“Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto,” a collection of eight provocative essays by Seattle author Lesley Hazleton, explores the gray area between devout belief in God and atheism. Hazleton discusses her book Tuesday, April 5, at Town Hall Seattle.
“Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto”
by Lesley Hazleton
Riverhead, 224 pp., $25.95
Lesley Hazleton’s mind is too restless to accept a religious creed, yet too open to reject the idea of God. This tension ripples through “Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto,” a group of eight provocative essays in which she paddles the river of doubt with energy and exuberance.
What’s needed, Hazleton writes, is “a strong, sophisticated agnosticism that does not simply avoid thinking about the issues, nor sit back with a helpless shrug, but actively explores the paradoxes and possibilities.” This statement sets the tone for not only the book’s central topic of discussion, whether God exists, but also such related matters as the search for meaning, the meaning of soul, and life after death.
The author of “Agnostic” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5, available at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.
Hazleton’s approach should find a receptive audience in the unchurched Northwest, where the author lives on a houseboat in Seattle and blogs as “The Accidental Theologist,” a title that catches the spirit of her quest. Neither scholarly nor definitive, “Agnostic” fills a void for those who sense a need unfilled by our utilitarian, consumer-driven culture.
Is there a place for God in your life? After a career that included reporting from Jerusalem and writing books on subjects as varied as Muhammed and Jezebel, the British-born Jewish writer answers with a definite “maybe,” describing this as “one of the most intriguing words in the English language.”
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Hazleton tangles with dogma huggers in both directions as she claims that neither atheists nor evangelists have it right. Religious fanatics use fear and nonbelievers rely on cold reason, she claims, when both are inadequate instruments that drown out what philosopher William James famously called “the music of the spheres.”
“Agnostic” hears the music. But who or what is making the sound — that’s up for discussion. Hazleton objects to what is known as Pascal’s wager, the notion that believing in God is the better bet because the consequence of not believing is so dire. Such bargains reduce God to a human level, she writes, quoting the ninth-century scholar John Scotus Erigena: “Literally, God is not, because He transcends being.”
Of course, this idea frames the problem perfectly: How do you talk about the ineffable when, by definition, it addresses topics that words cannot express? James’ “music” must be expressed in metaphors — a deer yearning for water in the Psalms, Jesus’ many mansions in the New Testament. In some quarters, the symbols become the thing itself.
As someone who dwells in possibility within the Christian tradition and liturgy, I would caution Hazleton against the tendency to equate all believers with religious literalists. Agnostics aren’t the only ones capable of emphasizing the questions rather than the answers. Like the early Jews who would not speak the name of God, many believers would identify with her impulse to “experience awe without defining it.”
Hazleton cops to a mystical impulse but draws a line against doctrine. “Not everything must have meaning,” she argues, taking issue with the premise of Rick Warren’s best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life.” For Hazleton, “the sheer, magnificent, mysterious contingency of it all” can suffice.
All told, “Agnostic” is a worthy entry point into issues of faith for the uncommitted. Hazleton’s lively intelligence tells the story even as she references the usual company — Spinoza, Voltaire and Einstein, to name a few — and quotes the irreverent recluse Emily Dickinson: “I dwell in possibility.”