A few weeks ago, I wrote about a pattern I have noticed in student conversations, something I call the “skeptic’s shrug.” This is such a solid pattern that I can set my watch to it--it happens in just about every conversation on deep questions. Here is what I said earlier:
There is a frustrating habit/pattern I’ve noticed with students: almost anytime we are talking about a fundamental life vision question--like “what is the best life?”--they almost immediately assume the question has no answer. It’s not that they try to think, get frustrated, and then end up throwing up their hands in exasperation--they start with skepticism. It is immediate.
The tell is that within the first few seconds of the conversation, the first thing out of their mouths is the whole “well it all depends on who you are. Different people have different answers. (shrug).” Almost like an automatic reaction. I call this the “skeptic’s shrug.”
That is, they subjectivize just about everything. I pointed out that this is different than saying “I don’t know” because it is a confident assertion that they start with, rather than something they arrive at after striving in thought for a while.
Also, one of the many reasons why this is frustrating is because it is a conversation stopper. If we are just talking about personal preferences, what is there left to say after taking 15 seconds to declare those preferences?
They even subjectivize an objectivist/realist’s answer by re-interpreting it in light of their own subjectivist assumptions. For example, a moral realist such as Greg Koukl will make a case for moral realism (the view that there are real, objective moral values in the world and that it is *not* all relative), and they will think he is a relativist. They re-interpret his arguments so that to them, he sounds like a relativist. The latest episode of this phenomenon happened this last week in my philosophy class during an intro discussion on Brave New World.
Prior to any reading from the novel, I always do an activity where I introduce some of the main questions the novel raises. Some of them include “what is the best life?” and “Is happiness (defined as they define it, as a subjective feeling of pleasure. This is in distinction from the way the ancients--like Aristotle--defined it, as a life of wisdom, virtue, and skill.) life’s most important goal?”
The citizens in Brave New World are quite happy, living their “best lives,” but it is all disgusting and grotesque. Cue the skeptic’s shrug. Their immediate answers to those questions was, respectively, “each person defines that for themselves,” and “yes, obviously.”
Getting them to countenance even the possibility that the first might actually have an answer, that an answer was actually possible, and that there might be other definitions of “happiness” worth pondering, was harder than raising the dead. But never mind that. The most interesting part of this conversation came later.
After going back and forth with them a little bit on all this, I asked “are we created with a purpose, or are we cosmic accidents of a mindless evolutionary process?”
I meant “we” in the general, human sense, and “purpose” in the objective sense--has God, a creator, endowed human life with a designed end, and end that, even if denied or not acknowledged by certain individuals, is still nonetheless there? I clarified this to them because I knew how they might misunderstand.
They still misunderstood. No matter how much clarifying I did, they still interpreted the question in a subjective sense, as “what gives each individual person a sense of meaning and happiness in their individual lives?”
Their answer to that was, of course, “it depends” *shrug.* Each individual must decide for him or herself what “gets them up” in the morning.
It is really hard for them to comprehend and digest moral realist language. It is almost like a completely foreign dead language. Their responses reveal an incredibly anemic thought life.
But understanding such talk and having a more robust thought life is necessary for them to understand the gospel. No objective purpose→no objective moral truth→no sin→no need for a savior.
If someone is unable to countenance the possibility that life was designed with a larger purpose, it will be that much harder for them to countenance--seek out--the One who is behind that design.
Religion and spirituality then becomes mere life enhancement and self-help for those weak enough to feel the subjective need. It is all simply management of feelings and emotions, a therapeutic endeavor. That’s not really something worth devoting much time and thought to.
In other words, it is a short path to apathy.
This is one of the many reasons why we in the church need to prioritize home discipleship, which includes engaging with our kids--often--in conversation and teaching that gives them opportunity to think through this stuff.
We need to give them the language, concepts, and distinctions that they can use to “carve reality up at the joints.”
Part of the problem is that we are so focused on other things and are so busy that they never get the opportunity to think about deep things in a substantive way. It might happen here or there, but not with enough frequency to make a difference.
They won’t get it at school, and probably won’t get it with their peers. They won’t get it online, and even in church--even in the best churches with the most incredible pastors, kids only spend a few hours a week in those spaces, vs. exponentially more hours in spaces that shape them in the therapeutic mindset outlined above.
Apologetics is therefore a necessary survival tool, necessary in the home, not just as a hobby for the few Christian nerds out there. Make the time for apologetics training in your home. Pastors and church leaders: offer training for parents that helps them do this.