“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15b-16a, NRSV)
I can’t say that I’ve had much interaction with anybody who is an atheist—a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings. I’ve known a few people who have declared themselves to me as such a non-believer; however, unless they seem curious about my faith, I take their declaration as a sign that belief in God is not a subject about which they wish to dialogue. I pray for them and then ask God to help me accurately sense any opportunity where they might be open to hearing about my faith. I’ve probably encountered more people that I would refer to as functional agnostics. An agnostic is a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God. A functional agnostic is a person who believes in God, but who lives as if God has no claim on them. They are a believer in name only.
I think functional agnostics are more difficult to converse with about the transformation that life in Jesus can bring than are atheists. Nominal believers are anesthetized to the particulars of faith that make life in Jesus so compelling. They’ve been inoculated against developing a deep and abiding faith through a dynamic and interactive relationship with the living God. They were exposed to enough knowledge about Jesus and the Bible that they can speak the language. Still, the transformation of the heart that accompanies a vibrant and flourishing relationship with God is absent. They are stuck in a fixed belief system that stagnates the longer their faith is trapped in the past. Their views about God and the way God interacts with the world are locked in a particular mindset that values certainty over adventure.
Any challenge to the conventional and deeply held convictions of a functional agnostic is experienced as a threat. They avoid the perilous chore of reconciling the claims of a countercultural Jesus with the self-centered claims of a culture in which they are not only most comfortable operating, but have become adept at mastering and maneuvering. It’s as if they are saying, “Give me Jesus, but don’t make me give up my affinity for power, wealth, and control.” And yet there is angst and frustration in the heart of the functional agnostic because the call of Christ comes with a command to “lose one’s life to find it” (Matthew 16:25). We can’t hope in what the world has to offer us while also hoping in Jesus Christ at the same time. Our hope must be fully in Jesus, and that will make all the difference in how we live in this world—a difference that will lead to having an even more significant impact in ushering in the Kingdom of God.