This past week, I was casually asked this question by several people who had read my last #GivingUp4Lent Blog:
“So, are you like, agnostic now, or something?”
My first response in my head is usually, “well aren’t we’re both likely agnostic on some level about most things?” But, obviously I know that the implied topic here is about God. Surely God, of all things, isn’t the one we humans have got completely nailed down. And so I thought it would be fitting to respond to that question by talking about the philosophy of belief here a bit before I move forward in addressing the three shifts in Christian theology I mentioned in my last post in the weeks to come. I’d like to mainly engage the conversation surrounding belief by interacting with some excerpts from Jack Caputo’s wonderfully poetic little book, Philosophy and Theology, where he engages the topic from a Derridian deconstructive lens. Firstly, he notes that:
“Kierkegaard says that he would never pretend to be a Christian, but at most profess trying to become one. Might it be that the best formula available to believers who are sensitive to the complex and multiple forces that are astir within us, as we all should be, is to claim that at most they ‘rightly pass’ for a believer? Is this not an excellent formula for whatever we believe or do not believe?” p. 63
Firstly, I’ll say that Kierkegaard’s play here is a compelling one. As I have given up being a Christian for Lent, I have noticed that much of what that means for me is really just stepping publicly into the place that I already was internally. And in terms of belief, that means moving into a space beyond putting my personal signature on doctrinal propositions or creedal affirmations. In a sense, it’s a place beyond believing. It’s an allegiance to something higher…to non-conformity, non-proposition, to full openness. Even the Bible says that Moses heard God’s name in Exodus 3:14 as:
It’s not, “I am who I am,” as many of us have heard. But rather, as ToJo’s translation suggests: “I will be that who I have yet to become.”
This openness I am describing is a shift toward a praxis of life which is concerned with something beyond ideological and (especially metaphysical) systems. I agree with Richard Beck’s thoughts here that the systems themselves are not something we believe in, but are rather tools and hypotheses. That is all. And I, too, am generally uninterested in determining which one is the “correct” one. In the aforementioned article, Beck does mention that if he had to say what he believed in, it would be that “God is love.” And, although it’s also probably my favorite thing to say about God, I think Caputo asks rightly in response:
“When someone says, ‘God is love,’ do they mean that ‘God’ is one of the best names we have for love? Or is it the other way around (and this is what Augustine would have asked): Is ‘love’ one of the best names we have for God? For Derrida there is an irresoluble slipping back and forth between these names and no place to stand that would give us the leverage to arrest this play.” pps. 62-63
My own contention would be:
Let’s just not expect to arrest this play between the two sides, but to instead rather let the play arrest us.
This is what I mean when I say that the poetics of the conversation is what inspires us toward hope, not the decision itself for either side. That generosity itself is a radical embodiment of love no matter where you may land on the question. There are many branches of the Christian faith that build walls around one side of that interplay, and I find those perspectives that do to be generally uncompelling in the postmodern situation. But to be fair, both the adamant hardline-theistic perspectives and the hardline-atheistic perspectives are sometimes unhelpful and often damaging fundamentalisms.
Though both sides are somewhat necessary to poke and prod at our complacent assumptions about “God,” the theopoetic sits somewhere in the midst of the tomfoolery, with propositions whizzing by from both camps. We listen intently to grasp what we may from the air and quickly fold it into some form of observable existential origami, which is always momentarily beautiful for display, but also always carried off by the wind…until the process is repeated all over again.
So, does this mean I am an atheist? An agnostic? A theist? The answer is unequivocably:
The question that divides itself into these three parties is itself displaying more competing forms of creedal affirmation. The agitation for most people who hear my response is that I actually seem to be comfortable with my reply! So then, why not just make a decision one way and say I…am…this? As Caputo says:
“Because that would be to arrest the play; it would have the self-assured ring of reductionism, the bluntness of nineteenth-century positivism…On the contrary, he thinks what we call the ‘I’ is implicated in a kind of conflict, of competing voices that give each other no rest, so that there is always an atheist within me who contests my professions of belief, just as there is always a believer within me who contests my professions of unbelief. That is why he says the name of God is the name of a secret that is withheld from him. Still, he ‘rightly passes’ for an atheist-by the standards of the local pastor or rabbi.” p. 63
Although I find the binary of atheist/theist mostly unhelpful, perhaps I too could pass for an atheist (or certainly an agnostic) by the standards of a rabbi or pastor who would not concede that “God” continues to change as humans evolve. For radical theologians, process theologians, theopoetics, atheists, agnostics, and even some others in the open/relational camp, the statement that God evolves in our minds is not a shocking one. They understand that this is not an ontological claim based on a brittle substance ontology. That would be a reductionism, and I am not really interested in living back in the 19th century. I’m actually glad to be alive in the 21st after the linguistic, or “postmodern” turn. Here, in our time, we get to peer into the depths of the realization that:
“Reason, science and philosophy, is not seeing all the way down, that it involves an ongoing faith and trust in its ensemble of assumptions and presuppositions…that enable us to make our way around.” p. 56
The key here is assumptions. That is what we are making. When we are participating in the discipline of theology, or “making claims about God,” we are always doing our best to make assumptions based on the evidences and experiences at hand, ones we fully expect to eventually slip from our grasp like sand through our fingers until the next handful of temporal truth can be dug up. This is just how life is. It changes. We no longer have to place the expectations of our life’s meaning upon reason, science, philosophy, or especially a particular religion or theology…because they all inevitably break under the weight. The admission of that reality also comes with the concession that all of the above disciplines are necessary conversation partners in an integral pursuit in which we press forward as non-reductive postmodern workers for the common good. For, as Caputo noted, these disciplines “enable us to make our way around.” They motivate us. They allow us to grow. They encourage us to dream.
So then, what of belief? What of faith?
“For Heidegger, if you are a believer, then you have decided to take an early retirement on thinking. You think you already have the answers to the sort of questions Socrates asked and you can’t play the game, or perhaps better, what philosophy you do will be just that, just a game you are playing, because you have the real answers up your theological sleeve. You start with the answer and retrofit it with a proof that will get you where you wanted to go all along.” pps. 7-8
Life, especially a life of faith, is absolutely an exercise in critical thinking and dreaming of a better future for ourselves, our loved ones, and the world (and I say this non-reductively, but to make a point about belief!). If we take an early retirement from thinking, then we do ourselves the disservice of living in the past. Belief in the 21st century cannot be talked about solely in such unnecessary binaries, but rather must be given the gift of freedom from these distracting divisions. For the survival of faith, and by that I mean in part the survival of hope for the human race on this very endangered planet, we must learn to exist in a register above belief and non-belief. We must disseminate our faith against all temptations to build walls of various forms.
That is not to say that one cannot believe, truly…in God…in something. That is to say that one must recognize what belief is in the here and now: more a faith in current assumptions (about the divine, for some) in an ever-evolving string of human hope that is expected to transmorph as it emerges.
So, am I agnostic? I’ll just say…
If I believe anything, it’s that sometimes my life passes for that of a believer.
But to the watching world, more often than not, it probably looks more like that of an unbeliever.
As a Christian who is no longer trying to be one, I can still partner with my friends in the tradition who pray in faith for Christ to come. But of course, what I mean by that, is something that is likely beyond belief.
***For a helpful espousal of Caputo’s anti-reductionistic thinking when it comes to the theism, atheism, agnosticism divide, see his response to the first question in this interview in the NY Times.