Faith is Enough, or what kind of (a)theist I’m not

What we want isn’t always what we need, is it? The disciples wanted Jesus to increase their faith. He told them not to worry about it. All they needed was a mustard seed’s worth. He told another parable about a foolish person who built a huge grain silo only to die the very night when it was finished.

My Indonesian teacher does a good job of tailoring the class to my interests. So now that I theoretically know all the grammar and have a decent vocab, we’re working on my ability to discuss religion intelligently. As an exercise, she gave me this graphic and asked me to explain it in Indonesian and then discuss it.

A humorous grid with "atheist/theist" on one axis and "agnostic/gnostic" on the other.

A humorous grid with “atheist/theist” on one axis and “agnostic/gnostic” on the other.

To be perfectly clear, I don’t care about any of the religious or irreligious classifications one finds on the internet (i.e. what kind of Episcopalian I am or what denomination I should join according to some internet quiz). But I find myself resisting this scheme more than most.

My teacher asked me if I thought religious people would fit the “gnostic theist” category. I surprised her by saying I would be suspicious of anybody who goes too far in that direction.

In point of fact, I know very few people who would make the claim the “gnostic theist” in the graphic makes (“I believe there is a God! And I know God exists! It makes perfect sense!”). Nor, for that matter, do I think I know many “gnostic atheists” (“I don’t believe any god exists. And I know they don’t exist. That’s just dumb!”). And yet, “agnostic theist” or “agnostic Christian” doesn’t sit right with me.

Do I believe in God? Yes. Do I know there is a God? Well, no–but kind of! Instead of saying I don’t know whether there is a God, it feels more right to say that while I have never seriously doubted the reality of God for more than a few minutes, I can easily imagine not believing in God. In fact, I have doubts about the soundness of anyone’s faith if they can’t imagine looking at the same world we live in now, and seeing it as something other than God’s creation. Or at least anyone in something like my social and cultural location, especially anyone considering being a priest/pastor/chaplain/theologian/etc. I think it’s also important to learn at least one other religion well enough that you can imagine yourself believing it. For what it’s worth, I think it’s also a good exercise for atheists to try to imagine believing. It’s good for your relationships with other people.

I think what faith means for a lot of people, myself included, is being able to imagine believing or not believing, and choosing to believe (that’s my Methodist side talking. My Lutheran/Augustinian side would emphasize that grace pushes you in one direction. And it is usually true that when it comes to this choice, the wand chooses the wizard). Pretty much by definition, having faith entails not having knowledge yet, or at least not the same kind kind of knowledge one has of, say, the geography or history of a place or the composition of a chemical. Or even of another person one loves, though that’s getting warmer.

But–and maybe this is why I resist the scheme in this graphic so much–I do think it is possible to know that God exists and what God is like. Many people have such a knowledge. True, many more think they have it, and they are dangerous. They make for fundamentalists and inquisitors. If someone actually has it, it should make them less of an asshole, not more of one.

The difference is that the real thing is the fruit of faith. Faith is always  growing into knowledge. The dangerous think that the fundamentalists and inquisitors have is a replacement for faith, not its consummation. Some people receive this consummation in this life, but most don’t. And that’s fine. You don’t need it. Strangely, faith can actually touch God. Augustine says that Jesus offers himself to the touch of our faith the way he offered himself to the touch of Thomas’ hand. Augustine goes on to say that God can’t give us what we want yet, because what we want is too little. So God stretches our capacity through desire. Whatever it is we think we want to know is actually less than God. That is, until we love God.

And that’s why I resist this gnostic/agnostic business. The sort of knowledge the men in those four frames are talking about it just irrelevant. Worrying about knowledge at all is like spending all your time and energy building that grain silo. Odds are good you’ll be dead before you actually have any need of it. We’re not supposed to ask to never be hungry again, like the crowds who wanted more of the loaves and fishes (“the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh”). We’re supposed to pray for our daily bread. It’s only by receiving God’s provisions for the day, day in and day out, that we learn what we really want and need.

The grain silo is knowledge. Our daily bread is faith. Faith is enough.