Our Limited Agnosticism

William Blake once said that should a fool persist in his folly eventually that folly would turn to wisdom.

The same might be said about the agnosticism of our time. Our problem is not that we question too much but that we question too little, especially about the things of God.

In the end, we struggle religiously not because we are enlightened and courageous enough to ask the hard questions but because we are afraid to face the hardest question of all, namely, the one about God’s holiness and otherness.

n the end, we are not very open-minded at all and this constitutes our real problem in terms of believing in God. We do not have trouble believing in God because we are finally courageous enough to look reality square in the face, but for the opposite reason, we do not persist far enough in our courage and questioning.

What is implied here?

Many of us today, for all kinds of reasons, are uncomfortable with God’s holiness as Scripture defines it when it tells us that God is totally beyond our imaginations, concepts, language, and feelings: “God’s ways are not our ways.” If the Scriptures are to be believed then God can never be figured out or second-guessed. You can shake your fist at God or you can bend your knee in worship of God, but you can never understand God. Thus, at the end of the day, whether you are staring at blessing or curse, graciousness or suffering, love or hate, life or death, you can only say this of God: “Holy, Holy, Holy! … Other, Other, Other! Totally beyond anything I can say, think, imagine, or feel is God. God’s ways are not my ways!”

That notion, however, is easily lost. Like Job’s friends, we like to compare God’s ways to our ways and, on that basis, find God unacceptable. We do this in all kinds of sincere and well-intentioned ways; for example, we say things like: “If there were an allĀ¬ loving and all-powerful God, this suffering would not exist!” “God could never permit this!” “This cannot make sense!” “An all-powerful God would do something about this!”

These expressions, and the attitudes that go with them, seem enlightened, sympathetic, and courageous; certainly most people would say that of Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which says precisely those things. Religiously, however, this is problematic. Why?

Because when we think like this, in effect, we are creating God in our own image and likeness. We are using the same set of categories to understand God as to understand ourselves. By doing that we are shrinking an infinite God to fit our finite, human understanding. While that might see enlightened, courageous, and a way of making God more sympathetic to our human plight, it has devastating underside.

It eventually leads to atheism because whenever the full holiness (the otherness) of God is reduced, be it for whatever reason, we are ultimately left with an impoverished deity who is not worth believing in.

Simply put, a God whose thoughts are our thoughts and whose ways are our ways, a God who can be understood, is eventually not an object for reverence or worship. Such a God is too small, too ordinary, and too impotent to be an object of faith. Likewise such a God can neither be fully Creator nor Redeemer and will be seen as an opium for those who lack real intellectual courage. If God is no holier than the way he or she is thought-of by many people today, then Karl Marx is right. God is a projection of the human mind and mystery is simply another word for ignorance.

Small wonder we struggle with faith and belief in God – we think of understanding as faith and already know the limits of understanding! To truly believe in God, we must have a sense of awe and that is predicated on God as being conceived of as so awe-filled and holy that we want spontaneously, like Isaiah, to purge ourselves with burning coals before approaching such mystery.

Our problem is that we do not contemplate because we are convinced that there is nothing worth contemplating. We’ve already had a look and we know what’s there! And so God becomes for us not so much a holy fire as a complex equation that we have more or less understood.

Because of this we are often fixated at a certain level of agnosticism, of questioning. We wonder, seek, and courageously ask questions, up to a point – that point where God’s ways are no longer our ways, that point where understanding runs dry and faith has to take over, and that point where mystery enters and we are asked to take off our shoes before it. There we stop questioning.

But faith never demands that we stop asking hard questions. It demands the opposite, namely, that we persist in our questioning (beyond the limits set by intellectual fashion and the empiricism of our age) until our folly turns to wisdom.

By Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide

10 Responses to "Our Limited Agnosticism"

  1. Leen   June 25, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I can’t argue with people who “just have faith”, and now, I no longer have to. There’s no argument, and when they say that you just “have to believe,” I can just say “no.” That’s a relief…

  2. Shona Graham   June 25, 2013 at 5:27 am

    I don’t see God as contradictory, God is love in it’s purest form and anybody courageous enough to really live knows that to really love we have to embrace the misery, grief and loss as much as the joy and contentment it brings because we cannot love with all our heart without grieving with all our heart.

  3. Glenn   June 24, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    You can tell when you have made (a) God in your own image when he agrees with you and loves what you love and hates what you hate.

    • Anne Foster Angelou   June 24, 2013 at 7:38 pm


  4. Arthur Brash   June 24, 2013 at 9:08 am

    It’s clear that Mr. Rolheiser doesn’t follow his own logic – he tells us that we cannot know much at all about The God, and yet out of the wide array of gods on offer he seems to know exactly which one to worship. His logic unravels quickly in a world where hundreds of mutually exclusive gods are believed simultaneously.

  5. cocobiskits   June 24, 2013 at 3:28 am

    I think, actually, the article states that we ought to use our reason in discovering God even in a limited way.

  6. tuner38   June 23, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    When you question fundamentals you invariably question the source of beliefs. That said, the question for religionists to seek an answer to is,” how can there be a being that exists that has contradictory properties?” This question is taboo for the faith burdened.

  7. Robin Artisson   June 23, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    If what Father Rolheiser says is true, that “God” is beyond our thinking, understanding, and everything else conceivable, then why are so many people- including (I presume) Father Rolheiser so eager to say that they know what “God” wants, how “God” wants people to live, what makes “God” angry, and how “God” will be separating out the sheep from the goats one day, after the world has ended?

    This is a contradiction I certainly see every day- people who are fascinated by the extreme mystery of “Otherness” of their “God” on the one hand (though they clearly don’t see how such a dehumanized, inhuman, abstract belief has a very dehumanizing, deleterious effect on people who believe in it) and their equally-as-strong obsession with thinking and preaching that they know precisely what God’s plan was, what his plan is, and how humans are supposed to live to make God happy.

    It strikes me as too convenient, that monotheists of this kind can evade the responsibility they have to make a moral and rational account for a divine concept that they want everyone to believe in by simply saying “His ways are not our ways”- and then, from the other side of their mouths, they want people to accept that they have some divine authority to tell everyone how to live in accord with God’s will, and how to achieve eternal life, and all else.

    This is not a contradiction that I think can be overcome easily. The last thing such people ever say to me is “Well, I just have faith”- “faith” that even though their core beliefs make no sense (because they are based on a being that transcends sense), their beliefs are still somehow correct in eternity, beyond human considerations. They can’t rationalize why their beliefs might be correct, they are just sure that they are. And when people question them, they dismiss those questions by saying “His ways are not our ways” and “you have to have faith.”

    This is not me making any “God” in my image, nor am I dragging “God” down to my human standards. I am asking how other humans can maintain such contradictions in their own minds. The answer, which few have the courage to give, is that these contradictions can only thrive when people are told not to use their minds with regard to a supreme divine concept like God, as Father Rolheiser has instructed people to do here in his article.

  8. Anne Foster Angelou   June 23, 2013 at 9:50 am

    Gnostic means one who knows; agnostic (different than a Gnostic) means one who does not know. It’s a Greek word. My husband is a native born Greek. My comment is off the top of my head (not directly from the dictionary).

  9. Tery Tucker   June 23, 2013 at 5:06 am

    I thought it was Gnostic….as in “I am a Gnostic.”

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