The following is an adaptation of my correspondence with James Fox Higgins. It was a response mainly to James’ claim that my philosophical position, as I had intimated it to him, is “respectably agnostic” or honest, but that it does not deal with the big questions. I admitted that, in a deep way, I agree; but I attempted here to expand upon my view, to outline the way in which agnosticism is indeed empty and nihilistic, while attempting to defend the way in which it perhaps presents a serious, anti-nihilistic alternative.
But I must first comment on my conception of belief; for it has, in my mind, a functional character that is, I think, quite distinct from its colloquial use. I believe that any coherent understanding of “opinion” and of the “highest things” will take account of their grounding in the human subject, in the living of human lives; such that all human beings will inescapably hold an opinion about the highest things. In the spirit of this article, I will forgo citing one of the many (and merely deceptively vacuous) Biblical warnings that the heathen is condemned to false idolatry, and I will instead quote Montaigne: “the amorous part that is in us, for want of a legitimate object, rather than lie idle, creates one false and frivolous.” So it is only reasonable and good (or indeed best) that this opinion in fact aligns with, or at least approaches, the truly highest things; and, no doubt, it is easily defendable that the highest of all things is God.
Philosophy and theology are the great pretenders to the throne of knowledge or orthodoxy (literally, correct opinion). But I will not belabour the point of difference between myself and the pious: I essentially deny, while they affirm, that we have legitimate access to “divine” things. Theologians and philosophers alike, or at least the most honest among them, will concede that either the divine things are true or they are not; and that one cannot be entirely certain either way, so that, in both cases, the words “belief” or “faith” are properly employed. (For clarification, as per my stance toward belief or opinion, here I am essentially denying that one can legitimately “suspend” belief; or suspending belief functionally amounts to believing the negation.) Consequently, one is left with two irreconcilable positions: the philosophical view of theology, and the theological view of philosophy. As a result of my fundamental belief, I generally restrict myself to looking for the highest human things;—but I admit, from the theological perspective, I am by definition not dealing with the big questions or with the highest things. It is Pascal’s wager: and as much as atheists might like to, they cannot wriggle out of it: they must be willing to make the bet. From the earnest philosophical perspective, I bow down before the revelations of wise men; but this earnestness of feeling translates perfectly well to that of him who bows before the revelations of prophets, which, by philosophy’s own admission, are even higher—if they are true. And one cannot be a serious atheist without taking seriously that which one is rejecting; to say nothing of addressing the problem (which, compared to quibbles over existence, is by far the more intriguing problem) of the genesis and character of religion—if it is indeed, as atheism claims, false.
There is, I believe, a common view that agnostics are tepid “fence-sitters.” Well—no doubt there are tepid fence-sitters who call themselves agnostic; but in general, I greatly dislike trudging through muddy paddocks discerning fence-lines. Suffice it to say, I would sooner place agnostics proper in a paddock of their own; for I take agnosticism, too, to be a positive claim: namely, that knowledge of the highest things, whether human or divine, is humanly impossible (agnostos, after all, meaning unknown, unknowing, or unknowable). It is not merely the humble recognition that one does not know the highest things, but the assertion that one cannot know them. The nihilistic and atheistic tendency of such a belief should be obvious; or its avowed emptiness lends itself to the rationalisation, or at least to the apathetic and unwary establishment, of any chance opinion about the highest things. All the more because of the modern posture and climate of relativism, whose unbelievably convenient justification for casting aside standards—and for instead doing whatever one wishes—should be the greatest cause for reflection among thinking people. As it is, too many theists fail to do God’s work; and too many atheists think they are doing God’s work. Meanwhile, many “agnostics” fall into one of these categories.
But here I will go against even my own definition; here I will defend the most serious kinds of atheism or agnosticism as rather diagnosticism (if I may coin such a term). For, by taking seriously the philosophic life or the question of natural morality, they take seriously the possibility of a philosophic answer, which essentially counteracts agnosticism as I understand it: they suspend their belief, while casting aside the nihilistic fruits of that suspension itself. But belief, as I have outlined it as something functional, is such that one cannot, strictly speaking, not believe; or not to believe, being of essence negatory, is therefore to be nihilistic: it is contrary to life. It is comparable to the modern intellectual obsession with not making value judgments: the result of which has been only to erode our vital capacity to make value judgments. So although I must confess that yes, in my heart of hearts I am a nihilist, I attempt to keep in check this deepest idea, and to purge its insidious effects from my life. Admittedly, this makes me a hypocrite—for the possibility of this rectifying act of purgation, of having a standard to judge an effect as insidious, presupposes either that I cease to be a nihilist, or that I remedy nihilism only by false idols which I hail as true ones. Tricky.
But then—who knows? Perhaps such serious atheists nevertheless live favourably in the eyes of God: Nietzsche, by most accounts, lived a much more saintly or Christian life than did Tolstoy. What does it matter if one does not admit it in speech, if the highest purpose of speech is to comprehend God’s truth with a view to living? Reason must admit to itself its own impotence before the fundamental premise that God gave Man just enough reason to discern the truth as revealed in Scripture, but not enough that he doesn’t Fall when he eats freely from the tree. No honest atheist can respond adequately to God as he answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding…. Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?”
Despite never having met James, I’ve been moved by his religious conversion, or at least by the visible sliver of thought that led up to it; and I can conclude only that this is yet one more effect and indication of the life-giving nature of James’ experience. Discussing Aristotle and Martin Luther with one of the most learned men I personally knew, and who was also an ordained minister, I mentioned that I liked what Paul Tillich, a Christian existentialist, said: that the job of philosophy is to find the questions to ask; the job of theology is to answer them. He responded that “Aristotle taught us how to think; Jesus taught us what to think about.”
James has my heartiest and most hypocritical support for his continued theological Bildung; for he has, given our climate, certainly inherited at the same time many invigorating challenges or opportunities.