Soul Searching 9: Everyone Decides For Themselves

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Continuing in chapter 4 of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching, we look at yet another major theme of American teen religious belief: everyone decides for themselves. (Full Series)

Who am I to judge?

“Whatever” is just fine, if that’s what a person wants. Consequently, certain traditional religious languages and vocabularies of commitment, duty, faithfulness, obedience, calling, obligation, accountability, and ties to the past are nearly completely absent from the discourse of U.S. teenagers. Instead, religion is presumed to be something that individuals choose and must reaffirm for themselves based on their present and ongoing personal felt needs and preferences. (Kindle Locations 3057-3060)

Smith makes two more points that are particularly important and utterly fascinating. I’m going to quote this paragraph at length…

Second, most U.S. teens are at least somewhat allergic to anything they view as trying to influence them. They generally view themselves as autonomous mediators or arbitrators of all outside influences; it is they themselves who finally influence their own lives. Other people and institutions provide information that youth see themselves as filtering, processing, and assimilating. Based on this information, they then make their own decisions for themselves. Or so the story goes. This autonomous individualism, not incidentally, helps to explain why teens have such difficulty articulating how religion influences them. They have difficulty imagining how religion influences their lives because they tend to imagine that nothing influences them, at least without their final choice that it does so. The idea that one’s life is being formed and transformed by the power of a historical religious tradition can be nearly incomprehensible to people who have allergies to outside influences. Such a perspective lends itself instead to thinking of religion as something one chooses to use, as we will see below, not something to which one devotes oneself or gives away one’s life.

(Kindle Locations 3061-3069)

The climate of our day is fiercely individualistic. Religion is a personal choice, and we imagine that we are all just free agents making decisions without outside influence. We are typically naïve to the fact that we do not make decisions in a vacuum. This condition is not exclusive to teens, but is present in adults as well. These teens were taught to think this way. In my experience, adults tend to view religion as something they choose to use to become “well-rounded” individuals, or to find meaning, or to be happier, or to justify their materialism. From my perspective as a pastor, it often feels that adults don’t see faith in Christ as a means to find purpose and meaning in a healed relationship with God, but a buttress for the life they have already chosen for themselves.

A third consequence of American individualism for teenagers’ relating to religion is that most teens embrace a very strong ethos that forswears judging any ideas or people that may be different. When each individual has his or her own unique and self-authenticating experiences and felt needs and desires, it is impossible for any other (alien) individual to properly evaluate or judge those chosen beliefs, commitments, desires, or lifestyle. The typical bywords, rather, are “Who am I to judge?” “If that’s what they choose, whatever,” “Each person decides for himself,” and “If it works for them, fine.”… In this context, as it is often pointed out, the very idea of religious truth is attenuated, shifted from older realist and universalist notions of convictions about objective Truth to more personalized and relative versions of “truth for me” and “truth for you.” In fact, despite the rhetoric, few teenagers actually consistently sustain such radical relativism. In certain ways and areas of life, teens do actually draw clear lines, often quite moralistic lines. Like many of the adults who are socializing them, they also often readily proffer decisive judgements as obvious facts that they take as self-evident to any reasonable person, such as, “Well, obviously you shouldn’t hurt someone else” or “It’s totally wrong to have sex with someone you don’t really care about.” What almost all U.S. teenagers—and adults—lack, however, are any tools or concepts or rationales by which to connect and integrate their radical relativistic individualist selves, on the one hand, with their commonsensical, evaluative, moralist selves, on the other. So teens continually seesaw, with little self-awareness that they are doing so, between their individualist Jekyll and moralistic Hyde selves, incapable of reconciling their judgments with their anti-judgmentalism, and so merely banging back and forth between them.

(Kindle Locations 3070-3084)

This is a powerful observation, and obviously speaks beyond what is happening with teens to what is happening with adults as well. The condition of our youth is really just a barometer for what is happening in the larger culture.

That we live in a time when people not able to articulate the foundational “why” of their morals is really interesting. Most people claiming to be Christian do have a sense of morality, but can’t tell you why morality matters. Because they lack an understanding of foundation first principles, they don’t feel like those morals can or should be universal.  For most of these teens Christianity boils down to being nice and “moral”, but that morality is defined by what works for the individual. Said differently, many believe in right and wrong, but don’t have a firm foundation for those morals. Any foundation will do if it works for you it doesn’t matter if that foundation is true or not.

Welcome to post-modernism.

This is where Smith begins to construct his concept of Therapeutic Moralistic Deism. For many Christians, what matters is how you live, not that you are given grace and forgiveness when you fail. For these, Christianity is not about God’s grace, redemption, forgiveness, and mercy provided to us through Christ, as we pursue Christ-likeness for God’s glory, but is simply a moral code that seems pragmatically justifiable and useful to make one’s life better.

This attitude is pervasive, and I suspect that it is part of what lies behind the those really statistics about so many Christians falling away from the faith. The truth of the matter is that they never really had a firm grasp on the faith to begin with.

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