Lesley Hazelton’s voice is one you want to listen to. Husky, likely from some smoking but with a deeper rustiness to it and a tinge of a British accent, it’s content could be nonsense and still it would sound sexy and wise. Fortunately for us listening to her last night at a talk that was part of the Yale Humanism Week , the voice spoke wise words. She described her most recent book “Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto” as an effort at putting language around an experience she finds many are having but for which we do not yet culturally have a sufficiently expressive language for.
The experience is of a not-fitting within the “old” or culturally worn categories of religious/spiritual/‘god’-related identities and an accompanying refusal on the part of an increasingly large number of us to accept or use the label of a category anyway. The roughly 23% of U.S. adults now labeled “nones” by the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Survey (35% if we look at those born between 1981 & 1996) aren’t checking a box pretending to fit within a box of Christian/Jewish/Muslim out of a sense of obligation to their familial tradition or to just not upset the cart. The polls don’t afford room for nuance. What we are and why we are not is not clear. Even if a poll could be crafted to capture that, it wouldn’t be clear. We are in a shifting field, the birthing of a new language and way of talking about the things/experiences/non-things that used to be housed within religion. Hazelton’s articulated thinking adds vibrantly to this conversation and helps to evolve it.
“Agnostic” is the religious/spiritual/‘god’-related identity label that Hazleton both exists in and also declines from fully embracing. Inherent in the definition of the agnostic stance as Hazelton articulates it is a continual openness to the world and a deep resistance to static identity definitions because to be so assured of one’s worldview - to be convicted - cautions Hazleton, is restrictive, drawing on the ‘convict’ in ‘conviction’. Reimagined apart from the spectrum of atheism or belief, Hazleton’s agnostic stance encourages a more physically-based and nuanced relationship with the experience of meaning, of human connection, of motivations, of that mysterious more than what is often afforded to ‘agnosticism’. The Agnostic stance is not, Hazelton emphasized, in the middle between atheism or belief; it is off the line, in a different field, in a different conversation.
The word itself is not great, ‘a-gnostic’. It’s a negative word meaning without secret knowing. While it may not be secret knowing, the agnostic stance surely presents us with a whole range of knowing, knowing that is experientially based, feminist, I’d say. A guest in the room asked Hazelton if she’d imagined another, more affirmative word. She wants to but hasn’t yet. I offer ‘embodied’ to the conversation. Perhaps an agnostic stance would eventually question the body in which something/someone is categorized as being in/em but it may get us closer to the conversation I think Hazleton and many of us want to have. The conversation we want to have isn’t really a religious one, religious in the way that that word has become so narrowly defined, but it is more a conversation about the dirt and awe, the daily and spectacular, the pleasurable and painful art of living.
Hazelton talked about the life of an agnostic as one that embraced uncertainty, not merely as a painful state that longs to resolve into certainty but as pleasurable in itself. The pleasure of being lost. She referenced repeatedly T.S. Eliot’s poem … eat the peach, eat the peach. There is a radical trust at the heart of Hazelton’s agnostic stance. I hear in me words of hymn taste and see, the lord is good and it feels almost like the same invitation as eat the peach. While it is unnecessary to do so - either for one who holds close to the word or concept of ‘lord’ or to one who holds close to an agnostic position, the affirmation of goodness, the goodness of life itself is at that heart of the nature of the conversation I think we really do want to have.