Michael Jinkins: Reasons for hope in a "culture of disbelief"

Is all faith just projection of our "needs" on the cosmos? Or is our longing for something greater than ourselves a sign of truth?

On NPR recently, a listener dismissed a story about “Fatwa shopping”—a phenomenon that is occurring among some Muslims. If a Muslim asks a religious authority for a judgment call on some behavior, and the judgment call differs from what he wants to do, he may simply shop for another religious authority with a different perspective. The listener said that such behavior is typical of all religions. The faithful all “drink the Kool Aid,” and if they don’t get the flavor they want at first, they look around for another flavor that suits their taste.

Christians also know the phenomena of “church shopping” and “church hopping.” And since Feuerbach and Freud we have recognized the tendencies among the faithful to externalize their desires, hopes and fears and to name these “God.” But the branch of Protestantism of which I am an adherent, the Reformed tradition, calls it idolatry when we craft gods in our own image.

The recent American Religious Identification Survey by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar noted that the category of persons with “no religion” grew from 8.2% in 1990 to 15.0% in 2008. There are as many now in that group as there are among all Baptists (the largest Protestant group in the United States). I doubt if there’s a minister or priest in our country who would dispute the authors’ core message: “The challenge to Christianity in the U.S. does not come from other religions but rather from a rejection of all forms of organized religion.”

More recently the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S, on which Charles M. Blow commented in The New York Times. Blow observes that a surprising number of children of agnostics and atheists are making their way to church. According to the Pew report, most people who grew up in families without faith affiliated as adults with faith communities because their spiritual needs were not being met (18).

Yet another recent study observed that many young adults were frustrated that the big questions of life, the questions of meaning, of purpose, were not being addressed in their classrooms or by their professors. Many professors were hesitant to speak beyond the limits usually permitted in the public marketplace of ideas.

Young adults are searching for meaning that is not just of their own making and for purpose that transcends. They are looking for answers to life’s most persistent questions, and they are finding their longings unmet in a culture obsessed with itself and lacking a reference point for meaning beyond its own preoccupations. These young people, incidentally, are not asking to be entertained. They are seeking something much deeper. They are seeking faith.

I want to introduce one more resource to the mix, Paul Woodruff’s remarkable study, Reverence: Recovering a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford, 2001). Paul has taught undergraduates for many years and is now dean of undergraduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin. If anyone has his hand on the pulse of young adults, it is Paul. He senses the need for a recovery of reverence, “the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have” (8). Maybe this is what young adults are saying they have not experienced. Maybe this is what’s at the heart of their big questions. Maybe this is why they are coming again through the doors of the church.

If so, let’s make sure they are greeted by something more thoughtful and reverent than just a sacralized version of the popular culture that is not meeting their needs.

Michael Jinkins is academic dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. His most recent book Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life was just published by Eerdmans Press.