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August 8, 2013

The Elegant Agnostic

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“A deep sense of religion (is) compatible with the entire absence of theology.” So is Thomas Henry Huxley quoted in the Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol 2, and all over the Internet but no one seems to have any source other than “a letter.” A great statement like that is, in my opinion, free for the co-opting. It was my first intimation that I was going to like Huxley who was ranked by my mother with infidels and immorals like Darwin, Freud, and Jackie Kennedy.

Huxley coined the word “agnostic.” In his essay Agnosticism and Christianity he says, “I do not very much care to speak of anything as ‘unknowable.’ What I am sure about is that there are many topics about which I know nothing; and which, so far as I can see, are out of reach of my faculties. But whether these things are knowable by anyone else is exactly one of these matters which is beyond my knowledge. . . I am quite sure that the region of uncertainty—the nebulous country in which words play the part of realities—is far more extensive than I could wish. . .the doctrine of the soul and its mortality or immortality—appear in the history of philosophy like the shades of Scandinavian heroes, eternally slaying one another and eternally coming to life again. . .”

Huxley calls Theology a science, I suppose because theologians set out a case for their conclusions. Ecclesiasticism/Clericalism he calls the “championship of a foregone conclusion.” Since we don’t use the latter words much today I will take the liberty putting their ideas—as propounded by Huxley– in the mouths of the Fundamentalists. The Fundamentalist asserts “it is morally wrong not to believe certain propositions. . .for him, the attainment of faith, not the ascertainment of truth, is the highest aim of mental life.” Huxley found that the nature of the Fundamentalist faith is too often found to be “not the mystic process of unity with the Divine. . .but that which the candid simplicity of a Sunday scholar once defined it to be.”

Really, this could have been written today. With misspellings, poor grammar and a smattering of “fucks,” it could be half of a Facebook conversation. Here’s an exchange I got into beginning with a macho character announcing that “Jesus only called men to the priest hood, women will never be priests. . . get over that.” I opined that Jesus didn’t call men or women to the priesthood in the sense that the commentator was using the term, get over that:

“Do you really think Jesus called men to dress in stupid costumes, parade around wealthy palaces, ignoring the concerns of everyone who wasn’t one of them? Jesus would be appalled at what is now called Christianity. He was a mystic. Mystics do not found religions or call anyone to anything. They live their vision. It’s the idiots who come later and who don’t understand anything except what is in concrete. They take the spiritual and make cement out of it.”

That’s me talking in case you don’t recognize the voice. My friend Chris, the unclassifiable says I am not political. My Aunt Frances used to just call me blunt. Thomas Henry Huxley was so elegant. Sigh. He came into his own politically when he decimated an opponent at a debate of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860. Sixty five years before the Scopes trial, the subject was Darwin’s theories.

Back to Facebook: Someone else– I’ll call him the Admiral– came into the conversation. “Jesus said He will build His church. Jesus is God the Son,” he said with the candid simplicity of a Sunday School teacher.

I replied, “The kinds of arguments I am hearing take a simplistic, unimaginative view of what it means to “build” something that is essentially spiritual. It is entirely possible that Jesus “called” men because they needed to be called. The women were already right there in tune with him. Jesus’ mind was essentially a feminine mind.” (This is my new favorite idea, that Jesus was a woman in a male body)

The Admiral turned out to be a more reflective than many: “I’m not sure what makes you think He has a feminine mind. . . I really don’t know why you think what you do. Jesus performed miracles, spoke with authority. . .”

It was the beginning of a decent conversation and I would have liked to understand the origins of his beliefs because I think that’s the only civilized thing to do: try to understand our different subjectivities. Sadly the Admiral appears to have tired of me. I don’t have the sense that the he would say “it is morally wrong not to believe certain propositions.” But he gives indications that “for him, the attainment of faith, not the ascertainment of truth, is the highest aim of mental life.”

I split the difference between truth and faith. I’m not fond of religious labels from that “nebulous country in which words play the part of realities.” I have spiritual experiences. I have a relationship with the Divine. I live my life according to thoughts and images that resonate within me no matter where I find them. And this brings me full circle to the quotation of Huxley’s: “A deep sense of religion (is) compatible with the entire absence of theology.”

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