Today, the self-proclaimed “King of All Media,” Howard Stern, gave expression to what might be considered the quintessential articulation of a postmodern functional agnosticism. This is what Stern said:
“I know that there isn’t a God. But I believe that there is.”
I had never heard it put quite that way before.
Very rarely can one find theological profundities in a typical Howard Stern broadcast. But today, as Stern and his cohorts discussed the difficulties of faith and the merits of atheism, I heard one of the most honest descriptions of a struggle for faith that I have heard in quite some time.
“My parents put me through a whole big religious thing,” Stern said of his Jewish upbringing. “And it’s hard to leave that behind. So, I know that there isn’t a God. But I believe that there is.”
Which is to say, “Intellectually, I cannot make cognitive sense of the idea of divinity, and, therefore, I must embrace atheism as my theological position. And yet, at the same time, I cannot shake my heart’s conviction that there is something beyond my rational analysis, and, therefore, I have no choice but to retain a portion of my conviction (however small a portion it may be) that God exists.”
On an infamously crude radio show where God-talk is rarely heard (except for the occasional mockery of religion), it was somewhat refreshing to hear such an enigmatic celebrity make the sudden shift from the scatological to the eschatological.
It made me wonder how frequently in the church’s life people operate with a similar functional agnosticism. We would never name it as directly as Stern did, of course. But my hunch is that we would be absolutely amazed if we knew the number of people in our pews who are standing right smack dab in the middle of this epistemological and phenomenological conundrum: “I know that there isn’t a God. But I believe that there is.”
The perpetual challenge for the church is to become the kind of community that welcomes people whose minds and hearts are not necessarily in complete theological alignment while at the same time nurturing an environment in which intellect and religious conviction are treated as siblings (rather than feuding neighbors) in the journey toward holistic faith.
The implications in this matter are plentiful. Do our Bible studies and theological classes offer biblical truth and doctrinal complexity in a way that also permits the raising of serious questions? Do our apologetics operate with the flexibility of deep conviction instead of the oppressive rigidity of cold hard certainty? Are our people THINKING about faith and not simply FEELING it?
Please don’t misunderstand me here. I am not suggesting that the church lose its sense of blessed assurance, its eagerness to stand upon the promises of Jesus Christ, and its passion for the religion of the warmed heart. Nor am I suggesting that the church take its cue from Howard Stern. But I am suggesting that sitting in all of our sanctuaries are people who, like Stern, are intellectually troubled by the idea of God and yet innately hopeful that God really exists. They are part of our mission field, and a simplistic “the Bible says it and I believe it” isn’t going to make the grade as an evangelical approach.
A few years back, a man spoke with me following one of the Sunday Night worship services at Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park. “You know,” he said, “I’m not sure that I can ever believe in all of this Jesus stuff that you preach about. But I like coming here every week because it helps me to understand what I’m struggling to believe.”
It was a conversation that led to the development of a brand new, Sunday night, after-worship gathering called “What’s a Person to Believe?” It was specifically targeted toward agnostics and those who are struggling to believe. The conversations I had in those classes were probably some of the most challenging, unsettling, and, ultimately, evangelical conversations that I have ever had.
It felt like church.