Quaker Universalist Conversations

Chris Hedges: “A Hollow Agnosticism”

Note: The following is based on a post I published on The Empty Path in 2010. Chris Hedges is a cultural critic, author and former foreign correspondent who holds a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School. He published I Don’t Believe in Atheists in 2008 (see his interview with Salon.com here).



In the Spring 2008 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin (78-82), Chris Hedges reviewed a book by Bart D. Ehrman called God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.

Hedges begins with this observation:

Evil is not a problem. Evil is a mystery. Bart Ehrman in his book God’s Problem cannot reconcile a belief in God with this mystery and the cold reality of the morally neutral universe we inhabit…. [He] remains trapped within the simpleminded belief that religious faith, to have legitimacy, means there has to be something logical and ultimately just about human existence….

There is strong desire on the part of many in the human species to believe that human suffering and deprivation is ultimately meaningful, that it has a purpose, that our lives make sense…. (78)

This powerful human desire, however, should not be confused with the reality of the transcendent. God answered Moses’ request for revelation with the words: “I AM WHO I AM.” This phrase is probably more accurately translated “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”

God is not a being. God is an experience. God is a verb, not a noun. God comes to us in the profound flashes of insight that cut through the darkness, in the hope that permits human beings to cope with inevitable pain, despair, and suffering. God comes in the healing solidarity of love and self-sacrifice. But God and the vagaries of human existence, including suffering, are beyond our capacity to explain or understand. (80)


I am grateful that, sometime in my thirties, I myself began to see the fallaciousness of this human expectation, this self-injuring enterprise we attempt of testing God against the so-called “problem of evil.”

Put simply: we suffer because we know we are mortal. We suffer because we are able to cling in memory to past pains and losses, and we are able to fear in imagination those yet to come.

Yet mortality itself—including its pain and loss, but also its awe and joy—is not a punishment. It is simply a fact.

The salutary response to suffering is not to resist those memories or fears but simply to experience them, to take note of them—and then to remain in the present. The present is the only place where we can act for ourselves and for each other.

And the present is where the something more enters into human consciousness.

Hedges writes of the various unqualifiable, transcendent forces which enter into human life: “love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil, and the reality of death.”

Then he writes of what I have very clumsily called the something more.

God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe.

Religion is our finite, flawed, and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence, the struggle to acknowledge the infinite, need not even be attributed to an external being called God. The belief in a personal God can, in fact, be antireligious. Religion is about the human need for the sacred. God is, as Thomas Aquinas writes, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence. (80)

For several decades after I dropped out of seminary in the 1970s, if I had to put a label on my faith and practice, I said agnostic. This is not a true label. I now understand that my supposed agnosticism was about not knowing which belief system I could or should confess, not about questioning the reality of God.

THAT I do know.

I share with the Hebrews the awareness that the experience of YHWH is at once too personal and too complexly beyond the reach of human concept to name. I share with the first Quakers that awareness which they feared conventional Christianity had forgotten: THAT cannot be contained in a name or a liturgy or a theology.

When my heart and mind are in distress from caring for and grieving over my mother, my father, my family and friends, my work, my beautiful, suffering world, when I manage to stop and to center down and to listen, I do not get solutions.

I get the living present. The living Presence.

Blessèd be.

Comments

Such a beautiful message! I’ve struggled with labeling my beliefs as well. Your descriptions and especially the quotes by Chris Hedges (who I only know from his political commentaries) were received gratefully. What I usually tell people is that I’m not an athiest, and not really an agnostic, but that I believe in the inner light of the human spirit…which is far more than any name of god. Thank you for giving me better words!

Thank you, Alberta.

Chris Hedges has been a tremendous help to me. I recently was answering a written Quaker Universalist query which began, “As an agnostic, what do you perceive…?” Here’s and excerpt from my reply:

"I do not consider myself to be an agnostic in the conventional sense of the word....

"My perspective is that all religious or ideological statements (e.g., 'whether or not God exists'), all stories and creeds and rituals, are descriptions of how we human beings experience our interrelationship with the Real, not descriptions of the Real itself. Regardless of however much conviction people bring to their particular belief systems, those systems are only telling us where those people draw their boundaries and how they frame their definitions.

"At its heart, Quakerism sets aside the question of boundaries and definitions. Instead, it focuses all of its attention on how to know and how to act on that knowledge.

"George Fox saw a crucial difference between 'knowing intellectually' and 'knowing experimentally.' Will T. of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, MA, explains Fox’s intention well in the 10/11/2011 post on Growing Together in the Light, where he discusses Fox’s famous 1647 confession, 'I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition," and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy'."

Blessings,
Mike