What we can and cannot know
I confess I have often shown little patience for people who hide behind the label of agnosticism when asked whether they believe in God. It smacks of evasion, since it answers a question concerning belief with an assertion about the state of knowledge. That is, it redirects our attention to the axis of knowing — how much we know or can know — instead of telling us where one stands on the axis of believing.
So you can perhaps imagine how annoyed I’ve become at myself lately for describing my own position on the historicity of Jesus as “Jesus agnostic.” Have I fallen into the same trap as atheistic agnostics, too timid to answer the question that was asked, so I answer one that wasn’t?
Does agnosticism describe anything meaningful?
Most atheists are also agnostics. We lack the belief in God in the same way that we lack the belief in many things we can’t definitively disprove. However, we hold the existence of a supernatural being that fits the description of God to be so unlikely that we operate under the assumption that he does not exist.
Do we actively believe God does not exist? Actually, no. It takes no effort at all to lack a belief. For example, if you grew up as a Christian, you probably lack the belief in the transmigration of souls. Same here. People might reincarnate after they die, but I think it’s extremely unlikely. So I can truthfully say, “I don’t believe in samsara.” But I don’t spend any time thinking about it or actively disbelieving in it.
If by knowledge we mean rational knowledge based on human reason and physical evidence, a good many Christians are also agnostics. They believe without proof — “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:29b, KJV) They have made the “leap of faith.” Should they claim to have any knowledge at all, they will maintain they possess a knowledge of the heart, a feeling of the divine presence.
So if a great many of us — theists and atheists alike — agree that we can’t know whether God exists, is the term “agnostic” all that meaningful? Well, it is if you mean it in the loose, vernacular way that the popular media often intends it, namely as a description of someone who cannot decide. Perpetual fence-sitters, they simply can’t make up their minds.
Can you really not make up your mind?
I suspect that many educated people who know what agnosticism really means describe themselves as agnostics because they don’t want to deal with the stigma that comes with atheism. C’mon, people — decide!
“So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.”
(Rev. 3:16, KJV)
There are two questions on the table:
- Do you believe in God?
- Do you think you can know for sure whether God exists?
If you can’t answer “yes” to the first question, then you are an unbeliever. Welcome aboard! If you answered “no” to both questions, you are an agnostic atheist — just like the vast majority of atheists.
Am I a wishy-washy Jesus agnostic?
So am I a question-dodging, lukewarm mythicist? Specifically, in telling you that I’m a Jesus agnostic — i.e., that I think the source data for the historicity of Jesus is so unreliable that it precludes our ability to know whether or not he existed — have I avoided the question of whether I believe he existed? Perhaps not.
Consider the difference between a universe in which God exists and one (like ours) in which he does not. They are vastly different, especially if we’re talking about the Christian God — one who manifests himself in the physical world, helping some, hindering others; healing some, ignoring others; saving some, killing others. In one universe I’m damned forever if I don’t believe the right way. In the other universe, it doesn’t matter. It’s a big difference.
But consider the course of history if (1) Jesus did not exist, but is a historicized myth, or (2) Jesus did exist, but is irretrievable under the rubble of New Testament mythology. We pretty much end up at the same point. Apologists will point out a third option that I have ignored so far, namely that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are the same guy. I find that possibility so highly unlikely as to be statistically impossible. (Note: Just to be clear, if I thought we could retrieve any reliable history from under the NT rubble, I wouldn’t be an agnostic.)
In the end, I’m faced with the two choices above: a complete myth or an unrecoverable, infinitesimally tiny kernel of historicity engulfed in a myth.
Jesus agnosticism: A perfectly rational position
Tom Verenna and several usual suspects in the blogosphere now identify themselves as Jesus agnostics. The evidence fails to persuade them (and me) one way or the other. And as far as I can tell, Dr. McGrath, a staunch defender of the status quo, thinks this position is just ducky. I find his acceptance a little odd, since one of the primary reasons James McGrath and Bart Ehrman sanction the belittling and ridiculing of mythicists as an honorable pastime is that there is allegedly so much positive evidence in favor of historicity.
McGrath loves to compare the mythicist position to young-earth creationism. See the last paragraph of his fawning review of Bart’s book (part one — more apple-polishing to come). If the mainstream position of experts concerning the historicity of Jesus is exactly like the mainstream position of experts concerning the fact of evolution, then he’s right. However, if the foregoing were true, then Jesus agnosticism would be just as untenable as agnosticism about evolution. You would have to ignore a ton of evidence to believe that evolution is an unsettled question.
If the case for historicity were as open and shut as the case for evolution, then fence-sitting would not be an option. But of course it isn’t; otherwise James would treat Tom Verenna with the same honorable mocking and derision that he heaps upon Earl and Neil. If Jesus agnosticism is a tenable position, then mythicism must also be a tenable position — you can’t have it both ways.
In other words, if Tom, Vinny, and I contend that we find the evidence insufficient to decide upon historicity, then we necessarily hold open the possibility that mythicism might be true. However, if the notion of the non-historicity Jesus is just as hare-brained as young-earth creationism, then James should let us have it. He should dole out the same venomous prose that he reserves for “fools” and “crazy people” who think Jesus is entirely a myth. After all, how can we ignore that “mountain of evidence”?
By now I think we all know we’re dealing with an unusual phenomenon here. NT scholars don’t react to mythicism the way scientists respond to “fringe” theories; instead, they react the way defenders of the faith respond to heresies. That’s why McGrath can forgive Bart for his many factual errors in Did Jesus Exist. That’s why the guild tolerates abusive behavior toward people who promote mythicism.
For them, “Extremism in the defense of conformity is no vice.” As long as they’re working toward the higher good — namely, stamping out heresy — it’s all right.
Will this full-frontal attack on nonconformity persist? Will honorable scholars continue to engage in name-calling? Will Bart and James keep insisting that they can read minds and that they know the nefarious reasons why mythicists think the way they do? I have no doubts on this matter. The mountain of evidence, sadly, is undeniable.
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