The Attraction of Agnosticism
I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD — Act_17:23
Atheism and Agnosticism
Not very long ago in Glasgow, there was a criminal trial which attracted much attention, not only by reason of its peculiar circumstances but also because of certain observations of the judge. When the prisoner was being examined by counsel one of the questions asked was, “Are you an atheist?” That was a very unusual question to be put in a modern court of law. No one, therefore, was very much surprised when Lord Guthrie, in giving the charge to the jury, dwelt with undisguised severity on that unusual interrogation. Now had the learned lord done nothing more than that, the aspect of things would have been entirely legal. But your true Scot is a theologian born— especially if he be born a Guthrie. And so we had a little discourse on theology in which we were very wisely told that there are no atheists nowadays— only agnostics. I was struck by the very widespread notice which was given to that dictum of the judge. It found its way into all sorts of papers and was commented upon from every point of view. And so I have thought this might be a fitting time to say one or two words about agnosticism.
The Difference between an Atheist and an Agnostic
Now I venture to think there are few who do not know the meaning of these words. An atheist is one who denies that there is a God; an agnostic one who denies that we can know God. The word agnostic is quite a modern word. It was coined, if I remember rightly, by Professor Huxley. It was suggested by that verse in the Acts of the Apostles which tells of the altar raised to the unknown God. It is very significant that the view of things which utterly denies all revelation should have had to borrow its title from the Bible. An atheist has the courage of conviction. He lifts up his eyes and says there is no God. For him, Heaven is a vacant place, and there is no eternal Personality. But the agnostic does not deny there is a God. All he asserts is that we are so constituted intellectually that to know God is utterly impossible.
Agnosticism Is Not Born of Humility
You will observe that this agnostic attitude has nothing in common with Christian humility. It does not spring from the majesty of God, but from the limitations of our finitude. There are octaves of sound, in high and sunken registers, which no human ear is capable of hearing, yet to say that a thousand tones are imperceptible is not at all to say that man is deaf. And so the Christian reverently holds that there are heights and depths in God he cannot know, and yet he is convinced that God is knowable. “Now we know in part and see in part”; there is agnosticism which is apostolic. There is a reverent veiling of our mortal gaze under the burning mystery of heaven. But to hold, as every Christian holds, that there are depths in God beyond our fathoming is not to assert that God cannot be known. On the contrary, for the Christian consciousness, there is no such intense reality as God. He is nearer than breathing, closer than hands and feet, more subtly present than any summer morning; and this though logic is powerless to reach and argument ineffectual to demonstrate Him, and life, in all the seeming tangle of it, too intricate a riddle to reveal Him. “And when I saw him,” says John, “I fell at his feet as dead”; there were depths in the Infinite which overwhelmed him. Yet that same John— with what triumphant certainty does he ring out the clarion cry, We know. And this is the glory of our Christian faith that, with the fullest confessions of great ignorance, it can yet lift up its voice out of the darkness and say, I know whom I have believed.
The First Christian Church Battled Against Gnosticism, Not Agnosticism
It is significant, let me say in passing, that the wheel of antagonism has now come full circle. This last subversive of the Christian faith is the intellectual negation of the first. When the new Gospel was fighting for its life, it had one foe more deadly than others. Some of you probably have never heard its name, though the later epistles are full of references to it. It was more deadly than any Jewish hatred. It was more subtle than any pagan ridicule. It wrought more havoc in the infant Church than the cruelest and bloody persecutions. Across the Empire, from Ephesus to Lyons, there was not a Christian community but suffered from it. It sapped the spiritual life of congregations and blighted the promise of countless catechumens. And this so subtle and insidious enemy, with which the infant Church fought for its life, was called by the forgotten name of Gnosticism. Now the word gnostic, as students are aware, means exactly the opposite of agnostic. The Gnostic is a man who says I know; the agnostic a man who says I don’t know. And the singular thing is that the Christian faith, which began by battling against a spurious knowledge, should now have to battle against a spurious ignorance. I regard this as a very hopeful sign for the ultimate triumph of the Gospel. There is less hope for the man who says that he knows everything than for him who thinks that he knows nothing, For the one is unteachable, and in a world like this to be unteachable is to be condemned, but the other has at least the aspect of humility. That is why in early gnosticism the prevailing temper was one of scornful arrogance. And that is why in our modern agnosticism we can so often detect a note of wistfulness. It is always a humbling thing to say, I do not know; doubly so to a keen and brilliant intellect; trebly so when the things it does not know are known to the humble farmers in the glen.
Agnosticism Contradicts Man’s Deepest Instinct
Indeed it is this last fact, when you consider it, that makes the attraction of agnosticism so remarkable. It contradicts the deepest of all instincts: yet it is acceptable today. That there is a God, and that God is knowable, is the universal verdict of humanity. That there is a God, and that God is knowable, is the instinct and affirmation of the soul. Yet when agnosticism throws out its challenge and repudiates these universal witnesses, it finds a welcome in the modem mind. That is a very remarkable phenomenon, well worthy of our consideration. At gnosticism we all smile today, but at agnosticism, no one thinks to smile. And what I suggest is that this is only explicable on the ground of a certain specious affinity between the negative creed of the agnostic and the general spirit of the age. Professor Lecky has taken pains to show that it is not an argument that kills beliefs. It is rather those slow and subtle changes that gradually permeate the spirit of a people. But not only do these slow and subtle changes explain the destruction of ancient superstition; they explain also the emergence of beliefs. Every creed demands its fit environment as absolutely as does the Alpine flower. Without that environment, it will never flourish though it is preached with genius and passion. And I want to show you how the agnostic creed, which once would have been treated with derision, has found a fitting environment today.
Agnosticism’s Fitting Environment
Agnosticism, for instance, seems to answer readily to our altered thought of the dwelling-place of man. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him” has meaning for us the psalmist never knew. So long as man deemed that the world which he inhabited was the great and glorious center of the universe, so long was it natural for him to hold that he was important in the eyes of heaven. But if his dwelling place is but an atom flying through boundless space where worlds are numberless, then things assume a different complexion. Now that is exactly what modem science has done. It has dislodged our world from its centrality. It has robbed us of our cosmical importance and made us the creatures of a tiny planet. And it was inevitable that this altered thought, which has so profoundly influenced man’s attitude to nature, should have influenced also his attitude to God. It was natural to believe that God was knowable when just beyond the clouds He had His throne. But heaven has gone very far away now, and we sweep the depths of space and cannot find it. And so having learned, on evidence unquestioned, the actual insignificance of earth, we begin to doubt the significance of man. It is to that temper agnosticism comes. It is the creed that answers that suspicion. It is not presumptuous as was atheism. It does not dare to say there is no God. It only says that for creatures such as we are, fashioned of the dust of a little distant planet, the proper attitude is one of ignorance.
But if men would only think a little, they would see the fallacy of that appeal. There is a little cottage down in Ayrshire to which pilgrims turn with tender hearts. It has no grandeur as of marble staircase nor spacious rooms with the decorated ceiling. Yet he who was born there would have been no greater had he been cradled in a kingly palace, nor was he less a genius because of a cottage-child. It is not the dwelling place that makes the man; it is the man that makes the dwelling place. There may be depths of meanness in the lordliest home and moral grandeur in the poorest mountain hut. And to argue that man must be a cipher because the world is not a lordly dwelling place is like arguing that Bums was not a genius because he was a cottage-child. On the contrary, it seems to me that the evidence is the other way. For it is not in palaces nor lordly manors that moral and spiritual worth is often found. It is in humble homes with lowly roofs that have no beauty that we should desire them and which never obtrude themselves upon the passerby. Search through Scotland for the men who know, and you will not find them in the grandest dwellings. It is not in the castles of Dumbartonshire that you find the students who know Shakespeare. And so to argue that God cannot be known unless the world is the castle of the universe is to move contrary to all experience.
Agnosticism in an Environment of Rejection of Dogmatism
But there is another attraction of agnosticism which helps to explain its prevalence today. It is in apparent harmony with an age that cannot brook the accent of finality. To say I do not know is not dogmatic, at least it does not seem to be dogmatic, and so it answers to that prevailing spirit which cannot tolerate the thought of dogmatism. Probably we are suffering today for the over dogmatism of the past. You will very generally find age of doubt after an age of overconfident assertion. And it may be that the preaching of a former generation, which was so absolutely confident of everything, has given us an age which is confident of nothing. Whatever the cause be, this at least is plain, that men today are not in love with dogmatism. They may have a wistful yearning for the Christ, but they are easily irritated at the creed. They do not accept the sufficiency of formulas. They are no longer held by orthodox beliefs. They are impatient at the suggestion of finality. That there is a nobler side to this impatience, I think it is only fair to recognize. It is always the characteristic of an age that is trembling on the verge of discoveries. And that we are now trembling on the verge of such discoveries as will revolutionize our life and thought, I have not the shadow of a doubt. Now whenever there is such expectancy abroad, the one intolerable standpoint is finality. To be dogmatic in a world of mystery is to seal the eye so that it cannot see. And any creed which cuts as with a saber into the heart of all dogmatic doctrine is certain to receive a kindly welcome. There have been ages when a teacher had no audience unless he could lift up his voice and say I know. But today a far more powerful appeal is to lift up the voice and say I do not know. And that is the attraction of agnosticism to an age that is a little weary of dogmatics and is beginning to feel again, in countless ways, the wonder and the mystery of things.
Agnosticism an Intolerant Dogma
But the curious thing is that agnosticism has proved itself the most intolerant of dogmatisms. Professing to be the foe of all finality, it is itself the most final of all creeds. Through all the ages the Gospel has maintained itself with the infinite and living power of adaptation. It has responded to all the growth of knowledge and never forfeited its central verities. But agnosticism in these past forty years— and what are forty years to twenty centuries— has only saved itself from utter ruin by the very dogmatism which it scorns. To say we have no evidence for God may sound like intellectual humility. It may seem to indicate a very different temper from the blatant atheism of fifty years ago. But when you are dealing not with things but with persons, to say that you have no proof of their existence is really to deny that they exist. There might be gold under the snows of Greenland though we had no evidence that gold was there. But if there were little children in a home, would they not be certain to betray their presence? And if you found no nursery nor cot, no picture books nor fragmentary toys, would not that mean there were no children there? That would be the verdict of the briefest visit: but what if you lived for years within the dwelling? What if you lived there day and night for years and never found one proof that there were children? You see in a moment that to find no evidence is to be driven to deny their being; and as with little children, so with God. If even a shipwrecked sailor on an island leaves unmistakable traces of his presence, how much more the Creator of the universe.
Agnosticism Cannot Stand the Test of Life for It Is Negative and Life Is Positive
Now that is where agnosticism fails. It has never been able to maintain itself. It has not been able, like the faith of Christ, to stand foursquare to every wind that blew. It has either gravitated far nearer atheism than Lord Guthrie would allow us to admit, or it has crept back to the feet of God again. I confess I have no faith in any creed that cannot maintain itself for forty years. I have a strong suspicion that the truth must lie with one that has stood the storm and shock of centuries. And when I find it meeting my deepest need and answering the crying of my heart, by it I am content to live and die. For character is not built upon negations, nor does life come to its victories that way. Life is too difficult and dark and terrible to be fought out by what I do not know. It is when I can say after the strain of years, I know whom I have believed, that my feet are planted on the rock.