A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Are We Being Too Clever By Half?

Tuesday's online edition of USA Today carried a story that finds the number of people who do not identify themselves with a religion is on the rise. The study, released by Trinity College, revealed that 22% of adults 18-29 hold to no particular religious group, which comes to 15% of all adults. If the projections are sound that percentage will increase to 20% in twenty years.

None of this is really a surprise, what I did find quite interesting, however, is the makeup of the "Nones." Researcher Barry Kosmin states, "There are so many misconceptions about who the Nones are. They're not New Age searchers or spiritual or even hardened atheists."

Kosmin continues: "They're a stew of agnostics, deists, and rationalists. They sound more like Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine. Their very interesting enlightenment approach is like the Founding Fathers kind: Skeptical about organized religion and clerics while still holding to an idea of God."

Ten years ago, my District Superintendent at the time asked me to go to different Church Conferences to give a PowerPoint presentation on generational differences and their implications for ministry. I had spent a great deal of time on the matter and felt that it was important to make the church folk sensitive to the truth that Millennials were not Boomers and Gen-Xers were not Builders. I still believe it is important that we recognize such differences, but the more I have continued to think about it over these ten years, the more I have come to believe that we have over analyzed and over interpreted those distinctives.

We are in a postmodern era. That may indeed be true, but that does not mean modernism is dead. In fact, if this survey published in USA Today is accurate, it demonstrates that it is far from a state of rigor mortis. There are still plenty of people in American culture who think about God and religion and faith in quite modern terms, including young so-called "postmoderns."

In reference to postmoderns we say that they like Jesus but not the church, when in my experience it is more true to say that they could care less about Jesus and think the church is simply irrelevant. Both claims are true because people are very different and their views on religion are different. I always chuckle to myself when someone says, "Well, Boomers believe morality is relative." I know Boomers who are clearly not moral relativists. Or, when someone states, "Gen-Xers insist upon transparency." I know Gen-Xers who hide a lot of things from themselves and others. I have also met Gen-Xers who I suspect have taken on all the general "characteristics" of their generation because they have read on how they are supposed to be. Moreover, how often the generational analysis is positive or negative depending on who is giving the analysis. The analyzers tend to highlight the positive qualities of their generation at the expense of the others. This lends veracity to what I have been saying for some time (tongue-in-cheek, of course, but with an obvious element of truth)-- Each generation believes that all of human history has been waiting centuries for their generation to be born in order to show everyone else how to live. Every generation before has fallen short and no generation after will measure up.

What all of this means for the church and its ministry, I am not sure. I am not suggesting for a moment that we should cease our analysis of generational differences, and what it means to be postmodern as opposed to modern. It is indeed helpful. What I am considering, however, is that in the midst of our analysis perhaps we have made too much of our ability to figure this all out and to peg the differing generational groups as "this" or "that." Perhaps while reading Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault, we should at the same time delve back into Locke, Descartes, and Paine.

Perhaps a little more humility in our analysis is appropriate as it seems to me that we are often guilty of being too clever by half.


PamBG said...

Absolutely modernism is not dead in a post-modern world. Didn't it take centuries for the Enlightenment to fully supplant Medieval culture? I think these kinds of cultural shifts take centuries.

Part of me suspects that fundamentalism is also partly a cultural backlash: a longing for the conviction that humanity can know everything that there is to know.

Angela Shier-Jones said...

I share the concern. I am increasingly convinced that the labels are just red-herrings - the more we talk about these things, the less we talk about God - which is why we do it.
It's easier to talk about the church, the people, the generation etc than it is to talk about God. The one makes us look clever, the other as PAUL points out, makes us look foolish.
Great post, thanks Alan.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, you write "Part of me suspects that fundamentalism is also partly a cultural backlash: a longing for the conviction that humanity can know everything that there is to know"

I would appreciate some more clarification as to what you mean.

Angela, Your comments remind me of an essay Stanley Hauerwas wrote in one of his books a few years ago (I cannot remember which one) where he addresses postmoderism and suggests that the naming of our times and generations is idolatrous in that we are tempted to put ourselves at the center of meaning and understanding and not God.

Good comments... Thanks!

PamBG said...

Allen, have patience with me while I struggle to articulate my thoughts better as I'm not pretending to have studied this. Most of the time, I'm just trying to articulate what I experience of life.

I think that there has been a move in the general culture to the idea that "everything is relative". I think I see this in my much younger Gen X brother and from my secular working life where many of the people were in their late 20s and early 30s.

My own experience of growing up fundamentalist (yes, in a very different era) was that people found it emotionally difficult to deal in shades of grey and they wanted to know what was right and what was wrong and to be be certain. One of the oft-repeated sayings was "A good God would not leave us guessing about his will".

So, I think that in the face of a Zeitgeist that is increasingly more accepting of relativism, many people are going to be left floundering.

If you're asking me if I'm a relativist, I would say I'm not. But I *am* apophatic. I don't think God's truth is relative. But I don't think that anyone can perfectly know the mind of God. And I do think that some moral choices often involve having to choose between the "least worst" choice.

I don't know if I've got remotely close to answering your question.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, that answers my question well. thanks!

It sound as if we have had a similar upbringing. Yes, there are people who cannot deal with shades of gray. At the same time there are those who relish such shades. We must avoid both extremes.

Yes, we cannot perfectly know the mind of God, but I do believe that God has sufficiently given what we need in Scripture. How we go about interpreting it and working through it, however, is a more difficult matter.

I really enjoy interacting with you. You are a deep and nuanced thinker. You are a good discussion partner.

I am out of town in Virginia right now and will be back on Saturday, but Carol and I do want to head up your way and take you and your husband out to dinner. I will email you when I get home.

PamBG said...

Hi Allen, do give me a ring. You have my contact details but I don't have yours, so it's in your hands.

Yes, I agree that Scripture is sufficent but interpretation is another matter. And Christians do seem to be able to come up with interpretations of Scripture that are 180 degrees opposite of their brothers and sisters, so I still think the issue of interpretation is a matter that is important but fraught.

I think I've converted to Christianity; I suspect that a number of the people who taught me as a child would probably think I've been converted to The Dark Side.