The word agnostic meals literally “one who doesn’t know.” In our culture it most often means “someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not,” but I’d like to expand the meaning and tell you why I wish more people would admit to being agnostic about many things.
Imagine a Bruce Rauner/Pat Quinn debate in which the moderator asks, “What is the solution to the big problems we have in education in our state” and one of the candidates answers, “I don’t know.”
Then he goes on to say, “I’m honestly not sure. The problems are so complex. They are rooted in school financing and reading at home and violence in the neighborhood and teacher training and government standards and getting the amount of testing right and racism and the amount of social media kids use and on and on.”
I’d vote for that guy no matter what he said on all of the other issues. To have a candidate for office admit, “I don’t know” fits the way I feel on almost every issue I hear discussed on the news. I pray for President Obama and the decisions he has to make, because I’m not sure he knows what to do either. The problem is that in this political climate, he can’t admit that.
Wouldn’t it provide a breath of fresh air to have our politicians acknowledge that they don’t know for sure what to do and that folks across the aisle might have some insight?
We have an election for commissioners coming up in the spring. I’ll be looking for candidates who are agnostic to a degree. Of course, I want them to propose policies for flood control and business promotion and balancing the budget. By saying I want them to be agnostic, I don’t mean that they should have no ideas or proposals. It’s more about tone and attitude. It’s about having an idea about what to do but admitting that it’s just that, a possible way to move forward.
When I was working for my doctor of ministry degree, the professors would say that in changing times a good adage is “ready, shoot, aim.” The image is shooting a mortar. The only way to aim a mortar is to take a shot, see where it lends, make an adjustment, and take another shot. Shooting a mortar involves letting go of the illusion that you have THE ANSWER, of having your aim perfected when you take your first shot.
These are uncertain times. This last week I lost thousands of dollars in the stock market. Ebola has come to this country, health care providers have become infected and no one yet knows why. Climate change. Gun violence. The equity in our homes. What world will our kids have to deal when they are our age? Is the Islamic State really a threat to our security?
Uncertainty tends to breed anxiety, and when folks are anxious they can be suckers for leaders who claim to know the answers, to have the solutions. It takes a large measure of self-possession and maturity to not fall for charismatic charlatans and to live with the uncertainty of not knowing.
What’s more, I wish more preachers would be willing to admit, “I don’t know.” Jesus himself was agnostic on at least one question. When people asked when the end of the world would happen, he answered, “I don’t know.”
I know the New Testament better than the Hebrew Scriptures, so I’ll stick with that. The New Testament uses language like “trust” and “believe” and “faith” more often than it uses the word “know.” And even when it reads “know” it’s often more in the sense of “I know my wife” rather than “I have her figured out.” Genesis states that Adam “knew” Eve. In that verse, the word “know” doesn’t mean to have empirically verifiable proof about Eve’s psychology. It means to have an intimate relationship with her.
I know Forest Park well, meaning “I have an intimate relationship with this community,” but I don’t “know” for sure how to solve the problem of flooding or what to do about the achievement gap in our schools.
The candidates and preachers who regularly say “I don’t know” may be the most qualified of all. They clearly are the most honest and, as far as I’m concerned, the most credible.