What Sort of Agnostic Am I, Exactly?

If I were to locate myself within a “tradition” I would say that I fall within the pessimist tradition. I think that the generally pessimistic existentialists (as loosely grouped) see it right: Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Gabriel Marcel, Camus, Sartre. I include Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Marcel in this list because they are pessimistic about our ability to arrive at knowledge apart from either a “leap” or unmediated “direct” experience. I recognize that they were religious, and in this sense conventionally “optimistic.”  Still, I think we have to start from the position of: (1) we’re fucked; and (2) now choose.

I think that the fundamental pessimism of the early and mid-20th century modernists is about right (the poetry of T.S. Eliot; the novels of Hemingway). And I think that the original MASH film of 1971 has it right: In the midst of horror, humor. I also think that this line from Woody Allen is a good summation of our actual condition with relation to the infinite:

“I don’t know how my toaster works, and you ask me whether or not God exists, and where the universe comes from!”

Now you’ll notice that some of the folks I’ve mentioned above are religious and some are not, but all of them “hit bottom” within the system that they are describing, and then make a decision of how to be in the world:

  1. Are things as bad as they seem? If your answer is yes, stop there and make your decisions from that position; or
  2. Will I, in the teeth of bleak appearances, nevertheless believe that the universe is somehow a cosmos and not a chaos?

What I don’t like—and why I don’t call myself a theist or atheist—is false confidence or a staged optimism. An honest accounting of the world as it appears must pass through both Auschwitz and the beauty of the rings of Saturn. I myself don’t know whether there’s some “telos” or “poetic justice” at the end of time, or whether all of this is just atoms and the void rustling about. And neither do you (and if you do, please share how you know this with the rest of us). But whatever the actual truth of the matter is, it is “wond’rous strange.”

I like this line (which I’m paraphrasing from memory) from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If matter came from mind, how strange a thing is that! But if mind came from matter, how much stranger still!”

And as a stranger, give it welcome.

That’s part of what agnosticism is for me: making room for the stranger.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to What Sort of Agnostic Am I, Exactly?

  1. Larry Who says:

    Hmm! Let’s see now, you include tags for religion, Christianity and Jesus. So, why would you do that? Because all of your other tags will bring one or two people to your blog – at best.

    I was once an agnostic, too. Then, I met Jesus on the bathroom floor; and it was goodbye agnosticism and hello Jesus.

    Since that day, almost twenty-four years ago, I have never, ever lost a meeting with an agnostic or an atheist, not once. Do you want to know why?

    I never argue with them.I pray and allow Jesus to do a miracle in their lives. Then, they have an experience with the Truth.

    And of course, like I had to, they must decide whether to remain an agnostic or embrace Jesus.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Larry Who:

    It’s curious that an encounter with God has led you to the conclusion that intellectual conversation about ultimate things is a form of vanity. I’d like to note that you did not address a single issue that I raised in my post. And I think that Freud might have something to say about the way you “met Jesus on the bathroom floor.”

    And your smugness and rejection of dialogue is precisely what puts thoughtful people off to religion—or at least your small-minded and narrow rendition of it.

    In short, I wish that I was as certain of anything as you apparently are of everything.

    And I don’t believe that you had an encounter with God. You’ve offered no evidence for your claim—only an assertion. I bet that more than once in a while you doubt it yourself. I mean, why wouldn’t you? You’ve apparently got no proof that you can give to yourself or others that it actually happened. You’ve probably only got the vagueries of your emotions to validate your experience. Or did Jesus literally stand before you in a vision and talk to you in an audible voice—in your bathroom? Did you have an experience akin to Abraham or the apostle Paul?


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