The Blessings of an Unknown God

This post could be called anti-Areopagean, since in a reversal of the Acts 17 narrative, I write to those who inherited a supremely certain God and extol the virtues of a God unknown. I propose that agnostic theism actually results in a win-win situation, yielding rich rewards in return for handing over so-called certainty. I am not advocating that everyone adopt this philosophy, but I would like to lay out the advantages as I have experienced them.

This approach not only takes seriously the limitations of our knowledge, it could, if implemented widely, diminish religious conflict both interpersonal and national, and contribute to a healthier worldview overall. Agnosticism built around a theistic framework encourages resilient faith that easily assimilates new knowledge and allows for tolerance and appreciation for differing beliefs.

One of my goals in life is to model and champion religiosity that maximizes the benefits of spirituality while minimizing the harm that comes from most, if not all, forms of religion. I believe that an open agnostic theism that appreciates the value of spirituality allows one to enjoy a religious life while also becoming a better, more understanding and effective member of society. So in a Mormon context, I pray, enjoy Church, the scriptures, the temple, and the other details of religion, but my openness leads me to reject or at the very least complicate the idea of the “One and Only True Church” that I find divisive and spiritually stunting. (I am ok with a “most true” approach but that is a different post.) With a humility and caring that comes in part from my open agnosticism, I can engage with those around me without the automatic value judgments of traditional Mormonism kicking in. I very much respect those who understand God and religion more concretely, and I have had my own spiritual experiences that keep me in the category of believer. At the same time, I find an open, even agnostic approach to religion to be very beneficial and affirming.

My definition of the divine remains fluid. I live presupposing a caring and engaged superior Being, but I would classify that worldview somewhere between hope and belief. I am open to the idea that God represents some quantum connection between all things we do not understand, or a collective unconsciousness. Whatever created the world, whatever makes humans so different that we can have philosophical questions such as these, I call that God. God could be the name for natural laws that make choice and consciousness and love possible. God could be these attributes themselves–anything that increases consciousness, love, freedom, growth, peace, and joy–these are Divine. Perhaps we humans are the greatest gods within our grasp. I challenge you to find anyone who could not accept at least one of these definitions of “God”. I find this open characterization of the Divine useful.

My agnostic theism stems from several factors:

1) If there really is a supreme Creator of the Universe who interacts with all things, it is logical that He/She/They would be far beyond our comprehension.

2) Study of the religions of the world and human history demonstrates that humans conceptualize gods and the divine in their own image.

3) Mormon theology (and I would say theology in general) supports the idea that whatever God’s form or nature, God adapts Himself (I use the pronoun flexibly) to our understandings, expectations, and limitations (see 2 Ne. 31:3, Ether 12:39; D&C 29:33; 50:12; 88:46, which all imply that God speaks to us in a way we will understand more than the way “things really are”).

Throughout human history, groups have brandished the sword of certainty to compel and even destroy others. Though religion provides many answers that are satisfying on an emotional and spiritual level, theological ideas if taken to literally obstruct the increase of knowledge and compromise relationships. We all know what it is like to debate with the dogmatic and converse with the thoroughly convinced.

Mormonism enjoys a God defined to a striking degree. We not only know what God looks like, his job description (Moses 1:39); his family situation (including the elusive but tremendously beneficial theology of a Heavenly Mother); we know where he lives and where he comes from! I delight in the idea of a Heavenly Father and Mother to whom I can pray (well, the latter if I admit it only selectively) and with whom I can imagine a loving reunion in the afterlife. I love imagining embracing my Heavenly Parents when this life is done. Equally potent is the idea that humans and God differ only in degree, not nature. We are Gods in embryo, literally children of God and can become like Him/Her/Them. Since on a practical level religion is a symbolic system to conceptualize and interact with ourselves, each other, and the environment, I find these ideas powerful and productive. I would submit, however, that little is lost if we allow that such conceptions might not perfectly correspond to Absolute Reality, while simultaneously appreciating the benefit of such ideas in our lives.

Relaxing our cultural conditioning allows us to hear other ideas with more sympathetic ears and hearts. Paradoxically, agnosticism can lead to better understanding of truth. If we open our minds, we can be given new myths, corresponding more closely to Reality. If we are humble like children, ever seeking to learn how things are instead of projecting our desires of how we would like them to be, we can grow in light and knowledge and allow God to reveal truth and himself to us as it and he is, instead of constraining him to lovingly and patiently humor our prejudices until we are mature enough to surrender them. Again, this is win-win: if God and reality conform to our expectations, we will be pleased, but neither will we be shattered if life or learning lead us to doubt our conceptions.

A final and one of the greatest benefits of agnosticism would emerge from accepting the responsibility for our own divinity. As far as we can tell, humans are the most developed and influential beings of which we are aware. Our consciousness spreads across the planet and beyond. We can restore and even replace organs and limbs, even bring back the dead to a degree. We have the power to destroy or (hopefully) heal entire ecosystems.

Though belief in God can be heartening and helpful, it can be equally disempowering and destructive. We can wait around, shaking our hands at heaven, impatiently waiting for God to fix all our problems. I certainly don’t want political leaders to factor the Second Coming into environmental policy!

I suggest we accept this power and responsibility and turn the accusations of theodicy back on ourselves. Why does God allow so much suffering? Why doesn’t He DO something about it? Well, why do we? Why do WE allow so much suffering? Why do we perpetuate it? Why do we humans, godlike in our ability to do good and literally answer prayers, instead squander that potential by sacrificing others and even the planet upon the altars of apathy, greed, and selfishness?

With this conception and acceptance, the goals of religious and humanist align. We are either the most advanced beings around or share a special relationship with a God who is greater. In both cases, we should emulate and adopt the characteristics of Divinity and care for the people and world around us. Several of the world’s scriptures teach us that we are Gods*, His children, or at least servants. It is time for us to put aside differences in our symbolic conceptions and start acting like it.

*I was going to reference John 10:34 where Jesus says “ye are gods”, but that passage takes Psalm 82:1, 6-7 so radically out of context that I could not include it. This post is dedicated to TJ and the conversation that started it.

10 Replies to “The Blessings of an Unknown God”

  1. I appreciate your words. You put so brilliantly how *I* feel in a straightforward manner! When I try to say these same things it often sounds like a train wreck. I share your ability to see all sides and respect and adore them all digesting them for the overall benefit of myself who I believe is essentially divine. I applaud your efforts and support you in this unique quest!

  2. Fantastic post! While there is some comfort in certainty, I have grown to love the adventure of uncertainty. There is something exciting about the mystery of it all.

  3. My own testimony of God is similar to yours, but I would put it differently. I would refer to it as an open minded testimony/conviction/theism, rather than agnostic theism. I believe I can only speak for me, for my perceptions, my experiences with God/the Divine, and not for anyone else. I believe in God, indeed I believe that I have experienced God in my life. And I believe God has called me to be Mormon. And that means accepting or being open to the fundamental tenets of that identity.

    But I also believe God wishes me to be open to the ideas, perceptions, experiences of others, which may be quite different from my Mormonism. Some may use the word agnosticism or uncertainty; I prefer to consider or describe my testimony/beliefs as open or openminded.

  4. I, like you, have often felt frustration at some believers’ certainty on topics where I saw no reason for them to be certain. When one of my religion professors at BYU spent two lectures on the age of the earth and three on evolution, claiming all the while that the class was far too intelligent and righteous not to agree with him, I asked so many obnoxious questions that in the end he asked me not to attend the last evolution lecture. I’d never been the rebel in the religion class before, and I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t tolerate him putting scientifically-minded students to a test of faith on a subject where our uncertainty as a Church gives us no reason for one.

    I’ve found that members who are not theologically inclined often benignly confuse uncertainty about what the Gospel teaches or requires with uncertainty about whether the Gospel is true, and I’ve always tried to help them separate those two questions. It is ironic to me, then, that you seem to make the same mistake as they do. Recognizing that intellectual humility and openness are virtues even in those whose religion makes absolute truth claims, you jump to the conclusion that in order to develop those virtues, Mormons should take three steps back from their testimonies and regard the Church’s teachings as stories that might be true but needn’t be in order to have meaning and value.

    When I hear that, I feel a deep concern. I fear agnostic theists will, despite their best intentions, end up driven to and fro by the winds of worldly doctrine, subordinating one of their religion’s inconvenient beliefs after another to the iron dogmas of what “everybody knows.” I fear this because I think it would be a huge loss to society–one of the most socially valuable aspects of religion is its backbone, its ability to say “X is wrong, no matter how many people endorse it,” whether X is slavery, pornography, or rampant divorce. But I fear it more because, well, I believe Mormonism is true, and I fear those who consciously step back from their testimonies as you suggest might fail to be “valiant in the testimony of Jesus” and end up among “the honorable men of the earth”–for I do respect them and their motives as honorable.

    So let me propose to you an alternative, that I think will capture all the benefits you describe above without raising my concerns. Instead of being agnostic about your religion, be agnostic about the world. Do not assume, as do many too-certain Mormons, that worldly ideas are necessarily wrong. Remember, as you already do, that although you belong to the only true and living church, it does not therefore follow that the others are perfectly false and dead. And always live in the hope that worldly ideas that seem to contradict the Gospel may eventually be harmonized into Truth’s great whole.

    To the world we should show a loving and hopeful uncertainty. But in the Gospel, let us always, meekly, cultivate faith.

  5. enoch,

    as usual your thinking and posting is really comprehensive.

    this is nice: “somewhere between hope and belief.”

  6. Sunshine and JohnE, I am glad the post resonated with you.

    DavidH, I certainly respect and appreciate the value of putting things in positive terms. Especially when “agnosticism” has so much baggage. I see “accepting” and “being open to” (the fundamental tenets of Mormonism) as quite different. I am open to the fundamental tenets of Mormonism being true. In fact, I hope many of them are true and my slight to moderate surprise should they turn out to be true would be very pleasant indeed. If I understand you correctly, you are advocating a foundation of faith with an openness that beliefs may not necessarily be true. I respect that and think if more people adopted such a position the benefits would be tremendous, without the costs of a more thorough agnosticism. One of the purposes of my post was to showcase the benefits of a world view many or even most would define as weak or even antithetical to faith. At the same time, I communicate very carefully in my interactions so that I do not unproductively break down someone else’s faith. This is not the path for all. This is not even the best path. Simple faith and the view I describe both have benefits and disadvantages, just differing ones.

    Bridging over to AlanH’s comment, I hope I was clear that I do NOT write this post as programmatic, recommending it for everyone. Far from it. I am deeply respectful and appreciative of “simple” or more “certain” faith. I enjoy wrestling with the paradox that a simple faith does so much real good, even if it may be “inaccurate” in certain particulars. How to harmonize that with the ideal of learning more about history, religion, and the world, which often deconstructs that faith? Again, my goal is to share my personal approach and hope that it is helpful to others who may be in a similar place. I would not try to convert anyone to agnosticism, though I personally feel that an awareness of how little we can know is healthy.

    I don’t quite know what you mean when you say “the Gospel is true.” My working model of God and truth is that God gives as much truth to all people that they will accept. Therefore 1) all belief systems have some truth, 2) Mormonism does not have all truth, and 3) All that is in Mormonism is not necessarily true in the sense of accurate or essential. Of course, truth is a very complicated and polyvalent concept. I would be open to Mormonism being “most true”. As I wrote, I am happy as an active member. Overall, I find it to be pretty much the best religion of which I am aware, and I think it has the theological potential to be far better.

    So I honestly don’t understand your critique that I “make the same mistake”, since I am not clear on what that mistake *is*. I already addressed the fact that I do not say anything about what “Mormons should” do regarding their faith. If pressed my evangelism would encompass more love, tolerance, and openmindedness, but not agnosticism.

    I respectfully reject your dichotomy between the world and Church and the winds thereof. I think that all values are cultural constructions, the Church’s included. Look at our history and our present. The Church has said things are right that a more enlightened view condemns as wrong, and vice versa (blacks and the priesthood and polygamy come to mind. McKay’s desires to give black the priesthood were delayed because several Brethren felt as you do, “X is wrong, no matter how many people endorse it”). I think it is in our value judgments where humility and openness are especially needed, though I approve of and am grateful for the strong moral framework religions provide. I think that true Morality is also greater than the Church’s stances. I believe that true moral principles resonate with our best natures, our spirits if you will. So though there is a large overlap between any particular moral system and a “best” moral system, it is inadequate and even irresponsible and hurtful to say “X or Y is right or wrong because my Church/culture says it is.” If more religious leaders had this type of humble awareness the world would be a far better place.

    Once again, I mostly want people to appreciate the value of an agnostic theism, whatever their personal beliefs. I want people to read and take into themselves whatever elements will maximize the benefits and minimize the harm of their personal religiosity.

    I like the way you end your comment. I think that is a valuable message to share. I do not think our points are in contradiction; I think mostly they have different audiences. I also enjoyed your BYU story. Props to you for pushing back against dogmatism when we do have a high degree of scientific certainty about those topics!

    Thanks g.wesley.

  7. Since I’ve long ago accepted that all explanation and definition is only the use of metaphors and images to approximate what one is trying to explain or define, I’ve stopped confusing those metaphors and puppet shows for reality.

    “The finger that points at the moon is not the moon.”

    I’ve no doubt that God is real, and I have no illusion that I have anything concrete to say about the subject that isn’t worlds apart from the reality. My countless experiences of peace, healing, growth, strength and learning are the most concrete expressions of “God” that I have.

    Nice post Enoch.

  8. Loved the post. As others have noted, you eloquently express the paradoxical balance that I have tried to find within the Only True Church.

    The problem with embracing open-minded agnosticism within an LDS context, is that some our most fundamental doctrines establish our church as “the only true and living church..” The entire LDS movement arises from Joseph Smith’s question “which church is true?” As if there is only one church, to which the reply from God was “none.”

    Why would God have presented the LDS people with such an exclusive paradigm? I accept Joseph’s revelations as divine, and D&C 1 as from God. But I also accept Enoch’s ideas about the diversity of God’s ways with other religions. How can the two be reconciled?

    I find there is ample scriptural evidence that demonstrates that God deliberately “misleads” people, and that this could be the case for God’s declaration of the LDS church being the “only” one. God admits to Joseph Smith that everlasting hell was not really everlasting, but only stated that way that it might be more “express upon the minds” of the people. Jesus says “destroy this temple and build it in three days” knowing that everyone misunderstands his meaning, but never bothers to clarify. There are other examples of God misleading his people from church history, such as Zion’s Camp, Oliver Cowdry’s translation, and the fruitless journey for buried treasure in Salem. But in all of these cases, the Saints grew in their faith and experience, in spite of the fact that they were somewhat mislead by God.

    God’s prophets continually reaffirm the exclusive claim that we are the “only true church.” I accept these prophets as divine, but like Enoch, have a nagging suspicion that there is something way too simplistic about this view.

    But if this is what God is telling us, even if it is only a half-truth, shouldn’t we believe it? Shouldn’t we passionately proselytize it, as our greatest missionaries have?

    I don’t know the answer to this question. I feel a bit ambivalent on the subject. I agree with Enoch, and passionately accept the reality of divine paths which differ, sometimes radically from my own. But what to do with this knowledge?

  9. Nate,

    I appreciate the thoughtful reply. I would suggest that God does not actively mislead us, but rather works within our expectations and worldviews, even if those understandings mislead us. It is an important distinction I think.

    One of my biggest questions is, of what value is the idea of “the One True Church”? What harm does it do? Yes, it has advantages, helps with missionary work, etc. But does it also alienate people? We know it does. Would missionary work BETTER with a “most true” approach rather than “only true”?

    I was touched when my 11 year old daughter turned to me during sacrament and asked, “Dad, what if we are wrong?” I love that she felt comfortable asking that. I told her that was a great question and we would talk about it later. Later, I told her the short answer was the “The Truth is bigger than the Church”. She seemed satisfied with the idea.

    As I said, I do not advocate my approach for everyone, far from it. But I do think that great benefits can come from absorbing aspects of openness and nuance into the sometimes rigidly literalistic understanding of LDS self-perception.

  10. i am so glad i found this web page, i know God lead me hear, after me getting very frustitated with my seach i was looking for before. i was tring to find out where in the doctine it was, about the revelation that we can one day be like God.Unstead i found this and it is even better. i needed to read this and the other post as well to make sense of this last crazy week i have had.

    I am not a scholar or anything, that should be ovious by my little words and my spelling. I felt like i needed a dictionary to read some of this, but it was very important that i see this.

    About two weeks ago i had been feeling realy bad, physically emotionally everthing. It’s not that i don’t beleive in priesthood bleassing but i felt to use a little different approch to get me out of my funk. So i typed self healing for a search, well that led me to some very helpful websites using eft,and meditation. The ones that i was drawn to, later i found out were by the same man, who offers loads of stuff for free. well long story short i got very into it because i was feeling so good. I ended up signing up for a course he offered. I was excepted and felt very excited how ever i had no clue what it was.

    He had it set up that you had to do course one for a week and then so on. The first one was about gradititude so i thought okay. Well as i was reading into it the word Kabbalah came up some where. I then emailed him asking what it was.

    Since then i do feel like my whole life has changed, i realized when i read this that his version of what he teaches is around the same lines of what you were discribing, or similar. i said my whole has changed in that i look at things so differently now. I have learned alot from the little that i have learned from him.

    I am no longer involved with it, but i did feel very drawn to it. I love being a member of the Church, and believe in the Savior so i know it was right not to continue because it was’nt for me, but i take with me all that i have learned. I do feel we can learn things from other religion’s, all though he made it very clear it was not a religion, in fact he was very against religion, and he shared with me that his religious experience was dogmatic and painful.

    I never email people i don’t know and sign up for things that i have no idea what they are. But i feel like these experiences have strengthen my own faith. We are always learning and God brings people in our lifes journey to teach us, even if they are not of our faith. i also felt like maybe i was meant to help him, for i testified of Jesus Christ several times in our exchanges. He said he dosn’t know if Christ exist but that it doesn’t matter. I told him that it did matter or it would. I don’t know intirely but i think he believes that we are evolving to become our highest self, he believes that we are all conected, which i do to,and that we are all connected to source,and that source is diffrent for everyone, and that there is energy all around us.

    Anyway i feel like i have taken from him what fits my beliefs, and it has added to my life, and i have left the things that i can not except rignt now, and beleive to be untrue at least for me. I feel alot more open minded,but i almost felt, because what i have been conditioned to believe that i was doing something wrong, by even looking into it. I think we are so scared of anti stuff, or even questioning anythings,that we sell our selves short.

    There is so much we do not know, there are gifts and teachings, of other faiths and beliefs, that can bless our lives, and for me it did make me question my faith, and i think we our scared of that as a whole, I know i was, but at the end of the day my faith was strong, because it has always been centered on Jesus Christ, and it always will. Since doing all this I have had some really sacred experience, with nauture, and feeling energy all around me and seeing the arua, or something i am not intirly sure my self, but it has been amazing.

    I quess i was just relieved to find some open minded view points inside the Church. I have to admit that, that has not always been my experience, but i konw the Church of lds is were i need to be, and i am thankful for the ordinances it has to offer that others don’t. I think that is the key to this whole discusion, of true or some what true. it is the only Church to have all the ordinances that were avialable to Christ Church on this earth years ago. However the level of arogance in the Church makes me sick sometimes, and i can shameful admit that i have been at times as well. We as a Church have to rise above politics, culture, and arogance, pride and so on, that I have been witnessing lately, and start bringing Christ church in. The church is true only if Christ is at the Head, and that only happens when we as a whole and individuly live as he did. The only ones he utterly, detested were hyprocrits. We have to be free of that in every way, and that includes learning and honoring others not of our faith,and seeking truth in every way we can. For me i feel tha we can have the best of both world as we follow our guidance system, and reley on the Holy Ghost. However i don’t really feel comfortable even sharing these thoughts with almost ever other LDS person I know, for fear of being labeled,a decender or something.

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