Rolheiser: Beautiful stoics

20 August 2018

Appears in: Columnists

There’s a rich literature being written today by some highly intelligent, sensitive men and women who might best be described as agnostic stoics.

Unlike some of their atheistic counterparts whose one-sided attacks on religion suggest that they “doth protest too much”, this group doesn’t protest at all. They don’t attack faith in God; indeed they often see salient religious doctrines like belief in the incarnation in Christ, belief in original sin, and belief in a resurrection as helpful myths that can be invaluable for our self-understanding, akin to the great myths of the ancient world.

They’re warm to spirituality and are sometimes better apologists for depth of soul and the place of mystery in our lives than their explicitly religious counterparts. It’s just that, in the end, they bracket belief in God.

At an intellectual level, you see this in people like the late James Hillman and many of his followers (though some of those followers have, unlike their master, taken a more belligerent and negative attitude towards faith in God and religion). You see this too is in a good number of contemporary novelists who write from fairly deliberate agnostic perspective. And you see this in wonderful biographical books, like Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying.

What these authors all have in common is this: They look at life’s deepest questions and face those questions with courage and sensitivity, but only from an agnostic and stoic perspective.

How do you make sense of things, if there’s no God? How do you face the finality of death, if there’s no afterlife? How do you ground love as an absolute, if there’s no Absolute upon which to ground it? How can the precious events of our lives have lasting meaning, if there’s no personal immortality? How do we face the shortcomings of our lives and own mortality, if this life is all there is?

They face these questions honestly and courageously without an explicit belief in God and come to peace with them, find meaning for themselves, and garner the insight and courage they need to live with answers that don’t include faith in God and belief in an afterlife.

There’s a courageous stoicism in that for sure, but in many of their writings there’s also a certain beauty. You get the sense that this is an honest, beautiful soul wrestling with life’s deepest questions and coming to an acceptable peace that itself encapsulates the kind of compassion that all the great religions place at their center.

Inside of religious literature you can meet some beautiful saints. Inside of secular literature you can meet some beautiful stoics.

But there’s one thing upon which I want to challenge these beautiful stoics: They try to answer a deep question: How do we make sense of life if there’s no God and no afterlife and how do we make sense of life if the tenets of faith are not true, but mere projection?

That’s a fair question, worth asking.

But this is my protest: While these authors face with courage and honesty the question of what it means if God doesn’t exist and there’s no afterlife, they never face with the same courage and honesty the question: What if there really is a God and an afterlife and the essential tenets of faith are true? How does one live then? What if our probing minds and noble sentiments are in fact grounded in a loving, personal God?

That would be an even more-honest and more-courageous agnosticism, and an even more beautiful stoicism.

True agnosticism speaks of an open mind, one so open that it’s reticent to shut down any real possibility. And the existence of God is a real possibility.

At any given time in history, our age included, the vast majority of human beings believe in the existence of God and the existence of an afterlife.

Atheists have never been the cognitive majority.

If this is true, and it is, then why are good, courageous, honest, and sensitive men and women reluctant to take their agnosticism down both alleyways, that is: How do we shape our lives if there’s no God and no afterlife – and how do we shape our lives if there is a God and an afterlife?

If one wants to look at the meaning of life as courageously and honestly as possible, shouldn’t the question of God and the afterlife, and not just its antithesis, be one of the horizons against which that discernment occurs?

I suspect the reluctance of many of these authors to give equal consideration to the possibility of the truth of religion comes from the fact that, up to modern times, the bulk of all literature perennially considered life’s deep questions more or less exclusively from a religious rather than an agnostic perspective.

What our agnostic authors are contributing is an alternative, a different voice from the dominant voice in history (though not the dominant voice within secular society today).

Still it makes for some valuable insights from some beautiful stoics.