Saturday, 7 May 2016

The Christian agnostic

His [Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand… 2 Peter 3:16

Last time, I wrote about a conversation I had had with a man who described himself as an agnostic. I mentioned that he had thanked me for admitting that there were plenty of things I didn’t understand, or wasn’t sure of.

My story seems to have stimulated some little interest. In particular, I had a message from a long-time Christian friend – as rock-solid a Christian as you could wish to find – who tells me that he too is very “agnostic” on various aspects of the Christian faith. Don’t worry, he is entirely orthodox on the basic teachings; but he frankly admits that he just doesn’t know what to think on some of the less central matters.

I was grateful for his honesty – it was refreshing. It brought to mind to the comment of Peter about his fellow-apostle Paul: his letters “contain some things that are hard to understand…” Peter goes on to say how Paul’s teachings can end up being “distorted by ignorant and unstable people”. Perhaps Peter felt that he was a bit like that himself – an impulsive and uneducated Galilean fisherman, in comparison with the learned Paul.

Whatever, Peter’s comment makes one thing clear: the Christian faith does indeed contain elements which are open to misunderstanding and which can be perplexing and even quite baffling.

And this doesn’t just apply to Paul, of course. Is there anyone out there reading this who would claim to have a full understanding of the trinity? or of predestination and free will? or of the precise process of creation? or of the mystery of prayer? or of exactly how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us from our sins? or of why God allows such appalling suffering in his creation? or of…? But I think you get the point.

It was this kind of thing that I had in mind when I admitted to my agnostic friend that the things I didn’t know far outweighed the ones I did.

Thinking like this prompts the question: How much “agnosticism” can a Christian be happy to live with? Who, exactly, is a Christian? Who “qualifies” (if I can use that word) to bear that great name?

A big question! My rough-and-ready answer would be something like this: Anyone who, first, believes in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, especially the perfect life, the atoning death, the victorious resurrection, and the final return in glory, of Jesus the son of God; and who, second, loves, trusts and seeks to obey that same Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

Any good? I think that will do for me!

Which means, of course, that there are plenty of people around who are true Christians even though they may be wrong on various issues (hey, maybe I’m even one myself…!). An ounce of true faith in Jesus weighs more than ten tons of muddled or imperfect thought. Yes?

Don’t get me wrong. Doctrine (which basically means true teaching in systematic form) matters, and we should want to get it right. But given that none of us in reality does “get it right”, not perfectly so anyway, and given that nobody ever has “got it right” over the two thousand years the church has existed, perhaps we can afford to be a little relaxed when it comes to matters of doctrinal orthodoxy or “soundness”. We might in fact find doing so quite liberating. Having all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed isn’t what it’s all about; what it is all about is loving and trusting Jesus.

Over my years as a preacher and pastor I have learned to say, quite frankly, “Sorry, I’m really not sure about that”, when asked a question which I’m – well, really not sure about. I’ll always offer to go away and do some more thinking, reading and exploring, hoping to come back with a better answer. But in the end honesty is not just the best policy; it’s more than that – it’s the morally right policy, the only policy which is honouring to God.

How much harm and damage is done by well-meaning Christians who just aren’t willing to say “Sorry, I don’t know”? – and even more by Christian block-heads who think they know everything and drive honest enquirers away by what can only be called ignorant certainty? I dare to hope that my agnostic friend was drawn a little closer to Christian faith by my honest admission, than if I had got the doctrinal tool-bag out and started putting him right on the spot.

You don’t know something? – well, say so! You will very likely be respected for doing so, and bring credit to the Christian faith.

And never forget the words of the Christian wit (G K Chesterton? – can somebody help me out?) who, when asked if he was worried by the things in the Bible he couldn’t understand, replied, “No! The things in the Bible that worry me are the things I can understand…”

Father, thank you that your servant Peter recognised the limits of his own understanding. Help me to do the same – to glory in the things I do know, but not to be embarrassed or ashamed by the rest. Amen.

(PS. Why not join me in offering a prayer for my agnostic friend “Ted”?)

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