This morning, my dog and I caught God trying to sneak through the city like a man skipping Mass in search of a drink. He still filled the sky and his steps were like the echoes of an empty hallway. My dog just wagged her tail but I shouted at him: I SEE YOU, OLD AFRAID MAN! He didn’t turn, just created a dirty rabbit which he threw over-shoulder at my dog. I don’t know if my dog or the rabbit was more surprised. The rabbit dissipated using natural rabbit-magic, and when I looked, so had God. The city whispered an antiphon: Kýrie, eléison.
Sometimes when my son hugs me, I feel completely humbled and undeserving of the love he shares with me. My love for him pours out in an unstoppable and unending torrent; it is easy to love him because it is involuntary. My love for him is so consuming that I don’t have the spare neurons to expect anything back. So, when it comes back in the shape of his smile, its like getting the wind knocked out of you — it is bewildering, terrifying. So, when Christians talk about living in fear of the Lord, I imagine it’s a fear engendered by being overwhelmed by a love you don’t understand.
Love can make you humble when you receive it, but it can also make you humble when you give it. Sometimes you give, and sometimes it gets pulled from you. You cannot control it, you are overawed by it, you fear looking at your face, fear your lips, fear your hands because you’re not sure what they’ll do. Fear that the love will cause itself harm, or harm to those it is intended for, or that it might not be received at all.
But this terror nothing compared to when your love is received and then given back to you. Love is honoring someone more than yourself, it living for someone or something else, something beyond you. It’s not really surprising then, that, when the person you love also loves you, that the acknowledgement and reception of that affection is confounding. How could I, who am convinced that this person is more important to me than my own being, comprehend that they might feel a similar way about me. How could I be worthy?
That must be like standing inside a bell as it is rung. For what could sustain love better than receiving it back, amplified, from the one you give it to?
The agnostics contend that pain has evolved blindly as a means of causing us to avoid injury. There are two things that might be said about the theory: the first is that a few moments’ thought will produce half a dozen better ways of achieving the same objective (one of them is intelligence — but the more intelligent the organism, the more pain it is capable of feeling). The second is that by and large it does not work — human beings jump their motorcycles over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace; dogs chase cars.
What pain does do is act as a motivator in all sorts of less than obvious ways. It is responsible for compassion and the hot foot; it makes people who do not believe God would permit it think about God. It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was a “humble carpenter” that we feel a little surge on nausea on seeing the words yet again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a “humble carpenter,” the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table, or a chair, but a whip.
Castle of Days; Helioscope by Gene Wolfe pp 218 – 219
There isn’t a lot of difference between the root meanings of ignorant and agnostic; but there is a vast difference in their modern connotations. Ignorance is essentially the result of holding a point of view due to lack of facts or a reasonable thought process. For the most part, it is a passive situation. We are, by nature, ignorant. At some point in our development as people, we reach a place where we have a choice to remain ignorant or to educate ourselves on a given topic. Since education is always a difficult task, it’s often easier to remain ignorant, and mask that ignorance by accepting whatever position appeals most uniquely to ourselves and then sounding authoritative about it.
Agnosticism is a bit of a different beast. I can see two ways of defining agnosticism, but they both have the same result. The first angle is the result of having plenty of facts about a certain topic, but when applying reason to those facts, there is insufficient evidence to meet the standards of reason set by the mind trying to make that judgment call. The result is abstention from making a decision. The second angle is a bit broader in its application and effects. It probably shouldn’t even be called agnosticism, but I can’t think of another word that fits. It is a general principle of which any fact-gathering and subsequent decision is a specific case.
What I’m trying to say is that once someone has chosen to educate themselves, and if they do so agnostically (gathering facts but making no judgment), at some point it is possible to be agnostic about any topic on which you are ignorant. Once you’ve come to the conclusion that you’re agnostic about a few things, you can start to assume agnosticism about any topic instead of ignorance.
Here’s a specific case:
I went to the shooting range with some coworkers today. I hadn’t used a firearm in over 20 years, and throughout my life those closest to me have had ignorant views regarding firearms. Guns are bad, full stop. I could have chosen to accept that for a variety of reasons, but my knowledge didn’t meet the standard for me to make that decision. So, I remained agnostic about guns. I needed more information, so I went to the shooting range with my coworkers and learned more. I’m still agnostic right now, or rather, I still haven’t fully thought through my feelings on the matter.
By recognizing my ignorance, I was able to turn it into agnosticism. I will make no judgment until I feel that I know enough to do so.
Agnosticism is basically the stance of open-mindedness. It is capable of seeing both sides and none, is sympathetic, empathetic and the inherently most respectful position to take on a topic where one is not an expert. It is hard to be an agnostic though; especially in regards to religion. You get caught between the mystics (like myself and other believers) and the skeptics. So it goes for religion, and so it goes for any other topic.
Fidelity to your own standard of truth is hard to hold on to when you’re a big hairless monkey that like to convince and be convinced with all the other hairless monkeys in your world.
“I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?”
Hui Neng was an illiterate peasant who had experienced a sudden awakening upon hearing the Lotus Sutra recited aloud, and went to join the monastery of the Fifth Patriarch of Zen. The Patriarch recognized that Hui Neng was in the process of awakening, but rather than openly acknowledge this he assigned him to care for the pigs on the outskirts of the monastery to protect him from the academic and spiritual corruptions of the other monks.
However, one day as Hui Neng was going about his work he heard two monks nearby engaging in a classic argument about spiritual reality. They were watching the large monastery flag waving in the wind, and one monk was arguing that it was the flag that was moving, while the other argued that it was the wind that was moving. These two arguments correspond to classic spiritual viewpoints about the nature of reality, and while listening to the learned monks argue, Hui Neng could not hold back. He interrupted them and told them, “It is neither the flag that moves, nor the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves”.
The two monks were silenced, and Hui Neng went about his work tending to the pigs.
Lately I have this feeling that I liken to being inside an egg. I am inside this egg and what I do with my life paints the inside of the shell and everywhere I look things aren’t so bad, since I’ve colored every bit of space in the shell. Yet there is a feeling deep in my lizard hindbrain that this shell is so much less than I think it is; a suspicion that it is nothing more than a shell and that if I broke it my world would open wide. But I’m not strong enough or focused enough to break it at the right spot.