Friday, February 13, 2009

Intellectual Agnostic, Experiential Believer

On Monday, I mentioned that Lee Camp, who taught at Otter Creek on Sunday morning, had described himself as an intellectual agnostic, but an experiential believer. That was something that I found to be a very comforting admission, because I also find myself in a place like that more often than I care to admit. Faith for me can often come down to a choice. With no empirical reasons for believing in the existence of God, I have to rely on what I can only call the experiences of my life so far to continue in that belief. Now, what does that mean if I'd been born into a family that had no belief or into a Muslim family or Buddhist one? I don't know.

What I do know is that in spite of the lack of empirical evidence, I do believe in God. I do believe in and try to follow Jesus. I try to bear the fruit with strength from the Spirit. And I try to live out the Good News and talk about what that means when the situation arises. If that's all being raised a certain way and the threads of coincidence weaving its way through my life, so be it. I'm willing to accept that.

But if it's something more and I can help be a part of the continuation of God's plan and the work that Jesus did during His time on Earth, that's where I want to be.


Rick Dumas said...

I guess the question would be, what experiences have to led to a belief in a specific version of god as opposed to a general belief in "something" other. I dont have any life experiences that confirm the existence of a specific god. Aside from the fact that there is something rather than nothing, is really the only evidence of the possibilty of something more out there for me. What that something may be, a personal something or a vague creative, yet indifferent force, I have no idea. Because of that I am purely agnostic as it relates to a specific god or even a personal version of a deity. I might be wrong but I have no way of knowing that. Just some thougts!

Thomas McKenzie said...

Hey Phil,

I didn't like Lee's quote when you gave it to us. I tried to write a comment, but then got sidetracked by work (of all things).

If my faith is based in my experience, I'm in trouble. My experience is all over the map when it comes to God's activity. So the idea of being an experiential believer as opposed to an intellectual believer is unappealing.

Further, if one is an intellectual agnostic, that person probably should not be preaching at a church (even as a guest). Instead, he should probably be working out some of his intellectual issues in some other venue. I personally don't think a preacher can be faithful to the Gospel and only preach out of experiential faith and not intellectual faith.

This assumes I understand Dr. Camp's comment, which I have no context for whatsoever.

Phil said...

I can understand where you're coming from Thomas. I can't speak for Lee at all, but I can sympathize with his description.

The context was in discussing the age-old question of theodicy (if God is good, why do bad things happen in the world). And it's a place of cognitive dissonance that I have myself, as have Christians (and Jews) for all of recorded time.

And while I appreciate your perspective (as always), I can say it was comforting to hear someone say from a pulpit that they struggle with these ideas and haven't come to an intellectual satisfying conclusion to them. Should that person be preaching at church? I guess it depends on what you expect from a teacher, but I'd like to be a fly on the wall to hear you and Lee discuss that and other issues.

Thomas McKenzie said...

I actually did some theodicy work in my sermon this Sunday. My response is complex, but involves the idea of mystery. If you are feeling up to it, you can listen to my sermon, up soon at

The belief in mystery, that God knows things we do not know, is very different than saying you are an intellectual agnostic. Agnosticism can imply not knowing if there is a God, or not knowing anything about God and his ways.

I believe that we do know God, in Christ. God has revealed himself to us, and part of his revelation is that we are not going to understand him. Therefore, mystery.

I believe in a God who does not make it possible for me to understand him. I am not agnostic about that. And I would hope for the same affirmation of mystery, over agnosticism, in those who choose to proclaim the Gospel as representatives of Christ to his Church.

But, I have been accused of being judgmental on things like this. So, I take that into account when voicing my opinion.

Phil said...

I will listen to yours, Thomas. I'm interested in that perspective and I hope that as your schedule allows you can listen to Lee's as well. I know I'm not capturing his full point by focusing on that one self-descriptor.

I get where you're coming from on the idea of mystery. In fact, that's been one of the things that is attractive about the postmodern/Emergent ideology is a re-recognition of God's mystery, especially in the face of (from my background) the rationalist approach to faith that the Church of Christ can espouse. I appreciate the mystery of God.

However, I don't think appreciating the mystery and being frustrated at it, especially in the face of evil and some people being "spared" the suffering of this world (at least from our perspective) are mutually exclusive. Even frustrated to the point of questioning God and God's actions. And to that end, I think agnosticism on some level can be an embracing of that mystery. Now you might think that an agnostic doesn't need to be guiding God's people from a pulpit, even an intellectual agnostic, but I think that would take us back to some of our differences in belief on how sacremental a worship time is, i.e. "low" church/"high" church perspectives.

Lee said...

Interesting to hear you all kick this around.

I agree with Thomas -- I don't like the line either, and it is much too simplistic to even begin to sufficiently tip the hat toward all the excellent work that has been done on theodicy in the Christian tradition, and I don't mean by my label to discount any of that.

Moreover, in my mind, "intellect" and "experience" are a false dichotomy. My intellectual constructs are necessarily bound up with my experience, and vice versa. Of course, modernist types won't like this contention, but I can't escape it myself.

All that to say, the label is not in the end, very helpful -- it only is good for doing, rhetorically, what I wanted it to do: to confess my own struggles, to admit I haven't gotten it all sorted out, even though I've spent time working through the theodicies, etc.

And on that score, I've been immensely surprised at how well the label/phrase worked in that regard. I think I may have gotten more positive feedback from that sermon than any I recall recently -- which is only to say that we have lots of folks grappling with the sorts of difficulties I was trying to get at.

Thanks to you both, and peace,


Thomas McKenzie said...

Many moons ago, I had one of my rhetoric professors tell her class that there is a sort of spectrum in language. On one end is "power" and the other is "specificity."

In other words, saying something in a specific way often loses rhetorical power; while saying something in a powerful rhetorical way often loses specificity.

So, for instance, Obama's "Hope" or "Change." Powerful rhetoric, no specifics. The "I have a dream" speech. Same thing. Very powerful, not too many specifics.

I wonder how much of Lee's statement was like that. From his comment, it sounded like it got of a lot of response, which indicates it was rhetorically powerful. But he agrees that it lacks specificity.

I think my response was generated in part by the lack of specificity. So, for me the statement also has power, but in a negative direction.

And, I also agree, Phil. There is an issue here in how we view what happens on Sunday morning. When my church was Otter Creek's guest (for which I am eternally grateful), I believe the meeting place as called the "auditorium" and the Sunday morning event was called the "meeting." I could be wrong about that. We, on the other hand, celebrate Eucharist in a Sanctuary.

The word choices reflect a diversity in expectations. But, now we are moving on to much different grounds. Enough hijacking your blog!

DB Carden said...

Please continue hijacking Phil's blog, this is interesting to read.

jeffdod said...

Hi Phil,

No offense, but a belief system that is based on Phil Wilson's personal experience just doesn't sound convincing to doesn't sound like "Good News." Is there something more concrete that you base your faith on, or is it merely a leap of faith?


Phil said...


Isn't all faith a leap of faith? I have faith that there is a North Pole of which I have seen pictures and heard from reliable people that it exists, so I accept on faith that it exists without personal empirical truth.

The other side of that is that I don't ask people to have faith based on my faith (except maybe my kids). Faith is ultimately a personal decision (at least from an Arminian perspective); it's a gift given by God. I can tell my story and explain why I have faith, but to answer your question, I'm not sure there is something concrete on which to base faith.

I'm interested in your perspective on it. On what concrete things do you base faith?

jeffdod said...

Few would say that believing in the North Pole is a leap of faith. There are good reasons for believing it is there. So no, I do not think that all faith can be described as requiring a "leap of faith."

Do you have good reasons for your faith in Jesus and the God of the Bible? I think this is a fair question because of the language you use in your posts. For example: "no empirical reasons for believing in the existence of God," "in spite of the lack of empirical evidence, I do believe in God," "threads of coincidence weaving...through my life," "all faith [is] a leap of faith," etc. These statements tell me more about your doubt than your belief. I would say the same about Dr. Camp's sermon (which I did listen to in its entirety).

So...why do you believe in the God of the Bible? Is your belief based only on your feelings, or is there more to it?

After reading your posts and listening to Dr. Camp's sermon, that is what I was hoping to see you discuss.

Phil said...


I'm going to give you an answer that probably isn't going to satisfy you and doesn't really satisfy me either, but it's what I have.

I think that I believe in God the way that I do because I was born in the United States into a Christian home to parents that got divorced while attending the church that I have attended for 31 of my 37 years of life.

Now, I don't think any of that nature-influencing faith that I have changes God and the truth of God, but in my humble opinion, as Thomas has stated, there is much mystery in God that I personally don't think our finite minds have the ability to comprehend.

So do I have proof? No. I don't. I have faith.

Tony Arnold said...

Interesting thought: a person may have proof of God, but cannot prove it.

Example: Moses and the burning bush or those visited by angels of the Lord. They don't have any doubt and have seen proof of God. But they can't prove it to anyone else. To the rest it is a story that has to be believed based on faith.

I have had some experiences in which my faith in God (which came first) was convincingly verified for me. But I cannot prove these things. It has provided great comfort and enhanced my faith. I don't mind sharing my experiences in the right contenxt and setting, but they are just stories to be accepted or not accepted in the views of others. And no, I have not seen any burning bushes, etc.

If you are playing golf alone and get a hole in one, you have proof that it happened. You hit the shot, and the ball is in the cup. That is proof. But if no one witnessed it, you cannot prove it happened.

Whether others believe or disbelieve you has a more to do with your character and their relationship with you than it does with the fact itself. If God offered us overt proof of His existence, it would no longer demand a relationship with Him to believe. If God's desire for man is for us to believe in Him, then the issue of proof is the primary facet of the issue. If God's desire is for man to engage in a living relationship with Him, then faith is becomes the critical facet, not proof.

Just some thoughts. Late in the game I know. Sorry.

Thomas McKenzie said...

I found Jeff's statement interesting: "Is there something more concrete that you base your faith on, or is it merely a leap of faith?" To which I say, "merely?"

As a convert to orthodox Christianity, I don't think I would use the word "merely" to modify "leap of faith." A leap of faith is one of the grandest, craziest, loveliest things a person can do.

And for Phil, I must disagree with you. You are not a believer in Christ because of the things you listed. You are a believer because of the grace of God to which you have responded in faith. You love God because he first loved you.

You don't need to shift into a secular world-view to express who you are in Christ. Unless, of course, you do actually believe that you are a Christian simply by accident of birth. Maybe I'm out of line here, but I don't think you believe that. But, I've been known to be wrong. Often.

Phil said...


I don't disagree fundamentally with how you put things. But I guess I would say that I believe those things because of how I believe. And because of that belief, I hold those things to be true.

jeffdod said...

God is infinite, we are not. He is a God of mystery because he knows things we don't. However, he made us in his image, and he has given us a sense of reason and order. This sense may be tainted now (by the fall) but it remains in sufficient measure that we may know things truly (although not omnisciently) if he reveals them to us.

As far as I can tell, God never asks us to divorce our reason from our faith. The two are both God-given, and are not mutually exclusive. So...when I hear someone say that God has given them the gift of faith, yet they can find no intellectually satisfying reasons to believe that God is good, or that he even exists, I am puzzled. That is not a "leap of faith" that I understand.

Now, if you believe that the perfectly good, infinite, personal, triune, covenant-keeping God of the Bible is truly there, and you step out in faith based on this belief, that is a wonderful kind of leap! But if your faith is such that you can't give someone else a reason for the hope that you have, other than an accident of birth...then I need more help to understand that kind of faith.

Maybe that is not what you meant to say, which is why I thought I would ask you about the real reasons for your belief.

Brian said...

Sometimes I feel like an intellectual believer and an experiential agnostic. I choose to believe intellectually, but have no experiential evidence one way or the other

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