On Being an Agnostic Christian: The Severely Abridged Version
Version 1.0, 6-6-06
- 1 Introduction
- 2 My epistemic situation
- 3 Theology
- 4 Apologetics
- 5 Spirituality
- 5.1 Spirituality itself—the mystery of meaning and the perplexities of practice
- 5.2 Spirituality and theology—an unfinished puzzle
- 5.3 Spirituality and apologetics—the inspiration of the Bible and the interpretation of experience
- 5.4 Effects—inertia, isolation, and laissez-faire evangelism
- 5.5 The persisting converse—vestigial spirituality and Christianity’s merit
- 6 The way forward
The original version of this essay is very long, which I know is a barrier to reading it. So here’s a shorter version. The structure of this essay mostly follows the structure of the longer one, so if you want more explanation on a point I raise here, see the same section in the original. The section headings link to the same sections in the longer version. Also note that there are a few extra sections in the original that I had to cut out.
I describe myself as an agnostic Christian because I’m uncertain about many aspects of my faith, yet I still consider myself a Christian. My doubts throw the future of my beliefs into question, but my hope is to stay a Christian and to grow in my faith. I wrote this essay to give myself a clear starting point for future study and for interacting with other people on my spiritual state.
Basically, I am struggling to understand Christianity deeply while wrestling with issues of intellectual responsibility in the religious realm. I am an evangelical Christian, and I like being one and want to grow in my faith. But I see that the reasons I have right now for being a Christian aren’t entirely solid, and when I ask myself how reasonable (or livable) Christianity seems to me, the answers are discouraging.
So I feel the need to step back and examine, as fairly as I can, the epistemic strengths and weaknesses of both evangelical Christianity and the alternative theologies and worldviews, so that I can come as close as possible to the best explanation for the world and human experience.
My feelings of loyalty to evangelical Christianity and my tendency to see all viewpoints as equally plausible could get in the way of this search, although if Christianity is true, my loyalty to reason could get in the way of my loyalty to Christianity. This is a conflict I call the loyalty-truth tension. Balancing those possibilities is a challenge.
Theology, apologetics, and spirituality are three major areas of Christian thought, and uncertainties can exist in all three.
Theological questions have to do with the details of Christian belief. Christians disagree with each other about almost every theological question. So which views are the right ones? Overall, I’m willing to affirm the core beliefs of Christianity, but beyond those any choice seems arbitrary without more study than I’ve done so far. I do have theological default positions, derived from my upbringing and my own dabblings, and some of them I feel rather strongly about. But I’m very aware that with more study, I might change my mind about them. I might even side with the heretics on some issues, though I doubt it.
Sometimes I think that if I studied the Bible more extensively, I would arrive at satisfying conclusions, that the answers are there if you just think carefully enough. But sometimes (more often these days, I’m afraid) I think the answers just can’t be known.
My thoughts on these questions are undecided enough that I tend not to think or talk about theology much. I almost think discussing theology is a waste of time, at least for me at this point in my life. To make any real headway I’d need to work out my hermeneutic and other issues of theological method.
The same hesitancy goes for living by these beliefs, which is where theology intersects with spirituality. I’m reluctant to pursue actions very enthusiastically when they are based on a belief with so much uncertainty behind it. So I generally don’t, and my spiritual life is correspondingly weak.
Apologetic questions have to do with the foundational tenets of Christianity and whether Christianity as a whole is true.
For me, the main competitor to the Christian explanation of the world is the naturalistic one. I tend to look at life from both of these perspectives in an inner dialog, though for now I ultimately side with Christianity, if only because it’s a safer bet.
Some of my doubts have more to do (for now) with the strength of the arguments we have for certain beliefs than with the beliefs themselves. The beliefs I have in mind are the basic formal doctrines of Christianity. You could say I’m a de facto fideist on these central points. But I do want to investigate them rationally, so I can only hope that a good case can be made for them.
However, some of my doubts have become more entrenched. Where my faith primarily falters is at the inspiration of the Bible, which I’ll explain in more detail below.
One of the central Christian tenets is that the Bible is God’s Word. If the Bible is divinely inspired in some sense, then it would obviously be wrong to treat it as merely human. But how can we tell the difference between a divinely inspired book and a merely human book? And how can we tell that the Bible is of the divinely inspired kind?
If we acknowledge that the Bible was inspired, what does that mean? One more liberal option is that the Bible writers were only indirectly inspired. They were simply theologians trying their best to interpret the awesome events they had witnessed, and God’s revelation was in the events rather than in the writing. It’s a possibility I’m considering.
Even though this doubt about inspiration is more persistent than many of my others, I’m not usually thinking all this when I actually read the Bible. I tend to read it as if it’s God’s Word. I assume that the writers at least knew what they were talking about, even if I don’t.
These questions don’t mean I’m about to plunge into atheism. At this early stage in my search, that would be premature. This tenacity is part of my approach to managing the loyalty-truth tension. If the thing you’re loyal to is true after all, then you can miss that fact if you abandon it at the first sign of trouble.
And in any case, I don’t see Christian apologetics as completely devoid of promise. The fine-tuning argument for God’s existence still appeals to me. Jesus’ resurrection is supported by some interesting arguments. Conservative scholars’ arguments for the Bible’s historical reliability usually impress me, and so do the insights of contemporary Christian philosophers of religion. And believers have some striking stories about their experiences of God that I’d like to explore and examine.
Spiritual questions have to do with the spiritual realities that relate to our own time and place—current events in the spiritual realm, you could say—as well as how theological truths should be lived out in general.
In the realm of spirituality, my uncertainties seem to exist in layers.
My problems begin with the fact that, for various reasons, the evangelical system of spirituality has never worked very well for me. For one thing, I’ve rarely been able to engage in spiritual practices like prayer and Bible reading in a way that was meaningful to me, and as I see it, meaning is a prerequisite for their effectiveness. The world of the Bible seems remote, so I have trouble connecting with it; and many Christian practices and messages have never quite made sense to me.
A second reason evangelical spirituality hasn’t worked well for me is that some of its directives seem unworkable. They’re at least outside my realm of experience. Here I’m thinking mainly of the idea of a conversational relationship with God.
Then there’s the sheer difficulty of the highest Christian principles. Christianity entails a very different way of life from the one that comes naturally. It’s really hard to trust God completely. It takes a lot of courage to be willing to sacrifice everything for someone else’s good.
A common theme in most of my difficulties is the fact that God is a very unusual person, so unusual that he’s hard to relate to. Unlike the human beings we normally interact with, he is invisible, inaudible, and intangible, and for the most part we must relate to him indirectly through the Bible and perhaps other people and the natural world.
A second layer that makes resolving the first one more difficult is my state of theological uncertainty. I don’t seem to understand God well enough to know what he might be thinking, feeling, and doing in response to me and my circumstances, which is important for knowing how to respond to him.
But even when I know that and I’m not encumbered by obviously sinful attitudes and motivations, it can be easy to get confused. There are a lot of pieces in the Christian life to keep track of. As I see it, the Christian life is like a complex skill that is foreign to us at first and has to be learned through practice. In many ways I’m still at a beginning, uncoordinated stage, and I don’t even have a clear picture of how all the pieces fit together.
Then while all that is going on, in float my apologetic doubts. The difficulty comes from two angles. The first is the inspiration of the Bible, which I covered in the apologetics section above. It’s hard for me to worship God on the basis of what goes on in the spiritual realm or God’s agenda in history when I find myself wondering how the Bible writers could know those things.
The second angle is the nature of the spiritual. Since it’s invisible, inaudible, and intangible, I sometimes wonder if it’s even there. Christians often describe the inner and outer events of their lives in terms of divine action. But sometimes I wonder, couldn’t it be that coincidences sometimes just happen, and people then find meaning in them that isn’t there? And how do we know that the psychological changes Christians report can’t be explained as merely psychological rather than supernatural?
The result of all this is that I haven’t seen much spiritual growth in my life. I’m a decently good person, but I don’t see much that’s specifically Christian about the ways that I’ve grown over the years.
These uncertainties and deficiencies also make fellowship with the Christian community difficult. People make statements about how God works in our lives or some other spiritual topic, and sometimes I can simply accept what they’re saying, but often I think, Well, maybe. In those cases I can’t really share in their feelings of inspiration or add to them with insights or experiences of my own.
My uncertainties in spirituality, along with those in theology and apologetics, also make it difficult to recommend Christianity to others, simply because I’m not quite sure what I’m offering, why they should believe it, what it’s supposed to do for them, or what they should do once they have it!
Despite my confusion and doubt, I do still have my own, limited sense of spirituality. I am sometimes able, in the moment, to forget about my doubts and engage Christianity with the thin film of understanding that I have of its significance for my life. I still talk to God as if he is listening. I try to stay grateful for what I have and the good things that happen. I still participate in worship. Overall I do want to follow Jesus.
And I still think that as a philosophy of life, Christianity in some forms has a lot to recommend itself. Among other things, it amplifies and transforms human experience by relating that experience to a transcendent personal being. So a desire for safety becomes a trust in God’s providence. A need for personal purity and for harmony with others becomes a need for divine grace and reconciliation with God and his family. A fear of death becomes a hope in eternal life—and not a disembodied spiritual existence, but a full-fledged life lived out in immortal bodies and in direct, unhindered fellowship with God. And this hope isn’t based on mere speculation but on an event in history—the resurrection of Jesus himself.
It sounds great. Now I just have to figure out what it means, if it’s true, and how it all works out in practice!
Since I still consider these questions vitally important and there’s still so much I don’t know, there’s really nothing else to do but to pick up the search again. For now I plan to concentrate on the topics that are the most uniquely Christian and the most fundamental to investigating worldviews and Christianity in particular. That means I’ll be looking at the issues surrounding the authority of the Bible and probably the church, the life and teachings of Jesus, the resurrection, miracles, some of the theistic and atheistic arguments, religious pluralism, and the nature of religious knowledge. And I’ll explore Christian spiritual formation.
Even though my faith has been eroded and dispirited, I still think Christianity holds some promise, and I consider it the richest and most noble thing around, so I want to give it the best chance I can. I might not stay an inerrantist. I might not even stay an evangelical, though that would be nice. But I hope my investigations will allow me to remain within Christianity for as long as possible, which of course, in the Christian scheme of things, is forever.