Opinion: I’m a vicar — and an agnostic. Here’s why that makes sense.

On the eve of Easter, the Revd Dr Colin Heber-Percy considers how asking ourselves a question to which we already know the answer, but which we may have forgotten, echoes the message of the Resurrection.

‘You have very kindly written a piece for us in the magazine, about Easter,’ asks James Fisher of Rev Colin Heber-Percy in last week’s episode of the Country Life podcast.  ‘It has what I would describe as a punchy first sentence for a man of the ministry to write, which is: “I’m an agnostic. There, I’ve said it.”

‘So I will ask you the same question. How can you be a vicar, Colin, and call yourself an agnostic?’ adds our podcast host James.

‘Agnostic just means not knowing,’ explains Colin. ‘We’ve come to think of it as a label, as a spectrum: there’s this spectrum, atheism, agnosticism, and faith. And agnosticism is somewhat is sort of like the kind of like the third way, or the Liberal Democrat position.

‘But actually, it’s a much richer term than that, because it just means not knowing. And it strikes me… that the idea of not knowing is an extremely valuable position to have and to hold — not just in terms of your religious faith.

‘If you’re a scientist, not knowing is kind of what impels you: “I don’t know, and I want to”. So starting from not knowing is a completely vital place in all human endeavour and inquiry. What would be the point of endeavour inquiry and inquiry if we didn’t start from that place?

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‘It’s a deeply creative, and I would say theologically rich space, a philosophically rich space, to inhabit. And we’re in good company where we say we’re agnostic, or we don’t know: St Paul himself said in that incredibly famous passage, Chapter 13 of Corinthians I: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.

‘But “knowing only in part”, that’s effectively a definition of agnosticism.

‘I haven’t got the full picture. I’d love to have the full picture. But I don’t have it. And I think inhabiting that space of not knowing, of knowing only in part, is how we’re called to live as human beings.’

You can listen to the full exchange in the podcast at the 26:30 mark, either in the embedded player here or via the podcast links below.

You can also read Colin’s full Easter message here, as originally published in the March 27 issue of Country Life.

Rev Dr Colin Heber-Percy’s Easter message

I am an agnostic. There, I’ve said it. How can you be a vicar, Colin, and call yourself an agnostic? ‘Agnostic’ only means not knowing. And not knowing actually puts us in good company at Easter: the disciples don’t know, either. At first. St Paul is agnostic when he says: ‘Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

For the time being, I must settle for knowing only in part. This isn’t because I wasn’t paying attention at school; it’s because I’m human. Arguably, even if I had been paying attention at school (which, quite honestly, I wasn’t), it may not have been to my advantage anyway. Good teachers encourage us to ask questions. How will you ever learn, they explain, if you don’t ask? And remember, they invariably add, there are no silly questions.

But what if all questions are silly questions? In Meno, Plato argues we can never learn anything by asking questions. Let’s assume, he says, you can divide all facts into two classes: the facts you know and the facts you don’t. I know what the capital of France is, but I don’t know the exact current population of Vancouver. There’s no point in my asking ‘what’s the capital of France?’ because I already know the answer. I’d learn nothing new by asking the question. Yet, I don’t know the population of Vancouver, so how would I ever be in a position to accept as false or correct an answer you might give me? Again, I can learn nothing by asking the question.

If you know the answer already, inquiry is unnecessary. If you don’t know the answer already, inquiry is futile.

The solution to the paradox, Plato suggests, lies in his claim that cognition is really recognition. You knew the answer all along, you’d simply forgotten and needed reminding. This, in a nutshell, is the Easter story: not knowing and then, suddenly — recognition.

After the Crucifixion, two of Jesus’s disciples flee Jerusalem and meet a stranger on the road. Out on the lake, Peter and the fishermen see an unknown person standing on the shore, waiting for them. Mary assumes the man she addresses at the entrance to the empty tomb is a gardener. Then, in an instant, the risen Lord Jesus is recognised — in the breaking of bread at Emmaus, in a miraculous haul of fish on the lake and in the stranger calling Mary’s name. This is Easter: His Resurrection demands our recognition.

If cognition is the name we give to acquiring new knowledge, recognition is the discovery that this knowledge was never new at all; it was ours already. Knowledge is never wanting; it is always waiting.

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples they know the place where he is going and, what’s more, they know the way there. When Thomas points out they don’t know where he’s going, so how can they know the way, Jesus answers by telling them: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6). The truth is literally staring them in the face. They just need to recognise Him.

To illustrate what I mean, put yourself in Thomas’s shoes and try getting lost. I got lost the other day in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire. The fact is, I’d been lost in my thoughts as I walked and so — inevitably — I ended up lost in the forest, too.

I stood and looked about, not knowing the way, or knowing, but only dimly, only in part. When you’re lost like this, you hunt around for the familiar — a particular tree, a clearing or a helpful sign. No tree. No clearing. No sign. Where am I? Another silly question.

In his Gifford Lectures, delivered in the late 1920s and later published as Process and Reality, the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said this: ‘A traveller who has lost his way, should not ask,/Where am I? What he really wants to know is,/Where are the other places?’

What Whitehead seems to be suggesting is that, when we’re lost, we should try to start not from me, but from everywhere else. It’s actually harder to do this now than it was when he was giving his lectures. Have you noticed how, with satnavs, we always stay in the same place, in the centre of the screen, and the world moves and scrolls obligingly around us and along with us? I am at the centre of everything. Copernicus reversed. In the past, I had to trace my way across the map. There was a gainful humility in this. It strikes me, as I stand in the forest, looking around, that getting lost has something quaint about it. Thanks to smartphones, our children never get lost. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining why so many of them are lost in profounder ways.

With ‘the other places’ pressing in on me, I wonder whether this might be what forests are for: they’re for getting lost in. After all, Shakespeare’s lovers are lost and enchanted in the forest. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the forest and have to use all their ingenuity to escape its clutches. Lost teenagers in The Blair Witch Project are led nightmarishly around and around the forest, before succumbing to what lurks at its heart. Trisha, the nine-year-old girl in Stephen King’s brilliant The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, is lost in the forest where she must confront and overcome her worst fears. The forest is a place of danger, but also one of encounter and transformation.

Lost in a forest, we’re all agnostic. This is an exciting, fruitful place to be; it ‘Easters’ us. It puts us on our mettle. Politically speaking, instead of promoting a ‘knowledge economy’, perhaps what we really need is an ignorance economy. Ignorance is how science works. It’s how religion works, too. Knowing that we all start from not knowing is vital.

Recognition is the process by means of which we distinguish the familiar from the unfamiliar, the friend from the stranger. Although we tend to forget that recognition requires the unknown, all the ‘other places’, requires our being lost in the first place. For recognition to work, it has to emerge for us against a foresty backdrop of unfamiliarity, of otherness, of strangeness.

For the risen Lord Jesus to be recognised by the disciples, he must come to them as a stranger. This isn’t his disguise; it’s our ignorance. The recognition, when it comes, is always personal. Here is a person breaking bread with us, waiting for us on the shore, there to meet us in our distress.

On that Easter morning, when Mary Magdalene recognises Jesus, she cries out ‘Teacher’ and her instinct is to cling to him — but she cannot. Because the truth isn’t something we can acquire or grasp, like trying to grab hold of a sunbeam; it’s Someone calling out to us, to be recognised and loved, and followed… out of the forest.

The Revd Dr Colin Heber-Percy is vicar of the Savernake Forest parishes in Wiltshire and the author of ‘Tales of a Country Parish’ (Short Books)