“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’” (Matthew 22:37)
“‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’” (Luke 10:27)
“Test everything, hold on to the good.” (1 Thess 5:21)
“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
A couple of years ago Matt made it to the position of one of two final candidates for a position with a Christian school who wanted to hire a theologian to re-write their curriculum and work with their teachers so as to better bring God into each subject area. The final interview went badly. Matt was asked for how he would approach science and creation issues and he gave an answer not unlike this comment which he left in the comments thread of my post “The NZARH and the Privileging of Secularism“:
The Atheist Missionary asked: “If a student approaches their science teacher and asks whether the world is only 6000 years old, what should the science teacher tell them?”
Matt answered: “If it is a public school with a significant “fundamentalist constituency” the teacher should tell the student that according to the best current scientific theories the world is several millions of years old and explain why they think this. The teacher could then state that some religious groups believe that the world is 6000 years old and this is because they think the bible is God’s word and that Genesis 1-11 should be read literally. The teacher could note that if these assumptions are correct then God teaches that current science is wrong and there would be good reasons for thinking science is mistaken. The teacher could add that there are other Christians who think Genesis 1-11 should not be interpreted literally but he should note that whether the assumptions and interpretation in question are correct or not is a theological dispute which he as a science teacher cannot really comment on. He could refer the student to some books which discuss these issues from various angles and perhaps even refer him to the Religious Education teacher who might be able to explain the theological positions better.
If the student asks what do you think? The teacher could answer, “I accept that science is the only reliable way of coming to these questions, and I don’t accept the assumption that the Bible is God’s word; however, these are philosophical and theological positions, not strictly scientific ones.” Alternatively he might state, “while I accept the Bible is God’s word I think Genesis 1-11 is not supposed to be interpreted literally, I think when you examine the kind of writing it is there are good reasons for thinking something else is going on there and so there is no reason for thinking science has made a mistake here.” Again, the teacher should encourage the student to come to an understanding of the issues for himself and should recommend a range of people or resources from different perspectives for him to consult. What he should not do is say: ‘no it is millions of years old and anyone who thinks otherwise is an ignorant fool worthy of ridicule.’
The former approach that I advocate encourages understanding of the issues and it encourages the student to think wholistically about all the questions- scientific, philosophical and theological – as well as how to distinguish the different issues and assumptions involved and so on. The latter position, which appears to be the attitude of many, does not do this. It essentially fosters ignorance about why others think the way they do and encourages intolerance based on this ignorance.”
In the final interview Matt said he thought that at a senior level differing approaches to how Genesis relates to evolutionary theory should be presented; the arguments for different positions should be examined and tested with a view to the students grappling with the theories and coming to an informed conclusion. Some on the interview panel reacted strongly against this, suggesting Matt was claiming “God was wrong” and one even insinuated Matt might be an atheist. They claimed he had denied scriptural authority and even suggested that his whole theology should be in question. Matt was advised the next day that the school were not sure if they were going to hire the other candidate but they definitely were not going to hire him. (Ouch!)
In addition to the frustration of missing an opportunity to serve God with his giftings we were frustrated at the school’s apparent refusal to be willing to permit room for the engagement of the common reasons for doubt that many young people growing into independence have.
It would be nice if this experience was a once-off and was unique to that school but we have not found that to be the case in New Zealand. Matt has been passed over for full-time employment for his “socratic” style of engaged teaching; the received wisdom in another Christian school was to encourage the memorisation of facts and filling in of work sheets in philosophy and religious education classes. Matt committed the offence of engaging the senior students in socratic dialogue instead of handing around cross-word puzzles.
Similarly, in the tertiary sector, we have found that evangelical colleges put a limited premium on these issues too. Once Matt, in an interview for a Theology Lecturer position, was asked if he though having a PhD in Theology made him over-qualified(!) (A pastor with a BMin was appointed in that instance).
People associated with another institution which came under some criticism for hiring someone with a PhD in Education and the equivalent of a preaching licence in Theology to teach their philosophical papers have expressed the attitude that philosophy is something one can apparently “just pick up.” The same institution, along with others and some para-church organisations, have repeatedly shown in their hiring practices their view that at best one only needs a BA on the topic or sometimes not even that if they happen to be the latest trendy para-church intern who has read a popular book on world views and who has written a couple of essays that impressed the equally unqualified hirer.
In addition to not valuing analytic theology and philosophy as academic disciplines, in other contexts we have heard these subjects denigrated by people saying “you can’t argue with personal experience, just love people and show them you care.” The attitude that this is all that is needed to engage non-Christian New Zealand is common.
It is sad that evangelical Christians in New Zealand are so wedded to these paradigms because recent research from Fuller Theological Seminary, has shown them to be hugely damaging. As Nancy Pearcey points out in “How Critical Thinking Saves Faith,”
Fuller Seminary recently conducted a study on teens who become leavers [of the Christian faith] in college. The researchers uncovered the single most significant factor in whether young people stand firm in their Christian convictions or leave them behind. And it’s not what most of us might expect.
Join a campus ministry group? A Bible study? Important though those things are, the most decisive factor is whether students had a safe place to work through their doubts and questions before leaving home.
The researchers concluded, “The more college students felt that they had the opportunity to express their doubt while they were in high school, the higher [their] levels of faith maturity and spiritual maturity.”
The study indicates that students actually grow more confident in their Christian commitment when the adults in their life — parents, pastors, teachers — guide them in grappling with the challenges posed by prevailing secular worldviews. In short, the only way teens become truly “prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks” (1 Pet. 3:15) is by wrestling honestly and personally with the questions.
As the researchers put it, “Students who had the opportunity to struggle with tough questions and pain during high school seemed to have a healthier transition into college life.”
Sadly, most churches and Christian schools do not encourage “tough questions.” In Dyck’s interviews with leavers, most reported that “they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts.” They were ridiculed, scolded, or made to feel there was something immoral about even asking.
Instead of addressing teens’ questions, most church youth groups focus on fun and food. The goal seems to be to create emotional attachment using loud music, silly skits, slapstick games — and pizza. But the force of sheer emotional experience will not equip teens to address the ideas they will encounter when they leave home and face the world on their own.
Over the years as Matt and I have worked with and spoken to groups of all ages and levels of education we have always found that without exception those hungriest for solid analytical theological engagement are teenagers (followed closely by their parents).
I so get why. I was raised in a non-Christian home with very limited exposure to Christianity. When I found myself in a church and learning the ‘rules’ of conservative Christianity I had a lot of questions about them. Why do I have to stop having sex until I am married – where does it say that in the Bible? Don’t give me 10 reasons why sociologically some study says it is harmful, where does God say it? Where does it say I should not masturbate? What is wrong with swearing? Why can’t I smoke a little dope occasionally? Why do I have to throw out my tarot cards? I also had a lot of questions about scripture and Christianity in general. Being a real nuts and bolts thinker, I found answers like “you should just have faith,” “we don’t really need to know the details of that, just focus on the cross,” and “don’t ask so many questions, don’t over think it, work on your relationship with Jesus”, “pray in the Holy Spirit that you might experience God”, “focus on being part of the big story” extremely irritating. What is faith? What is the significance of the cross? How am I supposed to have a deep relationship with someone who I do not know anything about? Pray in the what now? Being part of the “big story” sounds trendy but what does it mean and how does focussing on it answer my specific questions? What is the point of experiencing something you do not understand? And what is with the trinity – everyone who attempts to explain it to me seems to contradict the last person!
I joined a cell group and I recall lots of yummy food, feel good platitudes, motivational tips and one session where we put lots of different sized rocks, sand and water in an empty ice-cream container to demonstrate the importance of prioritising the big things in life; when we put the big things first the small things fit in around them but if we focus on the small things we have no room for the big things – an astute point and all, but it did not answer my questions!!!!
I was not alone as Drew Dyck points out in “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church“,
At the 2008 American Sociological Association meeting, scholars from the University of Connecticut and Oregon State University reported that “the most frequently mentioned role of Christians in de-conversion was in amplifying existing doubt.” De-converts reported “sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers.”
Churches often lack the appropriate resources. We have programs geared for gender – and age-groups and for those struggling with addictions or exploring the faith. But there’s precious little for Christians struggling with the faith.
Eventually I worked through all these things and got my answers but it was no thanks to the church I was in, it was through meeting Matt, Glenn and Ruth Peoples and David Hillary and the intense conversations and bible studies we engaged in that were fuelled from the independent readings of theologians and Christian philosophers that we were separately engaged in. Eventually we found a church that was big on discussion, deep questions and answers but we went through more churches than we found to get there. The church as a whole simply did not cater to people like us and the university campus was full of a lot of us who simply were no longer looking.
Prior to this, the appeal of what was being taught to me in church just did not do it for me. I could not see much difference between what the church had to offer and what the world did but in the former there were more rules. My pastor (at the church that we found which did answer our questions) once profoundly said “we must present the gospel clearly and precisely enough so that those hearing can either accept it or reject it. Too many churches are scared of the latter.”
Drew Dyck puts his finger on precisely what my problem was with my cell-group and my old church,
When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are “good, nice, and fair.” Its central goal is to help believers “be happy and feel good about oneself.”
Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it’s one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this naïve and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.
I challenge anyone working with teens to consider whether the way they are interacting with their teens looks like just pizza, pot-luck dinners and video nights or whether it looks like the scriptures I began with. Church has to be a place for everyone including thinkers and questioners or there is no way we will be able to achieve our mission. Dyck agrees,
One place to begin is by rethinking how we minister to those from youth to old age. There’s nothing wrong with pizza and video games, nor with seeker-sensitive services, nor with low-commitment small groups that introduce people to the Christian faith. But these cannot replace serious programs of discipleship and catechism. The temptation to wander from the faith is not a new one. The apostle Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus to strive to mature every believer, so that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14, ESV).
The other tragedy here is that there is a wealth of resources and groups for people who do wrestle with these questions. While not everyone is as pathological as Matt to take Plantinga’s God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in Gods to the beach with him for recreational reading, many people have written works and resources for the layman on these issues. Consider for example Timothy Keller’s recent and very accessible to the lay person book Reasons for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, which introduces some of the better academic resources at a popular level. Or the brilliant Reason for the Hope Within edited by Michael Murray, which though authored by professional philosophers is incredibly lay friendly – no Christian with questions should be without this book! Or consider sites like our son Christian and his teen friends favourite, William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith. We have recently discovered and have been recommending to homeschooling families Confident Christianity. There there is philosopher Glenn People’s excellent podcasts (complete with his original rock music and sound effects) and New Zealand’s own Thinking Matters. Go to The Veritas Forum and hunt through their resources – they have some brilliant DVDs of their forum sessions; we watched some really good ones featuring JP Moreland last year. Or if you’re really brave, ask Matt to come and speak at your church or to your youth group or if he is too far away consider hiring him to write you some group studies or just work through our Sunday Study series or his Contra Mundum Columns. These are just a few ideas to get started on the important task of critical engagement, there are heaps more out there.
I am grateful to André Z for his assistance in writing and editing this post.