Agnosticism in Our Hearts
Titles intrigue and, sometimes, inspire me. Maybe it is because I have written some books and numerous articles and had to come up with titles for all of them. Some titles are merely descriptive; they tell you what the contents are. Other titles go for more of a marketing angle. They are designed to encourage you to buy the book or read the article. While this kind of title may be catchy and intriguing, you may not be altogether sure what the contents will be.
So it was that I landed on a title of a little article in an online publication I routinely read. The title reads: “Friends from seminary days gather at Redemptorist center to bury friend’s ashes.” I was immediately hooked; I had to begin reading it. Maybe some of it is because of my age. I have done countless funerals and have buried some of my own family members and friends. I have my own stories and wanted to know this story. I wonder whether in my younger, just-beginning-days whether I would have been intrigued and read the article?
The story was a good one. It talked about the gathering of a bunch of guys who had studied in a Redemptorist seminary back in the 1950s and 60s. In those days all of them would have planned on becoming priests. Who they are now is the story of a number of individual lives and, really, the story of the life of the Catholic Church in America. Some of them did continue and become ordained. Some were still priests to this day. Others were ordained but have since left the priesthood. Some got married; some left their studies before they even finished. I suspect it is not that different for Protestant seminarians from those days.
The article was a touching story of the gathering of guys (and a couple wives) to bury their friend, Richard Koeppen. Of course, I never heard of him, but that did not lessen my intrigue. Richard was one of the dropouts from the seminary. Richard was described briefly in their article. We are told “had made a small fortune as a business executive then spent it all caring for the homeless.” That is a great line describing a neat guy whom I’ll never know. The story becomes tinged with sadness when we additionally are informed Richard suffered from dementia and died penniless. But he still had friends.
That is one of my learnings from reading this. Richard had life plans. Those life plans changed, but he made the most of it. He made some money and spent it on really good a really good cause---helping fellow human beings who had much less. Actually, that is not a bad form of ministry. It may not be the priesthood, but it is ministry nevertheless. And he still had friends. There is probably a book in that idea, but I won’t write it now.
Instead I want to share another piece from the article that also intrigued me. Buried in the middle of the article is a quick story of one of Richard’s friends, a guy only called Mev. Mev is one of those who finished seminary, was ordained and is still a priest. We only know this about Mev until we hear some perspective from him. We are told Mev “reminds us early in discussions that there's at least a little agnosticism in all our hearts.” I love this coming from a priest. Stereotypically, we might think a priest has it all together. They have been taught, trained and now are tight with God. My experience suggests this is almost never the case.
I agree with Mev: there is a little agnosticism in all our hearts. Of course, it is important that I distinguish between agnosticism and atheism. I was delighted when I learned the distinction. It made life easier. Atheism contends there is no God---it denies God’s existence. Agnosticism, on the other hand, says, “I don’t know.” Or maybe, the agnostic says, “I’m not sure.”
That certainly resonates with faith, as I understand it. Faith is different than certainty. I certainly do have faith in God---that God exists and loves, etc. But I cannot prove it. I can even doubt it. In that sense I have a little agnosticism in my heart. Mev puts it well when he says, the agnostic “doesn't have certainty of either the self-proclaimed believer or the self-proclaimed atheist" about what may — or may not — happen in the great hereafter. The aspiring believer must then couple a quest for faith with that natural agnosticism.”
I like the idea of “natural agnosticism.” It allows for faith---sometimes very deep and confident faith. But it is faith. It is faith that is also humble. A little agnosticism in our hearts is a good pill of humility to take. It prevents the arrogance of the kind of faith most of us probably don’t really like. Faith without humility can create a religious bully. No one wants to deal with this kind of character.
I do not think admitting that we all have a little agnosticism in our hearts makes us weak or second-class believers. After all, faith is not a contest that determines winners and losers. Faith is a journey of discovering and deepening in God’s Presence. It is a relationship---a relationship of love. It requires trust and discipline. Faith is not the same thing as control.
I appreciate Mev’s insight. I am touched by Richard’s friends’ willingness to gather and bury his ashes. There may be a little agnosticism in their hearts, but there is even more love and care for a friend. That’s powerful.