Private Knowledge

     I consider myself a Catholic. I also consider myself an agnostic. And while you’re catching your breath from that seeming contradiction, I’m going to indulge in a little word-splitting, hopefully of the consciousness-expanding kind.

     The original Gnostic controversy propelled a great deal of the early unrest within the Church. On one side stood men, apparently sincere, who believed that knowledge of God’s will came directly to each individual in the form of a private revelation, a gnosis. The most famous case of gnosis recorded in Christian history is the “road to Damascus” revelation of Paul of Tarsus, who may justly be regarded as the doctrinal founder of the Church.

     Opposed to these stood men who rejected the very idea of gnosis. They held that since not all persons had one, and that God would not be so cruel as to deny His word to anyone who desired to hear it, then these private revelations should be regarded as events of unknown significance at best, rather than reliable indicators of God’s will. These were the original agnostics.

     Interestingly, the Church, though its doctrines were shaped by the most celebrated gnosis of all time, almost immediately thereafter rejected the Gnostic position, declaring it beyond the pale for any communicant to place his private revelation above the teachings approved by the Church hierarchy. Gnosticism, thus anathematized, acquired an unsavory aspect, allied itself with forms of mysticism at odds with core Christian beliefs, and after a couple of centuries ceased to be an important influence on the development of the Christian faith.

     There are Christian faiths that preserve some fragment of the Gnostic belief. The Church of the Latter-Day Saints, for example, explicitly teaches its adherents that God may be expected to speak directly to them on matters of critical importance to them personally. However, most mainline Christian sects, including my own, are firmly agnostic. True doctrine, they teach, is preserved and propagated by the Church itself, in keeping with the responsibility conferred upon the apostle Peter by Christ Himself.

     All of this might seem a bit abstruse to the layman with a layman’s interest in matters of faith. I assure you, it’s more important than most Christians realize — not because of the possible clash between doctrine and revelation, but because of the private nature of all revelations, and the importance of that essential privacy to faith itself.

     In this world, God coerces no one. He has laid down the laws of Nature; that is all. Those laws may be denied or decried, but they cannot be broken. One aspect of those laws is that, for any given miracle — that is, for any given observed phenomenon that’s so far from the ordinary course of things that one explanation offered for it is the hand of God — there will always be at least one other plausible explanation, such that disbelief will remain possible. I believe that this is a part of the Divine Non-Coercion package, designed to allow men’s minds to be free even on the most fundamental of all subjects.

     Why does God want men’s minds to be so free? A good question. It might be part of the test. It might be part of what it means to be men. And it might be that we’ll all know soon enough. My own theory is that this is how God speaks directly to some men, such as Paul of Tarsus, while leaving others capable of reaching their own conclusions.

     Revelation is always private. Private events, as opposed to public events that may be witnessed by many persons simultaneously, have no evidentiary value for those who have not experienced them. Private events give rise only to private knowledge and private convictions. If a man has had such an experience, it may help him to persuade others, but even here there are stronger factors than the revelation itself: his known character, the degree of his eloquence, and his strength of will in staying true to the substance of the revelation and refraining from adulterating it with opinions of his own.

     To be a Christian agnostic is to say: Revelation is wonderful, if you’ve had one. It’s stunning, thrilling, enlarging beyond any other experience of the mind. But it has no weight as evidence in any argument with others. Your revelation was meant for you alone, or all the rest of us would have had it too.

     The Christian agnostic position is an insistence on personal humility: self-doubt, not doubt of God. How can we doubt what He has said to all of us together, the objectively verifiable laws that govern our universe and dictate how we may use what we find in it? But how can we not politely reserve judgment in the face of a Gnostic’s claim to have personal knowledge of His will? To do otherwise would be to elevate the convictions of a mere human above the actual mechanics of the cosmos, the continuously unfolding panoply of Creation itself.

     Why am I nattering on about this, you ask? Have I been accosted by self-nominated visionaries one too many times, or have I had a revelation of my own?

     Sorry, that’s private.