A couple days ago Salon.com published an article on a new survey (you can read it here) which reveals that one-third of young Americans describe themselves as “not religious”, meaning that they are unaffiliated with any formal religion.
As I read the article my sense of self-importance inflated just a bit as I realized many of the criticisms people have of “traditional religion” approximate many of the issues I repeatedly raise in my published writings (books and blog). Let’s consider a few examples.
Who needs heaven?
One young lady commented:
“ultimately the more time I spent thinking about it, I realized the purpose and meaning of his life had nothing to do with heaven, but it had to do with how I could make choices in my life that give his life meaning.”
From my perspective, this comment is the perfect example of a valid insight leading into deep error. I agree that the popular conception of heaven as a paradise disconnected from this world is deeply problematic and suffers for lack of relevance. At the same time, the young lady fails to recognize that a truly biblical doctrine of heaven represents the pristination of all that is most glorious in creation. And that promises a transformative vision in which the world around us is imbued with eternal significance. (That’s why I wrote the forthcoming book What on earth do we know about heaven.)
Who needs orthodoxy?
Next, we turn to the general skepticism with many traditional articulations of “orthodoxy”. The writer of the Salon article, Katie Mcdonough, observed:
“Many of those interviewed balked at orthodoxy, saying that a religion with too many “easy” answers was a major turn off.”
Note how the real problem here is not orthodoxy per se, but rather a facile approach to it which shuts down critical thinking, questioning and doubt. That is simply not an intellectually satisfying way for the Church to proceed. If we want to give people the depth of soil to grow deep roots we need to give them the depth to ask tough questions without fear of being censured or stigmatized. (Hey, that’s why I wrote You’re not as Crazy as I Think.)
What about suffering?
And then we turn to the problem of suffering. The article descibes one young man who drifted away from the church after experiencing much suffering in his life. He wrote of God’s seeming passivity in the midst of his pain:
“I find that almost kind of cruel in some ways. It’s like burning ants with a magnifying glass. Eventually that gets just too hard to believe anymore.”
This is undoubtedly the most difficult question — intellectually and pastorally — that any Christian will face. It is difficult enough as an intellectual, seminar-room conundrum. But as a concrete experience of suffering in the here and now it can be all but unbearable. (To wit, consider the contrast between the C.S. Lewis of The Problem of Pain and the C.S. Lewis of A Grief Observed.) Is the church ready not simply to offer carefully wrought intellectual theodicies but also to sit on the mourning bench of a world in pain? (That’s one reason why I wrote Finding God in the Shack.)
Doubting but searching
People may be dissatisfied with the church but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up on the quest. Another post-Christian comments:
“I think having a God would create a meaning for our lives, like we’re working toward a purpose — and it’s all worthwhile because at the end of the day we will maybe move on to another life where everything is beautiful. I love that idea.”
Can the church regain its credible witness for those who are on this search for meaning? Can the church be a believing witness to that which Katie Mcdonough calls “Generation Agnostic”?
That is my hope. Indeed, it’s why I do what I do.