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Living with faith - and doubt 

How much “agnosticism” should a Christian be happy to live with? By Colin Sedgwick


Some time ago I wrote about a conversation I had had with a man who described himself as an agnostic. I mentioned that he had thanked me for admitting that there were plenty of things I didn’t understand, or wasn’t sure of.

My story seems to have stimulated some interest. In particular, I had a message from a long-time Christian friend - as rock-solid a Christian, a thorough-going evangelical, as you could wish to find - who tells me that he too is very “agnostic” on various aspects of the Christian faith. Don’t worry, he is entirely orthodox on the basic teachings; but he frankly admits that he just doesn’t know what to think on some of the less central matters.

I was grateful for his honesty; it was refreshing. It brought to mind to the comment of Peter about his fellow-apostle Paul: his letters “contain some things that are hard to understand...” (2 Peter 3:16). Peter goes on to say how Paul’s teachings can end up being “distorted by ignorant and unstable people”. (Perhaps Peter felt that he was a bit like that himself - an impulsive and uneducated Galilean fisherman, in comparison with the learned Paul.)

Whatever, Peter’s comment makes one thing clear: the Christian faith does indeed contain elements which are open to misunderstanding and which can be perplexing and even quite baffling.

And this doesn’t just apply to Paul, of course. Is there anyone reading this who would claim to have a full understanding of the trinity? Or of predestination and free will? Or of the precise process of creation? Or of the mystery of prayer? Or of exactly how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us from our sins? Or of why God allows such appalling suffering in his creation? Or of...? But I think you get the point.

It was this kind of thing that I had in mind when I admitted to my agnostic friend that the things I didn’t know outweighed the ones I did.

Thinking like this prompts the question: How much “agnosticism” should a Christian be happy to live with? Putting it another way, at what point might your agnosticism be so great that you are no longer really a “Christian” at all? Who “qualifies” (if I can use that word) to bear that name?

A big question! My rough-and-ready answer would be something like this: Anyone who, first, believes in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, especially the perfect life, the atoning death, the bodily resurrection, and the final return in glory, of Jesus the son of God; and who, second, loves, trusts and seeks to obey that same Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

Any good? I think that will do for me!

If I am right, it means of course that there are plenty of people around who are true Christians even though they may be wrong on various issues (hey, maybe I’m even one myself...). An ounce of true faith in Jesus weighs more than ten tons of dodgy theology.

Don’t get me wrong. Doctrine (which basically means true teaching in systematic form) matters, and we should want to get it right.

But given that none of us in reality does “get it right”, not perfectly so anyway, and given that nobody ever has “got it right” over the 2,000 years the church has existed, perhaps we can afford to be a little relaxed when it comes to matters of doctrinal orthodoxy or “soundness”. We might in fact find it quite liberating to do so. Having all the i’s dotted and all the t’s crossed isn’t what it’s all about; what it is all about is loving and trusting Jesus.

Over my years as a preacher and pastor I have learned to say, quite frankly, “Sorry, I’m really not sure about that”, when asked a question which I’m - well, really not sure about. I’ll always offer to go away and do some more thinking, reading and exploring, hoping to come back with a better answer. But in the end honesty is not just the best policy; it’s more than that - it is, surely, the right policy, the only policy which is honouring to God.

How much damage is done by well-meaning Christians who just aren’t willing to say “Sorry, I don’t know”? - and even more by Christian block-heads who think they know everything and drive honest enquirers away by what can only be called ignorant certainty? I dare to hope that my agnostic friend was drawn a little closer to Christian faith by my honest admission, than if I had got the doctrinal tool-bag out and started putting him right there and then.

We don’t know something? - well, let’s say so! We will very likely be respected for doing so, and bring credit to the Christian faith.

And let’s never forget the words of the Christian wit (G K Chesterton? - somebody help me out, please!) who, when asked if he was worried by the things in the Bible he couldn’t understand, replied, “Not at all! The things in the Bible that worry me are the things I can understand...”

Images: Charity Betts / Creation Swap

Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister, with many years’ experience in the ministry.

He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com

Baptist Times, 09/08/2016
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