I have done a lot of reflection in recent years on the nature of my religious faith. I was raised in, trained in, and have worked in a mainline Protestant Christian religious tradition. That worldview shapes my theology, philosophy, and experience of the world; it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t.
At the same time, I have a deep and abiding respect for other religious traditions and have found tremendous power and meaning in my sojourns with the Jewish and Muslim communities. I have seen the truth and experienced the reality of God in those faith traditions.
So, how do I square that with my home faith tradition? How do I, without reducing everything to lowest-common-denominator-discount-unitarianism, embrace the seeming contradictions among these different traditions?
A Metaphorical Faith
As I have written elsewhere, such conflicts arise only if the truths you’re wrestling with are to be taken literally.
Let us imagine two people are having a conversation about love. The first one says, “Love is tumbling headlong through a field of fragrant wildflowers.”
“No it isn’t, you fool!” shouts the second. “Love is being drunk on the sweetest wine!”
To us, this seems a preposterous situation because there is no need to denounce one metaphor in favor of another. Both can be true simultaneously.
And this is how I feel about religion: so much of religion is metaphor. Religion is poetry, and the great mistake that so many people make is that they treat it like prose.
But if I’m acknowledging that the language of my religious tradition is mostly metaphor, how can I be sure of its truth claims? How can I be sure that it offers what I understand it to offer? I can’t.
The challenge is that in order to fully embrace such spiritual humility and openness, you have to admit that you don’t know for sure—maybe even that you can’t know.
I cannot pretend that this version of Christian faith is frequently encountered outside of the mystical traditions of my religion. Most versions of religion seek to mitigate doubt—only the mystics revel in it. But in order for a vibrant metaphorical faith to work, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity, unknowing, and doubt. I have long believed that such faithful doubt is necessary for a robust and meaningful faith. I mean, I wrote a whole book on the subject.
So, if I view my own tradition—and all the others—as metaphorical systems full of holy doubt, on what basis do I stick with my tradition? Why not just surrender to a general agnosticism and be done with it?
Finding a Metaphorical Home
As a student of religion, there is much that I admire and appreciate in religions other than my own; sometimes, I am profoundly moved by insights that other religions have to offer. And yet, beyond all theological argument and apologetics that I could use to defend my own tradition, the deeper reality is that the metaphor, imagery, and models of Christianity work for me in a fundamental way. This is a sentiment echoed by religious historian and author Reza Aslan, who invokes a Buddhist metaphor to describe his understanding of the different faith traditions:
I’m a person of faith, and the language that I use to define my faith, the symbols and metaphors that I rely upon to express my faith, are those provided by Islam because they make the most sense to me. The Buddha once said, “If you want to draw water, you don’t dig six 1–ft. wells, you dig one 6–ft. well.” Islam is my 6–ft. well. But I recognize that I am drawing the same water that everyone around me is.1Belinda Luscombe, “Is Reza Aslan Anti-Christian? The Author of Zealot Explains
His Views on Faith and Historical Scholarship.” Time, July 30, 2013. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://ideas.time.com/2013/07/30/is-reza-aslan-anti-christian/.Reza Aslan
The metaphors, symbols, models, and parables of Christianity still work for me, even if I embrace uncertainty and doubt as to what they truly mean or as to what the nature of the reality is that they point toward.
I do not know; but the way I don’t know is Christian.
Thus, if I’m going to be honest about what my true religious tradition is, a tradition that embraces faithful doubt and metaphor, then I suppose the best description of it is “Christian Agnostic.”
There is a long tradition of such faithful agnosticism in Christianity, dating all the way back to the Gospel of Mark, with the cry of the father whose son had just been healed: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). It is the cry of all those who remain unsure, but who pledge their faith and commitment nonetheless.
Anyone can have faith when they’re certain; there’s a particular kind of power of having faith when you are unsure or have doubts. There’s a strength in that—an audacity that can be transformative. Such a faith balances humility with trust, surrendering neither to nihilism nor blind adherence to doctrine.
Some years ago, I was part of a staff retreat at which our facilitator asked us to come up with a motto or self-description in six words. Most were relatively prosaic. Mine was: I know not; still I believe. I’ll admit, I was pleased with that one.
But what felt like a clever one-off answer to a conversational prompt has felt more and more like my spiritual home. I know not; still I believe. I don’t know; still I have faith.
I may not ever know or cast out doubt; I may forever have to admit my inability to know, to confess my agnosticism. But that does not prevent me from seeking to follow in discipleship the one who causes me to experience the mystery of faith and bids me to follow.