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.