“Active Agnosticism, or Who is this God Person Anyway?”

Date of writing : 10/03/2014

As I’ve talked about before, I’ve been looking at religion and spirituality from a number of angles in recent times. Long ago, I’d loudly proclaim myself an atheist, and announce the folly of the deluded believers. It took many hours of discussion over several years for me to reach a truce with Religion and the concept of God, and become what I regard as a true agnostic. Many years surrounded by Catholics of various levels and styles of commitment very gradually seem to have brewed into me an understanding of what the concept of God can mean to people.

For me, agnosticism isn’t simply a lack of decision; I made a positive (although gradual) choice to become agnostic. I started coming around to the idea when I got married (as it happens, in a Catholic church), and it has grown ever since. I view it partly as the acceptance of peoples’ own conceptions of God as a positive force on their lives, without judgement, without the need to question validity, and without any need whatsoever to agree or disagree. It’s an acceptance that God is not something I can argue about. To me, it doesn’t have to make any practical difference whether or not God ‘exists’, to the extent that I think the question doesn’t actually mean anything.

I’m colour-blind – deuteranopic, I believe – and this sometimes comes up in conversation when somebody points out ‘the guy in the green shirt’, or draws my attention to ‘those lovely red poppies in the field over there’. I’ve had the conversation so many times now, that I can almost watch the cogs turn in someone’s mind as they try to get their heads round what it is I actually see. Occasionally – and this has to be something I’ve heard at least twenty times by now – someone’s expression will change subtly, and they’ll start to say something like: ‘Whoa, like, have you ever wondered whether what I see as blue is, like, actually what you see as yellow or something?’, as though this were some kind of deep and profound insight into the nature of perception. What I ‘see’ is a sensory input that I’ve been taught to call ‘blue’, and to ask whether it’s the same thing you ‘see’ is (a) unanswerable, and (b) irrelevant. It’s a question that actually has the makings of a ‘koan’ – [Koan: a paradox to be meditated upon, used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining intuitive enlightenment.] – and I like to imagine that the further change in expression on peoples’ faces as they come to this realisation actually indicates a small step forward on the path to enlightenment.

Why am I telling you this? Well, the question of God’s existence or otherwise, to my definition of an agnostic, is a koan. It’s not something that can be answered, and the answer doesn’t even matter. Thinking about the question itself will give more insight than coming to an answer ever would. To understand this has been for me a liberation. I now feel free to attend religious services of any denomination without any sense of hypocrisy or discomfort. I’ve managed to let go of my prejudices about Certain Words, and through this I’ve started to see the meaning in Bible quotes without it being clouded by my preconceptions.

It’s against this background that I was given a booklet – unpromisingly titled ‘Lent : Learning to love like Jesus’ – at the Ash Wednesday Mass. Penned by a certain Fr. Séan Finnegan, this is a collection of readings, reflections, and prayers for the Lent season. Sometimes it seem serendipity has a way of catching up with me. I’m still very much coming to terms with my day in Court: the sentence, the things I heard, the things I learnt. Things I just hadn’t understood about the ways I’ve affected people. My moods are still flip-flopping as a lot of thoughts come to me: lows are interspersed with unhealthy highs. Yesterday, I was struck by Fr. Séan’s choice of an excerpt from the Psalms:

“It is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to hold sweet converse together; within God’s house we walked in fellowship.” (Psalm 55:12-14)

I am he. I have betrayed not just anyone, but those closest to me. My companion. These words are thousands of years old, but people are still the same. To see this meaning in eyes across a courtroom is very hard indeed. So much was conveyed, silently, in just a few seconds, by a face I hadn’t seen in ten months. And serendipitously the Psalm summarised a large part of it that I hadn’t yet been able to put into words, and it gave me some comfort in understanding.

It’s only in letting go of my preconceptions and prejudices that I’ve been able to find and accept truth from a number of sources I would previously have ignored or dismissed. This is my ‘active agnosticism’: my understanding that the existence or otherwise of God as an ‘entity’ is a moot point, and yet that the exploration of the concept of God – or of some power greater than ourselves, or even the idea that something within ourselves is greater than the Self – is a valid and even important pursuit.

So if I write about church services, or prayer, or meditation, or if I quote scripture of various kinds, I hope you won’t be distracted and switch off. I’m not trying to be righteous, or to preach, and I’m so far from the concept of trying to ‘convert’ anyone that you wouldn’t believe (if you’ll pardon the pun). I’m just charting my own meandering journey, and hoping that some of you might find it interesting.  Do let me know if I start to bore you.

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