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More than just beliefs

June 30, 2011

Years ago a phrase was used to describe the way beliefs are passed on from one generation to the next, that they are more easily caught than taught. That still seems to be the case.

In her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford), Kenda Creasy Dean delivers some uncomfortable truths. She says that the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion are not just about youth.

“Youth, after all, ‘tell ourselves,’ which means that the significance of the NSYR does not lie in what it revealed about young people (very few of its findings surprise anyone working with teenagers). It is significant because it reframes the issues of youth ministry as issues facing the twenty-first-century church as a whole. Since the religious and spiritual choices of American teenagers echo, with astonishing clarity, the religious and spiritual choices of the adults who love them, lackadaisical faith is not young people’s issue, but ours. . . . [The] solution lies not in beefing up congregational youth programs or making worship more ‘cool’ and attractive, but in modeling the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have.” (p.4)

“After two and a half centuries of shacking up with ‘the American dream,’ churches have perfected a dicey codependence between consumer-driven therapeutic individualism and religious pragmatism.” (p.5)

Dean says that she was once among those who blamed “the church’s warmed-over teaching of a life-giving gospel” coming from youth ministers. But “youth minsters today are better educated, better resourced, better paid, and ‘longer lasting’ in their positions than ever before.” Why doesn’t all this have a greater impact than it does? She writes,

“The answer may simply be that most youth ministry is not accomplished by youth ministers. Neither young people nor youth ministry can be extracted from the church as a whole, any more than the musculature of the Body of Christ can be separated from its circulatory system. We have known for some time that youth groups do important things for teenagers, providing moral formation, learned competencies, and social and organizational ties. But they seem les effective as catalysts for consequential faith, which is far more likely to take root in the rich relational soil of families, congregations, and mentor relationships where young people can see what faithful lives look like, and encounter the people who love them enacting  a larger story of divine care and hope.” (p. 11)

I find this of special interest because of my work in apologetics. Apologists are fond of blaming postmodern relativism and the lack of a thorough and consistent Christian worldview for the spiritual state of young people. To the extent that relativism is ingested it certainly undermines confidence in anything of importance. And it’s certainly true that a grasp of Christian doctrine is important (which provides the foundation of a worldview). But this is at best only half of the problem.

A set of ideas isn’t enough. In modern times we’ve been able to separate ideas from attitudes and actions. We hold them as abstractions, as things to be examined and given intellectual assent or rejected. We choose our beliefs (at least, what we say we believe) for a variety of reasons but not often because we have good reasons for believing they are objectively true. (Is it likely that we would have to choose to believe something we were convinced really is the case? Wouldn’t we just believe it?) We pick and choose ideas cafeteria style. Isn’t this but the street-level expression of the postmodern belief that we can’t really know what really is, what is really true? But if we do see our beliefs as reflecting what really is the case, they ought to shape our lives. Maybe it’s not going too far to say that, insofar as they don’t affect our lives, we don’t really believe them.

The Christian life is concerned both with truth and with faithfulness (these concepts are closely related in the Old Testament. I talked about this in a radio program I wrote for Probe (“Truth: What It Is and Why We Can Know It”):

For the Israelites, Yahweh was “the God in whose word and work one could place complete confidence.”  For example, God said through Zechariah: “I will be faithful and righteous to them as their God” (8:8). Nehemiah said to God: “You have acted faithfully, while we did wrong” (9:33). “The works of his hand are faithful and just,” said the Psalmist; “all his precepts are trustworthy” (111:7).
Emet also means truth as over against falsehood as when Joseph tested his brothers to see if they were telling the truth (Gen. 42:16), and when the Israelites were warned to test accusations that people were worshiping other gods to see if they were true (Deut. 13:14). Commenting on Ps. 43:3–“Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me”–theologian Anthony Thiselton says that “truth enables [the writer] to escape from the dark, and to see things for what they are.”
We shouldn’t conclude by these two uses of the word that on any given occasion “truth” always means both faithfulness and the opposite of falsehood. However, there is a connection between the two. Thiselton says the connection depends “on the fact that when God or man is said to act faithfully, often this means that his word and his deed are one. He has acted faithfully in accordance with his spoken word. Hence the believer may lean his whole weight confidently on God, and find him faithful.”
Thus, in the Old Testament, truth is a matter of both words and deeds. “Men express their respect for truth not in abstract theory, but in their daily witness to their neighbour and their verbal and commercial transactions,” Thiselton says.
So, I wonder: What difference does it make if we have all knowledge but don’t live it out? If Dean is right, the difference it makes is potentially tragic. We apologists can put as much effort as we’re able into answering intellectual challenges and conveying a consistent system of beliefs and showing its superiority to other religions and philosophies. But as important as that is, God is looking for faithfulness (the essence of 1 Peter 3:15), and that is something that is better caught than taught.
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