Friday, April 26, 2013

A Journey of Hope and Christian Spiritual Agnosticism

Donald J. Moore SJ in his work Martin Buber, Prophet of Religious Secularism draws attention to a topic most applicable to these postmodern days, i.e. the history of Christian agnosticism.

Christian agnosticism is rooted ultimately in the incomprehensibility of God. The fourth century heretic Eunomius, similar to present day New Thought pantheism, did not accept this state of incomprehensibility, rather he held, “God does not know his own being any better than we do.” He held that the divine essence is no more manifest to God “than it is to us.” It is a denial of transcendent holiness and the total otherness of God.
Theologians of the Church responded quickly. Basil wrote that an understanding of God is beyond the comprehension of human beings. Faith leads us to an understanding that God is, not what God is. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his Contra Eunomium that God is beyond name and is ineffable and unspeakable. John Chrysostom most clearly defines Christian agnosticism, “We know God is, but we are ignorant about what God is.” God remains always, “ineffable, unintelligible, invisible, and incomprehensible, beyond the power of human language.”
Later Thomas Aquinas restates the theological tradition of incomprehensibility, “One thing about God remains completely unknown in this life, namely what God is.” The patristic period confronted the paradox of speaking about God established a foundation for Aquinas’ teaching of the analogy of being. It is the underpinning for the well known triplex via, the movement from affirmation through negation to eminence.
The triplex means that I affirm God is good. I deny that God is good like creatures. Then with a sense of divine transcendence, I am conscious, as I affirm and deny that God is good in a mode of being that is infinite and ultimately incomprehensible.
As I read Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta, it was evident that I was encountering the spirituality of an agnostic saint. We feel her painful spiritual agnosticism as she writes to her spiritual director, “Now Father-since 49 or 50- this terrible sense of loss-this untold darkness-this loneliness-this continual longing for God-which gives me that pain deep down in my heart-Darkness is such that I really do not see-neither with my mind nor with my reason-The place of God in my soul is blank-There is no God in me.”
In her spiritual journey her spiritual directors counsel her on the spirituality of the dark night of the soul and the via negative. In a sense, this advice is based on spiritual perspectives that are really expressions of a Christian agnostic spirituality where we enter into the darkness of an incomprehensible mystery.
It is in the mystery of the darkness, the nothingness and the hidden God where Mother Teresa finds Jesus, “I have nothing to say, but that I wonder at His great humility and my smallness-nothingness-I believe this is where Jesus and I meet-he is everything to me-and I-His own little one-so helpless so empty so small.”
When I am in spiritual conversations with fellow priest and leading small group conversations on spirituality, everyone seems to identify quickly with the topic of being in and out of periods of spiritual agnosticism. It just seems to make sense that these days more than ever we have this triplex where we pursue God, we touch God, and we lose God. Then we start again, but each time we touch we discover a reality that is deeper and more transcendent. As days pass and the pursuit continues, we realize the mystery has been the existential pursuit of the God who appears and then hides.
A William McVey


  1. Bill, as we have discussed, I think you are on to spiritual and emotional qualities that are pervasive and disturb our facile faith expressions.Our American spiritual language may have become far too romantic and intimate regarding "our" God. More later but thank you for opening up a valuable and provocative pathway.

  2. I consider myself agnostic because I know I don't know God, yet I live in the paradox that the more I admit that I don't know the more I seem to know. I think Divinity shoots shard of Soul into my flesh like an arrow and I feel suddenly intimate and omniscient. And then it's gone. I hope such experience, in which I do hear, or feel, a word I call God-in-me is not romantic or facile or sentimental, but rather true. Anyway, it helps me move along, knowing and not knowing. Thanks for your posts. Oh, incidentally, I'm beginning to despise the word spiritual—so bleak and easy.

  3. Lyn, thank you, great empathy with what you say. Yes, I, too think the word spiritual is severely damaged. Here is is good shot of daily wisdom for you:

  4. "All I know is that I don't know" wrote the skeptic. If I don't know God or what God is, then how can I describe him. What then of the Trinity? An intellectual affirmation of the Trinity, if it is true, does not necessarily result in a spiritual connection with God. What about God's absence? Does he decide to become absent or is it true that when we are spiritually desolate, we experience God as absent. I must confess that I am agnostic about the institution of the church, but I don't think I am agnostic with regard to the existence or presence of God. I experience God as incarnation.

  5. I think the connection between institutional and spiritual agnosticism is critical. I mean by this that catholic Christianity affirms the institutional right to interpret the Holy Spirit, such as who may be ordained or participate in sacramental rites. So to be agnostic about the institution does imply,and maybe being somewhat agnostic about the divine, that discernment re. divine activity is radically altered. I find this problem very interesting and worth exploring. If a person is a Christian agnostic and therefore participates institutionally, especially as an ordained person, then I think profound humility is required in authoritative decision making and forces quite radical respect for the here and now impact of episcopal leadership process, respecting the actual implications of the decisions. I mean by this that if "God will not take care of it and I must deal with it," then I had better respect my accountability here and now for what I say and do. For instance, we seem to have developed the "sperm theory" approach to ordination and ordain way more people than the Episcopal Church can actually use effectively, therefore, allowing for many clergy near or total failures. A Christian agnostic bishop could not responsibly ordain many people knowing full well that he/she should not by virtue of radical responsibility set in motion probable failure because God is not going to "make it all right." See where this sort of thought is going?