A Strange Prayer

For a long time now, a close friend of mine has been content to call himself agnostic. We don’t talk about it often, but we did a couple weeks ago. I had a long conversation with him via Facebook, going back and forth on various things. Nothing seemed to sink in: It seemed as though we ended the conversation in roughly the exact same place we had started it: firmly planted in agnosticism.

“That’s a dangerous valley you’re in, dude,” I told him.

“Well, that depends on who’s right,” he said. “But I understand what you mean.”

Then he said he had to go and thanked me for the talk. I told him I’d pray for him, and he said he appreciated it.

But I’m not so sure he would still appreciate it, if he knew what I had prayed for.

Later that day, I found myself  hunched over my steering wheel in a Bank of America parking lot, praying that God would give my friend not peace, but an unsettling, uneasy, frantic desire for truth. I’d never prayed for something like that before (except for myself). I’d never prayed for someone to become less calm, to be more unsure about things.

I’d never thought about it before, but I think the prayer stuck me as so unusual because we tend to see “comfort” as something that’s always good, and nervousness and anxiety as something that’s always bad. “Don’t worry, be happy,” says the secular world, and Paul tells us, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but with prayer and thanksgiving bring your requests to God.”

The world tells us not to worry because worrying doesn’t really help much. It reflects a certain Ecclesiastical fatalism: Everything might not work out alright, but worrying won’t help it, so we might as well be happy. This may well be the best answer the world has, but it’s still not a good answer. But the Church tells us not to worry because of who and where we are, as Christians.

As Christians, worry over our outward circumstances betrays a fundamental misunderstanding concerning who and where we are.  We are Christians; we are, in a very real sense, in Christ, and our position in Christ is so completely and utterly secure that Paul can go on at length over the many and various things that can never separate us from the love of God, including all of creation visible and invisible, natural and supernatural.

The same cannot be said for the non-Christian. The same cannot be said for the one hedging towards agnosticism. And indeed, it seems to me that agnosticism is infinitely more dangerous for the subject that even outright atheism.

This is because an outright atheist is, in many important ways, closer to Christianity than an agnostic. Atheism is, at least, an active position. It requires an active affirmation of certain beliefs, a certain intellectual engagement with those beliefs. The atheist at least believes that the existence or non-existence of God is an important subject, one worth thinking about and arguing over.

Not so for the agnostic. The agnostic (at least, this particular agnostic) simply doesn’t care all that much. Atheism has points in its favor, as does Christianity: Further research into the matter may yield more information, but who has the time? The agnostic simply doesn’t care enough about the matter, can’t be bothered to think seriously about it. He is settled and at peace.

And so I prayed in the bank parking lot. I prayed not for peace on earth, but for unrest and discord in the mind and soul of my friend. I prayed for God to make him restless, uncertain, even frightened of his position. I prayed that he would care so much that it would drive all other concerns out of his mind. Only then, I think, will he be able to once again seek God and find Him.

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Mackenzie Mulligan

I am a graduate of Biola University and a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute, and I'm also married to the extremely beautiful Anna Mulligan. I make my living as a writer (like, for a job), and in my free time I write on literally anything that strikes my mind long enough to make it onto my computer, although it generally comes back to some aspect of theology, either on Evangelical Outpost or on my personal blog (http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/). And in my spare spare time, I wrote a book! It’s called "Simon, Who Is Called Peter", and if you’re interested in the life of Jesus’ most notorious disciple, you should definitely give it a read! You can buy it right here: http://www.amazon.com/Simon-Who-Is-Called-Peter/dp/162564535X/

  • Dave

    I love this ! I also think it odd that
    the agnostic can claim there is any real danger of being a christian if we are
    in fact wrong ? Didn’t Pascal put that one down on paper ? Besides that I love
    your desire to see your friend explore truth at a deeper level.

    Shallow, pointless pain does a disservice. True pain
    means for us to notice something worth fearing that lasts beyond this little
    blip here on earth.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I believe he was thinking that it’s only dangerous being an agnostic if Christianity is right. Pascal’s Wager did cross my mind at the time, but I’ve never really liked it as anything more than an interesting concept: “hedging your bets,” so to speak, doesn’t seem like the most solid foundation for Christian faith.

    But yes, you’re right on with your thoughts on pain. He seems asleep, and I really hope God will give him a pinch to wake him up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.nilsen David Nilsen

    Mack, I’m on the same page with you when it comes to Pascal’s wager. But then C.S. Lewis crossed my mind (as he so often does). It occurred to me that when Lewis says you ought to act like you love something, and presently you will come to love it in fact (in the majority of cases, anyway), that this could be applied to the wager. Convince a person that it’s best to hedge their bets and try to be a Christian. If they start attending a good church every week and reading their bible everyday, they just might come to a genuine faith, even if the initial foundation seemed sketchy at the time.

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  • http://www.humblewonderful.com/ Tony C.

    I hope your friend was able to articulate an agnostic position to you well because I think it has a lot of merit to it.
    Consider many of the truly important actions you take – looking after any children in your life for example. Consider many of the important values you hold such as compassion, justice or even something as basic as your friendship with your agnostic friend and your care for them.
    Isn’t your commitment to these things something you would hope to survive any weakening of your faith? If it is then I would prescribe for you a little of what your friend has, a little indifference to the theist/atheist debate.
    Although I am a non-theist (I don’t use atheist for this very reason) all that is, is a statement of my metaphysics. I don’t think atheism is going to make the world a better place in and of itself. A Christian is not just someone who holds Christian metaphysics, they are someone who sees Christianity as being spectacularly helpful to people.
    What I really admire about agnostics is that they recognise that a lot of philosophy can do quite well without metaphysics, a lot of ethics can be answered directly. Existentialism is a philosophy which recognises that whether God exists or doesn’t or we don’t know our ethical decisions remain our responsibility.
    I think its fine to hope for your friend to be unsettled. Maybe they ought to be unsettled about their health, or their wealth and the morality of it, or the way they impact on the environment. You know the things that matter far more than our religious opinions.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    You see Christianity as something to be used, and in doing so, show that you fundamentally misunderstand what it is. Christianity isn’t something to be embraced because it’s “useful” or “helpful”: It is not, and has never been, utilitarian. God is the highest goal, and he will not be used for any lesser purpose.

    And I just have to lol at your parting shot there. Do you really think that’s particularly helpful, to come onto an orthodox, evangelical Christian blog and off-handedly mention that “religious opinions” aren’t very important? If I were to go onto an atheist blog and, rather than attempt to engage them using their terms, simply quoted the Bible at them, would that accomplish anything?

  • http://www.humblewonderful.com/ Tony C.

    That would depend on whether you are willing to allow your prayer to apply to yourself. In your conversation with your friend; Were you willing to be shaken in your certainty?

    I merely wanted you to see the merits of agnosticism from its own perspective. Without first showing that respect I doubt your friend will be anything other than defensive towards your arguments.

    I certainly meant no offense. If I saw an agnostic being similarly as dismissive of Christianity I would probably be motivated to help them see the other point of view too. To do so I would probably illustrate a similar point to your own (that Christianity is not primarily utilitarian). That’s a great first point for agnostics to approach Christianity.

    But are you making the same sort of effort to understand agnosticism?

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I have a sort of respect for atheism: I have little respect for the kind of agnosticism that is content to merely let it lie.

    If Christianity is false, atheists shouldn’t “respect” us: They should stop us from preaching a backwards and baseless religion. And if Christianity is true, then we should stop at nothing to continue preaching it. In no conceivable system is the matter simply unimportant enough to let it lie. The stakes are too high, either for our temporal fate here on earth, or our eternal fate afterwards.

  • http://www.humblewonderful.com/ Tony C.

    “If Christianity is false, atheists shouldn’t “respect” us: They should stop us from preaching a backwards and baseless religion.” Why? There are variants of Christianity that are offensive to my values but there are many that aren’t. I love Dickens. I enjoy G.K. Chesterton. I admire Desmond Tutu. There is no atheist hell for these people who believe in God!

    The agnostic position is also perfectly logically consistent. (You may believe it is wrong but its not illogical). It may indeed be the conceivable system you’re looking for.

    Now you will probably find there are many matters your agnostic friend is not indifferent about. They may divide the world sharply into people who justify cruelty and people who don’t. However they are probably able to observe that theists and atheists can be found on both sides of that divide. Hence in what matters to them, theism/atheism is neither here not there.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    I actually do believe that any attempt to derive morality from anything other than a supernatural source is logically incoherent (Lewis hits it spot on in The Abolition of Man).

    You’re right that there are many matters my friend is not indifferent about. You’re right that that is a good position to have. But you’re wrong in thinking it can be separated from “religious opinions.”

    You say you meant no offense, and I believe you: However, you did clearly state that “religious opinions” aren’t important. And that’s a bedrock disagreement, which I don’t see us getting past.

    As a side note, I do find your inclusion of Chesterton interesting: It leads me to think that perhaps you’ve mistaken his cheerful tone for theological softness. Chesterton sees every position other than Christianity as fundamentally incomplete and harmful to the one who holds it. To Chesterton, Christianity is the only thing that allows us to be what we are supposed to be. Anything else is folly and ultimately inhuman.

  • http://www.humblewonderful.com/ Tony C.

    Yet I know of Calvinists who are able to like Chesterton despite his opposition to their beliefs. Very few protestants care to let his Catholicism keep him off their shelves. I grew up on the Father Brown mysteries. The way in which he disputes the science of criminology particularly challenging its angle of fire against the poor is prophetic. However I disagree with many of his other views. Disagreeing does not mean ceasing to admire though. Although I come to different conclusions to him I applaud the clarity of his thinking and his humour.

    I sincerely hope you are not inclined to only admire people whose entire views you agree with. That will leave you with a small pool of wonder to fish from.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    And yet Chesterton believes (as do I), that all these things you enjoy about him are the natural by-product of the truths of Christianity and of nothing else. Social justice, morality, gaiety, the concept of truth having value… all of these stem from the world of Christianity. Therefore, any attempt to separate the one from the other is inherently flawed and doomed to failure.

    We have strayed far from the original topic of the post, so I’m just going to say: Your basic, bedrock assumption seems to be that as Christians, we should treat all other worldviews as equally valid solely because people who hold them can still justify to themselves being good, moral people (which you unequivocally stated to be more important than mere religious opinions).

    Such a claim is absolutely ludicrous and can only hold up when Christianity is seen as purely something to be used for the temporal benefit of humanity. I am amazed that you state it as something we should all be able to agree on. I sincerely doubt we’ll be able to make progress here.

    Thanks for your comments!