Agnostics Welcome

Agnostics

The beliefs we hold and our view of God seem to collide with life experiences, particularly events that cause pain. From my observations, one of the struggles we face during these times is having confidence in what we should think and feel. We ask questions like, “Is it okay for me to be questioning God?” or, “Is it okay for me to be uncertain of my faith?”

Uncertainty and doubt within belief are some of the most uncomfortable, and yet most common, issues of faith that Christians face. In his essay “The Agnostic,” the late author and preacher F.W. Boreham touches on this topic when he describes two conversations he had with fellow train passengers. During each stop the train would make, Boreham found enjoyment looking out onto the platform. He was intrigued to see who was departing from the train and who was entering. At one of the stops he was rudely interrupted by another passenger entering his compartment. The intruding passenger entered in “heavily laden with suitcase, rugs, books, papers, umbrella, overcoat, and other odds and ends.” Boreham had been taken by surprise by this as he did not see this man entering from the train platform. The man explained that the reason he was not seen on the platform was because he was already on the train and was simply now moving to another compartment.

As they rode, Boreham slowly began to recognize the man. He belonged to a church where Boreham had spoken. The man expressed to him why he wanted to move: he had been sitting next to an agnostic in another area of the train before the last stop. To make matters even more difficult for the Christian man, the agnostic had been reading The Life of Huxley, a book about the English biologist and revered agnostic of the nineteenth century, Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley actually coined the word “agnostic” to describe his own beliefs. After listening to the agnostic and noticing what he was reading, the Christian man decided to move seats during the next train stop.

Boreham listened to the man’s story and was not sure how to respond. He continued to chat with his new friend for approximately one hour. While the train was slowing down for its next stop, Boreham began to gather his luggage. His friend inquired whether this was his stop. Boreham said, “Oh no…but I’m going into the next compartment for awhile. The fact is, I have a weakness for any man who is fond of Huxley.” He added playfully, “I’m a bit of an agnostic myself!”[1]

Boreham soon finds the agnostic whom his travel companion had grumpily left. He settles into a seat near the man. He soon discovers that the agnostic did in fact deduce why the other man had left but was uncertain whether he understood what he meant by agnostic. He started to explain this to Boreham.

But, of course, when I say that I’m an agnostic, I mean that I’m an agnostic. Like Huxley, I simply do not know. I was brought up in Church and Sunday school; but I’ve been very hard hit since then. I lost my wife; then I lost my money; and I’ve just been up to town to bury my only child. Somehow, the easy-going faith of my boyhood has fallen to pieces. It wouldn’t stand the strain.[2]

The man feels confused and is looking for anyone who can relate to these feelings of uncertainty and bewilderment. He was reading Huxley because Huxley, too, had experienced loss and pain.

I Simply Don’t Know

As I ponder this story, I think that many, if not all of us, have faced or will face a similar crisis that this man experienced. The beliefs we hold and our view of God seem to collide with life experiences, particularly events that cause pain. From my observations, one of the struggles we face during these times is having confidence in what we should think and feel. We ask questions like, “Is it okay for me to be questioning God?” Or, “Is it okay for me to be uncertain of my faith?” As believers, we tend to feel a strange discomfort and consternation when uncertainty becomes a lingering feeling in our faith.

The agnostic explains to Boreham that even though the word “agnostic” might be fraught with deeply negative feelings, the man is only saying that he does not know! For the person who believes in God or for the unbeliever who simply does not know, there is great encouragement to be taken from the Bible, particularly in how God, in Jesus Christ, relates to agnostics.

Jesus was always interacting with those who were not sure of him. In fact, he actually enjoyed engaging with those who doubted God. After hearing about Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a man named Nathanael quips, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Nathanael was questioning—and in one sense—rejecting Jesus simply on the basis of where he was from. Nazareth was a small town of no more than 2,000 people. Soon after Nathanael makes these comments, Jesus speaks to Nathanael and reveals something of who he is. In this case, the key point to understand is not only what Jesus did in showing who he was, but the fact that he engaged with Nathanael in conversation despite Nathanael’s skepticism.[3] The skeptical lens through which Nathanael viewed Jesus did not provide a deterrent for Jesus to befriend him.

The Gospel accounts tell many stories in which Jesus’s closest friends doubted him and simply did not understand who he was even when he did extraordinary things. One instance is the story of Jesus calming a storm. Matthew 8:23-27 tells us that Jesus was with his disciples on the sea. While on the water, they encounter a tempestuous storm. The weather conditions were so severe that they did not think they would live through the event. And to make matters worse for these disciples, Jesus was sleeping through it all! The disciples wake him up. Jesus promptly calms the wind and the waves.

After having their lives saved by Jesus, the disciples talk amongst themselves saying, “Who is this man?” Jesus responds, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” The English term “little faith” is translated from the Greek term for “ineffective,” “defective,” or “deficient” faith. In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples that they do not really know who he is; in fact, they had a “deficient” knowledge of who he was. He instructs them to find out who he is.

Just by observing Jesus’s inner circle of friends, we see that agnostics are welcome in Christianity. Jesus did not simply invite people who understood who he was. When he invited people to follow him, many began a journey that would slowly reveal how little they actually knew about him and who God really was.

There is something beautiful about the way in which Jesus Christ interacts with agnostics. He does not condemn their state of belief or lack thereof. He simply invites them to continue on their journey. He says essentially, “Come a little further and find out who I am.” One of the remarkable points of the Christian faith is that discovering who God is does not depend upon our intellectual ability or our emotional strength and stamina. God has actually come to us. The many stories of Jesus in the Gospels show us myriad examples of Jesus initiating the conversation.

Yes, the invitation is for us to continue asking questions and seeking God, but while we do that, we have the assurance that He has pursued us first. The implicit message that Jesus gave to the crowds, his friends, and followers in first-century Palestine is the same message he gives to us today: “Agnostics Welcome.”

Nathan Betts is a graduate of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and a member of the speaking team at RZIM Canada.

[1] “The Agnostic” in F.W. Boreham, When the Swans Fly High, available online at https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?id=121475236386&story_fbid=10151536213416387 (accessed on July 7, 2014).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See John 1:43-51.

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