In Praise of the Agnostic

If you’ve ever met a real, honest-to-goodness bigot, you know it’s hard to feel anything towards him except pity. Who wants to live in a world so small and simple it can fit into such a narrow mind? We might even say that a bigot is a man who’s got nothing but opinions. They’ve crowded out all the curiosity, the sense of wonder, that we all find so attractive in others.

The opposite of the bigot is the zealot. Think of Teddy Roosevelt or St. Francis of Assisi. They both had this infectious, indomitable zeal—for life, for nature, for God, for their fellow man.  One was probably the greatest churchman of all time; the other was maybe the greatest statesman. Yet we wouldn’t really call either of them opinionated. They didn’t have opinions—they had principles, convictions. They never spoke out. They spoke up.

Francis and Teddy were idealists. They were also pragmatic, in the way that only idealists really can be. They saw the world as a mystery waiting to be explored. They saw life as a great adventure, which they saw through to the end. That’s why they so far outstripped their critics. As Teddy said,

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; … who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

Curiously, St. Francis left the same advice to his followers. “Let’s steer clear of the wisdom of the world and the thinking of the flesh,” he wrote, “for the spirit of the world tends to be all talk and no action.”

[This is an excerpt from my latest article for The American Conservative. Read the rest at TAC’s website.]

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