Beyond agnosticism

I have for several years been practicing a rather threadbare, in some ways malnourished religion—more by necessity than choice, though the choices are obvious to me.

I wrote that first sentence on Wednesday, March 31st of this year, shortly after I received confirmation that I could move my mother from hospital, where she had come through the crisis of a major systemic infection, into a new skilled nursing facility (SNF), where staff were better equipped than in her old one to care for her at her suddenly more advanced stage of Alzheimer’s dementia.

Monday of that week, staff at her previous SNF had told me, to their own dismay, that they could not manage her new occasional combativeness and escape-seeking behavior. As I wrote at the time, through those next two horrifying days of searching, my practice was reduced to the bare discipline of stopping myself, over and over again, to say, “Keep me in your living present.”

Five months later, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I could say that this sentence—deceptively simple and ambiguous—almost sums up my whole faith and practice:

Keep me in your living present.

Two weeks ago, I read Chris Hedges’ review of a book by Bart D. Ehrman called God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer in the Spring 2008 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin (78-82). Because Hedges articulates so well an understanding which has matured in my own awareness, I will be quoting him here at some length.

He begins:

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 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)

THAT which works upon us and through us. Yes.

Hedges cautions us that

God is a human concept that arises from this impulse and the reality of the transcendent. Our idea of God includes human prejudice, tribal and national self-exaltation, morally indefensible edicts, naked bigotry, and absurd formulas to get God to work on our behalf….

Ehrman correctly challenges these very imperfect and flawed human descriptions of God and the vain attempts to make sense of suffering. But he mistakes the characteristics human beings have invented for God with the reality of God…. These are inadequate attempts by human beings to explain why we suffer. But the inherent flaws in these numerous explanations do not finally invalidate God. They only expose those who write and think about God as human. (80)

The title of Hedge’s review is “A Hollow Agnosticism.” For several decades after I dropped out of Lutheran seminary, if I had to put a label on my faith and practice, I said agnostic. This is not a true label.

Look at that contrast in Aquinas: religion as “the human need for the sacred” versus God as “the power that allows us to be ourselves.”

I’ve written previously (see my “Weeds” series) about James Carse’s reclaiming of the term “religion.” Religion is the mystery which binds a community gathered by a shared seeking after the sacred, not the believe systems used by some to draw boundaries around what one ought or ought not to consider sacred.

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 present moment.

Letting Go, by Marilynne Bull

Last Sunday, Mom was back in hospital following another mini-stroke and a recurrence of the systemic infection. Angry, fighting the nurses, insisting upon leaving. Mid-afternoon, when I first arrived in her room, for the first time in my experience she did not recognize who I am.

Knowing what I know about Alzheimer’s, I simply said “That’s okay” and sat with her, allowing silence.

“This isn’t a pleasant experience, is it?” I said.

“No, it’s not,” she replied, still glaring.

More silence.

“We can get rid of that!” she said with annoyance, pointing to the huge old Zenith TV mounted on the wall near the ceiling.

“Okay. What else do you want to get rid of?”

“That.” She pointed to the nursing supply cabinet on the wall. “And that,” pointing to the nurse’s whiteboard.

“What do you want to keep?”

“The cross,” said this ancient Lutheran, indicating the crucifix in this Roman Catholic hospital room.


Several times she repeated these statements about “getting rid of” things in the room. Eventually, I came to suspect that in imagination she was sorting and jettisoning her own things.

I retold for her the story from four years ago, when she systematically divided up her life’s accumulation of furniture and effects among her children and step-children, in the process of leaving her home. She smiled at the memory of having been able to direct this gifting herself.

I told her of my own recent inclination to purge our numerous storage spaces of stuff we brought to this city ten years ago and have not looked at since.

She nodded, but then she said, “It’s dangerous just to get rid of things. You have to look at each one first and remember what you enjoyed about it.”

I marveled in silence, seeing once more the well-remembered wisdom of this woman, which is so much deeper than the dementia.

Several times during this strange conversation, she asked me, “Are you happy with the new?”

“New what?” I wondered the first time, but I simply said, “Yes.” The second time I said, “I’m not sure yet.”

By now Mom was profoundly peaceful. It felt as if we were in a gathered meeting for worship. For long moments we just smiled, eye to eye.

“It’s good to know where we’re going.”

“Yes.” I didn’t ask or interpret.

“This is nice.”


“Well, it’s been a good visit. I’ll see you when you come again.”

Keep me in your living present.

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

8 comments On Beyond agnosticism

  • With tears, I thank you for this.

  • Mike,
    You write so seldom, but when you do, you touch me so deeply. Thank you and bless you!

  • Here’s what I said in the link I posted on Facebook:

    Mike, from “The Empty Path,” is a writer who every so often can make me stop and reevaluate my whole life. In this post he talks about God and religion in a way that makes me feel like my feet have suddenly found the ground and I am steady.

    That might be a surprising reaction to someone who says “God is not a being. God is an experience. … 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. … But God and the vagaries of human existence, including suffering, are beyond our capacity to explain or understand.”

    Maybe feet finding the ground is not the best metaphor. Maybe it’s more like that moment when learning to swim that I first knew in my body that I could float.

  • Thanks, Mike. I was interested in Peter’s Facebook comment, above, because as soon as I finished reading this piece last night, I thought of how you seem to be always ahead of me on the path, as a guide. I chose a malnourished religion for awhile, too, but a few things I’ve read recently, including this post, have helped me see where I need to turn. And yes, I am happy with the new!

  • “I marveled in silence, seeing once more the well-remembered wisdom of this woman, which is so much deeper than the dementia.”

    Oh, yeah.

    Oh, Mike… I would that I could make this easier for you, for your mom, for everyone.

    But I do remember learning this particular lesson from Peter’s grandmother when she was fading from our lives through Alzheimer’s; and in so many ways, she taught me fearlessness around death and around dementia. Because, despite the early period of depression (which did lift in time!) and the disorientation and inability to remember names or identities, somehow she never did lose that deeper wisdom. So much was lost that what was not was thrown into stark relief: there is a core of (wisdom and love) that lasts, at least in lives lived well.

    She forgot Peter’s name, forgot whether he was her father, husband, son or grandson. But she never forgot she loved him and depended on him. As if that’s the part that lasts even between our lives.

    And that peace, like the peace in a gathered Quaker meeting… yeah. I used to go quietly into Nora’s room in the mornings before I went to work, while she was still asleep, or stop in while she slept in the afternoon, and hold her hand while she dozed.

    I have such vivid, vivid memories of the peace of those moments, even exhausted as we were.

    Goodness survives.

    • Mike, what you write means so much to me and like Cat, I wish I could do something more. My own spirituality grows out of the darkest times of my life, but I would be lying if I said I did not rage against it too.

      My very dear grandfather, had dementia in the last years of his life. It was a bitter and beautiful time for us as we saw the winnowing of his personality from his essence. One of my favorite memories of him was when he asked me to marry him. “No, Grandpa,” I said sadly, “that won’t work.” and then he smiled at me with that old familiar twinkle of love he always had for all of us. “Come on, honey,” he teased. “We can make it work.” He often was not sure if I was his mother, or his wife, or his daughter, or his grandchild. I was often not sure what my role was with him either. The burden of his care fell on the older adults in the family. I was often unsure of myself. Nothing was the same. But we loved each other. So much. Sometimes we would just sit together, both of us feeling helpless and confused, but we knew we loved each other. And these many years after his death, I know we love each other still.

  • June Applen

    Michael, I’ve just read the above blog and find it so rewarding. I agree with much of it, especially accepting the present, and the human need for the sacred. Will have to think about Aquinas’ belief that God is the power to be ourselves.
    Your interchange with Lois, too, was magnificent. Please keep writing. June

  • Pingback: Chris Hedges: “A Hollow Agnosticism” | Quaker Universalist Fellowship ()

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