The Case for Christian Agnosticism

08/12/2010 08:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A friend of mine used a word today that was beyond the scope of my vocabulary. I nodded as though I understood, and our dialogue flattened out into a monologue. I don't remember what the word was, and next time I hear it, I will have no idea what it means. I missed an opportunity to learn something, and maybe to teach something, because I am afraid of the vulnerability of ignorance. To admit ignorance is to relinquish control. But ignorance is a part of the human condition. I came hardwired with very little knowledge. To pretend that I am done learning, to act as though I have filled out the empty spaces in my understanding is to cement ignorance into stupidity. It is to avoid vulnerability at the expense of growth.

Unfortunately, this tendency to flee from ignorance is nowhere as common as it is in theology. Theological ignorance carries with it a tremendous vulnerability. Admitting it to oneself necessitates existential, moral, and relational openness. It demands the difficulty of dialogue. The obvious and safe defense against this vulnerability is feigned certainty. It is to nod as though we understand, and continue our monologues.

Jesus began his ministry with a call to metanoia, the Greek word commonly translated as "repentance" but which literally means change-thinking. To change one's thinking is to admit one's ignorance. It is to face one's vulnerability. But at some point along the way to modern theology, we bought into the idea that ignorance is a sign of weakness. The call to repent was replaced with a demand to consent and the honest questioning that is an integral part of metanoia came to be seen as a sign of bad faith. Agnosticism became conflated with indifference, or worse. And we became a society of gnostics.

Seven years ago, I began to study religion academically because I was certain that the Christian faith contained an exhaustive vocabulary for discussing the truth. But the more words I learned, the more highlighted the gaps between our language became. I wrote some brilliant papers (and some bad ones) which navigated the nuances of systematic theology. I constructed arguments with a rhetorical precision sufficient to rebut the most careful objections. I learned to read languages I've never heard spoken. I applied all my skill to filling out the gaps in my understanding. And the closest I ever came to answering the deep questions of life was when I sat in silence with an old man's suffering as he asked me why God had forsaken him. Under the desperate weight of his eyes, I knew that my answers were insufficient, so I read him the best non-answer I could find:

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.

There is no poetry in the accumulation of answers. Poetry, and truth along with it, comes from an encounter with those corners of life which have not yet been filled with language. It comes from entering into our ignorance with the honest courage to question. It comes from a willingness to shake up the mental sediment in which we have hidden our secrets.

On the cross, Jesus was an agnostic. He was willing to face death with a why on his lips. Sometimes, in the comfort of a sunny afternoon, when much less is at stake, I have found the strength to entertain such questions myself. And when my belief is stirred by the gusts of doubt, and my knowledge is silhouetted against the beauty of mystery, I feel the uneasy presence of something beyond my capacity to speak, and I am grateful for all I don't know.