By: Emil G. Hirsch
A term invented by Prof. Thomas H. Huxley in 1869, expressive of opposition to the claims of the Christian gnostic as "the one who knows all about God" (see Huxley in the "Nineteenth Century," February, 1889), in adaptation of the descriptive adjective found in St. Paul's mention of the altar "to the unknown God" (Acts, xvii. 23). The word agnostic with its derivative has passed into recent literature as the designation in the main of the theories of two groups of thinkers. In its original implication, corresponding to the position of its inventor, the term agnostic represented a state of suspended judgment with regard both to theism and atheism. On the ground that existing evidence does not justify either the affirmation or the denial of the being of God, God is held to be unknown. However, the word has assumed a secondary meaning. It has come to denote the theory that God is not only now unknown, but is forever unknowable, on the assumption that the nature of human knowledge is such as to preclude knowledge of ultimate things. In the former sense the agnostic position makes a reaction against the dogmatism of both the Church and of atheistic materialism. Each presumed to possess ultimate knowledge. A protest against the arrogant gnosis of these, Agnosticism represents a wholesome phase of modern thought. It is expressive of the recognized need of modesty and a higher degree of reverence. The dogmatism of the Church was neither modest nor reverent; and these, its failings, marred also the attitude of its antipode, insistent materialism.Man's Knowledge of God.
Not content to teach that God is, the Church proceeded to catalogue what He is. In claiming for itself this knowledge, it ignored the limitations of human thought. It confounded analogy with identity. The Church failed, furthermore, in self-consistency. It appealed to revelation, and thus conceded the position of those who insist upon the inability of human reason to arrive at a comprehensive knowledge of God. On the other hand, it assumed that the human mind, lacking the insight to attain unto the knowledge of God, may yet understand and interpret revelation, and proceeded to develop, from data beyond cognition, a theory of the Godhead and of God's relations to the world and every individual therein. This contradiction proved to be the vulnerable point which atheism was not slow to attack, but atheism in turn fell into the error of its antagonist. Refusing to acknowledge reality beyond the visible, tangible, and sensuous world, it contradicted itself in building up a theory of the universe which transcended the data of immediate experience. Its denials were as dogmatic as were the affirmations of Church theism.Agnosticism versus Atheism.
Agnosticism, in proclaiming a truce to the verbalism of both contestants, came upon the world of thought as a refreshing breeze after a hot and stifling sirocco. As such a protest and reaction, it helped to clarify the atmosphere and contributed to the reexamination of the foundations of belief. It emphasized the necessity of clearer statements of the basic propositions at issue. But it could be only preliminary. The metaphysical interest in man is too strong to resign itself to inactivity, and the passion for unity and harmony is too insistently interwoven in the very constitution of the human soul to respect the lines drawn by this Agnosticism of "suspended judgment" in expectancy of further and fuller evidence.Development of Agnosticism.
In its own development Agnosticism had to progress beyond its first positions. Enunciating the doctrine that God is not only unknown, but forever unknowable, the later agnostic theories recur to the metaphysical epistemology of Kant and Comte, as modified in the synthetic philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Fundamental to this phase of Agnosticism is the thesis that knowledge is confined to phenomena—that the nature of ultimate things lies beyond the reach of human thought. The radical defect of this contention has often been pointed out. If it were true that our knowledge is limited to the phenomenal, by no possibility could we ever become aware of the limitation. To affirm that things-in-themselves exist, but that man can not know them, implies the contradiction of one half of the proposition in the other. If we can not know things-in-themselves, how do we know that they exist? If we know that they exist, then they are not unknowable. The knowledge that they are includes in a certain degree also the knowledge of what they are. The argument which proves that we can not know what things are in themselves tells against the knowledge that they are.
In the Kantian system the principle of causation is relied upon to prove the existence of the things in themselves. But, if our knowledge is confined within the realm of phenomena, this principle, of necessity, will apply only to phenomenal existence. We can not take one step farther by the aid of this crutch. In knowing the limits, we have passed beyond them. This new Agnosticism controverts the position of the sensationists. It concedes that sensations must have a cause beyond themselves. Our knowledge of the outer world is regarded as an inference, depending on an act of abstract thinking. It is then conceded that we know more than the immediate data of experience, for sensations are the only states of experience. Yet we assume, on the principle of causation, the existence of a world beyond and antecedent to our sensations. In truth, the knowledge of sensations is not more direct than that of objects.Consciousness and Knowledge.
To know consists not in the act of immediate experience, but is a composite operation in which comparison and memory—that is to say, the conscious revivifying of experiences which have passed away and are no more—play considerable part. Self-consciousness as the basis of thought thus transcends the actual as clearly as does the inference of things beyond the phenomenal. But this world, to which our sensations, as interpreted by consciousness, point, and the knowledge of which, though beyond experience, is ours, we interpret by the data of our own consciousness. We project into the beyond our own personality. Our personal experience now, as Kant himself has pointed out, is in a certain sense out of and above time, since the conscious unity which is present in it all, and without which it could not exist, is no member of the temporal series, but is that which makes the very conception of time possible. Our own self thus asserts itself as free from the limitations of time, and, therefore, it is not proved that the reality underlying the All must, of necessity, be quite unlike what we know as human life. What we know of self we may not deny to the absolute.Knowledge of God and the World.
The fear of falling into
Judaism has little to learn, and still less to fear, from modern Agnosticism. Conceiving of man as created in the image of God, it bases its God-knowledge on the self-knowledge of man. By looking into himself, man learns to know his God; and it is in terms of this self-cognition that Judaism expresses its God-consciousness. The early Biblical writings are naively anthropomorphic and anthropopathic. The philosophers of Judaism, beginning with Philo, prefer to hypostasize divine manifestations and powers, such as wisdom, grace, justice, prescience, to descriptions of His entity in human terms. This tendency finds expression in the nomenclature which borrows designations of space and locality to connote the Deity. "Being," "He who is," seem to suffice to name Him adequately. Beyond this ascription of Being, the pious disinclination to associate with Him other and less comprehensive connotations would not venture. The ḥazan who exhausted a rich vocabulary of attributive description in his zeal to magnify God was censured for his presumption (Bab. Ber. 33b). "The
Fundamental to the theology of most of the philosophic writers among the Jews is the thesis that, while we may predicate existence of God, we can not attain unto the knowledge of His quality (Maimonides, "Moreh," i. 58). Joseph Albo reports the answer given by a "wise man" to the query, whether he knew the what of the Godhead: "Did I possess this knowledge, I myself would be God" ("'Iḳḳarim," ii. 30). The controversy concerning the ascription of attributes to the Deity was fanned into a high blaze in consequence of dogmatic disputes in the camp of Mohammedan theologians. Saadia devotes a series of chapters ("Emunot we-De'ot," ii. 4-9) to the discussion of the problem, and comes to the conclusion that attributes, in the strict sense of the word, can not be predicated of God. Those found in the Bible may be divided into such as indicate essence and such as connote action; the former are comprehended in God's unity and are a mere accommodation to the necessities of language, while those of activity are mere designations of God's power in nature and history.Qualification by Negation.
Saadia was succeeded by a long series of thinkers, who contend that the attributes have in reality only a negative implication. They exclude their contraries, but do not affirm of God a positive reality, not included before in His Being. Maimonides, in his "Moreh Nebukim" (i. 50-60), on the whole is inclined to accept this theory. To attribute qualities to God would amount to limiting Him, and thus would degrade His Being. The attributes life, power, knowledge, and will constitute only a seeming exception. But while in man life and knowledge, thought and power are separate and divided, in God, the One and Indivisible, they are one. God's thought is not of the order of human thought. It is spontaneous. Why, then, adds Maimonides, in view of the essential difference of implication in the terms, use them in connection with God? From the very beginning, he adds, Jews had a dread of pronouncing the name of the Deity. The priests alone at certain times and in holy places could presume to utter the Ineffable Appellation. Others had to paraphrase it. Adonai and Elohim designate God as cognized from His works. Still Maimonides' thesis has also its positive side. The more we know what God is not, the nearer, says he, we draw by this road of negation to the perception of what is involved in the concept of the Deity as the One and Indivisible Unity.Modern Jewish Views.
In all essentials, modern Judaism shares the position of Maimonides. It regards all attempts at descriptive connotations of the Godhead as anthropomorphic makeshifts to find words for a thought which in reality is beyond the power of human tongue adequately to convey. God is. In Himself, He is unknowable. In so far as He is in relation to our own self, the life of Israel, the human family, and the world, He is known. Up to a certain point, then, Judaism is agnostic. It parts company with Agnosticism at the point where the certitude of our own immediate consciousness of the reality beyond the limited range of sensational experience is called into doubt. By the light of this consciousness, which is an immediate datum, by the facts of his own identity and persistency as a conscious entity in time and space—yet withal above time and space, and constituted into a moral personality by the additional data of Israel's history and the guidance of the world and humanity—the Jew, in accordance with Judaism's doctrine, draws the warrant for predicating in his faltering human language the existence of that "power not ourselves making for righteousness," paraphrasing attributes which agnostic metaphysics, in its confusion of the implications and the limitations of knowledge, refuses to admit. The Unknowable God, through the medium of human cognition, is apprehended as the God who is, and, as existing, is known by analogy and brought nearer to man by symbolism rooted in human experience and human self-consciousness. See also Anthropomorphism.