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Ratzinger, Can Agnosticism Be a Solution?


2. Can Agnosticism Be a Solution? All this opens up perspectives on religious
faith and allows us to discern some structural analo­gies; but as soon as we attempt to
pass to this level, we encounter an objection that has a cer­tain weight and could be formulated
as follows. It may, indeed, be true that within the network
of human relationships it is impossible for each individual to “know” everything that
is neces­sary and useful for life and that, therefore, our possibilities for action are
based on the fact that we ourselves participate by “faith” in the “knowledge” of others. Nevertheless, we re­main all the time within
the sphere of a human knowledge that is always in principle accessible to all men. When, however, we speak of faith in revelation,
we pass beyond the boundaries of that knowledge which is typical of human life. Even if the hypothesis be granted that the
existence of God could become an object of “knowledge”, at least revelation and its
contents would remain an object of “faith” for each one of us, something that surpasses
those realities that are accessible to our knowledge. Conse­quently, in this field there is no
one in whom we could put our trust or to whose specialist knowledge we could refer, since
no one could have a direct knowledge of such realities on the basis of his own personal
studies. This means that we are confronted once again,
and in an even more urgent fashion, with the problem: Is this type of faith compatible
with modern critical knowledge? Would it not be more appropri­ate for an
adult of our times to refrain from expressing judgments on such matters and to wait for
the day when science will have defini­tive answers even to this kind of question? The attitude revealed in this way of putting
the problem is undoubtedly that of the average person with a university education today:
intel­lectual honesty and humility in the face of the unknown seem to recommend agnosticism
rather than an explicit atheism, since the latter, too, claims to know too much about
these things and clearly has a dogmatic element of its own. No one can claim to “know”, strictly speaking,
that God does not exist. One can at most take his non-existence as
a working hypothesis, on the basis of which one then tries to explain the universe. Modern science basically takes this line. Nevertheless, this kind of methodological
approach is aware of its limitations: clearly, it is never possible to get beyond the sphere
of the hypothetical. No matter how evident an atheis­tic interpretation
of the universe may appear, it will never lead to the scientific certainty that God
does not exist. No one can carry out ex­periments on the
totality of existence or its preconditions. This brings us in a very straight­forward
manner to the unsurpassable limits in­herent in the “human condition” and in man’s capacity
for knowledge qua man, that is, not merely with regard to his present-day circum­stances,
but in terms of his very essence. Of its nature, the question of God cannot
forcibly be made an object of scientific research in the strict sense of that term, and this
means that the declaration of “scientific atheism” is an absurd claim–yesterday, today,
or tomorrow; This, however, makes it all the more urgent to know whether the question of
God does surpass the limits of human capabilities as such, so that agnosticism would in fact
be the only correct atti­tude for man: the acknowledgment, appropriate and honest, “devout’,
in the profound meaning of that word, of that which eludes our grasp and our field of vision,
a reverence vis-a-vis some­thing that is inaccessible to us. Might not this be
the new form of intellectual devotion: to leave aside whatever lies beyond our grasp
and be content with what we are permitted to know? An authentic believer who wishes to reply
to this question must be on his guard against an unreflecting haste. This type of humility and devotion calls forth
at once an objection: Is it not perhaps the case that the thirst for the infi­nite is
a fundamental aspect of human nature? Is not, indeed, this thirst the very essence
of hu­man nature? Its only limit can be that which is illimitable,
and the limits of science must not be confused with the limits of our existence as such,
for that would be a failure to comprehend either science or man. If science were to claim to ex­haust the
limits of human knowledge, it would end up by denying its own scientific character. All this seems to me undoubtedly true, but
as a reply it is (as I have said) premature. We ought rather to examine patiently the plausibility
of the hypothesis of agnosticism and see whether it can hold up as a response not only to science,
but also to human life. The true way to call agnosticism into question
is to ask whether its program can be realized. Is it possible for us, as human beings, purely
and simply to lay aside the question of God, that is, the question of our origin, of our
final destiny, and of the measure of our existence? Can we be content to live under the hypothetical
formula “as if God did not exist”, while it is possible that he does in fact exist? The question of God is not a merely theoretical
problem for man, like, for example, the problem of knowing whether there exist other elements,
as yet unknown, outside the periodic table. On the contrary, the question of God is an
eminently practical problem with consequences in every sphere of our lives. Even if I throw in my theoretical lot with
agnosticism, I am nevertheless compelled in practice to choose between two alternatives:
either to live as if God did not exist or else to live as if God did exist and was the
decisive reality of my exist­ence. If I act according to the first alternative,
I have in practice adopted an atheistic position and have made a hypothesis (which may also
be false) the basis of my entire life. If I decide for the second option, I remain
here, too, in the sphere of a purely human belief, and one can certainly recall in this
context the proposal made by Pascal, whose philosophical controversy, at the dawn of
the modern age, dealt with this problem. Having reached the conviction that the question
could not in reality be resolved by means of thought alone, he recommended that the
agnostic risk taking the second option and live as if God existed. According to Pascal, it is in the course of
experience, and only thanks to experience, that at some point the agnostic will recognize
the correctness of his choice. Let us leave this question here; it is clear
that the prestige enjoyed by the agnostic solution today does not stand up to closer
examination. As a pure theory, it may seem exceedingly
illuminating. But in its essence, agnosticism is much more
than a theory: what is at stake here is the praxis of one’s life. When one attempts to “put it into practice”
in one’s real field of action, agnos­ticism slips out of one’s hands like a soap bubble;
it dissolves into thin air, because it is not possible to escape the very option it
seeks to avoid. When faced with the question of God, man cannot
permit himself to remain neutral. All he can say is Yes or No–without ever
avoiding all the con­sequences that derive from this choice even in the smallest details
of life. Accordingly, we see that the question of God
is ineluctable; one is not permitted to abstain from casting one’s vote. Obviously, however, the conditions relevant
to the knowledge of God are necessarily of a par­ticular kind. In this question, we are not analyz­ing isolated
fragments of reality that we might in some way take into our hands, verify experien­tially,
and then master. This question regards, not that which is below
us, but that which is above us. It regards, not something we could dominate,
but that which exercises its lordship over us and over the whole of reality. Even when I encounter another person, I am
not capable with a single glance of penetrating the depths of his character and the vast expanses
of his spirit in the same way l can examine a piece of matter or some other living organism. How much less will I be able to approach the
very foundation of the universe in this manner! This does not mean that we have now entered
the sphere of the irrational. On the contrary, what we are looking for is
the very foundation of all rationality; we are inquiring into how its light can be perceived. To explain this point in detail, much more
time would be required than is available for one single lecture. But there is one fundamental point that seems
obvious to me: where everything, and the foundations of everything, are involved, the one who endeav­ors
to comprehend is inevitably challenged to get involved with the totality of his being,
with all the faculties of perception he has been given. And his search for knowledge must aim not
only to collect a large number of individual details, but (as far as is possible) to grasp
the totality as such. We can also affirm that there are some fundamental
human attitudes that are indispens­able methodological presuppositions for the knowledge of God. These include: listening to the message that
is brought to us by our own existence and by the world in general; a vigilant attentiveness
vis-a-vis the discoveries and the religious experience of humanity; and the deci­sive
and persevering employment of our time and our internal energy on this problem, which
concerns each one of us personally.

Jean Kelley

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1 COMMENTS

  1. Jaret Rushing Posted on March 21, 2020 at 7:42 am

    Dr. Anadale, most of the arguments I have found in support of Christianity – and a theistic worldview more broadly – are eminently cosmological. From the Aristotelian First Cause to the similar Kalaam, most attention is drawn towards those dealing with causality, first principles, etc. in a general effort to explain the creation of the universe or how its existence is sustained. It seems to me that other arguments related to theism, such as the immateriality of the mind or the validity of sacred scripture, are put on the back burner. Do you agree with this? If so, why do you think this is so? As an admitted agnostic who leans towards atheism but strongly wants to believe, I am inclined to conclude that it is because the more cosmological arguments are far more tenable, or at least more difficult to disprove, than the immateriality of the mind or the validity of scripture.

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