I’ve been thinking a lot about agnosticism and atheism over the past few years. For instance, I’m sure that many of you gentle readers know that Christians were often accused of atheism in the early centuries of its development because of their criticism of Greco-Roman gods and their ‘failure’ to worship a deity that comes equipped with tangible cultic representation. In any case, what has stood out to me recently is how different this kind of critical, atheistic impulse is from agnosticism. It turns out that Barth thinks so too.
There I was, reading along in Church Dogmatics, 1.2, minding my own business, when I came across a small print section on the subject of agnosticism. It is only about half of a page long, but it got me thinking.
Barth’s discussion here has to do with “The Freedom of Man for God” (the heading for §16), and his point is that agnostics do not mean the same thing when they say that it is impossible to be certain of God’s existence as do theologians when they say that humans are not free for God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. “Indeed, no agnostic statement can even remotely attain to what is intended by this theological statement” (244). Agnostics look heavenward and find that they are incapable of discerning whether or not God exists. They therefore shrug their shoulders and make general remarks about human incapacity. But their presupposition, as Barth teases it out, is that this just happens to be the case in actuality but need not be in principle. In other words, the agnostic procedure assumes that God is the sort of thing that human beings could know under other circumstances—it’s just that we don’t have conclusive evidence at our disposal.
As Barth points out, this leaves the question at the level of human disposition: “It is upon the certainty of our disposing that the agnostic ultimately depends.” The agnostic assumes that we are competent so to dispose, and that is the fundamental misstep. Barth doesn’t say so, but the atheist is actually a bit more honest here. The atheist openly and honestly takes a certain amount of responsibility in rejecting God; the agnostic denies taking that responsibility, while nonetheless claiming it in principle (if not exercising it).
The problem here is two-fold, as Barth elucidates. First, the claim made by the agnostic concerning human inability is too weak. It is not simply a matter of having insufficient evidence, but of having insufficient equipment: “Instead of eyes which blink (and blink continually), he would have to speak about our blindness and the healing of the blind.” Second, the claim made by the agnostic concerning human inability neglects to factor in God’s own action in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is, the agnostic considers only humanity’s readiness for God without reference to God’s readiness for humanity. Thus, when the agnostic says that we cannot make a conclusive judgment with reference to God, the agnostic does not in fact speak of the same God as do the theologians: “If he did mean God, he would have to allow the renunciation he makes so absolutely to be bracketed and relativised by the reality of the Holy Spirit.”
I particularly like how Barth concludes the fine print section. As usual, bold is mine:
This incidental note has nothing to do with apologetics. The only reason for it is to make it clear that when we say that apart from the reality of the Holy Spirit we are not free for God, this has nothing whatever to do with the above philosophical theory [WTM: i.e., agnosticism]. The agnostic does not know what he is saying when perhaps he agrees with us that man is not free for God. As an agnostic, he knows nothing about it. For this is something which can be known only by revelation, only by the Holy Spirit. (p. 245)