Our Nation of Heretics

John Stonestreet | BreakPoint | Friday, June 08, 2012

Our Nation of Heretics

Driving home with my daughters last week, I mentioned I would be hosting a Q&A time with some students I was speaking to the next evening. My girls had seen me do this before, but I had no idea they really got what was going on. My 7-year-old Abigail did. She said, “Daddy, I think I will come to that because I have some questions for you.”

The rest of that drive home was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with her. She wanted to know if Jesus really knew Adam and Eve were going to sin before they did, and if so, why did God create them?

Now, I’m not the only parent who’s been asked a tough question like this. But how we respond to it is critical. To not take their question seriously is to not take them seriously. We risk leaving the impression that questioning is sinful or that the answers don’t really exist.

We’ve talked a few times the last few weeks here on BreakPoint and on BreakPoint this Week about students abandoning the church or their faith. Well, the latest numbers from Trinity College’s latest American Religious Identification Survey finds that Gen Xers — those born between 1965 and 1972 — who walked away from the church aren’t coming back.

Sociologists have long taken for granted that teenagers question and rebel against their parents’ religion, then ultimately return when they grow up and have their own kids. But “Gen Xers” — now in their 40s and raising high-schoolers — aren’t following that trend.

Hundreds of thousands of them just aren’t coming back, and they’re not involving their kids in organized religion, either.

But that doesn’t mean our country is filling up with atheistic secularists. These Gen Xers and their kids aren’t leaving spirituality behind; instead many are becoming what Philip Clayton of The Los Angeles Times dubbed “the nones”: those who don’t identify with any organized faith, but who still consider spirituality, prayer, and transcendent morality important. They haven’t abandoned the whole Christian worldview — just the parts that require commitment.

You might say, or at least Ross Douthat of the The New York Times says, they’re not atheists. They’re heretics. In fact, Douthat’s new book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, suggests that this de-stabilization of Christian belief might be the most significant cultural trend that no one has talked about over the last few decades.

We’ve always had American heretics — there were the deists, the Shakers — but the center of Christian belief was coherent, and it provided a stable source of moral norms and fundamental beliefs about human nature and value for the America project.

But not so now, Douthat says. Heretics are mainstream — and what he means by heretics are those who no longer look outward for spiritual authority, but inward. The only spiritual authority is one’s own self — something Douthat sees not only outside of Christianity but expressed clearly in some of the most popular forms of Christianity itself in our culture.

But self-made religion isn’t stable, and won’t provide the social cohesion that America has been used to for so long.

So when Abigail asked her tough question, I answered it the best that I could. I wanted to take her and her question seriously. But as I answered it, I also wanted her to understand where the truth is found — outside of herself, and independent of her feelings about it. We need to help students realize that truth is found in God Himself. And it’s something fixed, unchanging, but also accessible.

We are not the source of our own truth. We don’t need more heretics.

I hope you can tune in to BreakPoint This Week, where I’ll talk with Ross Douthat about the state of our country’s bad religion. You can learn if you’re a heretic or not.  And if you can’t find it on radio, listen online at BreakPoint.org, click on the “This Week” tab.

Publication date: June 8, 2012