When I was a new Christian there were a lot of things I desperately wanted to know the answer to. And I thought that if I read lots of Christian books and listened to lots of sermons and talks, I’d get to the answers.
At first I imagined this was going to be possible. The books and talks did mostly try to give answers, and initially they seemed pretty plausible, convincing and well-argued. But I wasn’t always fully satisfied with those answers; they didn’t always quite ring true, or quite fill the gap I hoped they would.
And of course the more I read and listened, the more I found that different Christians believed different things, sometimes almost entirely opposite things, and all apparently for very good reasons. There didn’t seem to be the single set of definite, right answers I craved. Each group had its own orthodoxy, which it could defend rigorously, rationally and biblically (though some more convincingly than others).
Of course I turned to the Bible itself in search of the answers, but still they eluded me. The more I read the Bible, the less it seemed to present a single, clear voice on any of these issues; rather it offered multiple perspectives and nuances, and often couched in poetry or story that could be read in multiple ways.
So twenty years on I still have a list of questions about Christianity to which I’m far from certain of the answer. Here’s a selection:
- Is the Bible in any sense the inspired, inerrant or infallible Word of God? What about all the discrepancies (and even possibly errors) in the gospels?
- What are we to make of all the horrific passages in the Bible, where God appears to be a vengeful tyrant or even a genocidal monster? What are we to make of the inherent sexism and racism in much of the Old Testament?
- Are only committed and practising Christians ‘saved’; or on the contrary are all saved by Christ’s love and his sacrifice?
- What exactly does it mean to be ‘saved’? Can people lose their salvation?
- Is there such a thing as hell and if so what is it?
- Is there a real, personal devil and are there real, personal demons?
- What happened on the cross, and what does it mean? How does atonement ‘work’?
- Does God fully know the future?
- Do miracles still happen, and should Christians expect to exercise charismatic spiritual gifts (prophecy, healing, tongues etc)?
- Is it okay for Christian gay people to marry and adopt children?
- Are abortion or assisted dying ever okay? What about divorce and remarriage?
- Why is there suffering and is it ever ordained by God?
- Is the biological theory of evolution basically true and if so what (if anything) does that say about God?
- Was Jesus really born of a virgin and does it matter?
I’m not sure I’m any nearer to finding answers to most of these questions than when I first set out to follow Christ. In fact, in many cases I think I’m further from an answer; where I once had a fair degree of certainty, I now have far less. That’s not to say I don’t have reasonably informed opinions and working hypotheses on most of these questions (hence all the links above), but I’m far from sure that I’m right.
Two kinds of agnosticism
So you could call me an agnostic on many of these issues, and that would be a fair description. It seems to me though that there are two broad kinds of agnosticism.
There’s the ‘I don’t know and I don’t care’ variety – or to put it slightly differently ‘I probably won’t ever know and it doesn’t really matter anyway, so I’m not going to waste energy seeking the answer’.
And alternatively there’s the ‘I don’t know, and I may never know, but I still think it matters and I do care’.
On some of the questions I listed above, I think the ‘don’t know, don’t care’ response may be fine. It probably doesn’t really matter all that much whether God knows all the future, or whether Jesus was born of a virgin, or whether evolution is true (actually I do think these all matter a little, but not hugely.) I’m not even sure it matters all that much how the atonement works (so long as it works in some way); or whether or not the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.
However, in general I think that a ‘don’t know, do care’ attitude is the more helpful one. It’s quite probably true that we’ll never know the answers to most of these questions, and I’m not sure we actually need to know the answers. Nonetheless, I think we grow in faith and maturity by grappling and wrestling with these difficulties and uncertainties, rather than by either sweeping them under the carpet and ignoring them, or else just dismissing them as unimportant.
A positive uncertainty
Let me emphasise that I don’t think the point of this wrestling is to arrive finally at certainties; I’m pretty sure that’s not possible and I’m far from sure that it would be helpful. Rather it’s to arrive at a more mature and meaningful uncertainty; even a rich and creative uncertainty. Perhaps above all a humble, trusting and compassionate uncertainty.
Humble, because if we get to this point we have to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and we may be wrong. Humble, because then we can start to see that it’s not all about our group being right and others wrong. We don’t need to defend our position against those who disagree; rather we need to listen, and keep learning. And humble, because it forces us to acknowledge our limitations – that we probably just can’t understand many things.
Trusting, because though we don’t (and can’t) know the answers we can still hold to Christ who alone does know. Indeed, our lack of ability to find the answers throws us more fully onto Christ, moving us away from self-reliance to trust.
And compassionate, because our greatest call is not to intellectually understand but to love. Some of these questions to which I don’t have answers are hugely personally significant and pastorally sensitive for many people – people who are struggling with their sexuality, or who have had an abortion, or who fear that their loved ones may be in hell. Whatever we believe on these issues, and however certain we are, for these people’s sake we cannot afford to be glib, dismissive or judgemental.
Contemplation, not comprehension
So if there are lots of things you’re still uncertain of after years of searching, that need not be a cause for either despair or resignation. It’s simply a sign that the truth – and reality, and God – is bigger and greater and more wonderful and complex and free and itself than we’re capable of fully comprehending or even imagining.
But if we can’t fully comprehend God’s great reality, we can nonetheless contemplate it. As G.K. Chesterton put it, the rationalist tries to fit the heavens into his head, and his head splits. The poet or mystic by contrast merely tries to put his head into the heavens, contemplating the wonder and mystery rather than seeking to contain or quantify or analyse it.
It might be fair then to call me an agnostic – but it would be what Leslie Wetherhead terms a Christian Agnostic, because perhaps the one thing I am absolutely convinced of is the reality and centrality of Christ. That’s not to say I understand exactly what that means (or even consider it to be fully understandable), but nonetheless it’s of the utmost importance to me.
So I affirm that Jesus is Lord, even if I can’t say exactly how that works or explain everything that it means. And it certainly doesn’t mean (to me) that people who call themselves atheists, or Buddhists, or Muslims or whatever are necessarily wrong, or are not ‘saved’, or are bound for some kind of post-mortem come-uppance.
As Pete Rollins would say, I can’t comment on whether anyone else’s religion or religious view is wrong. But what I can say with absolute certainty is that my own religious ideas and beliefs are wrong. That’s not to say they’re completely wrong or completely useless; far from it. But they certainly aren’t completely right. And they rightly aren’t completely certain.