Tag: Rachel Held Evans

Millennial Canaries

Canary

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet this week, you know that the topic of the week (other than Reza Aslan’s new book) is about millenials leaving the church. Rachel Held Evans wrote a nice summary of work by David Kinnaman and others. Combining that research with her own reflections, she attempted to clarify the issues: attitudes toward homosexuals, combativeness, unwilling to address doubt. She summarizes a nice piece that documented how young evangelicals are attracted to liturgical churches. Part of Rachel’s concern was that too many in the religious sphere have responded to millennial concerns as the need for better marketing or hipper bands. Maybe we need more 60 year old pastors preaching in skinny jeans and hipster glasses.

The response has been somewhat surprising. Mainliners said that Rachel’s issues were only true for evangelicals and that what she called for was present in the Methodist church. Other evangelicals responded that millenials needed to listen to their elders and recognize that the church isn’t supposed to deal with a narcissistic group of twenty-somethings who grew up thinking they were special.

Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a clever piece today on how the real question is about involvement. How do millenials find places of connection within the local congregation? The question of involvement raises the questions that Michelle Van Loon has been exploring — that 40-somethings show lower levels of engagement in their local churches than was true a decade ago. Michele summarized her thinking in this podcast.

Here’s what I’m thinking. Millenials are the canary in the coal mine of modern protestantism. As part of the entire RHE flurry, Chris Morton posted this interesting piece about what would characterize a millennial church.  But when I read Chris’ piece, I realized THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH. Last week I read this wonderful piece by Jamie (the Very Worst Missionary) reporting on a church she’d attended in Central America. Called “Doing it Wrong”, Jamie critiques our assumptions about modern American worship services. And again I said, THAT’S WHAT I WANT IN A CHURCH.

What this tells me is that the issues millenials are raising are not about them. They’re about the spectator elements of modern worship: music done FOR you, auditorium seating, anonymity, lack of engagement in questions of faith. I’ve felt this before. Slightly disconnected from a congregation. So what’s different with my generation? Why didn’t we respond like the millenials?

We didn’t do that because it was assumed you’d stay loyal to a local congregation. Maybe this is a holdover from geographically based parish life or ethnically identified denominations. We stuck it out, not because it was okay but because we didn’t want to be deviant.

Today things are different. The percentage of adults who are non-religious (not affiliating, not attending, not caring) is higher than it’s ever been. Questions about the legitimacy of religion in modern life are regularly raised not just by Dawkins but by folks writing comments on any  webpage that barely mentions religion.

The world is changing. We may not be in a post-Christian society, But it’s clear that we’re entering a period where being Christian is not the default assumption. It’s a time where we will need to engage in far more dialogue and do much less arguing. I’ve been reading Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology. He addresses the implications of postmodernity for today’s church. The same sentiments were raised by Nate Pyle a couple of days ago. Nate nails it: “unless we want a new wineskin, we don’t want something new.”

The conversation begun by David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, Christian Smith, Diana Butler Bass, and others dovetails with the changing trends in religious participation in America. We may wish things were the way they used to be, but that’s not coming back.

We need to pay attention to the millennial concerns. Not because they’re spoiled kids who need to grow up. Not because the church needs to be hip. But because they grew up in postmodern culture. Engaging postmodern religion through the lens of the millenials will help the church of 2020 proclaim the Gospel to a complex and confusing world.

The millenials are the canary in the religious mine. We can ignore them and call them spoiled. But if we do that, we lose our ability to engage future generations. These demographic changes aren’ going to change and we need to respond with faith, compassion, intelligence, and authenticity. We need the millenials to insure the future quality of the church. In the end, it’s the church I want to be a part of.

Mainlines and Evangelicals: Developing Hypotheses

Has the institutional church had it? Is it on the way out?

You don’t have to look far to see questions about the health of the institutional church. From the growth of the religious “Nones” among the under 30 population to David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me to Rachel Held Evans post on CNN yesterday, the story seems to be that young people have issues with religion, especially in more rigid evangelical churches. The younger generation’s concerns are important because they fill slots in the church created by normal demographic change (that’s sociologist for “people died”). If there are not enough new people in the church willing to commit, what happens to all these churches?

I took my first sociology of religion class in 1977. At that time, two recent books were shaping religious discussion. One was Jeffrey Hadden’s The Gathering Storm in the Churches.  The other was Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches are Growing.

Hadden’s book detailed a study he’d done of mainline churches as they engaged issues of civil rights and social justice. He had found that there were two very different visions of religion between mainline clergy and their laity. The storm that was gathering was a result of conflict over the role of religion. The clergy wanted to push for justice and the laity wanted safe comfortable sermons. The mismatch risked driving people away, presenting survival challenges for mainline churches. The quote above is actually the first two lines of a newpaper story from Spartanburg, SC on Hadden written when the book came out (thanks Google!).

Kelley’s book suggested that conservative churches were growing because they demanded more of their members. Rather than an easy, country-club existence, he suggested that churches with stances against drinking or who expected high levels of participation would grow because the heightened requirements meant that people would draw greater meaning from belonging. It’s based on some decent social psychology as far as it goes. (The Presbyterians just released some interesting findings about growth at the congregational level and strictness, but I’m suspicious about correlates with region and rural location.)

The combination of these books painted a disturbing picture of mainline churches. They would prefer a culturally affirming connection to society and simply enjoyed coffee together. Because they didn’t demand a lot, their young people weren’t involved and the church was a bunch of blue-hairs quickly dying off.

Meanwhile, evangelicalism was the hot new thing. We had a born-again president. Roe v. Wade formed a rallying point for evangelical churches and Jerry Falwell formed the Moral Majority. The growth of a suburban middle class fueled the rise of family-friendly evangelical congregations. Sociologists set out to explain religious growth and decline (which proved much more complicated than Kelley’s thesis would suggest).

University of Connecticut sociologist Bradley Wright has been exploring various issues about evangelicals. He recently analyzed General Social Survey data to examine how many evangelicals there actually are in America. He compiled this graph:

Wright Evangels-in-USThe blue line estimate the percentage of Americans who fit Wright’s definition of evangelical. From 20% of the population in 1970, the percentage peaks at about 28% in 1990 and starts back down again. Current data puts the percentage of evangelicals about where it was in 1975. What accounts for the decline?

I have three developing hypotheses. I’m hoping some of my religious and sociological readers will push back on these.

First, we failed to understand the resilience of the mainline church. While there are some overly culturally-affirming segments of the church, there are many more that are attempting to engage an intelligent, theologically grounded, critique of culture. These are not, as one critic suggested in this piece on the Christian left by  Jonathan Merritt, “deader than Henry VIII”. Mainline religion may still be managing the demographic transition of a generation unhappy with Hadden’s pastors. But they are being replaced with a very different kind of young adult. While the numbers of members continue to decline, the strength of the mainline church may be better than ever.

We need more careful examination of these trends. My experience with mainline churches finds them populated by people of faith who are mortified that they’ll sound like religious zealots. You have to listen harder to hear their faith perspective, but it may be deeper than you’d first think. Roger Olson had some interesting reflections this week on the mainline (which he’d rather call “old-line”). While I think some of his prescriptions (e.g., worship teams) miss the mark, his call for living spiritual experiences is what I’m seeing within the leading edge of mainline leadership.

Here’s the second hypothesis. I’m thinking that the rise in evangelical popularity in the 80s and 90s is an aberration and not a trend. It’s not that people are turning away from evangelical faith but that there was a temporary surge in popularity. Some of this is suburbanization and media narrative. Some may be reaction against the stereotypes about mainline religion happening at the time.

Sociologists and Religion Writers may make too much of distinctions between evangelicals and mainlines. According to my summary of data from the National Council of Churches Yearbook, there were just under 22.5 million members of evangelical denominations (70% of those are Southern Baptists) and  18.4 million members of mainline denominations. Both groups are showing signs of numerical decline (with some outliers) and are losing ground relative to population growth.

If the decline in mainline churches historically was due to demographic issues, it would make sense that we’d see large demographic differences between religious traditions. But the differences are fairly small. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion provide breakdowns by age groups:

Pew ForumThe percentage of mainline churches over 65 and under 29 differ slightly from the evangelical churches but neither of those percentages are that far off the total across religious traditions (the contrast with the unaffiliated is striking). This suggests that if evangelical churches find more difficulty in holding on to the young, their demographic issues are serious indeed.

The third hypothesis is that Hadden’s analysis of Mainline churches in the late 60s has an analog in Evangelical churches 40 years later. Just as activist voices on the left found separation between mainline pastors and laity, so activist voices on the right may be doing the same in evangelical churches. This is part of Putnam and Campbell’s argument in American Grace and it’s hard to dispute it. This is what prompts so many young evangelical leaders to find alternative ways of engaging “faithful presence”, to use James Hunter’s phrase.

As Young Evangelicals are looking for authenticity, they’re being careful about where they look for it. They don’t see a separation between evangelical and mainline churches as impermeable. That’s why posts like this one by Rebecca VanDoodewaard resonate with so many.

Hadden’s question about the future of the institutional church is an important one. But no one group has a monopoly on where the answer will be found. More attention to those churches which combine theological grounding with authentic community and service to others will lead us all to better conversations.

“I believe that children are our future…”

So sang Whitney Houston in 1986. The song, “The Greatest Love of All” is actually about self-actualization: Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

But I want to stay with the opening refrain. Not just that it is tautological — children will be future adults and the absence of any children means that the race has no future. But that we jump through hoops in social policy to ask “But what about the children?

Or sometimes we ask. About some children.

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision on the unconstitutionality of DOMA, many critics have suggested that we are no longer caring for the children. They point out that “research” shows that children are healthier when raised in homes with two parents: the biological mother and father.

There is good social science literature that supports such claims. A quick Google search led me to a nice summary article written last year. But that article, like most of the research on two-parent families, has nothing to do with same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples or single adults. It contrasts intact families — that is, still in the initial marriage — with single parents, reconstituted families, or cohabiting parents. When we make that comparison, the two parent families provide better support.

There are economic factors in play here, of course. Not all two-parent intact families are equal. Some struggle financially, live in bad neighborhoods, and have limited opportunities for advancement. It stands to reason that families in those circumstances might not be as beneficial as a reconstituted family with more monetary resources.

There are historical factors in play here as well. Children in the first part of the 20th century were an important part of the labor force. Women were treated as an appendage of the husband (read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) and were legally property. Men were distant and followed the prevailing thought that showing emotion wasn’t manly. The first time I saw Rachel Held Evans was a video of a presentation she’d made a Fuller Seminary as her Year of Biblical Womanhood was coming out. It was clear that the “Biblical version of family” had far more to do with June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson — Father Knows Best — than timeless traditions. (These also reinforced the economic lessons — the Cleavers and Andersons were homes of professionals that quickly became normative within society).

There are also psychological limitations. I’ve been reading the late Brennan Manning’s memoir. It wasn’t a happy home. His mother was impossible to please and his father was distant. In other families, you could have a father who was overly controlling (or, heaven forbid, abusive) and withheld love to maintain the control over the household. I’ve had far too many conversations with  young evangelicals to know that there are a lot of stories out there just like what I’ve suggested.

So here’s what I think we’re really saying. It’s best for children to grow up in middle-class, emotionally stable, affirming homes with parents who are loving and psychologically healthy. Start switching out those variables and you get different outcomes.

What does this have to do with children growing up in same-sex households? First, it’s too soon to tell. Recent research, even the controversial stuff that came out last year, doesn’t disentangle the same-sex relationship from any social stigma that might have attached. Furthermore, we’d really need to be able to disentangle the various dynamics described above.

There’s reason to suspect that Modern Family’s Cameron and Mitchell provide at least the same level of support as the Cleavers. On the other hand, Jay Pritchard’s first show, Married with Children was as dysfunctional as they come (which was the joke). Roseanne and Dan Conner fell somewhere in the middle.

One more thing. Children are resilient. While the advantages of “growing up Cleaver” are many, there are also millions of stories of children growing up in homes without those advantages. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, LeBron James. And those are just some famous examples.

The number of children growing up in poverty line single-parent households continues to grow. That is a real concern and we need to find ways of guaranteeing those children a future as well.

But simply wishing they were all like the Cleavers isn’t the point. And suggesting that because we aren’t celebrating the Cleavers that society is doomed is not just short-sighted — it’s sociological cherry-picking.

New Ways of Thinking — Part Two

I finished drafting the chapter I wrote about last week (on schedule!). The second half of the chapter explores a couple of ideas from social psychology. While my intent is to help students remain open to learning new things, there are broader implications for the evangelical community.

I began with the concept of schemas. Social psychologists see these as mental structures we use to organize information. I conceptualize them as similar to the file folders in my computer. There is a particular structure that we have learned and we try to fit any new information into the existing structure. Most of the time this works well. But sometimes it fails. The situation that we thought was just the same as some previous encounter proves to be nothing like that at all. There is a balance drawn between our prior knowledge and the new information being processed.

For a college student recently moved from home, the abundance of new information can be challenging and result in a higher error rate than will be true later on. Some things will be misinterpreted and others will just be missed.

Occasionally, the new information is nearly impossible to incorporate into existing schemas. This is one of the important functions of a Christian university: helping students navigate the re-ordering of their schemas. We expect that to happen and have constructed mechanisms and support groups to aid in the hard work of restructuring.

Heuristics are related to schemas. Think of them as master categories that shape what we attend to. Much of our contemporary political discussions are heuristics. We begin with a paradigm and fit information into that. We need mechanisms for sorting out new information and heuristics give us rules for evaluating our schemas.

Finally, I discussed the work of Sharon Daloz Parks as it relates to meaning-making. Like other developmental approaches I explored in the first of these posts, she sees the  transition away from authority based meaning as critically important for young people. Following a brief period of relativism, she says that individuals move through probing commitments through tested commitments to convictional commitment. The period associated with college and emerging adulthood is best matched with probing commitment. Parks argues that questioning is essential to personal growth.

Just as I did last time, I see these mental processes operating in most of our discussions about evangelicals, fundamentalists, and the larger culture. There are many examples I can pick from, but let me focus on a couple.

First, I’d argue that the challenges evangelicalism faces when dealing with social change comes from an overly rigid schematic structure. Because the mental structures are tightly constructed, there is no room for new information. Scientific advances become problematic so even more elaborate alternative structures must be constructed (see intelligent design). Social change is denounced because the mental structures get confounded with a number of non-scriptural assumptions (see Rachel Held Evans’ Year of Biblical Womanhood). Political shifts are seen as evidences of slippery slopes (see same-sex marriage, demographic change, or religious pluralism). A more flexible approach to information would allow more faith in God’s leading and an openness to new paths of outreach. I’ve consistently written on how young evangelicals are particularly pushed away by this cognitive rigidity.

Second, heuristics are big in the religious world. The biggest of all is “what the Bible clearly teaches”. Any number of writers have pointed out the challenges of exaggerating the role of scripture. My “respectful conversation” colleague Vincent Bacotte pointed out the problem when “sola scriptura” is exalted above other considerations. Zack Hunt had this excellent piece last week. Scott McKnight has a number of excellent pieces but this one from yesterday was particularly good.

Third, Parks’ approach to meaning making demonstrates the importance of process in our testimony. If she’s right, and I’m persuaded she is, then the shift from authority-based meaning to relativism isn’t some dichotomy, but simply one step in the journey. It seems that conservative protestantism could benefit from a good dose of probing commitments. We may prefer for people to engage from convictional commitments but without working through that meaning process carefully as Christian disciples, we adopt positions we think we’re supposed to take. Because these aren’t well grounded in our mental structures, they come off as forced pat answers.

This morning Jamie Smith tweeted the following question: “How would a Christian account of pluralism look different if we assumed that Christian proclamation could actually be persuasive?” I think it’s an excellent question. The more we have worked through informed processes of mental structures and meaning-making, the better Christians will be able to engage a changing world.

New Ways of Thinking — Part One

I’m working on a book chapter summarizing literature on social psychology and learning as it relates to students attending Christian universities. Today I worked my way through Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development and James Fowler’s stages of faith.  It helped me think about three things: 1) the transitions described by Piaget and Fowler may be particularly difficult for evangelical young people to navigate, 2) Christian colleges are especially significant as that navigation is taking place, and 3) the transitions of thought process or the lack thereof is at the center of many of our issues in the evangelical church.

Stage theories have their limits, which I’ll speak to shortly. But there’s something significant about exploring shifts in cognitive processes. They suggest that students aren’t simply involved in learning new stuff — they’re developing entirely new ways of thinking.  Those new ways have their own risks and challenges.

Piaget identifies four stages:

  1. Sensorimotor Stage: infants respond to environmental stimuli
  2. Preoperational Stage: pre-school children acquire language and learn to take the perspective of others.
  3. Concrete Operational Stage: roughly equivalent to school years. Children adopt rigid categories and classifications. Imagining situations other than the current is very difficult.
  4. Formal Operational Stage: begins in the teen years. Child is able to use formal processes to consider hypotheticals, alternatives, and contrasts between situations.

Fowler, adopting ideas of Piaget and Kolberg, identifies six stages of faith development:

  1. Intuitive Projective Faith: young children have an imagined sense of things, clinging to stories but operating in a free-form sense
  2. Mythic-Literal Faith: school children see faith as connected to right and wrong and have a tendency to take metaphors literally
  3. Synthetic-Conventional Faith: teens are balancing a high commitment to conform to religious authority with simultaneously working through issues of personal identity
  4. Individuative-Reflective Faith: young adults begin to take responsibilities for their own personal views but struggle with difference from their past patterns
  5. Conjunctive Faith: associated with mid-life periods, faith is able to handle paradox, conflict, and abiguity. Certainty is not as highly valued.
  6. Universalizing Faith: for a limited number of individuals, faith becomes generalized rather than particular with an openness to justice for all people.

When I consider the students I deal with on a daily basis, they’re generally in transition between Piaget’s concrete operational and formal operational stages. In terms of Fowler, they’re moving from Synthetic-Conventional to Individuative-Reflective. A central component of the educational experience is to provide the context in which these new ways of thinking are explored.

There are many problems with stage theories but I’ll mention three. First, people move through the stages at their own pace. Not everybody who enters college is ready for formal operational thinking. (I’ve known some professors who are more comfortable with synthetic-conventional faith!) Second, the movement between stages is really more of a sense of back and forth. Some days are conjunctive and others are individuative-reflective. Some topics are concrete operational while others are formal operational. Third, these transitions are not easy. When students start to individuate their faith, they often feel like what they “have known” (that is, adopted from their parents) is crumbling. They need solid support as they’re exploring transitions.

I’ve written before about the young evangelicals I’ve been reading. As I said in that post, these are characteristically people of deep faith who are trying to think in new ways (individuative-Reflective). In my first post on this blog, I wrote of Rachel Held Evans’ story from Evolving in Monkey Town. Hers is a classic story of moving from concrete operational to formal operational thinking. The more she works out her questions in public forums, the faster she’s moving toward Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith.

There are some more sociological implications of these developmental stages. There are subcultures that inhabit a particular stage and place normative pressures on their members to think accordingly — not just to agree with conclusions but to process information in a particular way. They take pride in holding to a concrete, conventional faith. (I worry that some really desire the mythic-literal faith of elementary aged children.) If folks in the membership start thinking otherwise, they’ll feel great pressure to get back in line or leave. Pete Enns’ post yesterday gives voice to what it’s like to be in that pressure-filled situation.

I have other friends who valiantly attempt to engage concrete/conventional thinkers in dialogue on Facebook (looking at you, James McGrath and Karl Giberson). I’m always impressed by their efforts to confront those who claim evolution is of Satan or that Obama is destroying the world. They want their dialogue partners to engage in a level of thought Piaget would admire but it never seems to happen.

These notions of how people think are related to the general patterns we’re seeing in the evangelical world. The more today’s youth embrace the open postmodernism of cultural diversity, the harder it is for them to manage synthetic-conventional faith. The more they cling to mythic-literal faith, the hard it is to navigate the society. Kinnaman’s work on disaffected youth is consistent with such a pattern. Even if they aren’t lost to Christianity (as one Christianity Today headline worried) they are thinking about that faith differently.

Another very interesting pattern is occurring later in the age cycle. The Barna group found that church involvement for those over 40 has dropped significantly over the last decade. Michelle Van Loon has been conducting some informal online surveys (reported here) to unpack that result and we’ve been exploring ideas about what factors contribute to the change. It may be a family-focus that doesn’t speak to empty nesters. It may be burnout or care for aging parents. It may have something to do with our focus on seeker-sensitive services. I wondered today if it might not be that some of the 40+ crowd are moving into Fowler’s Conjunctive Faith while their congregations are barely making out of Synthetic-Conventional.

In short, how we organize our thinking appears to matter a lot. It speaks to how information is (or isn’t) processed and the kinds of conclusions that are open for consideration.

My next post will look at some of the same issues from the perspective of mental schemas, heuristics, and other patterns of meaning-making.

Listening to my Youngers

Over the past six months, I’ve been reading a steady diet of Young Evangelical blogs and books. I have the sense that they’re all either side of 30, which puts them behind me by over a quarter century. Some I found on Facebook. Others I found through reading other people’s blogs and seeing who they cite. I read folks my age as well, but that’s the subject for another post.

I’m reluctant to start listing people because 1) I know I’ll leave people out and 2) I’m finding new people every day. But let me mention some anyway: Rachel Held Evans, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, Jenny Rae Armstrong, Lana, Morgan Guyton, Jonathan Fitzgerald and Carson T. Clark (no blog at the moment but good FB stuff). You should take a serious look. They are asking important questions and thinking of faith in vital and significant ways. Many have reflected deeply on an upbringing that focused on knowing answers without really pondering questions. Now that they are in their 30s, they are finding the means of exploring the questions and testing whether the answers work.

My reading has taught me a few things. First, they have a high view of scripture as the Word of God. That view is high enough that they aren’t afraid of asking difficult questions in its presence. They trust God with their questions and confidently believe that God will show them Truth.

Second, they have a high degree of compassion for those outside the evangelical fold. This is why they write on topics like gay rights or religious nones. They have made it a point to interact with those from different backgrounds and commitments and attempted to write with those individuals in mind.

Third, they are essentially hopeful about God’s work in contemporary society. There’s not a slippery-slope argument in the bunch. No looking back wistfully at Mayberry (maybe Common Perks on Friends, but that’s a different thing). They see change in society as something to be engaged — not blindly embraced but not attacked either.

In a word, they are believers in Grace. The see God extending it all around us and are smart enough to extend it to others as well. Even those older bloggers who dismiss them or call them names.

One of the great things about surrounding yourself with college students all the time is that their optimism is contagious. I see what they hope for their future and how they engage the world. And I’m confident that in another decade they’ll be impressing me with their writing as well. When I listen to them, I learn stuff. And I find that the world is a better place. Far better than grasping a sour vision of a world in despair.

I read folks my age as well. They do great work. I’ll give them a shout-out in a future post. I’m probably way more selective in the older list. Too many of today’s leaders make me mad. But enough of them open windows to the soul to let me know that we older folks can learn a lot by listening to our youngers.

The Optimism of Careful Conversation

Tomorrow’s sociological theory class is about Jurgen Habermas.

How’s that for a conversation starter? Actually, reading up on Habermas helped me make some connections with practices we need in the church, our colleges, and our politics. It came at a good time when I was dealing with high degrees of frustration about communication.

Yesterday former ambassador, presidential candidate, and conservative pundit Alan Keyes spoke on Spring Arbor’s campus. I didn’t go to the lunch (it cost money) but I did attend the open discussion in the afternoon. We had a couple of interactions that I’ve written about on Facebook. I want to be clear — I have no objection to having conservative speakers on our campus. Both Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo did chapel this spring and were well received.

What troubled me about Ambassador Keyes was the way he made his arguments. Not just loud and ideologically driven, they actually made it hard to follow the argument due to the sheer number of loosely connected ideas. On many occasions, I felt that it would be good to hit the “pause and rewind” button to review the logical connection that was being made. Because many in the crowd liked his conclusions, it seemed the way he got there was less important.

The same thing happens to some liberal pundits. They are so intent on making their derisive points about conservatives that they don’t make good argument.

It happens in churches. Thanks to a tweet from Rachel Held Evans today, I learned of this story of Tim Keller’s speech at the Gospel Coalition. According to the author (and commenters who were there), Keller suggested that one of the major obstacles to true revival was related to young people having premarital sex. I’m not advocating for premarital sex, but the issues of today’s culture cannot be handled in such a reductionistic fashion. There are a host of issues related to the authentic questions young evangelicals are asking. Sex is a minor one. As Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote, sex is a big deal but not the biggest deal. I’m reminded of the argument Putnam and Campbell made in American Grace: that the rise of evangelicalism was in part a push back against sexual freedom of the 1960s. It proved not to be enough of an argument over the long run.

Politicians’ “discourse” seems intent on stating their preferred positions (especially those favored by the gerrymandered constituency). Politicians and pundits caricature the other side, distort their positions, and make speeches in front of empty house chambers in order to cut YouTube videos.

Which brings me back to Habermas. His project in the latter part of the last century involved the connections between quality communication and civil society. He makes some remarkable claims. First, he suggests that there is a form of Objective Truth and that we can attend to a reality not dependent upon our personal opinions. Second, he affirms the possibility of intersubjectivity — that we can understand another’s position even if we disagree with it. Third, our conversation must avoid both coercion and ideology. Finally, by practicing careful conversation that attends to the other and respects the value of their position, we begin to weave together a civil society.

I’m reminded of a book I read long ago by defense attorney Jerry Spence. It was called How to Argue and Win Every Time. It was a little slight of hand: he really suggested that if you made your argument so carefully that the other fully understood, that constituted a win. I still find it helpful.

I don’t know if Spence read Habermas, but I like the continuity. We must learn to speak in ways that carefully engage the other’s legitimate position, examine complexity in place of shibboleths, and think about how our argument will be heard. These are important liberal arts skills directly related to critical thinking.

Our colleges do best when we figure out how to handle diverse positions. Our politics do best when they are addressing the complexity required to pursue the common welfare. Our churches do best when we can affirm God’s Story without minimizing the complexity of His work in the contemporary world.

I needed to hear Habermas today. He will keep my optimism alive for at least another week.