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Why certainties sell us short

03 April 2007

Martyn Percy applauds a lively essay that says we can’t know it all

Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life
Mark Vernon

IN THIS welcome and fascinating essay, Mark Vernon argues the case for “Christian agnosticism”. The book is well thought through, and written with passion and verve. The author is clearly a safe pair of hands for fielding some of the more complex philosophical arguments on scientific and religious claims, and he guides the reader through some highly intricate debates on the proofs for the existence of God with a sure touch and an easy style.

The main targets for Vernon’s apologetics are “cultures of certainty”, and he attacks both religious fundamentalism and (scientific) militant atheism with vigour and sharpness. But what makes the book such a pleasing and engaging read is the author’s passionate justification of “committed agnosticism”. He defends ambiguity and undecidability with an almost Evangelical zeal. And because he writes with such a delicate blend of deft coolness on the one hand, and fervour on the other, many are likely to be both enchanted and persuaded by his apologetics.

So what exactly is this Christian agnosticism? It is not an intellectual position conditioned by vapid defeatism — a kind of rationalised shrug of the shoulders in the face of a superfluity of inconclusive “evidence”. It is, rather, a positive (one might almost say faithful) engagement with the complexity of philosophy, science, modernity, and religious belief, which passionately restates the value of a more temperate grasp of knowledge.

Vernon argues that secular or sacred discourses and disciplines that trade in certainties tend to sell us short, and that what is needed in place of this is a capacity to engage with other visions of reality that enrich our understanding and increase our awareness of the limits of knowledge. So he can confidently state that “a humanism of humility, not hubris, is what agnosticism struggles to put centre stage.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the sources that Vernon reaches for to consolidate his arguments turn out to be the usual suspects. Thus we find an appeal to Nicholas of Cusa and his concept of “learned ignorance”. Or to the more recent writing of Denys Turner: “Whatever might show God to exist equally shows God’s unknowability.”

It is refreshing to find someone arguing not so much over the content of knowledge as about the moral frames of reference we might develop for holding it. Vernon is saying that we can’t know it all. So Dawkins and the religious funda-mentalists have much more in common than they can ever really acknowledge. He holds that, with Christian agnosticism, we might learn to live in peace and humility, and with the sense of awe and wonder that goes with keeping our minds open rather than cleaving to false or premature certainties.

One may not necessarily buy the whole thesis, but most readers will find themselves applauding a congenial and cogent argument for the limits of knowledge. Wisdom, it is sometimes said, is knowing your place before God. And while Vernon says we can’t absolutely know God, he is equally clear that any knowledge that claims to disprove and dismiss God is punching above its weight.

Vernon knows his place. To allow yourself to be formed by knowledge that leads to humility, and becomes a truly responsible uncertainty, is a courageous philosophy. I suspect Jesus might have something to say to this kind of Christian agnosticism: “you are not far from the Kingdom.”

Canon Professor Percy is Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

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