BOWEN COLUMN: Perhaps an agnostic no more

Published 9:30 am Thursday, March 10, 2022

No need to tell anyone who turns to this page the impact of Yellowstone. Of course, chances are, there’s somebody who just happened to run across the 25-year running column for the first time (if you can imagine that); but if they have made it this far I think they’re already a lifelong member of our front-porch fellowship.

What better way to introduce a good reader to our down-home discussions than to offer another Yellowstone reflection. I will forewarn you that this one goes deep; and I hope every Bible teacher or ‘inspirationist’ will take these thoughts and share them with your audience, young or old.

Go back with me to our meeting with my agnostic friend deep in the midst of Yellowstone on the evening of the fifth day of our life-altering adventure. And go to that precise moment when – as he was reassembling his backpack after helping me contact the amazin’ blonde – that I asked him out of the blue if he were a man of faith. Then, remember, his answer, ‘no.’

You can almost picture my standing by him as he kneeled down to tie those final straps down, and I mustered up the courage to venture just one step further, with “What would you call yourself?”

I have reflected at length upon his answer – “I guess I’d say I’m an agnostic” – and I’ve reflected upon the philosophy that he, somewhat reluctantly, seems forced to accept. I would say ‘embrace,’ but I’m not sure he embraces it, at all. I think he would trade it in for a dime if only he felt he could.

You already know my deep respect for the man, for he, likely, saved my life on that remote, dangerous trail. And I admire him for choosing to lose himself – figuratively and almost literally, as in my case – out in that wilderness. I am sure he is searching continually to find the answer to something that nags at him inside. His scientific education as a biologist only allows him to find God in the vast beauty of nature.

Still, he faces the impossibility of finding clarity — true peace, really — even in such a vast gloryland. Only faith, you see, can clear up the picture and bring a man face-to-face with the greatest truths known to man. It is only through faith that we can ‘see through a glass darkly’ and yet still come to know.

You understand.

As I thought on it all, I remembered a statesman from more than a century ago, the well-known Robert Ingersol, who espoused agnosticism and trumpeted his gospel with the vigor of an orator who actually had a gospel of hope and substance to offer. That confidence, sometimes, is what deepens the tragedy.

But even in Ingersol’s generation, men of faith found his position – one that resembled the hollowness of atheism far more than the murky waters of agnosticism — to be less than inviting. At Ingersol’s death in 1899, Governor Robert L. Taylor of Tennessee could not refrain but to bury the agnostic’s philosophy with him. Looking back at a time he had listened to Ingersol in Washington, he lauded him for the perfection of grace in his gestures, his voice of music, and “his language more beautiful than any I had ever heard from mortal lips.”

But you can then almost hear him take a deep breath like the powerful pause in Churchill ‘we’ll fight on the beaches’ speech, as he turns the tables,

“Then I saw him dip his brush in the ink of mortal blackness,” he writes, “I saw him blot out the stars and the sun and leave humanity and the earth in eternal darkness and death.”

Governor Taylor, however, does not take up his pen merely to rebut his fellow statesman’s philosophy. He knows there would be little merit in that. He has his own gospel to share, one that will leave a listener with confidence and hope. In his grand conclusion, he writes:

“Tell me not, O infidel, there is no God, no heaven, no hell!

“Tell me not O infidel, there is no risen Christ! What intelligence less than God’s could fashion the human body?

“What motive power is it, if not God, that drives those throbbing engines of the human heart, sending the crimson stream of life bounding through every vein and artery?

“Whence and what, if not God, is this mystery we call ‘mind’? What is it that thinks, and feels, and plans, and acts? O, who can deny the divinity that stirs within us?

“God is everywhere and is in everything. His mystery is in every bud and blossom, and leaf, and tree; in every rock, and hill, and mountain; in every spring, and rivulet, and river. The rustle of his wings is in every zephyr; his might is in every tempest.

“He dwells in the dark pavilion of every storm cloud. The lightning is his messenger, and the thunder is his voice. His awful tread is in every earthquake and on every angry ocean. The heavens above us teem with his myriads of shining witnesses — the universe of solar systems whose wheeling orbs course the crystal dread halls of eternity, the glory and dominion of the all-wise, omnipotent, and eternal God.”

You may have to read Mr. Taylor’s words over and over to appreciate fully their strength; but even with a casual reading you cannot help but smile at the conviction in the governor’s words and at the thought of how life leads him to such a firm and grounded faith. He did not have to go to find his faith deep into a wilderness where you feel it is only you and God in that place, although there is much merit in that.

But the speech brings me to think of my Alaskan friend, with a sigh. And, even now, in his northern home underneath an equally lovely expanse, should our friend Mr. Moffit look up at a sky scattered with a billion stars, something inside must nag him – and perhaps he’ll remember that one moment frozen in time when a hiking friend he met randomly in a far-off Yellowstone, talked to him, succinctly, about faith – and perhaps, perhaps this question, with a slight pause, will stand out among the thousands of questions he has asked through the years,

“Sir, are you … are you a man of faith?”