The Rising of the Political Nones

We are living in unprecedented times. There seems to be a general world wide malaise affecting everyone concerned about the coronavirus. It’s all what people talk about. In a week’s time we went from smiling at silly memes like “Throwback Thursdays” to pandemonium as if the world was coming to an end. Wherever one may be in that spectrum, one thing is for sure: the world will never be the same.

For now, the frenzied strategy of protecting lives, especially the vulnerable which includes seniors and those with existing health issues is paramount. But before too long we will witness a barrage of acerbic exchanges between the political left and right about whose fault it was that the U.S. was ill-equipped to handle this global health crisis. Even right now there is social pressure to avoid using the politically incorrect term “Chinese virus” in referring to the coronavirus responsible for the disease COVID-19 rampaging the world. Welcome to identity politics.

Francis Fukuyama, author of Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment does a brilliant job of tracing the origins of our current political landscape which is mired in identity politics. Fukuyama argues that our political sense is ultimately grounded in the inner self being recognized. Society, he theorizes, will align themselves around groups which can mutually recognize and affirm one another’s identity.1 This identity, according to Fukuyama, is rooted in Emmanuel Kant’s understanding of one’s ability to make choices based on reason. Couple this with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of identity being premised on suppressed personal feelings and experiences, then one’s political aim becomes the “recovery of the authentic inner being, and society’s recognition of the potential that resided in each of its members.”2 Given human nature, Fukuyama thinks there simply is no avoiding identity politics.3 But it does not necessarily mean it’s a bad thing so long as citizens diligently work to preserve mutual respect for each other.

Political pundits in the United States may have to start rethinking the predominant attitude of voting along party lines. The recent rise of nationalist leaders, U.K. leaving the EU and the election of Donald Trump are disturbing the political status quo and may be a harbinger for the way an entire generation views politics. Take for example Trump’s political ascent to become the 45th president of the United States in 2016. Hardly anyone expected that outcome. What is even more surprising was the demographic that played a key role in swaying the election in Trump’s favor: 18 - 29-year olds; and they are now a larger percentage of voters than those over 65.4 How did this happen? According to GenZ expert Jean Twenge, one has to answer this question: What do Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common? The answer: both are political independents.5 Twenge has observed party affiliation among GenZers is falling by the wayside and instead describe themselves as liberal, moderate or conservative. In the end Trump won over Hillary because members of GenZ thought his policies fit their worldview better.

Fukuyama is certainly correct in concluding that “identity can be used to divide, but it can and has also been used to integrate.”6 For a new generation it’s an identity that returns to the individual that is reluctant to affiliate with factions and follow their rules. They are weary about traditional partisan politics and the widening polarization in America. What they long for is authenticity and transparency in our institutions and government. I am no prophet but I have an optimistic feeling members of GenZ will make great attempts at changing the world for the better, and many will succeed.

A New Kind of Apologist

Rebecca McLaughlin’s book Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion is a breath of fresh air in the world of Christian Apologetics. It is refreshing in many ways but particularly for two reasons: (1) it is a written by a female; (2) with close ties to the UK Evangelical context. These reasons cannot be overstated in our current cultural milieu. In a YouTube interview McLaughlin mentioned the popular virtue today that says “who you are determines what you’re allowed to say.”1 Having struggled herself with same-sex attraction, this opens doors for her to be able to defend the truth claims of Christianity in settings typically dominated by straight white male. Conservatives, both politically and theologically might not appreciate the mitigation of these traditional blind spots. However, for those she is trying to reach with the Gospel, and its defense, this is an absolute game changer. Experts like McLaughlin and others such as the speaking team at Women in Apologetics2 will revolutionize the apologetics landscape of our churches in the coming years, especially when one considers the fact that more women than men claim to be church attenders and engage in other religious activities.3
The second reason McLaughlin’s contribution to apologetics is welcomed has to do with her background growing up in London. For decades the church has been told by academics that the UK and the rest of Europe is hopelessly secular. They would routinely remind us that secularization begins in the UK, travels to Canada, then the U.S. and then to the rest of the world, perhaps finally landing in the global south. McLaughlin is an outlier here and may be on to something. Perhaps the origins and bastions of secularization within the intellectual centers of Europe is abating and her book just might reveal a hopeful reversal.
McLaughlin’s most controversial4 chapter titled “Isn’t Christianity Homophobic?” is a gem because she writes from excellent primary sources, as well as her own personal struggles with same-sex attraction. There are plenty of experts who can pontificate about the perils, both from nature and Scripture, of the self-harm brought about by homosexual practices, but few can address this with insightful authority and provide practical knowledge on the matter.
One of the best heuristic takeaways from the chapter is the way she uses subversion to frame and deal with the question of homosexuality. She starts by saying:
“People sometimes say that the Bible condemns same-sex relationships. It does not. The Bible commands same-sex relationships at a level of intimacy that Christians seldom reach.”5
Stating it this way not only grabs one’s attention, it forces the reader to consider intently what God has to say about relationships in general and sexual ones specifically. To be clear McLaughlin believes the Bible unequivocally teaches that sexual intimacy belongs exclusively to heterosexual marriage. However, for those who have a different view, she invites them to consider the idea and benefits of boundaries which are not uncommon concepts in everyday life. While she herself is happily married with kids, she confesses that there is no guarantee that God could change her natural instinct to be drawn toward women. Apparently, sexual fluidity is more prevalent than initially thought and may persist over time in both men and women. Deploying new discoveries such as this helps lessen the stigma for whom homosexual tendencies is a struggle, allowing space for open dialog, transparency and counseling. This is helpful especially among 13 to 18 year-olds, only half of whom believe one’s sex at birth defines one’s gender; and one third says gender is “what a person feels like.”6
It is easy and regrettably far too common for Christians to judge homosexuals and cast their sin in some distinct dispensation meriting a special place in hell. It’s not true, it’s not biblical and serves to only besmirch the Christian witness. As Christian leaders we must continually remind ourselves that “heterosexuality is not the goal of the Christian life: Jesus is.”7

Trans Transformation

It has been several months now since my professor friend and I met for coffee at one of the coffee shops at Biola University. I often reflect on that sobering moment. We chatted about the latest goings on in culture as reflected in news outlets and social media, lamenting the fact that Evangelicalism today has increasingly appeared less relevant and more repugnant in modern society, especially in areas in which traditional moral values is the subject. It’s not just that progressives find Christian values outdated, ill-suited to modern times, they are incorrigibly incensed by their stance in public discourse.

My friend suggested that perhaps one of the reasons for such vehemence is a reaction against what believers did during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 90s—which was nothing. “The church has been noticeably silent,” charged Earl E. Help and Ronald H. Sunderland, research fellows at the Texas Medical Center’s Institute of Religion. “The personal tragedies and social failures associated with the disease appear to have been ignored by the church—except for those strident segments that view AIDS as God’s retribution on sinful people.”1 Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, even blocked legislation givings basic rights to gay people.

Christian leaders in the 1980s and 90s were sanctimoniously watching AIDS victims die in the tens of thousands, offering no help. By God’s grace, the tide of criticism and disdain eventually turned and by the early 2000s, emergency plans for AIDS relief were set in motion saving millions. Thanks in part to efforts led by Kay and Rick Warren, evangelical leaders who had their own personal encounters with those suffering from HIV and AIDS.2 But could all this have been too little too late? Could this have been handled better by the church? I can imagine a gay friend saying to me “you judged us, you distanced yourself from us offering nothing while we were dying of AIDS, and now, all of a sudden you care?”

We are in a similar situation today. According to Barna Research, “GenZ, more than older generations, considers their sexuality or gender to be central to their sense of self.”3 Heather Brunkskell-Evans and Michele Moore, editors of Transgender Children and Young People: Born in Your Own Body confirm this trend. Contributing author Stephanie Davies-Arai reports a 1000% increase of adolescents being referred to the Tavistock gender clinic in London.4 Treatments there often are pursued based on political pressure to conform to the prevailing progressive idea that gender is whatever one feels. And if gender is indeed a matter of personal choice, then no one or no organization has the right to stop transexuals from obtaining disfiguring surgeries and lifelong hormone regiments. It’s too early to ascertain the effects of undergoing these treatments but common sense tells us that there ought to be “a serious public concern that practices of transgendering children involve the use of puberty suppression, cross-sex hormonal mediation that harms children’s reproductive capacity, their bodily integrity and future physical and psychological health, and possible surgery involving the amputation of penises and breasts that cannot be re-attached”5 be treated with extreme caution.

It is hoped that Christian leaders by now have learned the painful lessons of failure to care for the “least of these.” Will we idly watch our young gender dysphoric community suffer or will we be ready to help this time? The church can ill afford to miss this opportunity to demonstrate neighborly love. The stakes are too high. Doing what Jesus would do does not affirm the sin. Yes, we live in a complex and broken world, wracked by sin. But Scripture commands us to be imitators of our Lord who loved the lost while admonishing them to sin no more.6 Truth and grace always go together. The aphorism is true: “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Common Ground Apologetics

Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature argues that the popular idea that human beings are born sans innate properties is fallacious. Related concepts such as the Noble Savage and Ghost in the Machine fall under the same misunderstood categories that must be corrected. Pinker offers at least three reasons why this correction must take place: (1) Arguing for a Blank Slate distorts the nature of human beings and much research is guided by these false assumptions; (2) It has discredited logic, civility and common sense in the academy and beyond; (3) and finally, it has done harm to the lives of real people.1

These are valid concerns and if left unchecked we risk perpetuating the harm. For example, we tacitly believe that to raise the best children, parents must be loving and intentionally training them towards maturity. But if children do not turn out well then it must be the parent’s fault. However, this conclusion depends on the belief that children are blank slates.2 Parents and anyone who works with kids know this is not the case.

In one sense the opposite of a Christian is an atheist. Pinker is an atheist. In Evangelicalism today, especially in the rarified group of Christian apologists, the sine qua non measure of successful ministry seems to be about converting an atheist. The strategy appears to be a two-step process. First, create an atheist straw man with all his attending false ideas. Second, eviscerate him with the truth. This would be a good strategy if words posses magical powers on their own to transform people. No, it is more complex than that. In this case, an atheist reminds Christians of the pitfalls of sloppy thinking. Many times, an apologist’s zeal might lead them to blur the distinctions between “some” versus “all,” “probable,” versus “always,” “is” versus “ought.”3 Establishing clear distinctions is a mark of sound and valid thinking.

Instead of employing an “us” versus “them” mentality in apologetics engagement may I suggesting another way. What if apologists engaged the skeptic on their own turf? What if they used disarming language in their presentations that skeptics can relate to? I call this Common Ground apologetics. Common Ground apologetics seeks to establish commonality of first-order ideas with an interlocutor. From that base, arguments can be built upon. Examples of these fundamental ideas include aesthetics, ethics and agency.4 Pinker offers the faithful a few of these commonalities, specifically the blank slate. This is a point of connection. Scripture says that human beings are created in God’s image (Imago Dei). Pinker says this “image” is partly composed in the human genome structure. Both have a vision of humanity that does not invoke a blank slate. This is a significant win for both sides. If Christians and atheists can agree on certain items of knowledge regarding a first-order ideas such as human nature, then the chances of continued conversation increases.

The Christian worldview has exclusive claims. But it does not have to sound arrogant, pretentious and condescending which regrettably have become all too common. Analogies is another helpful tool to establish common ground. Instead of leading with an exclusive bent, consider the path to truth like a maze.5 What is helpful about the maze analogy is that it (1) places value on exploration and self-discovery; (2) it is careful not to understate or orverstate the claims of others since the different paths in a maze denote distinctions; and (3) at times some routes head in the same direction or run parallel to each other. First-order ideas such as human nature, soul, origins, purpose and things of the same nature, while may posses disparate grounding, do run parallel to each other at times. These are the opportunities of further discussion. Sometimes an apologist must learn to moderate their goals, especially in today’s polarized culture. Making the case for Christ sometimes may mean just enough effort in reasoning to be invited back to the table.

Where Is The Hope?

I am not quite sure how I feel about Steve Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It was like riding a roller coaster for me. There is the thrill and edge-of-the-seat anticipation of ratcheting to the peak just before a heart stopping descent through the twist and turns, not knowing which way is up or down. Pinker does this by introducing supposed societal ills only to present counter arguments buttressed by facts. He does a wonderful job of showing that the world is indeed a better place since the Enlightenment and the evidence is unassailable.

However, just like the roller coaster analogy, there are the pivots and zigzags in Pinker that I have trouble understanding. For example, on the one hand he supports Kishore Mahbubani’s ideas in The Great Convergence1 that help explain the causes for worldwide progress: decline of communism, leadership, end of the Cold War, globalization, and science and technology. And yet on the other vilify Ronald Reagan as a “know-nothing.”2 Really? The person who was a significant influencer in two (decline of communism and end of the Cold War) out of the five factors leading to worldwide progress is someone to blame?

Be that as it may, what intrigued me about Pinker’s project is the effusive manner in which he wrote about all the positive indexes pointing to the fact that we live in a better world. Human progress in areas of health, food, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, equal rights, terrorism, democracy, quality of life and other measurable indicators of progress all have good trajectories pointing to an optimistic view of the future. But he had to pause and backpedal a bit when it came to the happiness index in the United States. Apparently studies show that happiness increases with a nation’s wealth.3 Countries such as Denmark and Singapore report outsized levels of happiness compared with countries having weaker economic growth.4 The United States is a country with a strong economy and is wealthy by all accounts. But the United States reports a lower level of happiness in relation to its wealth. “Whatever the reason, happyologists agree that the United States is an outlier from the global trend in subjective well-being.”5

Why is the United States an outlier on the happiness index? That is good question and worth exploring. But I’ll have to save that for another time. For now what intrigues me is the idea of hope. There were several missed opportunities for the author to connect the idea of a future-looking human flourishing with hope. But he did not. Sure he would begin sentences with a trivial “I hope to show….” or “I can give you no hope….” but that is far different than the kind of hope intrinsic to humanity. This is not the “pie in the sky, bye and bye” kind of hope where one rails against reality to escape it. Rather, it is the mature hope that C.S. Lewis talks about in Mere Christianity; the kind that looks longingly to a future eternal world. Lewis says this is not a form of escapism or simple wishful thinking.

In a world without hope Pinker is clear, that if all of the advances in knowledge, peace, safety, democracy, rights have left us no happier but just lonelier and suicidal, that it would be history’s greatest joke on humanity. And clearly suicide is a final solution that is diametrically opposed to happiness. But is history a jokester? Is the field of study called history even blameworthy? What is humanism’s response if humans are ending their own lives? The sad reality is, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that the suicide rate for people aged 10 to 24 increased by 56% between 2007 to 2017. Suicide is now the 2nd leading cause of death among members of Gen Z. Studies show drastic changes in outlook of life among teens, all pointing to an all time low. Jean Twenge says teens today are “on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.”6

Gen Z is not happy and yet hope remains illusive. Humanism’s answer is to hope in humans. But that is no hope. The Humanist Manifesto III from 2003 proudly affirms that humans are “the result of unguided evolutionary change.”7 That is like saying “I’m hoping to visit the Cotswolds” but without a map, means, or the ability to ask for directions. After all it is “unguided.” Gen Zers are smarter than that but they need to know there is a better way. On the topic of human progress, Lewis says “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”8 Gen Z’s hope must be directed heavenward. It is a strange rule, Lewis says, but “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in;’ aim at earth and you will get neither.”9

Who is Your Knower?

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and former professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is an enigma to most Christians. Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief rose to stardom after some of his interviews on YouTube went viral.1 The seemingly simple things he suggests for people to adopt to straighten out their lives are met with disdain among an entitled generation. Things like “tidying up your room” in a metaphoric sense means to develop a discipline of responsibility. It is Peterson’s championing conservative values that endear him to the faithful which simultaneously estranges him from the social progressives. His talks and books borrow copiously from a variety of religious traditions, much of it containing Biblical references. But when asked if he believed in God, much less the God of the Bible, he would take offense that anyone would ask such a private question. He is not an atheist nor a moral relativist but would go on tirades when asked that question, often resorting to Wittgensteinian2 language games.

Maps of Meaning is a dense read. Typically I would be cautious about recommending a book such as this one. However, Peterson is a must read, especially helpful to our present generation hungry for meaning. He has this idea of contrasting polarities in what he calls the three “constituent elements of experience”3: (1) the Great Mother, creative and also destructive, the unknown; (2) the Great Father, protective and also tyrannical, the known and finally the (3) Divine Son, the hero, mediator between unknown and known, the knower. These concepts make up our experience. Peterson helps us understand that life appears contradictory at times. This is very similar to Mark Noll’s idea of doubleness that one encounters in daily experience. Applied to Christianity, Noll defines doubleness as pointing to a paradox or an apparent antinomy in the most basic understanding of the Christian faith.4

Barna Reserch conducted a poll in 2018 demonstrating that 82% of those born between 1999 and 2015 (Gen Z) consider “very important” the development of a faith that lasts into their adulthood.5 This is curious given the fact that this generation happens to be the most biblically illiterate in U.S. history.6 What can be inferred here? It is that traditional ways of conducting church no longer works. It is failing to reach Gen Z while at the same time the need to find meaning and significance in life remain unmet. The courageous hero (to borrow from Peterson) in all of us must help the seeker realize that life is complex and full of antinomies. This is to be expected and we must not run away from it. We must do our part to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown.

The oldest members of Generation Z have begun to move on from college into new careers. Soon they will be parents and experience the full range of adulthood. Their search for meaning remains elusive, tucked behind church doors that appear locked from the inside. These locks may come in the form of dogmatism, legalism and hypocrisy. Whatever metaphorical form it takes, young people are not having it.

It is no wonder then that Peterson has such a struggle with the question “Do you believe in God?” while in a hopeful way holds an optimistic skepticism about Christianity. In one of his talks7 he clearly is conflicted with the idea of Christianity because if it is true, he would expect a very stark difference between good and bad people, or that there would be good people. He has a very high expectation of Christianity. Would that necessarily be a fault? Word and world are so intrinsically interconnected in Peterson’s mind that he expects Christians, if they exists at all, would behave like little Christs.8 It is hard to follow Jesus and yet regrettably the church’s constant witness of “easy believism” only results in needless disappointment for many today.

The great hope of the Gospel is that there is a Great Knower who can bridge the chasm of chaos and shalom. It is only through his power in us that we can be like Christ. It is in Christ that we have a slayer of dragons. He is not just a myth of Peterson. Rather he is, in C.S. Lewis’ words, “myth which is also fact.” This is the hope of glory.

Would-Be Clashes and Resonances: Apologetics to Gen Z

As I was scanning my notes in preparation for writing this blog post I realized the dizzying array of options available to me. I thought it was comforting and reassuring that I’d get this piece quickly written, given the wealth of source material available in Stephen R.C. Hicks’ Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault. I briefly considered writing about the self-stultifying nature of the relativistic claims of postmodernism, that if left unchallenged leads to solipsism. Would it be strange to ask that if searching for meaning is pointless on postmodernist ground, then why any such effort is expelled to convince anyone of anything to begin with? After all, “if there is no world or self to understand and get right on their terms, then what is the purpose of thought or action?”1 Then there was the option of writing about the murderous consequences resulting from the influences of the unholy trinity of Marx, Marcuse and Mao.2 Clay Jones, in his book Why Does God Allow Evil? in which he compiles a list3 of atrocities in the hundreds of millions at the hands of communist regimes includes this quote from Mao Tse-tung in one of his speeches to the politburo in 1958: “What’s so unusual about Emperor Shih Huang of the Chin Dynasty? He had buried alive 460 scholars only, but we have buried alive 46,000 scholars.”4

Any one of those options would have been interesting and perhaps deserves its own post someday. So instead of being distracted, I decided to write something pertinent to my dissertation. It may change a bit but for now I am asking the question: What are new contextualized, Gospel-centric concepts of learning and practice that Evangelical leaders and pastors can adopt to train and disciple Generation Z Christians in the United States? If we believe the polls, Gen Z Christians are leaving the church or identifying as either “none” (those who check “none” on forms asking for religious affiliation) or atheist in increasing number over the last few years. What is causing this? There are at least two reasons for this. One is that when it comes to answering “tough” questions about Christianity, God or the Bible, one in five engaged Christian parents say they do not feel prepared to help their Christian teenager with these tough questions.5 Another reason could be the fact that more than half of youth pastors self-profess their ill-preparedness when it comes to discussing science and the Bible with their youth group.6 In this social media-driven culture young people are in, it is vital for youth pastors to be trained in Christian apologetics. The study shows that teenagers are not bashful in asking the tough questions. So church leaders must acknowledge this knowledge and skill gaps in youth ministry and marshal resources such as training to help youth workers be more effective in discipling young people not only in spiritual formation, but in the life of the mind as well.

The study by Barna Research reveals a curious discrepancy between what youth pastors report about their teen’s preparedness to tackle challenging issues (e.g. moral relativism) and what engaged parents report about their teen’s preparedness to tackle the same. The difference is at least 20 percentage points in the direction of the parent’s more favorable evaluation of their adolescent child’s preparedness to deal with tough subjects. This same gap is seen in Christian teens’ self-reported confidence in their ability to support their views on a specific topic: the existence of God.7 This confidence must be buttressed by solid Christian apologetics training. We always hear about de-conversion taking place when a closely held doctrine is challenged. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous atheist today, was confirmed in the Anglican church as young boy and was a believer. He started doubting his faith at 9 years old when he learned about the many religious options available growing up in England.8 He concluded that had he been born in India for example, he might have adopted its religion, thereby negating his Christianity. Could Dawkins’ faith have been nurtured had there been someone to help him through his doubts? More than likely. The answers would not have been difficult to supply.

There is hope however because according to Barna, Gen Zers for the most part still holds to traditional Christian beliefs.9

"In some ways Gen Z’s generational ethos naturally resonates with a life of Christian faith, and in others their collective worldview clashes with the Church’s traditions and beliefs. By looking squarely at both would-be clashes and resonances, those involved in making disciples among the next generation can be most effective."10

That is the key in shining the truth claims of Christianity on Gen Z, finding common ground, the looking at both “would-be clashes and resonances” that seeks to connect their innate hopes and dreams to the Gospel.

Cut Flower Christianity

The year was 2004. The Olympics were held in Athens, Greece where a total of 10,625 athletes from 201 countries competed in 301 sporting events. NASA successfully landed the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) on Mars. U.S. President George W. Bush beats John Kerry in the elections garnering him a second term. His political platform was built on keeping America safe. This resonated with people and citizens uncritically rallied around him in support of his policies. This public adulation even secured him a spot in Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2000 and 2004, citing him as the most influential person during those two years.

The year was filled with optimism, that is until the very same things that propelled him to hero status fell into disrepute. Fair minded people began questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq war. Remember, this was premised on the presence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that a pre-emptive strike was justified given the eminent threat. But months of investigation on this turned out to be based on faulty information by intelligence agencies. There apparently were none. It was also the same year CBS uncovers systematic torture of Iraq prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Needless to say, it was a demoralizing chapter in our nation’s history. One easily could see the writing on the wall. Out of nowhere, America found itself challenged over claims of cultural uniqueness which followed a period of self-loathing, resigned in giving up the moral high ground. World leaders such as Putin began to see the missing links in the chainmail that once served as protection against what seemed like an unassailable set of virtues which made the United States a beacon of hope for many. They began jockeying, eager to replace the U.S. as world leader.

It is in this same year that Meic Pearse, an Oxford trained historian, writes a provocative book titled Why The Rest Hates The West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. In it Pearse frames his curiosity by citing four distinctives1 that define the West today:

      1. Western worldview is historically unique.
      2. The West has enjoyed dominance in the last two centuries; but now is in decline.
      3. Globalization is changing the West.
      4. Ongoing cultural debate characterized by what Robert Hughes as a “sterile confrontation between the two PCs—the politically correct and the patriotically correct.”2

Nick Spencer in The Evolution of the West How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values does a masterful job at explicating the first point. Spencer borrows a lot of his ideas from Larry Siedentop, an Oxford academic, who reminds the reader that virtually every virtue (e.g., human dignity, identity, science, law, care for the poor, and other similar first order values) that is significant in contributing to human flourishing has its origins in Christianity.efn_note]Nick Spencer, The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values [Expanded Edition], (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), Kindle, Loc. 225.[/efn_note]

Spencer agrees with Charles Taylor in A Secular Age when he wrote that the West has always been grounded in a theistic worldview, that a “non-belief in God was close to unthinkable for the vast majority.”3 Spencer adds:

“The past, at least in Europe, was Christian—a statement that has no hidden implications as to whether the present will be. People thought in Christian and spoke in Christian and reasoned in Christian, even as the public square became ever more plural.”4

This is no longer the case and many tout the fact that we are now living in a post-Christianity age. How has historical amnesia become the norm today? If Spencer is correct in his thesis, Christians bear the sole responsibility for Christianity’s backsliding ways. If Taylor is right, believers have continued to lose influence since the 1500s.

I had a conversation with to Os Guinness about these issues several years back. He recounted the event where he was invited to speak before the Chinese politburo about the challenges associated with the idea of modernizing without westernizing. The Chinese, to his surprise, acknowledged the rich heritage the United States possessed and duly noted that the associative link between the rise in preeminence of the West and Christianity. What they do not understand is why the United States today, in their view, is cutting themselves from their roots. Guinness says that we are like cut flowers. The West no longer draws its nourishment from the rich soil in which Christianity was planted. Just like cut flowers, everything that is true, good and beautiful will someday wilt away.

But does this have to be our lot? Is Christianity doomed to irrelevance? The quick answer to this is no. We have the book and we know the ending. The not so quick answer to this is that first we must avoid the temptation of immediatism5, the insistence of immediate action, decision and even perfection right now. Second we must engage in civil discourse about the important things in life. Taylor suggests we start with cross-pressure subjects such as agency, ethics and aesthetics. If we are successful with even the second, coming out of it unscathed, we will have accomplished much.

Finally, we cannot move forward if the saints are not praying. Prayer is the most powerful under utilized weapon Christians posses. I had the privilege of interviewing Peter Kreeft, preeminent philosophy professor at Boston College, several years ago while he was making the rounds speaking at various universities in my area. I asked him why Christianity was losing influence in the West. I’ll never forget his answer and the way he answered it. No sooner was I done asking when he blurted his answer “prayer.” Out of respect, I paused, thinking he would say more profound things. After all, he is a luminary in the philosophy world. He did not plan to until I asked if he could expound on it. In retrospect he probably thought why this was not obvious to me. Then he reminded me that we have a direct line to the omnipotent, omnipresent and omnibenevolent God of the universe and if are we not on our knees asking him for help, then nothing else will work.

Stand in the Gap

The scandal of the Evangelical mind, regrettably, is all around us. It is in popular media, social media, the public square, politics, universities and in other accessible spaces. Embarrassingly, we just cannot avoid it. To check my claim, I decided just now as I’m writing this, to turn on the radio and tune in to KKLA (99.5 FM, Los Angeles), “one of America’s most listened to Christian Talk stations.” It says so on their tagline. The mega church pastor who was speaking on the air said in one breath that “…everything you need to know is found in the Bible…” and then followed it up with the verse in Romans 12:1 “…but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He implied that in order to change one’s life, a person must first be transformed by a renewed mind. 

I can give him a pass because I already know what he was trying to communicate to his radio listeners. I have no doubt that he means well and aims to glorify God in all areas of life. However, to an unbeliever’s ear, this message is strange. It might even sound downright silly. Does the Bible really tell us everything there is to know? Will it tell me how much soap to put in the washer; balance my checkbook or prepare an apple cranberry walnut salad? Of course not. But it’s a category mistake to expect the Bible to be something it was not meant to be. Believers who carelessly think this way might be in the grips of biblicism1, which holds to the claim that the Bible is the only source of knowledge. The key word here, of course, is “only.” It is so easy today for a well meaning believers to be exposed as a poor witness simply because they lack the discipline of study. 

But how did this happen when according to Mark Noll, Christians are heirs to a rich intellectual heritage found in Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Calvin, Pascal and Edwards?2 Mark Noll in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind responds to this conundrum and says:

If what we claim about Jesus Christ is true, then evangelicals should be among the most active, most serious, and most openminded advocates of general human learning. Evangelical hesitation about scholarship in general or about pursuing learningwholeheartedly is, in other words, antithetical to the Christ-centered basis of evangelical faith.3

How did Christianity move from having the mind of Christ4 to a descent in intellectual laziness? Noll thinks the problem started when evangelicals started adopting Enlightenment ideas, specifically the didactic form imported by Scottish thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid and Adam Smith to name a few.5 In a spate of historic irony, the project failed. The very same Enlightenment concepts evangelical thinkers adopted to harmonize the Bible and nature simply could not hold up against the scrutiny of their interlocuters. This is not to say that Christians did not have any good rejoinders. But instead of doing homework, evangelicals retreated to the “fundamentals” of the faith. Regrettably, this was a euphemism for “we walk by faith, not by sight.” This eventually gave rise to new developments in theology such as the Keswick movement, Holiness, pentecostalism and the like which sought a second work of the Holy Spirit after conversion. By this time, experience and feelings became the exclusive new sources of knowledge at the expense of sound reason, the effects of which are still felt today. 

Noll was asked if had to write The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind all over again, what would change? He said that his assessment would remain unchanged but that he would change his tone. He would write with more hope and that is exactly what we find in Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. He lists no less than ten positive signs of Evangelical advances in philosophy, science,  publications, universities (e.g., Biola and George Fox) and other areas of scholarship. 

It is high time to answer the clarion call to stand in the gap. Who knows how long the Lord will tarry? Perhaps we are, by God’s grace, given this rare opportunity to help elevate the life of the mind to newer heights in our time. As C.S. Lewis so famously said:

“To be ignorant and simple now–not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground–would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”6

Disenchanted Church

Charles Taylor seems to stand alone in his evaluation of what is wrong in our human condition, more specifically in the West. Once cherished values, which many say are responsible for human flourishing, are no longer held. It is not difficult to point out the cause of moral decay in society: increasing divorce rates, normalization of single-parent homes, alarming rates of suicide among teens1, distrust in political leaders, sharp divisions between the left and the right, gender dysphoria, emergence of the “nones” and many more of the same. 

But if one asks leading Christian leaders (especially pastors) and thinkers today, all of them would strongly claim that a return to Judeo-Christian values is key to reversing the tide of secularism. Then and only then would we return to fullness2. Taylor however, thinks that because of the massive shifts in thought and practices which brought about the various reformations, including the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, a naive, nostalgic return to a former era is not the best way to confront  secularism of the 3rd kind3, a concept he explains and is the primary locus4 of his project in A Secular Age. 

As I am writing this, I have resisted the temptation to summarize his thoughts here. But that is seldom my aim in writing my blogs for this course to begin with. Besides, experts such as James K.A. Smith have already done a wonderful job at this. The reason for this internal angst is because the narrative Taylor and Smith weave appears so prodigious and incredibly nuanced that if I were to pick up on any point I would feel the need to support it, and then the point after that, so on and so forth. And if that happens, I would end up summarizing their ideas, which again, is something I want to avoid here. With that in mind I’m not going to start in the beginning, nor the end, but somewhere in the middle.

One of Taylor’s many theses is that the church after the Middle Ages moved from a default position of belief to unbelief. The notion that God does not exist was unthinkable during the medieval period. Atheism was inconceivable. We have become disenchanted5. The church today, whether we realize this or not, camps in this immanent frame. Our world is closed — nothing comes in or out. It is disconcerting and embarrassing to admit that believers can be naturalistic by default. It’s true. Take for instance the dearth of miracles as perceived by Christians in the West. I’m recalling a story about a Christian leader from the U.S. asking his African counterpart why miracles are not as prevalent as they are in Africa. Apparently miracles such as the dead coming back to life, amputees growing limbs and other inexplicable events are not uncommon in developing nations. The African’s response was insightful. He said people in the U.S, when they encounter an emergency, their first impulse is to dial 911. In Africa, since there is no emergency services like 911, believer’s first impulse is to pray. 

Each time I hear that story told in front of an audience the reaction that follows is one of relief, a kind of comfort and reassurance that God still perform miracles. Of course, God still performs miracles. But how have we developed a take6 on things in which apparently God no longer performs miracles? The believer’s behavior, when it comes to prayer betray their beliefs because prayers are prayed with little expectation that God hears, much less acts. 

This is one example of secularism type 3 permeating everything in the church, its teachings and practices. This kind of secularism is such a lived-in, tacit and unconscious imaginary that the uninitiated is left with little hope of reform. But the situation is not beyond hope. Taylor offers a way out, starting points to engage the secularist. First, keep the conversations going and avoid conversation-stoppers such as the ones many street evangelists employ. There is enough common ground to supply civil conversations even with those whose ideas we disagree; and we need to be proactive and intentional about this. Second, keep pressing subjects on what Taylor calls cross-pressures that appear to grasp at fullness but never settling. He identifies three: Agency, Ethics and Aesthetics7. This is similar to what sociologist Peter Berger calls prototypical human gestures. All human beings, irrespective of culture, race, gender, age, past, present and future posses qualities that make us human. Qualities such as order, play, hope, justice  and humor, according to Berger, signal transcendence. These all eventually point back to God. Lastly, we must find converts who have lived within the immanent frame, succumbed to the cross-pressures and found a way out. Converts such as the Apostle Paul, C.S. Lewis, and more recently Ravi Zacharias, to name a few, who tell a competing story. 

As promised, this is not a summary of Taylor’s ideas. Instead it’s a feeble attempt to scrape together thoughts and ideas for a possible way forward toward human flourishing. The kind of human flourishing that finds its supply in the God of the cosmos.