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A Great Opportunity


Earlier this month the Pew Research Center released the results of its American Values Survey. The survey was headlined by the finding that the United States has grown more partisan over the course of the Bush and Obama administrations. In the religious community, however, the biggest news from the survey was that religious indicators among those of the millennial generation (born after 1980) have decreased over the last 5 years. Three particular statistics were indicative of the general trend. First, only 64% of millennials believe that people will be called to answer for their sins on Judgment Day. This is down from 74% in 2007. Second, 64% of millennials said that prayer was an important part of their life, which was a 6% decrease from 2007. Finally, when asked if they never doubted the existence of God, only 68% of millennials agreed with that statement. This represented the largest decrease, falling 15% over the last five years. For those who reported these findings, the increase in the expression of doubt in God’s existence was the most interesting result.[1]

Depending on your feelings toward religion, the responses to that particular question would elicit much celebration or much hand-wringing. However, several people have pointed out (most notably Boston University professor Steven Prothero) that the question of the expression of doubt raised by the survey is not the best way to determine the strength of religious belief. The official survey question asks whether the respondent has never doubted the existence of God. It does not ask what the result of that doubt was. Now it is certainly true that the doubt expressed by some of the respondents may have led them to forsake God and religion. However, it is just as likely that some who doubted God’s existence found their faith strengthened by wrestling with their doubts, and now are as committed (or even more committed) to their spiritual lives as they were before they felt the pangs of doubt. Some of our most famous examples of faith are people who wrestled with doubt.[2] It is not a foregone conclusion that an expression of doubt in God’s existence leads to some sort of weakened spiritual state. As Dr. Prothero said the fact that 68% of millennials have never doubted their faith might actually be a sign of the continued strength of the religious experience in America as opposed to its decline.

When I attended the Andrews University Seminary the decline in religious belief amongst millenials was often blamed on postmodernism.[3] The philosophical move from modernism to postmodernism was described by some as a terrible, evil thing that kept people from believing in God and forming a relationship with Him. Postmodernism was colloquially described as a system of thought where people did not have a system of ethics. They did whatever suited them and were only bound by the laws of the society in which they lived. However this is a misrepresentation of postmodernism. While the idea can be hard to define, a reasonable working definition would be, “A style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity, and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation.”[4] Therefore, postmodernism is not necessarily an attack on truth itself, but a realization that truth cannot be divorced from the people who speak it. People who would consider themselves postmodern have truths that they believe, but are unwilling to impose on others, primarily because of their doubt. The problem of the postmodern is the surety of absolute truth, or the lack of doubt.

Ironically, postmoderns owe a philosophical debt of gratitude to a Christian theologian (Martin Luther) and have some principles in common with Christianity (such as, truth, free will, and an emphasis on community).[5]  Therefore, the shift from the modern to the postmodern mindset should not be decried as a negative, but should be seen as a great opportunity. People living by a postmodern ethos are not running from the truth, they are looking for something honest and real to believe in. The postmodern mindset may make the missiological goals of the church more difficult to achieve – after all, we no longer live in a world where the existence of God is a universal assumption. In order for the Christian (or Adventist) world to reach out to a postmodern world, it may require that we become more welcoming, more loving, and emphasize faith over knowledge. It may require us to wrestle with the more difficult elements of scripture, be less dogmatic, and present ourselves as we actually are – seekers of the truth who are still learning. If we do those things, we may be able to attract people to everything that is wonderful and beautiful about being a follower of Christ. And then they will believe it too. Not because everybody else believes it, but because they have tested and tried it and found it to be better than the truths they know now. If we can do this, if we can change, we will not only aid in converting more Christians, but we would be helping to make better Christians as well.

[1] News organizations that reported on this survey include The Huffington Post, CNN, and Religion Today.

[2] A short list would include: Abraham, Job, Peter, and in modern times, Mother Teresa.

[3] The Pew Center Survey conducted during these years showed that 76% of respondents had never doubted the existence of God.

[4]Barry Harvey, “Anti-Postmodernism,” in Handbook of Postmodern Biblical Interpretation, ed. A. K. M. Adam, (St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2000), 2.

[5] Luther’s belief in the priesthood of all believers is the ideological forerunner to the concept that everyone can determine their morality for themselves.

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