The Value of Complex Questions

This morning NPR had this piece titled “More Young People Are Moving Away from Religion, but Why?”. It’s a 7 minute clip from what David Greene reports was a two-hour discussion with six young adults in New York. Three men and three women participated,  ranging in age from 23 to 33. They come from a variety of faith positions: Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Adventist, and undisclosed “Christian”. In listening to their comments several times, I was struck with how their struggles relate to questions at Christian universities.

All of these folks are older than my students and we weren’t told anything about where they went to college themselves. There are all kinds of questions I’d ask about sampling and representativeness. But still, there are interesting patterns in their answers. And those patterns align nicely with the kinds of things the Barna group found on evangelical young people. When you listen carefully to their comments, they aren’t rejecting religion per se. They are rejecting an overly structured apologetic. It’s not religion that failed them — it was the structure of argument that the were substituting for religion.

For example, one young woman speaks of her Catholic schooling and how she had questions about what she was taught about premarital sex and homosexuality. But she says that she moved from her faith because she couldn’t support such “core beliefs”. The young man with a cross tattoo rejects “religious doctrines” (Greene’s phrase) of a literal hell and homosexuality as sin. The Adventist young man has issues with theodicy — he can prayer be effective when bad stuff was happening in his family and his prayers didn’t stop it. And if the failure of efficacy was him failing some test, wasn’t that as cruel as “burning ants with a magnifying glass?” The Muslim man struggles with a literal understanding of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Why would God expect such a thing? And isn’t someone who claimed that God wanted that somewhat unhinged?

These are all good questions. They are questions that Christian universities should be engaging better than anyone. We have the ability to separate “core doctrines” from the various social, behavioral, and scientific factors that present challenges. We are able to handle the ambiguity of scriptural texts, recognizing their difficult implications, without abandoning scriptural commitments altogether.

But if our approach to challenging issues is to offer up pat answers, we put our students at risk. Because if a few years, they will be confronted with others who don’t share the easy responses we offer. And when that happens, they run the risk of being in some NPR interview sometime in the future.

The key factors that arose in David Kinnaman’s work in You Lost Me (about disaffected young evangelicals) were judgmentalism, inability to deal with doubt, and lack of complexity (particular on issues related to science). Christian Universities should deal with the grayness of the complex questions. It leads to a deeper faith walk (relates to James Fowler’s stage 5 and above) that isn’t shaken when life challenges the pat answers we had folks memorize.

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