The agnostic Greek philosopher Protagoras is credited with the phrase, “Man is the measure of all things.” Since the context of the statement is not available to us, we can only guess what he meant. I won’t even attempt to speculate right now—but the statement is full of bluster and conceit, it seems to me. Yet let me add this caveat—it is bluster only if there is a God. Otherwise, the statement is as true as any other one might craft about the meaning and value of life.
As a pastor and theologian, I have often tried to put myself in the position of the unbeliever, feeling and thinking as he does about the questions of God, good and evil, the meaning of life, values and the destiny of the universe and mankind. It’s a tough assignment, but it is not without profit.
Here is one insight I received during one of my agnostic/atheist sessions: I might not believe in God if it were not for Jesus Christ. I know that sounds almost blasphemous from the perspective of a person of faith; but I’m trying to think as one who doesn’t have faith—or as one for whom faith is problematic.
Put on your agnostic thinking cap for a moment and join me in a little exercise.
1) Let’s think about the kind of God revealed in nature alone. Natural theology seeks God by studying nature without any appeal to supernatural revelation. In nature we discover matter and energy, predictable and universal laws, amazing complexity and diversity along with symmetry and beauty. Yet in nature there are also those “dysteleological” elements, the things that don’t make sense and that frighten us—such as tornado, hurricane, disease, and death. The God of natural theology is powerful and smart; but he is not always attractive. He is big enough to create a world, if my reasoning is correct; but I’m still going to die–and then what? There’s barely a hint to the answer to that question.
The poet Tennyson wrestled with the contradictions between faith and Nature and wrote In Memoriam:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;
. . .
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
. . .
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–
. . .
I found Him not in world or sun,
Or eagle’s wing, or insect’s eye;
Nor thro’ the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun:
Tennyson held onto his belief in “god” even though his musings on science and nature provided him with no solutions and no comfort. I’m afraid I would be as pessimistic and melancholy as Tennyson if all I had was nature to tell me who God is. I might infer the existence of a god, but I would have no clue to his identity or character.
2) Now let’s think about religion. The gods of the world religions are also not attractive to me personally. Even the god of reason found in Unitarianism or Deism is unappealing. When I read of “that Beneficent Spirit who guides the universe and provides us all of our needs,” I can’t help but wonder, “Where on earth did you learn of such a being? Did you just get in a room one day and start imagining what kind of god you would like and then, abracadabra, you invented him on the spot?” It appears to me that this god is either a dumbed-down version of the biblical deity or he is merely an intellectual fabrication—with no authority outside my own mind to support the idea. The god of reason is not for me.
3) So we move from religion in general to the God of the Hebrew faith. If I am an agnostic seeking to know if God exists, even the God revealed in the Old Testament leaves me wanting more—and sometimes less. Yahweh has many wonderful attributes—but there are some inexplicable mysteries in the character of Yahweh as revealed in the Old Testament.
Theologian Rudolf Otto spoke of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” the fearful and attractive mystery of God. I have to admit that the Old Testament picture of God by itself, i.e., without the completion of the portrait found in the New Testament, is at times more fear-evoking than attractive. There are many exceptions, of course; but when I have on my agnostic thinking cap, it’s easy to focus on the “tremendum” more than the “fascinans.”
4) I’m still trying to think like an agnostic. In my quest I pick up a New Testament. At once I make an amazing discovery—in the New Testament, God has a human face. The powerful, holy and transcendent God revealed as the Creator and the covenant God of Israel has come down to where we are, assumed our likeness, and invited us to fellowship with Him.
He is still powerful because He quiets the storms and turns water into wine and heals the infirm. But He holds little children in His arms, tousles a young lad’s hair, converses with and shows affection to women and social outcasts, and weeps at the tomb of a friend.
Through Jesus I learn that God is the seeker, never the one who is sought. He initiates relationships and enables response.
In Jesus I learn that God is the lover more than the beloved. I can love Him because He first loved me.
Here is a God I can believe in—indeed, I want to believe in. The phrase, “God is nowhere” has been transformed to read, “God is now here.” How can one be an agnostic when he faces the reality that is Jesus Christ?
5) The agnostic hat is off now. It’s just me, Alan—the guy who has found In Jesus Christ the measure of all things, the meaning of life, and the perfect portrait of God. Now when I pick up the Old Testament, it makes sense to me–but only in retrospect.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann said that we should interpret the Old Testament without any precommitments based upon the New Testament. But I disagree—with all of my being. Only from a Christological perspective does the Old Testament make any sense to me. Only in the light of the New Covenant does it become clear what God was doing in calling Abraham and Moses, creating the nation of Israel, and preserving the history and interpretation of those events in the Old Testament. Only when I understand that Yahweh and Jesus are one do I hungrily approach the Psalms or the Prophets or the Historical books and expect to meet a friend.
6) The reason I know that Jesus is Yahweh is because He rose from the dead. Paul said that those who believe in Christ’s resurrection and who confess Him as Yahweh (Lord—Greek “kurios” = “Yahweh”) will be saved (Romans 10:9-13). I have made that confession and it has become the very foundation of my existence. Jesus is Yahweh. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is God. Therefore Jesus saves.
Jesus is the clue to unraveling the mystery of deity. Jesus is the key to the treasure chest of God’s wisdom containing the explanation for life and all existence. He is the very principle that holds together the universe and causes it to “cohere” both intellectually and physically (Col. 1:17).
It is not a big deal to say, “I believe in God.” The question is, “What kind of God do you believe in?” I believe in the God who finalized His message to mankind with a manger and a cross and a big rock. A virgin-born babe, supernaturally conceived, who was both God and man and who was named Jesus—that’s the God I believe in. A perfect man—who never sinned but who loved sinners and went to a cross to redeem guilty sinners like me—that’s the God I believe in. A victorious man—who died and rose again and whose resurrection is symbolized by the stone that was removed from a tomb that is empty—that’s the God I believe in. A man who was so much man as if He were not God, but so much God as if He where not man—that’s the God I believe in.
Jesus is God. “For in Him the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily” (Col 2:9 HCSB). He is creator, sustainer, completer, consummator. He is wise enough to conceive of a universe, powerful enough to speak the worlds into existence and then sustain these worlds, loving enough to redeem humanity from destruction, and persistent enough to hold onto those who put their trust in Him.
Protagoras was almost right. What He should have said is: “The God-man is the measure of all things.”
Alan Day (1948-2011): Dr. R. Alan Day was pastor of First Baptist Church, Edmond, for 25 years. He also previously pastored churches in Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. A prolific writer, Day is the author of two books, Lordship . . . What Does It Mean? and Family First, and a contributing author for Baptist Theologians. He served the Baptist Messenger as a columnist for several years, writing a weekly Baptist Doctrine series from 1999-2002, then an “I’m Glad You Asked” column in 2005.
Alan Day tragically passed away in February 2011 following a motorcycle accident.