Lesley HAZLETON. Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto. New York: Riverhead Books. 2016. Pp.212. ISBN 978-1-59463-413-0. Reviewed by Nicholas R. WERSE, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
Born of Jewish heritage, educated by Catholic nuns, and seasoned by a journalistic career reporting on religion and politics in the Middle East; Lesley Hazleton infuses her extensive experience and reflection with a careful reading of religious claims in her new volume Agnostic. Though subtitled a “manifesto,” Hazleton admits that the volume more frequently plants its flag in the fertile soil of uncertainty rather than definitive truth claims. Agnostic unfolds in eight chapters that each explore a “zone of thought” that emerges from challenging the “neat categories” of religious discourse. After challenging the firm distinction between belief and unbelief in her first chapter, Hazleton proceeds to the question of “God.” The very question of the existence of God often presupposes a definitively defined subject. With a careful attention to language she explores the inherent difficulty of defining the word “God.” For Hazleton, the very nature of using anthropomorphic images and metaphors for “God” says more about humanity than the God we try to define. Hazleton proceeds throughout the volume with similar care and nuance as she considers key religious terms such as “soul,” “belief,” and “faith.” Along the journey she expresses the value of doubt and mystery for both religious and agnostic thought. She considers the implications of the human tendency to construct meaning and narrative for religious claims, and explores the place of religious experiences within an agnostic thought world.
Hazleton’s volume does not just offer agnostic questions responding to the claims of religious faith. She similarly dialogues with the certainty of atheist assertions. Hazleton presents her volume as defending agnosticism from the occasional atheistic caricature of ideological non-committal just as much as she defends agnosticism from the religious caricature of being “lost.” She thus dialogues with the likes of Christopher Hitchens on one side, and Rick Warren on the other. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the volume is that Hazleton does not limit the dialogue to the extremes on either side (she includes a helpful list of sources at the end of her volume). In her discussion of the difficulty of defining the word “God,” for example, Hazleton notes that theists and atheists alike often share a common desire for tangible, definable God. Yet her discussion builds beyond this desire through her affirmation of the spirit of negative (apophatic) theology found among thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Moses Maimonides. She finds within this theological tradition an inherent recognition of the problem of trying to define the ineffable.Hazleton offers a number of pointed critiques of religious thought, yet avoids the pejorative tone occasionally marking the discourse of religion’s critics. Thus her writing is thought provoking without being unnecessarily provocative. While informed by broad research in the field of religion (she has also published books on the Prophet Muhammad, the Israelite queen Jezebel, and the Virgin Mary), the frequent use of personal anecdotes infuses the volume with an inherently personal quality. Her clear and accessible style makes this volume an excellent read for non-specialists interested in thinking critically about religion, faith, and the limits of human certainty.