Gospel & Universe
This page suggests several ways of defining agnosticism, all of which are very compatible with science, liberal humanism, and secularism.
Triangles - The Doors - Circles - More Circles - Pascal’s Sphere
Agnosticism can operate in a number of contexts, yet it fits especially well with liberal humanism, secularism, and science. Seen diagrammatically, agnosticism can be seen in terms of a triangle, with science at the base, agnosticism on one side, and something like liberal humanism on the other. One could swap liberal humanism for a different social philosophy -- such as secular democracy -- yet liberal humanism is a good example of an open social philosophy.
As the base, science refers to the attempt to understand the physical universe as it is rather than as we might imagine or want it to be. Science is the attempt to verify things objectively, whether or not that's possible.
The rising lines of agnosticism and liberal humanism reinforce each other, and meet at a point of agreement: everything is on the table for experimentation and debate.
Along the upward slopes lie a myriad of sub-triangles, each with its own reference to the physical world as it is (science), to the openness that allows for social debate and change (liberalism), and to the open attitude one can take about the ultimate meaning of it all (agnosticism).
One might see the sub-triangles in my model as different aspects of a topic, represented by the larger triangle. Or one might see them as different people with their different positions on any given topic.
I offer this geometric model with reservations, for agnostics see every clear pattern as both a metaphor and an illusion, since it will always be contingent on the only constant we know: change. T.S. Eliot puts this succinctly in his Four Quartets (1943): knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies, / For the pattern is new in every moment / And every moment is a new and shocking / Valuation of all we have been.
The black triangles exist in a universe of endless white spaces and positions all around. Inverting the colours, snow-covered mountains rise into the night sky. Beyond, the horizon is invisible, and rolls through the darkness of outer space.
Instead of a triangle, one might see agnosticism as a door or a circle. The door leads somewhere, but where? It might not be the type of door Jim Morrison sings about, where you take some drug and break on through to the other side.
Some might call agnosticism the doorway drug
to atheism and decadence
to loss of belief
and purpose out of sight
yet if people want these things
they will find that door
in earth or sky
agnosticism is the trickiest
for no sooner are you through it
than you realize it’s revolving
Your straight line
and all that purpose
has brought you back
to that world you thought you left behind
but with different eyes
Heraclitus and Buddha seem to have got it right: everything changes. Civilizations, cultures, and religions rise and fall. Or, they're like circles that shrink, expand, separate, overlap. Circumferences change, and centres shift. This doesn't mean, however, that the centres are only hypothetical, or that they're therefore weak or insubstantial. Centres exist just as compasses have points that dig into paper.
People who argue that liberals, humanists, and agnostics have no centre -- that they have no solid base from which to project their actions or arguments -- miss this point, both literally (in terms of geometry and the compass) and figuratively (in terms of what the circle analogy represents). The compass is a flexible instrument: it can make the circles smaller or larger, or it can be moved to another point, which becomes the new centre, millimetres or kilometres from the starting point.
Like liberal humanists, agnostics contend that both the mind and society have their own sets of co-ordinates. These coordinates can change or be negotiated. They can accommodate and occupy new positions.
Agnostics don’t lack a centre. They just take it with them, like a compass in their pocket.
We exist at the centre of many points:
self, family, society, world, solar system, galaxy;
points that can become circles or not.
If we want, we can insist on our own point,
telling partners and friends what is what;
telling dissenters, rednecks, communists, greens, gays,
religions, countries, entire cultures to get in line.
Or we can refuse to tell others to get in line,
refuse to draw a line between us and them,
refuse to draw lines in the sand,
or toe the line.
We can refuse to draw any lines at all.
We can circumvent lines altogether by drawing circles,
outward from the self
beyond sex and colour
beyond colour and politics
beyond national will wider and wider
circles beyond our water supply and factories
beyond our GDP and national interest
beyond even our deepest allegiances
to friends, family, religion, language, culture
circles beyond our own definitions
circles, endless circles
round as the turning world.
In his Thoughts or Pensées, written in 1670, Blaise Pascal writes that the infinity of Nature is like a sphere whose centre's everywhere and whose circumference is no where. He adds that Nature thus intimates God and that we lose ourselves in contemplating the sublime connection between the two. [La Nature est] une sphère dont le centre est partout, la circonférence nulle part. Enfin, c'est le plus grand caractère sensible de la toute puissance de Dieu, que notre imagination se perde dans cette pensée. I'd add that this omnipresent point and this non-existent circumference is closer to the human condition than geometry or astronomy leads us to believe. We may be limited by our senses and our thoughts, but we're constantly evolving ways to move and think further. It may even be that what gets us closer to God is obliterating these barriers as much as possible. Of course, we want to live in the real world -- interact with our friends and family, earn a living, etc. -- yet we can also live with an open mind, with a sense of unlimited possibilities, with a connection that breaks down the barriers that separate us from other people and the natural world.
This mode of thinking isn't of course new; it's at the core of critical thinking, free-thinking, and liberal-humanist thought. It allows us to feel at ease with the great questions of history and geography, of changing Ages and clashing values. It's what allows us to confront the angst of uncertainty and accept the flow of time and space. For culture and meaning move their centres all the time. They aren’t set in stone -- unlike Hammurabi's 18th Century BC code that can be found in the Louvre:
The sanctification of the Ten Commandments (from Exodus 20: 1-17 and Deuteronomy 5: 4-21) is perhaps the best example of setting points in stone and refusing to acknowledge the circles around them. Despite the fact that no early version of these commandments is on display in any museum, these commandments are set in stone in many people’s minds. Many people believe that they were given to Moses straight from God on top of Mount Sinai. Many people also believe that they're both original and absolute -- as if general concepts of law, and particular legal details such as an eye for an eye had nothing to do with Hammurabi's code or Babylonian law. Not to mention that Hammurabi's Babylonian code was predated by the Akkadian Laws of Eshnunna (20th century BC) and the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (21st century BC):
Not to mention other borrowings -- such as the specific details of the Noah's Ark story found in the Sumerian tale of Ziusudra (who is known as Atrahasis in the Akkadian version and Utnapishtim in the Babylonian version), the earliest surviving record of which can be found in the Eridu Genesis from the 17th century BC. For Christians who want to keep dogma or fixed belief -- in stone tablets etched by God on Mount Sinai, or in a man called Noah -- there are many things that it becomes helpful not to mention. Agnostics, on the other hand, aren’t in the business of not mentioning. For them, everything's on the table for debate.
Agnosticism is among the most flexible of philosophical options, since it remains open to material and spiritual possibilities. If there's a God, Christ, Mahadevi, Brahman, or Dao, and if there's an afterlife, the agnostic says, Let it come. If there's no Being or soul, the agnostic says, Let it go. Agnosticism waits on reality, not the other way around.