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Christians As Truth Seekers and Agnostics

 

The true value of a [person] is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud—

If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one—the pure Truth is for You alone.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) (1)

Christians are called believers because our traditions have used creeds and doctrines to define Christian faith. This is an increasingly serious problem leading to a well-earned decline of traditional faith in the eyes of spiritually-minded people looking for more than repackaged, out-of-date certainties.

Christianity should encourage and honor the ongoing search for truth. This requires tolerating absence of certainty and respect for emerging scientific knowledge, which leads to updated understanding of human rights and morality. Lessing’s statement about the true value of a person should reflect the view of all who follow the Judeo-Christian tradition, for it focuses on devotion to God through the unending quest for truth rather than holding to cultural idols.

Too many churches are imitating our Puritan settlers by merging political and religious functions as they assert claims of religious freedom in order to impose their beliefs as the only acceptable faith. They are so certain that God abhors LGBT issues and abortion that many churches support even the most immoral behavior and policies of political leaders who will enforce their views. Their certainty includes God wanting them to defend “Christian America” from the onslaught of religious pluralism.

The time has come for religious leaders and churches to stop identifying faith with certainty and accept the value of: “I don’t know.” Becoming openly agnostic regarding traditional certainties would be a healthy jolt to idolatries in establishment forms of Christianity that are chasing away multitudes of spiritual truth-seekers.

Christian Agnostics?

Agnosticism is not the same as atheism, although evangelists want to suggest otherwise. Vocal atheists are not in doubt about God or Christian doctrines. Agnostics have doubts but may not be comfortable voicing them publicly. Often, they struggle internally and make decisions about values and ethics without the security claimed by true believers in atheism or Evangelical Christianity.

There are people in churches who would be called Christian Agnostics if they spoke up. Talking openly about skepticism or uncertainty has not been encouraged in most churches, closing off honest sharing by people who need community support as they face spiritual challenges.

I have found in my personal life, and seen in the experiences of people I know, how beliefs that once felt comfortable become unacceptable. This may happen suddenly in reaction to life events or it may be realized gradually. In many cases people found themselves in spiritual crisis as the foundation of beliefs they thought were solid rock turned into shaking fault lines. These crises may lead to disorientation or even loss of identity as people see no secure path forward.

Denying skepticism and clinging desperately to old truths is not the best solution. Tolerance and loving support for this kind of spiritual crisis in ourselves and others encourages recognition of a God of Truth standing behind our ever-changing cultural versions of truth.

Corrective to Idolatry

Agnosticism is a healthy corrective to the idolatry that increasingly threatens Christianity in a rapidly changing global environment. Uncompromising insistence on biblicalliteralism or the rights of one’s individual group are ways that people turn beliefs and causes into idols.

Many Christian Evangelicals see moral relativism as the enemy of faith as they insist on clinging to absolute truths known through revelation; however, this leads to self-defeating choices that reject science and other evidence-based modern knowledge. For example, endorsing “creationism” that rejects evolution puts Christians in opposition to genetics which provides laboratory evidence of evolution. How many supporters of creationism realize it means opposing genetic research that is revolutionizing medicine and analysis of DNA to trace ancestry?

Truth, as understood by human beings, is a culture-bound product that inevitably changes as cultures come and go. In Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr saw the problem of moral relativism and warned against reacting to it by “absolutizing the relative.” (2) Products of ephemeral cultures once seen as permanent become lessons in human overreach, like the statue of Ozymandias in Shelley’s sonnet. The remedy is to look beyond today’s truths to the God of all truth (mentioned by Lessing), recognizing that today’s reality easily becomes an idol with a time limit.

Accepting moral relativism and agnosticism can lead to greater tolerance and empathy. Soren Kierkegaard pointed out that he was a Christian because of the country, family, and historical context in which he was born. (3) This suggested that perhaps Christian insistence on being the only way to worship God was too narrow. In an increasingly globalized world in which people recognize the value of spirituality in all cultures, Christianity can’t afford to absolutize old theologies that justified messages of racism, white superiority, and salvation exclusivity carried by missionaries as part of Western colonialism.

Basis for a Theology of Christian Agnosticism

The first three of The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity state a clear basis for moving beyond the shackles of old certainties. But are they biblical? Are they too radical a departure from Christian orthodoxy?

The Gospels are the basis for justifying the inclusiveness of the third point, for they explain the “path and teachings of Jesus” mentioned in the first point. All the Gospels tell of a ministry conducted for the most part among common people in rural villages with a message that appealed to the powerless, outcast, and poor of the time. The mission usually excluded non-Jews – not because they were excluded from God’s kingdom, but because the target audience was the underdogs of Jewish culture. This audience included women to an extent that was considered radical in the Jewish and Roman world.

Every Gospel also shows Jesus calling followers without requiring beliefs about himself and his mission. The decision rested on having enough faith to respond to the call of Jesus, no matter what one thought about him. The Gospels also show Jesus picking an inner circle, but there is no indication that beliefs about Jesus himself were part of the screening process. As indicated throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus focused on actions rather than beliefs.

Stories of radical inclusion and sayings against judging the excluded are too many to be ignored. It would be difficult to imagine greater inclusivity within the Jewish context in which Jesus worked.

Paul’s authentic letters provide another example of inclusiveness as the “Way” spread along the Mediterranean Sea. He insisted on broadening the scope of Jesus’ message to non-Jews in ways that made it easier for them to become full members. Paul appears to have been opposed to the open practice of homosexuality he found in Hellenistic society, but nothing was said about excluding them from fellowship.  His reliance on women continued the extension of female inclusiveness in Jesus’s ministry, despite one questionable passage that seems contradictory. (4)

The risen Christ was the center of Paul’s message rather than Jesus’s teachings. He spoke with conviction based on personal mystical experiences but was careful not to absolutize his message. This is seen most clearly in 1 Corinthians 13: 12. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

The opening statement by Leibnitz mirrors Paul’s recognition of truth beyond unavoidably partial human knowledge. Indeed, there is a biblical foundation for inclusiveness and uncertainty as important elements of Christianity.

Church Membership

Finally, welcoming agnostic seekers into churches calls for new standards of inclusion, part of which is church membership.

Many churches expect new members to attend classes on their religious traditions and to make commitments in order to join. This is entirely reasonable except when affirmations are on traditional creeds or other formulas that increasing numbers find doubtful. My argument is that erecting these barriers to agnostic searchers is not necessary when communities are dedicated to seeking truth rather than idolizing relics of the past.

Using catechisms and other belief formulas for admission became a practice as the church spread in the Roman Empire. Early leaders, the “Church Fathers,” sought more uniformity and organization, following the model of Roman organization which continues today. This movement culminated in the Council of Nicaea as Constantine supported imposition of uniformity in Christian belief.

The Gospels provide a very different model. The Synoptic Gospels show Jesus gathering followers based entirely on a willingness to accept his authority as an agent of God which was demonstrated by following his teachings and example. The Gospels declare Jesus as Messiah, but not even in John does he accept followers based on specifics of what they believed about him. Jesus called for ethical actions and a more faithful application of Torah standards by those who followed him.

In short, commitment to action based on the authority of the teaching and actions of Jesus was necessary for discipleship. Doubts about Jesus and about God were relevant only if they interfered with commitment to actions Jesus expected.

If churches called for commitment to service and love rather than adherence to carefully worded statements, searchers of all kinds could be welcomed. If the message of the church went from insisting on old beliefs, the idols of past truth, to faithful service as demonstration of love of God and others, a whole range of doubters may find themselves at home in an environment that supports their ongoing spiritual quest. (5)

 

Notes. 

(1) Scott Horton, “Lessing’s Search for Truth,” Harper’s Magazine (November 1, 2007), “Browsings: The Harper Blog,” https://harpers.org/blog/2007/11/lessings-search-for-truth/  (accessed January 2, 2018).  I substituted “person” for “man” to recognize current language to convey the appropriate meaning.

(2) H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 141-148.

(3) See “Soren Kierkegaard: Christian Existentialist,” Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/moversandshakers/soren-kierkegaard.html

(4) Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (Harper San Francisco, 2007), pp. 183-184 discusses Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:33-36 about women keeping silent and reasons why it may not represent Paul’s view.

(5) Thanks to my longtime friend Benjamin T. Jordan for suggesting many points of this article in extended communications in recent years. Ben has a Master’s from Yale Divinity School and an Emory Ph. D.  He spent a career as a Methodist minister while also working in business or academia. Retired from the ministry, he is currently Associate Professor of the Practice in the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering.

About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. Stationed in California, South Dakota, and then Georgia, he served in the Air Force. Following his military tenure, Dr. Simmons became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources, during which he continued to teach history part-time at local colleges in addition to consulting for top-level managers in various state organizations. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.

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