Van Harvey says it is possible to live meaningfully without a higher purpose.
“Or again we could say that the man is fulfilling the purpose of existence who no longer needs to have any purpose except to live. That is to say, who is content.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks.
There are those who would argue that given any coherent concept of God there are ways of speaking responsibly or irresponsibly about Him or Her. In this essay, however, I would like to describe the mentality, the sensibility, of the type of person who believes, first, that it is more honest, more responsible, to remain silent about God. Such a person does not claim that it is irresponsible for others to talk about their beliefs about God, but for this person, at least, it is best not to pretend to know more than one knows.
I have tried to find some name I could give this kind of person, some easily identifiable rubric that would enable me to refer conveniently to him or her. But alas, I never really found a name with which I was satisfied. And so, for lack of anything better, I decided to use a good old common name. Such a person as I wish to describe is a ‘theological agnostic’. Now an agnostic, technically speaking, is not someone who denies the existence of God but someone who simply does not claim to know. Moreover, there are various kinds of agnostics; and the one I wish to describe in this essay differs in important respects from those with whom we are most often acquainted. This agnostic acknowledges that the human animal desperately wants – perhaps needs – some sense of an overarching order, a reality that in some sense undergirds and supports the best impulses in human life, the impulses of love, reason, and justice. He accepts that religious beliefs reflect this deep and most profound of human wishes. But for this agnostic, there is no necessary relation between what human beings devoutly wish and what is, in fact, the case. He believes that the universe is mysterious and inscrutable, and although we may say that it is not inhospitable to the human species – which, after all, has survived for millions of years – this same universe seems utterly indifferent to the individual. Because the theological agnostic believes this, for reasons I will speak about below, he or she believes it more honest and responsible to remain silent about the gods, to live with the mystery and the indifference of it all. The agnostic lives ‘without appeal’, so to speak, by acknowledging the incommensurability between what we desperately wish was true and what the universe permits us to know is true. The agnostic is one who lives without transcendence.
Because this agnostic position I am sketching for you is unpopular, I think I owe it to you to describe it in greater detail; not in order to convince you that it is the only rational position, but so that you can see, at least, why it is itself a moral position. Like any position, the one I am going to describe is complex, and I will scarcely be able to do it justice in the short period of time I have here. By complex, I mean that it contains a number of assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes that are interrelated and make up a way of looking at the world. It is a point of view – in this sense, what the Germans call a Weltanschauung.
There are two elements in this point of view that I think it is especially important to describe. The first element is what I will call cognitive or epistemological because it has to do with knowledge, evidence, and belief. The second element is what I can only call – hoping not to be misunderstood – existential. It has to do with the agnostic’s basic attitudes towards suffering and death, love and loneliness, lucidity and blindness, faith and unbelief.
First, let me say something about what I have called the cognitive or epistemological element in the agnostic’s position. It is important that I say something about this because it differentiates my agnostic from the kind one normally runs into in intellectual circles. Most agnosticism rests on the position that we only ought to believe those things for which we have evidence and proof; and just because there is no evidence for the existence of God, it concludes that we ought not to believe in God. One of the most aggressive and interesting statements of this kind of agnosticism was by an English Victorian thinker named W.K. Clifford (1845-79). In an essay entitled ‘The Ethics of Belief,’ he argued that it is immoral anywhere and everywhere to believe anything on insufficient evidence. He thought it was immoral because he believed that civilization itself depends upon the habit of only forming justified beliefs and he also believed that intellectuals – what Victorians called ‘the clerisy’ – had a special responsibility for the health of civilization (see The Ethics of Belief and Other Essays with intro by Timothy J. Madigan, Prometheus, 1999, pp.70-96). He argued that no belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant because it prepares us to receive more of those like it. One might say our beliefs are a sacred trust and human responsibility. Consequently, it is the bounden duty of every person, no matter how humble, to guard the purity of his or her beliefs. If someone claimed he had no time to investigate the evidence for his beliefs, then Clifford argued that he also had no time to believe.
Now the position that I am calling theological agnosticism does not argue like that. It argues, first of all, that the ethics of belief espoused by Clifford is an impossible one. No one does or could arrive at all of his or her beliefs by patient investigation and testing. Most of us get our beliefs by inheriting a picture of the world from our families and our schools – through education and science. We are taught to classify our experience in certain ways, to accept certain ways of reasoning as valid and others as invalid, to accept certain propositions as indubitable and others as suspect. No one has the time to patiently test all his or her beliefs. We are not dragged kicking and screaming out of skepticism into belief. Rather, we acquire a loosely connected network of propositions in which the consequences and premises seem mutually supporting. As we go through life we continually add to and correct this nest of propositions. It is only against this background of beliefs that we are able to doubt. Doubt occurs when we are told or experience something that does not seem compatible with what we already believe. One might say that we begin by believing things, and that we have to acquire grounds for doubting. This is a very different theory of belief than that proposed by W.K. Clifford.
There is a second important feature that differentiates my agnostic’s position from the kind of agnosticism represented by Clifford. Clifford believed that the propositions we arrive at by patient testing are indubitable because they rest on solid foundations of knowledge. But the type of agnostic being described here does not believe there are rock-firm foundations that enable us to justify much of what we accept as knowledge. Our agnostic does not go as far as Nietzsche and argue that what we call truth is “only the posture of various errors in relation to one another,” but he does agree with a number of modern philosophers – Martin Heidegger, Donald Davidson, Willard Quine, Nicolas Rescher, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, and, above all, Ludwig Wittgenstein – that there are no good arguments to justify the philosophical faith that the mind is in touch with some intrinsic structures of being, as classical philosophy from Plato to Hegel assumed.
These modern critical philosophers do not believe that we are able to apprehend some natural law or logos that informs both human and divine being. For the most part, they have rejected the notion that truth is the correspondence of the mind with reality. Rather, they believe that all knowledge is, in its own way, ‘anthropomorphic,’ which is to say made possible by constructed categories and rules of thinking that have proved useful for certain purposes over time. What we call knowledge is what we have found to serve our various anthropic interests. It does not describe some ‘essential being’ or ‘ultimate reality.’
This awareness of the fallibility and groundlessness of our knowledge and moral judgments means that the modern agnostic is miles away from the old village atheist and agnostic like Clifford. Clifford did not believe in God because he needed proof and evidence such as science provided him. The new agnostic disbelieves because he has come to realize that there are no sure foundations for knowledge and ethics at all; that if history yields any conclusion it is that the human search for ultimate truth is unfulfilled, and perhaps unfulfillable; that the universe may not be rational in the way that we would like it to be; that it does not yield up its secrets to metaphysical reason.
When one looks at the human situation this way, then the agnostic does not find it surprising that human beings have cast up such a variety of religious and metaphysical systems. What these diverse religious and metaphysical systems express is the human attempt to anthropomorphize, to humanize, the vast and mysterious Universe in which we exist. Religions represent the deepest wish of the human heart to believe that the world is not ultimately indifferent to the aspirations and hopes of humankind, that our individual lives can find some support in the larger pattern of things, that the Universe is, so to speak, friendly; or, as the religious person says, “underneath are the everlasting arms.” We find it intolerably lonely and anxiety-producing to believe that we are here for no larger purpose, that we live for no more than “three-score years and ten” and are then cast into the oven like grass. Our hearts long for some recognition by an Other, some affirmation that we are accepted and affirmed, even loved. And this deep heartfelt wish finds its parallel expression in our minds and intelligence. We want to think with Plato and Hegel that the pattern of our finite reason is congruent with some deeper infinite Reason, that the finite logos participates in some eternal Logos which is the ground of all that is.
But the problem is not that there is no evidence for religious and metaphysical beliefs; the problem is that there are so many diverse religious and metaphysical beliefs that conflict with one another in fundamental ways. What Buddhism says about the world cannot be reconciled with what Islam says; and what Christianity says about the world cannot be reconciled with what Hinduism says. The problem with metaphysics is not simply that its utterances cannot be proved; it is that there are so many metaphysical systems, all of which claim to be based on reason that we become legitimately suspicious of all of them. Our problem is not how to speak responsibly about God but that we cannot find any agreement about what would constitute responsibility. Confronted with this diversity of religious beliefs, one conclusion to be drawn is not that one of them must be true but that none of them are, that the human mind is driven inexorably to postulate some ultimate and final truth about the ways things are; that the mind wants absoluteness, finality, and closure; that it has an ineluctable nostalgia for unity.
There are two ways one can proceed from this view that the human heart wants recognition and the human reason seeks finality, unity, and order. One is to say that if the reason needs unity and order, then we have a right to believe in that unity and order. If in order to make sense out of science we have to postulate a divine intelligence, then we have a right to believe there is a divine intelligence. And if, in order to make sense out of our moral obligation, we need to presuppose a divine judge, then, argued Kant, we have a right to believe in God and a life after death. We have a right to believe in what our rational needs cast up.
Camus and the Non-Absolute
But it is also possible to proceed in a quite different direction from the one that Kant took. It is also possible to argue with Nietzsche that what human beings think they need intellectually does not dictate what, in fact, is the case. We may deeply need god and a cosmic order, but the world may not necessarily answer to our psychological and intellectual needs. One might say with Albert Camus that the absurdity of human life consists precisely in this: that we want an absolute truth but there is none. We desperately strain our ears to hear a divine word, but the world is mute and silent. The absurd is just this mismatch between our need to make the Universe intelligible and its unintelligibility. Camus wrote:
“This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational…[ity]…and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment it is all that links them together. It binds them one to the other as only hatred can weld two creatures together. This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.”
A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, Knopf, 1955 p.21
I have always had a deep admiration for the writings of Camus. He was not your ordinary garden-variety village atheist who poured scorn on religion, who considered it to be merely superstition. He realized that he, too, like all human beings had the nostalgia for unity, for some ‘everlasting arms,’ but he thought it was more honest for him not to succumb to this nostalgia. He believed it was better to grasp the absurd by trying to live as lucidly as possible. He meant by lucidity, as one writer puts it:
“looking at one’s experience in the clear light of day, viewing one’s situation in the world with the naked clarity that the pitiless Mediterranean sun bestows on everything it touches. It means keeping one’s mind as unclouded as possible by those varied ‘nostalgic’ desires with which we ordinarily mitigate and soften the colors of the world.”
James Woelfel, Camus: A Theological Perspective,Abingdon, 1975, p.57.
To live lucidly means to remain as true to one’s own experience as possible, to accept the world in its ugliness and terror as well as its beauty and goodness. He thought it was better to acknowledge one’s solidarity with others but without appealing to a supernatural sanction for this solidarity. One tries to relieve suffering but without claiming one is on God’s side; or, better, that God is on one’s own side. One revolts against everything that crushes the human spirit but does not pretend that one is on the side of history. These were the things Camus believed in. He did not want to pretend to know more than he did know. He prized lucidity rather than faith.
So far, I have described only one element in the worldview of my modern agnostic – what I called the cognitive or the epistemological element. But I said there was a second and more profound element in this agnosticism, something more passionate and more emotional. At the risk of being misunderstood, I might have called it ‘existential,’ because it has to do with those elements in experience that confront us all and that often defeat us but about which we have to decide what they mean for us. But this more existential element is not unrelated to the cognitive element, because when Camus wrote that he wanted to be as true to human experience as possible, he was referring to the incredible suffering that has been and is present everywhere in the world. It wasn’t that he did not believe in God because he felt he lacked evidence; rather, he did not believe in God because he could not reconcile the Christian God with the obscene suffering of children and innocents. He could not believe in a God of whom it was said that not a sparrow falls to the ground without his will but who was silent when SS men hung two Jewish men and a boy before the assembled prisoners in Auschwitz. The two men died quickly if not mercifully but the death struggle of the little boy lasted half an hour. Like the prisoners in this report by Elie Wiesel, the agnostic asks “Where is God now?” Like Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, the agnostic argues that it is not the suffering of adults about which he complains – after all, we adults have, as it were, bitten of the apple – but the suffering of innocent children. “If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.” Tell me, Aloysha, Ivan finally asks his priestly brother, if you were creator, and the creation of the world required the suffering of one little child, would you create the world? And Aloysha answers that he does not think he would. Ivan, the atheist, then tells him that he, the priest, is on his side. Ivan says that he does not deny the existence of God, he just says that he respectfully returns his entrance ticket.
This aspect of Camus’ agnosticism comes out most strongly in his powerful novel, The Plague. On the surface, the book is about a plague that strikes the Algerian city of Oran in the late Forties – a plague that kills horribly and strikes terror in the hearts of all of its citizens. The plague forces the government to put the city into quarantine and to isolate it from the outside world. On another level, some have seen the book as an allegory of France during Nazi occupation. But at a still deeper level, the book is a parable about the human condition. The plague, as one interpreter has noted, symbolizes all the evil that afflicts humankind, and the various characters in it represent the various types of responses to that human suffering. “ The Plague embraces human love and loneliness, solidarity and alienation, courage and cowardice, lucidity and blindness, concern and indifference, faith and unbelief” wrote James Woelfel in Camus: A Theological Perspective.
There are two central figures in the novel: a Jesuit priest, Father Paneloux, and a medical doctor named Rieux, and it is around the attitudes of these two figures toward suffering and death that the novel revolves. When the plague is in its early stages, the Jesuit priest preaches a sermon in the cathedral. He argues that the plague is God’s scourge of the citizens; it is God’s way of shocking materialistic and superficial persons into thinking about the important issues of life. In that sense the plague can be interpreted as the occasion for repentance and salvation. It opens the eyes of human beings to the seriousness of life. Dr Rieux, by contrast, does not believe in an omnipotent god; otherwise, he says, he would leave the curing of the sick to him. He has decided to “fight creation as I find it.” He asks, “Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward heaven where He sits in silence?”
One day, both Dr Rieux and Father Paneloux are called to the bedside of a small child who is in the last horrible death throes of the plague:
“And just then the boy had a sudden spasm, as if something had bitten him in the stomach, and uttered a long shrill wail. For moments that seemed endless he stayed in a queer, contorted position, his body wracked by convulsive tremors; it was as if his frail frame were bending before the fierce breath of the plague… for the third time the fiery wave broke on him, lifting him a little… A moment later, after tossing his head wildly to and fro, he flung off the blanket. From between the inflamed eyelids big tears welled up and trickled down the sunken, leaden-hued cheeks… the flesh had wasted to the bone, the child lay flat, racked on the tumbled bed, in a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.”
The death of the child deeply disturbed Father Paneloux, because he could no longer claim that the plague came to the innocent child in order to awaken it to repentance. And so his next sermon was quite a different one. This time he argued that it is just such senseless suffering of children that forces the Christian to the supreme issue, the essential choice – whether to accept this suffering as the will of God and to affirm it as one’s own will. We must learn to love what we cannot understand.
Dr Rieux cannot accept this. He says to the priest, “No, Father, I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme in which children are put to torture.” And so, Rieux chooses not faith but ‘lucidity,’ a lucidity that admits and loves the fragile goodness and beauty that are everywhere present in life but that refuses to see its evils as serving some larger justice and goodness. Rieux loves life and creation, but he also rebels against its injustice and its terrors. He refuses to accept a God whose justice is founded upon the suffering of the innocent.
This, then, is what one must contemplate in relation to the question, “What does it mean to speak responsibly about God?” It is another possibility, the possibility of not speaking, of living as far as possible in the knowledge of not knowing, of living without justification and without appeal, of choosing to live without transcendence.
© Prof. Van A. Harvey 2013
Van Harvey is George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus) at Stanford University.