The impossibility of agnosticism
No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (John 1:18, NIV)
The term “agnosticism” was invented by the Victorian scientist T H Huxley in the 1870s. It sounds eminently sensible: it lacks the arrogance of atheism, and acknowledges limits to our knowledge. It’s an attractive position to hold personally, because it means I can be friends with people who are believers and those who aren’t. It’s been called the spiritual equivalent of Switzerland: attractively neutral!
But it is in fact impossible to be genuinely agnostic, at least in the sense of a neutrality based on the presumption of lack of information.
First, agnosticism isn’t as neutral as we might think. In the verse quoted above, in the prologue to his gospel, the Apostle John tells us that no-one has ever seen God. If that were all to be said, then agnosticism would be entirely sensible. But he doesn’t finish there; he makes the momentous claim that the One who is at the Father’s side, who is himself God, has made him known. John is referring to the incarnation; the glorious event explained in his gospel, in which God the Son came into our world.
Now we may say, “Really?” But what we can’t do is remain neutral. This is one of those “either-it’s-true-or-it-isn’t” issues. If, in the face of the coming of Jesus, you still remain agnostic about God, you are saying “The evidence of the life of Jesus Christ is insufficient; Jesus’ claims were untrue; the claims about him are untrue.”
It turns out that Huxley wasn’t neutral in the long term. Here is part of his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:
Compelled in 1885 to retire from public work for reasons of health, he continued active in writing. His attacks on Christian orthodoxy became more persistent and he carried his agnosticism into the field of New Testament study, holding that certain knowledge as to the teaching and convictions of Christ was impossible.
He had to, didn’t he?
Secondly, agnosticism is impossible because ultimately a decision is unavoidable. This is the point of the lengthy account of Jesus’ trial before Roman governor Pontius Pilate, recounted for us later in the same gospel (John 18-19). Pilate was, in a sense, the most famous agnostic in history: he tried very hard to sit on the fence. He didn’t want to reach a decision about the man in his dock. Indeed, reading the account, we can’t help feeling it’s Pilate who’s on trial!
Read the chapter and you’ll see Pilate trying to wriggle out of a decision. If Jesus really is the Son of God, then Pilate must let him go - indeed, bow down to him. But in the end, he gives in to the crowd. A decision has been forced on him: by not deciding for Jesus, he has to decide against.
No decision is, in fact, a decision against.
Face the facts, and discover that you don’t need to be in the dark!
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