Thank God I'm an Agnostic


“A woman comes up and she says to me: ‘I’m Jewish. I’m not going to accept Jesus as my savior. Am I going to hell?’ . . . Jesus said, ‘No one comes to the Father but by me . . . I am the way.’ I’m betting my life that He was telling the truth. Now see what I did? I took it off of me, and making me the authority.”

– Pastor Rick Warren

There’s hell to pay if you’re not just like the fundamentalists – be they theists or anti-theists. It’s either hell in the life to come, or apocalypse now – no doubt about it in the fundamentalists’ doubt-free world. They’re dangerous and influential. Warren delivered the invocation at Obama’s 2008 inauguration. The president provided a forum and legitimacy to a zealot who damned Jews – and most everyone else – to hell. Would Obama have invited a jihadist condoning eternal torment of Jews and other nonbelievers? Warren’s gospel resonates: He sold 30 million copies of his Purpose Driven Life.
The gospel, according to militant atheist Christopher Hitchens, resonates with a different clientele: His God is Not Great (an obvious slap at Islam) is also a bestseller. (Full disclosure: I’m envious; these book sales surpass mine.) Hitchens’ intemperate hatred of religion – especially Islam – won friends and influenced people in intellectual and policymaking circles. Post-9/11, he broke with former Leftist allies, and joined his newfound friend Paul Wolfowitz in championing the Iraq War – hell in the here and now.

christopher hitchens speaks for crowd

Credit: Wikimedia

Attacking Warren knocks down a straw man – at least for readers of this blog. I suspect readers find intellectual anti-theists such as Hitchens (and his cohorts such as Dawkins and Harris) more engaging. But let’s briefly give the devil’s enemy his due. Warren denies personal responsibility (“It took it off me”) for condemning those unlike him to hell – the most sadistic invention of the human imagination. Shouldn’t Christians (like the rest of us) take responsibility for their words? The pastor’s moral holiday echoes a familiar refrain: “I’m not responsible for killing those civilians; God made me do it.” What would he say about an earthly father who throws his child into a blast furnace for whatever reason? Warren wouldn’t be to blame, of course; “It took it off me.” No condemnation? Why worship – rather than condemn – a heavenly Father who tortures most of His creation for all eternity? And the pastor should take care about that bet: Perhaps God has a special circle in hell for those who treat Him like a Vegas wager. Like all fundamentalists, Warren has too many answers and too few questions. If only Warren and his unforgiving, sadistic God had a more Christian attitude!
Turning to Hitchens’ fundamentalism: What’s good isn’t new; and what’s new isn’t good. It’s good to revive old time iconoclasm. It’s good to indict the religious wars, witch-hunts, and inquisitions that plagued the world. (Although a more penetrating, nuanced analysis reveals that religion was often a pretext for personal and political ambitions.) Surely the injunctions in Leviticus would embarrass the Taliban. And maybe Freud was right: Religious ritual is an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In any case, Hitchens gets it right when he quips that the fundamentalists’ deity sounds like a cosmic dictator of North Korea ready to punish the slightest infraction.
Unfortunately, anti-theists never tire of raising a hackneyed argument. Do you believe a teacup orbits Mars? Do you believe in the gods of Mount Olympus? It’s not impossible, but a reasonable person rejects improbable nonsense. So why not reject nonsense about an invisible deity? The time is long overdue for atheists to acknowledge the truth that we can’t know the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said it best as he expressed the agnostic credo: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
What’s new isn’t good. Not lauded for his humility, Hitchens doesn’t stand in awe of the mysteries of our conscious existence. No questions remain. However, unlike the atheists of old, his concerns are not impurely philosophical. He’s not merely interested in correcting private metaphysical errors. He’s convinced that religion, not money, is the root of all evil. Dogmatic as any evangelical fundamentalist, Hitchens blithely dismisses counterexamples: His claims won’t admit to disproof. More disturbing and ironic is that his antipathy toward religion prompts him (and other militant atheists) to promote hell on earth, namely the Iraq War and the War on Terror.
Consider his dismissive responses to critics: Didn’t secularists such as Hitler and Stalin commit atrocities surpassing the worst religious wars? He claims Hitler was really a closet Catholic, and in any event, the worst excesses of Catholicism were entwined in Teutonic culture. Likewise, we’re reminded of Stalin’s early days at an Orthodox Russian seminary. Despite these counterarguments, what about the courageous deeds of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.? King didn’t realize it, but he was a closet humanist.
Hitchens’ anti-theism provides a cautionary tale about the evil visited by secular regimes. Consider the ratio: How many civilians have perished due to decidedly secular nationalism coupled with personal ambition (to which the latter-day Hitchens turned a blind eye). Compare these numbers to the lives taken by jihadists. How much does it exaggerate to suggest a ratio of 1,000,000/1? We know this: Hitchens’ intemperate indictment of religion – especially his Islamophobia – inspired jingoism leading to the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. 9/11 was his epiphany. In the world according to Hitchens, 9/11 unmasked Islam as the apotheosis of evil.
His former allies on the Left heard him speak in tongues as he celebrated America as the last, greatest hope of mankind, lionized Bush and the neo-cons, and zealously supported the Iraq War. Blinded by anything that smacked of Islam, he conflated Hussein, a secular tyrant, with the tyrant’s mortal enemy, jihadist bin Laden. (As Richard Clarke, Bush’s principal counterterrorism advisor wrote, attacking Iraq after 9/11 made as much sense as attacking Mexico after Pearl Harbor.) As if to illustrate his immunity to facts, in 2008, deep into the quagmire, he wrote “How Did I Get Iraq Wrong? I didn’t.” According to Hitchens, the war deposed a dictator that sponsored international terrorism – those elusive weapons of mass destruction would soon be found. Best of all, the war killed Muslims. Glenn Greenwald cites a representative example of Hitchens’ celebration of Muslim deaths:
Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate through a Koran that a Muslim may be carrying in his coat pocket (“those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was wearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.”
Both Hitchens’ earthly life and the Iraq War officially ended on December 15, 2011. Whether Hitchens continues to exist in another realm I do not know: Agnostics pray that atheists are wrong. I do know that – contrary to his cavalier predictions – the war Hitchens championed did not end triumphantly; it’s become a never-ending-story.

5 thoughts on “Thank God I'm an Agnostic

  1. I agree with much of this essay. Although I consider myself a follower of Jesus, the right wing evangelicals constantly embarrass me.
    I recommend this essay I recently wrote trying to find the hidden psychological reasons for the posture of anti-theists. I propose they are reacting not against the mystery of deity but against the corruption of institutional religion:
    It is a tough tight rope to walk: the reject the anti theistic cynicism of the atheists even while acknowledging the legitimacy of their fear of organized religion.

  2. I am a retired United Methodist pastor now living in Eugene, OR. In all of my years as a minister, I never once preached on the familiar text from John because the way it is usually interpreted did not fit with my understanding of who Jesus was. Then, one night in the middle of the nigh,t long after retirement, I suddenly realized that there the text could be interpreted to mean precisely the opposite of the way it is commonly understood. I then wrote the sermon and have preached it in the First United Methodist Church in Eugene. I have long felt that this approach to the text deserved wider consideration. For that reason, I have pasted the sermon in below. Like my sermons for many years, it is written as poetry.
    INclusive or EXclusive, Which Will It Be?
    John 14: 1-6 by Robert Granger
    “I am the way, the truth and the life,
    and no one comes to the father but through me.” John 14:6
    So many times I have heard those words from the Gospel of John.
    They’re commonly quoted as a way of asserting Exclusiveness,
    That is, to support the position held by many
    that believing in Jesus is the only way to a happy hereafter.
    For many that interpretation is self evident,
    so self evident that it’s beyond discussion.
    Whether they are words actually spoken by Jesus,
    words that the author believed he might have said,
    or words the author wished he had said,
    is a question we’ll leave others to struggle with.
    The fact that the fourth Gospel wasn’t written
    until over half a century after the death of Jesus
    does leave scholars room for debate.
    But my issue isn’t with whether or not Jesus spoke the words.
    It’s that “self evident” interpretation that bothers me.
    It bothers me because the son of Mary and Joseph
    I meet in the Gospels appears not to have subscribed
    to the concept of Exclusiveness.
    Even worse, that self evident interpretation
    seems to make the words of Jesus a threat.
    Believe, or else!
    The word GOSPEL is supposed to mean GOOD news,
    and being threatened doesn’t sound like very good news..
    That leaves us with a question.
    Is there a way to resolve the apparent conflict between this text
    and a different picture of Jesus evident in the four Gospels?
    Let’s begin with a closer look at the text.
    “I am the way,” he said.
    Well, just exactly what was the way of Jesus?
    Given the way he apparently lived his life,
    and the circumstances of his death,
    I can only conclude that the way of Jesus
    is the way of love.
    for there is no greater love than this,
    a love which lays down its life for the beloved.
    In fact, it was love that flowed from his lips,
    as he faced death from a cross,
    not threats, not judgment, not condemnation,
    “Father, forgive them,” he prayed,
    a prayer offered on behalf of his executioners, of all people.
    No wonder the way of Jesus
    is sometimes spoken of as the way of the cross.
    or the way of death and resurrection.
    Understood in its most obvious sense,
    death and resurrection is about physical death
    and whatever takes place after that.
    Understood metaphorically, however,
    the words take on a much deeper meaning.
    One of the great lessons of the natural world
    is that without death, there can be no life.
    It’s from death and decay
    that new life springs forth.
    that’s as true spiritually as it is ecologically.
    Spiritually, death and resurrection
    is about those things that need to die in us
    so that better things can come to life.
    So much there is in us that may need to die,
    so that God can do a new thing in and through us.
    For example, our fears may need to die
    so that trust can come to life,
    trust in ourselves, trust in each other, trust in our God.
    Prejudices certainly need to die,
    so that we can come to know all men as brothers,
    all women as sisters and all children as family.
    Our addiction to the ways of warfare and violence
    will need to die before we can truly become makers of peace.
    We may need to give up angers and hurt feelings,
    so that mercy and forgiveness can find room in our hearts.
    The desire for vengeance will need to die,
    so that we can truly love our enemies as we love ourselves.
    You see, the words death and resurrection.
    are really a sort of short hand description
    of the spiritual journey.
    Its about coming alive in a new way,
    being born again in the deepest meaning
    of that familiar phrase.
    born into a life of loving ourselves and each other
    as much as God loves us.
    Surely, above all else,
    the Way of Jesus
    the way of the cross,
    the way of death and resurrection.
    is the way of love.
    No wonder the early followers of Jesus were called
    “people of the way.”
    Which is to say,
    They were not know for what they believed,
    They were known for how they lived,
    They were known as people of the way,
    the way of love.
    – – – –
    “I am the way,” he said, and “I am the truth.”
    Well, just exactly what is truth?
    Certainly truth is something most of us think about now and then,
    hoping perhaps that we know at least a little about it.
    But putting our thoughts about truth in words is not all that easy.
    Kahil Gibran, the great Lebanese poet,
    summarized the difficulty in these memorable words:
    “Thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words,
    my unfold it’s wings, but cannot fly.”
    Think about that.
    “Thought, even thoughts of truth,
    are a bird of space, that in a cage of words,
    my indeed unfold their wings, but cannot fly.”
    However understood,
    the truth of Jesus, like all truth,
    is something that’s far larger
    than anything we can reduce to words.
    Fortunately, there do appear times in his life
    when he did find a way to use a few words
    to point toward the nature of truth as he understood it.
    Surprisingly, it was a lawyer who provided one such opening:
    “Teacher,” he asked,
    “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
    It was in answer to that question, that Jesus replied:
    “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
    and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
    This is the greatest and first commandment.
    And a second is like it:
    You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
    On these two commandments
    hang all of the law and the prophets.”
    Without a doubt, the truth of Jesus
    is the truth of love.
    And then there is the life of Jesus
    Helen Kromer has captured the meaning of his presence
    in simple, but deeply profound poetry.
    “I open my mouth to speak, and the word is there,
    Formed by the lips, the tongue, the organ of voice.
    Formed by the brain,
    transmitting the word by breath.
    But let me speak to my very small son
    and the words mean nothing,
    For he does not know my language.
    And so I must show him:
    ‘This is your foot,’ I say; ‘and it is meant for walking.’
    I help him up: ‘here is the way to walk!’
    And one day ‘walking’ shapes in his brain with the word.
    God had something to say to Man,
    but the words meant nothing,
    for we did not know his language.
    And so we were shown:
    ‘Behold the Man,” God said.
    This is the image, the thought in my mind –
    Man as I mean him, loving and serving.
    I have put Him in flesh.
    Now the Word has shape and form and substance
    to travel between us.
    Let Him show forth love till one day,
    ‘loving’ shapes in your brain with the Word.”
    Helen Kromer in For Heaven’s Sake!
    The Life of Jesus,
    Love made visible
    so that love can shape in our brain,
    until it one day shapes our way of living.
    The Gospel writer, rather eloquently, put it fewer words,
    “And the word became flesh, and dwelt among us,
    full of grace and truth.”
    “I am the way, the truth and the life,” he said.
    Well than,
    If the way of Jesus, really is the way of love,
    and if the truth of Jesus, really is the truth of love
    and if the life of Jesus, is really the epitome of what love is,
    then is it not possible that the self evident interpretation
    of the text may not be as credible
    as we have been led to think?
    In fact, if that really is the case,
    then perhaps the text begins to look more like this.
    I am the way (and we could add) of love,
    I am the truth (also) of love, I am the life of love,
    and no one comes to the father
    that is, no one can enter into the fullness of
    a relationship with the father,
    except through me.
    The “me” of course, is the same person as the “I”
    in the first part of the verse.
    So if the I and the me are the same person,
    it would seem like the intent of second part of the verse
    is to reaffirm the first part of the verse.
    Putting it all together then, what we have is this:
    I am the way of love, and the truth of love, and the life of love,
    and no one comes to the father,
    that is, no one can enter into the fullness of a relationship with the father,
    except through the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love.
    Now, just think about this for a minute.
    Doesn’t opening up the text in this way make perfect sense?
    After all, isn’t this how it is with ALL relationships?
    It takes love to create a relationship.
    It takes two-way love to complete a relationship.
    There is no other way.
    Without love we can’t enter into meaningful relationships
    with our brother and sister earthlings,
    let alone with Divinity.
    Not until love is met with love
    can any relationship ever fully blossom.
    I am the way of love, and the truth of love, and the life of love,
    and no one comes to the father except through
    the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love.
    What’s so attractive about opening up the text in this way,
    is that it moves the text from asserting EXclusiveness
    to affirmng INclusiveness,
    Inclusive with a capital I,
    because there is no substitute.
    It takes love to make a meaningful,
    complete, whole and rewarding relationship happen.
    There is no other way.
    It’s the inclusiveness of unconditional love,
    the kind of love which knows no boundaries.
    the kind of love incarnate in the one born in a stable.
    And even more wonderfully,
    it endorses a way of LIVING,
    rather than being confined to a way of BELIEVING.
    How absolutely appropriate.
    Appropriate because
    in direct opposition to those in religious gatherings
    who draw a circle and leave so many out,
    it is clear from all that we know about Jesus,
    that he drew a circle, and left no one out.
    Furthermore, articulating the text in this way
    moves it from being fear based
    to becoming love based.
    Instead of believe, or else,
    it’s love, as I have loved.
    – – – –
    However this rewording of the text will be regarded by others,
    it is decidedly in keeping with our Methodist heritage.
    In answering the question,
    “What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist?”
    John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, answered:
    “a Methodist is one who has
    ‘the love of god shed abroad in his heart
    by the Holy Ghost given unto him;
    one who ‘loves the Lord his god with all his heart,
    and with all his soul, and with all his mind,
    and with all his strength.'”
    The Character of a Methodist in Works, Vol. 8; page 341
    Which is to say,
    John Wesley, the founder of Methodism clearly understood Jesus
    as the way of love, the truth of love and the life of love.
    and for Wesley, being a Methodist was about
    entering into a relationship with God through
    the way of love, the truth of love, and the life of love.
    And that is not only the Methodist journey,
    It’s the human journey,
    regardless of the particular faith tradition we call home.
    It’s the human journey,
    even if we don’t feel at home in any faith tradition.
    “I am the way of love, I am the truth of love, I am the life of love,
    and no one enter into the fullness of a relationship with the giver of life
    except through the way of love, the truth of love and the life of love.

  3. It is interesting to read the Methodist minister’s thoughts and remember chapel at my Methodist U. “Theism or anti-theism that is the question.” : ) Well I am not “to be or not be” but more as Gibran said I am limited by perspective and words… Personally what G-d is or is not is more to the point. If you believe in the universe you are apart of you can be pro or anti and still it would be based on faith. Personally my thoughts are that we as lice on planet earth cannot understand the expanse of live we are a small momentary part of. But, the concept of life is what we “sense” and “understand” the most. How we respect that “life” is essential to our own well being. In that regard we are all faith based…why? because we cannot see or understand even that process much less what G-d might or might not be. Like children we create stories to create our mythologies about what we “think” G-d is or is not. Then we stand on the planet under the stars and sense our being and those things around us and feel the immense sense of life. What is it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *