that are essential for living. We’ve discussed Gnosticism that is so suspicious of structure and reality that it prefers its own alternative reality and cuts itself off from any corrective influence. As we’ll see in the final section, there is a lot of room in the middle between these extremes.
It seems as though there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between Agnosticism and Gnosticism. Extreme Belief and Extreme Scepticism kind of need one another to exist, and perhaps in that sense they can be mutually corrective. In between the extremes of meaning-destroying Agnosticism and choose-your-own-reality Gnosticism is a place where we integrate our head and our heart. We think and we feel. We know and we live.
Agnosticism < – – – – Living Knowledge – – – – > Gnosticism
Knowing nothing and knowing everything are not only impossible, but they are also both deeply un-Christian. Pushing back against some super ‘spiritual’ leaders at Corinth, who seemed to be pretty proud of their fancy speech and lofty knowledge, Paul writes that “we know in part and we prophecy in part.” In Romans, echoing Isaiah 40:13, he asks “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”
The Bible is a big book of course, but it should not be thought of as a philosophical book of technical descriptions of God. To know what God is like, Christians start with Jesus who said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” As Michael Ramsey wrote, “God is Christlike, and in him is no unchristlikeness at all.” From this point, Christians move from the Living Word (Jesus) to the Written Word (Scripture). This is a never-ending process of discovering the Christlike God. We read, re-read, read again, pray, worship, question, love our neighbours, lament, read again, love ourselves, give thanks, and continue to love our neighbours with the living knowledge of God we have collected and sharpened thus far.
Here are at least three things that make this ‘living knowledge’ approach fruitful.
First, we Understand enough to Love. When the Bible talks about knowledge in relation to God, it is less to do with calculated philosophical abstractions and more embodied relational and ethical understanding. To know God looks less like claiming to fully understand God and more like knowing what God’s will is. It’s reflected in great summary verses like to “do justly, to love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) or to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Second, we remain Curious enough to Question. The moment we know everything is the moment we stop learning. Theology is a science that continues to develop and grow and expand as we come back again and again to the sources (as Wesley formulated them): Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience. Curiosity is what makes our knowledge stretch and grow. As those who have felt their faith fade and return know only too well, when it returns it comes to us stronger and sharper.
Third, we remain Humble enough to Listen. Instead of endless arguments between those who play Science off against God, or claim a spiritual experience as a trump card, we really are all on the same plane of existence. We don’t know everything. And if you’ll pardon the double-negative, we don’t know nothing. If Christians can embrace that kind of humility and actually put into practice what we think we know, then we are building bridges for conversation rather than stuck in predictable and unfruitful patterns of retreat or attack.