“Agnogger-Believer” | R.S. Thomas and Agnosticism

rs thomas agnosticWhen we’re talking about God, know must be preceded by don’t.

It’s accurate to say “I believe in God” or “I don’t believe in God.” But persons who say “I know God is” or “I know God is not” are claiming to know more than they can possibly know.

Despite the squawks of fundamentalists, both of the religious and the scientific variety, we simply do not know if God is or if God is not.

All of us therefore are agnoggers, to use the term popular with the poet Rupert Brooke and his circle of friends at Cambridge University a century ago. The better known term is agnostic, someone who doesn’t know whether there is something – Someone? – transcending the arena of things knowable; the realm of things susceptible to reasoned analysis.

For today’s blog, I am calling R. S. Thomas an agnogger-believer, partly because of the rhyme and rhythm of the words, and partly because the unfamiliar sometimes helps us tack an idea to our mental corkboard.

Thomas always believed in God, but he knew that he could not know if he was mistaken; therefore his belief was hyphenated with intellectual uncertainty, with doubt, with agnogging.

His belief is expressed in a poem published after his death, in which he visualizes . . .

    . . . one prayer, slipping
the reason, speeds out

into the cornerless
universe so close to God
as to open a crater
in his composure.

Belief is always a matter of “slipping / the reason,” of breaking free from the imperious imperative “prove it,” and launching out over immense depths towards the One Who Is.

But belief’s freedom is short lived. Even as our prayers are speeding “out // into the cornerless / universe,” our brain insinuates, “How do you know they won’t go on and on until they disintegrate?”

Thomas wrote two poems about moors. In the first, the moor “was like a church to” him, and God “made himself felt, / Not listened to, in clean colours.”

On the other moor, Thomas hears a scream as a raptor just barely misses its prey – a scream that is “here a moment, then / not here, like my belief in God.”

History is one reason that belief is “here a moment, then / not here.” History tells us about crusades, inquisitions, massacres. The twentieth was a century of human smoke: Shoah.

Thomas imagines a banquet at which Hitler and Stalin are talking:

   . . . Hitler with his ‘Sorry about

 the six million Jews’; Stalin conscious
that behind his moustache
his smile has become the transparent
lid over as many coffins.

But history, while using pogroms and purges to scuttle our belief, also helps to account for why belief is “here.” Thomas recalls . . .

That time
the queue winding towards
the gas chambers, and the nun,
who had already died
to this world, to the girl
in tears: Don’t cry. Look,
I will take your place.

But then the nun’s Bible also feeds the “not here” of belief.

Several years ago, I was enjoying pre-dinner drinks with my family on a restaurant’s deck, when a woman behind me said to her table companions: “I started reading straight through the Bible the other week, and by the time I was part way through the book of Exodus, I found that I didn’t like God very much.”

The God of the Bible is manipulative and malicious, testy and terrifying – an instigator of unbelief in God.

But Thomas the priest, who knew the Bible’s depictions of an irascible God all too well, also felt

          . . . the power
that, invisible, catches me
by the sleeve, nudging
towards the long shelf
that has the book on it I will take down
and read and find the antidote
to an ailment.

The Bible gives us, along with God the Tyrant, God the Good Shepherd and God the Healer.

But just when the Bible cures the “not here” of belief, science reinvigorates the virus.

Scientists don’t need “God” as a working hypothesis. They find that their theories explain the facts of the universe just as well whether you use “Chance” or “God” to explain why there is Something, not Nothing.

But, Thomas rejoins:

There was something I was near
and never attained: a pattern,
an explanation. Why did I address it
in person? The evolutionists told
me I was wrong. My premises,
the philosophers assured me,
were incorrect. Perpendicular
I agreed, but on my knees
looking up, cap in hand,
at the night sky I laid astronomy
on the side. These were the spiritual
conurbations illuminated always
by love’s breath; . . .

Thomas was a man who but . . . butted his way through life: Always belief was a matter of “here,” but “not here,” but “here,” but . . . .

He was an agnogger-believer,

             . . . waiting,
somewhere between faith and doubt,
for . . .


Poems of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:

“one prayer, slipping” – “Launching a Prayer,” Residues, 61.

“was like a church” – “The Moor,” Pietà, 24.

“”here a moment, then” – “Moorland,” Experimenting With an Amen, 49.

“Hitler with his ‘Sorry about” – “The Banquet,” Residues, 50.

“That time” – “Match My Moments,” Mass for Hard Times, 44.

“the power” – “The Presence,” Between Here and Now, 107.

“There was something I was near” – “Sonata in X,” Mass for Hard Times, 82.

“waiting” – “Waiting,” Frequencies, 32.