Gospel & Universe

Secrets and Mysteries

This page stresses agnostic doubt -- not just in the face of religion, but also in the face of those who dismiss it.

Huxley - The Learned Astronomer - The Secret


In arriving at the term agnosticism Huxley came to terms with diverse philosophies:

When I reached intellectual maturity and began to ask myself whether I was an atheist, a theist, or a pantheist; a materialist or an idealist; Christian or a freethinker; I found that the more I learned and reflected, the less ready was the answer; until, at last, I came to the conclusion that I had neither art nor part with any of these denominations, except the last. The one thing in which most of these good people were agreed was the one thing in which I differed from them. They were quite sure they had attained a certain "gnosis" -- had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. [...] So I took thought, and invented what I conceived to be the appropriate title of "agnostic". It came into my head as suggestively antithetic to the "gnostic" of Church [historians], who professed to know so much about the very things of which I was ignorant. (Collected Essays, Vol. 5, 1893)

People often refer to two types of agnostics, one being hard, strong, closed, or permanent, and the other being soft, weak, open, or temporary. I'd suggest adding universal and personal to the two lists.

Universal agnostics believe that humans are universally — that is, everyone, everywhere — incapable of knowing the truth about the existence or the non-existence of a spiritual world. Universal agnostics also believe that humans are incapable of knowing any Greater Truth or Divine Scheme. In his 1953 essay "What Is an Agnostic?" Bertrand Russell says that an agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time. 

Personal agnostics have more or less the same belief in regard to themselves, personally, yet when it comes to everyone else, they aren't sure about what other people know or don't know. 

Both types of agnostic don't claim any sort of secret knowledge or gnosis. They don't claim to be anywhere near solving the problems of existence, to use Huxley's words. They also have a deep and abiding doubt regarding the grand pronouncements of others, including revered figures such as Moses or Jesus.

Yet personal agnostics doubt in an even wider way: they also doubt the universality of their own doubt. They doubt so deeply, and with such paradoxical (perhaps self-destructive) conviction, that they hold the door open to the possibility that others may have found a truth that's escaped them. How can they know for sure what others have experienced? They doubt that others have found such a Truth, yet they don't rule it out completely. As Huxley puts it, theists and atheists were quite sure they had attained a certain gnosis -- had, more or less successfully, solved the problem of existence; while I was quite sure I had not, and had a pretty strong conviction that the problem was insoluble. 

There are two reasons that this distinction between agnostics may be less rigid than it appears.

First, while the universal agnostic may lean toward atheism and the personal agnostic may lean toward mysticism and spirituality, both do their leaning within the realm of doubt. They may suspect there is or isn't a God, yet these remain suspicions; they don't become beliefs. If they were urged to say they believe in something, they would respond that they don't believe in the concept of belief. Or, they might put it paradoxically and say that they believe in doubt.

Second, the universal and personal types can fluctuate in one individual; they can behave like moods. If we're feeling rational -- impartial and judge-like -- we keep an open mind to the possibility that others may have found a truth that escapes us. Yet under this openness lies the human condition: we believe that the world is the way our senses, upbringing, education, and temperament suggest it to be. Agnostics are skeptical of metaphysical claims because they operate on the basic assumption that we are all endowed with more or less the same neurological and psychological capabilities. While we're all unique in many ways, we're fundamentally similar in many more ways. Is it likely that some people are privy to -- or wired for -- some occult Truth that others can't access?

Agnostics at moments may apply the personal standard, yet they're more often in the universal state. Here the terms temporary and permanent are very helpful, for one can temporarily think outside one's self, yet the human condition is such that agnostics are more permanently affected by their physiological and psychological status as equal human beings. As a result, they're more permanently in states where they doubt that anyone, themselves included, has the ultimate answer. If pushed to confess some sort of solid belief, most agnostics would confess that they believe no one has found the secret to existence.


The Learned Astronomer

Yet there are moments, call them whatever one will (Romantic, Transcendentalist, mystic, etc.) when some agnostics feel like Walt Whitman in his famous short poem, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer," written in 1865:

When I heard the learned astronomer;  
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;  
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;  
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,  
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;          
Till rising and gliding out, I wandered off by myself,  
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,  
Looked up in perfect silence at the stars.  


Like Walt Whitman, most of us have heard the learned astronomer, and many of us have had the urge to leave the lecture hall and look up into the skies.

There's something so beautiful, so unbelievable, about this life:

the stretch of black space studded with tiny lights

more powerful than a billion suns,

the cool wind through the pine trees,

the nightingale's song,

the beauty of a Grecian urn that teases us out of thought,

the fabric of the molecules giving strength to the finger

that lifts into the electric air and points to the floating moon.

It seems so unbelievable that the scientific explanation explains it all that we imagine there must be some further (not contrary), deeper, more poetical explanation for how it all holds together,

and for the wonder

of wondering at it all.

And then we shift back to the more permanent state, where the renunciation of poetical proofs is an instinct grounded in the life of facts. As Keats put it in "Ode to a Nightingale," the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is famed to, deceiving elf. We realize that we might want things to hold together miraculously, yet we understand that this is what we want, not what's necessarily so. It may or may not hold together, and it isn't necessarily miraculous.

There may be a secret somewhere, but agnostics are sure they don't possess it. They're also pretty sure that others don't either. 

The Secret

They've all found The Secret

the Truth, in the Light, on the Way, only through Him

or they've found Buddha or Brahman

or Tao, that other Way.

Or they've found the scientific method, magic decoder ring

of riddles past and revelations to come.

Or they've found politics

with its flame-thrower on the opium field of dreams

or aestheticism: All Arts All for the Sake of Art

leaving politics to the grubby likes of Sartre.

They've all found the Secret

except the agnostic

for whom there is, as of yet, no secret.

Or if there's a secret, it's still a secret

and no one's telling. 

For the agnostic there are only mysteries

endlessly revealing and unrevealing

endlessly dissolving and re-emerging. 



Next: Agnostic Geometry 

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