Theological and Doctrinal Agnosticism
While attending an Orthodox church, after the liturgy was through and people were preparing lunch, my wife and I got to talking to one of the priests. During the discussion he said something I’ve heard before but never cease to find a bit shocking. He said that although there are many christian beliefs out there the Orthodox Church is the true church. He was saying that of all the churches with their collections of doctrines, beliefs and liturgies, the Orthodox Church got it right. Shocking, yes?
I’m not going to examine the veracity of that claim here but instead want to talk about the appropriateness of making such a claim in the first place. In our culture making absolute truth claims is frowned upon. This isn’t always true of course. If you step out in front of a fast moving car, arguing about truth claims and relativism go right out the door…or under the wheels in this case. But when we discuss ethics, philosophy and especially religion relativism is the rule and any sort of objective truth claims are quietly dismissed if not boo’d outright. Unfortunately this tendency has seeped into the church. We are loathed to admit it but what we have come to expect when it comes to truth claims concerning doctrine specifically and theological claims in general is a kind of theological agnosticism. We expect people to end each seemingly objective truth claim with a formulation that goes something like, “But that is just me. I could be wrong”.
["Agnosticism" may seem like the wrong word as the person making the claim will insist, at least in their own mind, that they are right. But here I am using the word qualitatively to refer to appearances and how we are expected to behave in society. Although you are allowed today to have your beliefs, speaking them out loud with any thing resembling conviction when it comes to theological or even moral issues is not encouraged and, in some cases, punished with legal action. So if we at least indicate that we are unsure we are less likely to get ourselves in trouble. Later it will become more clear why this word is appropriate for this phenomenon. ]
Although I would like to say bible-believing churches have a category of theological truth claims they will refuse to be agnostic on, in fact that is becoming less the case these days. Most will not compromise on things like murder, adultery, stealing, etc., even if they will compromise on what these things actually mean in opposition to what they meant. That said, the number of things of which they will accept theological agnosticism grows with each passing day. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in this context that eyebrows go up when someone claims categorically to be right concerning a truth claim or even, in the case of Orthodoxy, an entire category of truth claims.
There are a number of reasons why such claims make us uncomfortable. In the first place, who likes being told they are wrong? We don’t mind it, or at least tolerate it, when someone tells us we are wrong concerning some facts of science or health such as when the doctor tells us our diet is killing us or we discipline our children for trying to touch a hot stove. But our religion is a whole other mater. Telling someone they are wrong, even if we do it by telling them we are right, comes off many times sounding rude. Why? Besides the fact that we've become a society of soft-skinned, infantile, offense prone, victimized, drama addicted, self-obsessed hedonists (to put it plainly), I believe a cause of this is the underlying conviction that we can never really know the truth concerning theological matters (which is the proper definition of agnosticism). Which is to say certain basics of the Christian faith are, a priori, true but anything beyond the basics is questionable at best. Of course what are considered the basics is a matter of opinion, but in general this holds true.
However, I would argue that if God is real, and we are able to conclusively claim that the existence of God is true, existing in three persons and that he really did speak to us through the Scriptures, then we should be able to make certain truth claims. In fact, I believe me must. Additionally, if we are able to make these truth claims then, by extension, opposing or antithetical truth claims are, in point of fact, false.
In short, a claim that “The Orthodox Church is right” means that others are wrong. Such a claim is admirable in one sense, but it is really the lack of agnostic formulation tacked onto the end we’ve become so accustomed to hearing that really makes us squeamish. If only the priest had shown some social etiquette by adding, “But we could be wrong”, we would be quite okay with the claim. Instead he comes off sounding prideful. Unless, of course, he is actually right. Then we have another problem to deal with. I'll talk about this along with the problem of sources of authority for our claims in future posts.
As a side note, after the priest had made the original claim he did add, "Orthodoxy is the right church given to the wrong people."