The Virtue and Vice of Agnosticism

Posted by on Jun 26, 2022 in Blog | 1 comment

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We are sometimes too sure of things we should be open minded about, and too uncertain about the things that really matter. Agnosticism, that tantalising space where we see all sides of an argument and put a definitive answer in the too hard basket, is sometimes a virtue, and sometimes a vice.

Let me give a few examples from my almost 65 year sojourn on this planet.

I became a serious follower of Jesus when I was a teenager – back in the 1970’s. Some things were very clear in that distant era. I didn’t go to my school ball (even though I had a beautiful girlfriend) because Christians didn’t dance. There was no doubt about it back then. They simply didn’t – or not in the circles in which I moved. Nor did they drink alcohol, or smoke, though they were permitted to go to the movies. To my surprise I discovered that this freedom did not extend to all Christians, for when as a youthful guest preacher I quoted from a then current movie, a dramatic sense of “shock, gasp, horror” settled over the congregation. The encouraging smiles quickly turned to glares. When I asked the church elder what had happened, he growled back at me: “Christians don’t watch movies.” I was never invited back.

Hmmm, did they have to be so certain about that. Couldn’t they at least have been a little agnostic about it, and been willing to contemplate the point I was making (which from my memory, was absolutely brilliant – I was about 18 at the time and all the points I made back then were profoundly insightful!)

It wasn’t the only church that never invited me back. I grew up in apartheid South Africa and while preaching one week commented that apartheid worked more effectively on Sunday than on any other day of the week, and that churches were more segregated than the workplace. I was 100% correct, noting a simple sociological truth observable to anyone who wished to test the thesis. It was quickly apparent that the congregation I was preaching to was not agnostic about the moral virtues undergirding apartheid – they thought it was right and divinely inspired. I wish they had more doubts about the dodgy hermeneutics they were using which saw them defend what was blatant racism. But then of course a much earlier era of equally certain believers had pushed against William Wilberforce and his quest to end slavery, reminding him that as slavery was practiced in Bible times it was forever valid. They didn’t have a flicker of a doubt about it. I wish they had…

It is not that it is wrong to be certain about some things, just that we are often certain about the wrong things. How do we tell the difference?

Perhaps we can learn from the history of the church.

A quick question.

How many times in its history has the church regretted being too loving?

Can you think of some examples where, for example, you read of St Francis and say, “I wish he had been more judgemental. He was so soft – far too kind, and look at the trouble it caused.” Now given that church history has being going on for around 2000 years it is possible you might find an example or two, but at present I can’t think of any.

Next question.

How many times in its history has the church regretted being too harsh?

Oh my goodness… the examples come flooding in. Insisting that those who commit suicide can’t have a church burial; the inquisition; far too many heresy trials (sometimes with penalties like being burnt at the stake); murdering those who refused to be converted; and telling me I couldn’t go to my school ball…

St Paul was right. Very few things are timeless, but if you want to know what will last forever, look for things which are birthed from faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13). So many things are birthed from legalistic fearfulness. They are little cultural trinkets attaching far too much importance to the peculiarities of our sub-culture. If you can’t see why it’s loving, be a little agnostic about it.

But things birthed from faith, hope and love are different. And remember that the greatest of this trio is love (1 Cor 13:13). You really don’t need to be agnostic about that. Love last forever. It never dies. For God is love. And God lasts forever. And God never dies.

As always, nice chatting…

Feel free to reproduce this post with acknowledgement or to forward to any who might find it helpful.

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One Comment

  1. Great insigh, as usual Brian. Hope you are well over Covid.

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