Tag Archives: heaven

Theological Imprecision = Sociological Imprecision

I’m reading a fabulous book by Christian Smith on the religion of emerging adults called Souls in Transition, and I’m really enjoying learning not only how younger emerging adults (18-23) believe today but also how their beliefs have changed since they were teenagers.  (He wrote a book on surveys from the same group a few years ago called Soul Searching.)  As I’m reading, however, I’ve had a few significant questions come up with regards to the way their questions are being asked and interpreted.

First, many of those who identified as nonreligious as teenagers now say they see religion as more important to their life and that they’re attending religious services more.  I’m curious how many of them are thinking of “religion” as actual religion in such questions vs. their non-religious views.  For example, some might have gotten involved in a group for atheists and agnostics at college and might see their identity as someone who isn’t religious as more important than it used to be.  (I know there was such a group at UNC, and I know people who were involved in it.)  Should we then have some way to filter the non-religious doing truly religious things from the non-religious whose non-religion has become more important in their lives?

Secondly, the questions about both Jesus and heaven seem very imprecise in their wording.  I realize most young adults aren’t theologians and that overly theological language could be confusion; however, I’m not sure if the questions, how they are asked, paint an accurate picture of emerging adults’ beliefs.

For example, they are asked if Jesus was “the son of God who was raised from the dead,” “an imporant human teacher but not the son of God,” or nonexistent to begin with.  Those who said Jesus was the son of God are then assumed to believe Jesus was divine.  This is a non sequitur, as many who would called Jesus God’s son would not necessarily say he himself was divine—the Arians of the 4th century, for example.

Similarly, when asked if they believe in heaven and who gets there, it feels assumed that Christians either are more conservative and believe in heaven or are more liberal and they don’t.  There are no questions, however, about the resurrection of the dead or the recreation of all things.  I think it’s probably a small number of emerging adults that would try to distinguish these sorts of beliefs from a belief in heaven, but I do feel the numbers are growing.  I definitely knew many in college who, thanks to InterVarsity staff, began to see a somewhat different picture of life after death.  To assume the options are “all people go to heaven,” “only good people go to heaven,” “only people whose sins are forgiven though faith in Jesus Christ go to heaven” or “there is no heaven,” are the only options is like asking Christians about the end times and only giving the option of a pre-tribulation, mid-trib, or post-trib rapture—when in reality many are postmillenialists, many are amillenialists, etc.  I would probably answer such a question “there is no heaven,” because that’s not the way I explain my beliefs, but if I were interviewed, Christian Smith would have realized that he was probably making some assumptions about me he shouldn’t have.

All this to say, it seems to me that while these questions tell us a lot, if sociological questions are not asked with any theological sensitivity to the actual beliefs out there, we can make some wrong conclusions.  Of course, I’m not a sociologist yet, and I don’t know if it might be important to not offer over-nuanced options as to not confuse respondents or encourage some sort of social desirability effect (if certain theological beliefs are thought be better in some way than others).  So perhaps there is a reason why questions we asked like this.  At the same time, I stand by my original perception that these questions are not precise enough to give us excellent data rather than good-ish data.

Maybe Christian Smith or some other clever person can come set us straight?

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Laci’s Journey (Pt 1): Hell & Kid Conversions

Laci is a 19-year-old woman in California.  She likes pretty piano music and talking about stuff that matters.  In this four-piece-and-growing series, she talks about her experiences in the Mormon church as a child and adolescent, culminating with her coming out as an atheist to friends and family this past spring.

Take a look:

I appreciate Laci’s thoughtful reflection on her religious experiences, and I thought this was an interesting video because she touches on few things that I think are often seen as problems by kids of evangelical families of origin, as well as Mormon: hell and “making a decision” about faith early in life.

With regards to heaven/hell, I wouldn’t say that at this point most of my evangelical friends–who tend to be more moderate theologically–put a lot of emphasis here, but I don’t think that’s true of evangelical churches as a whole.  Many of them, I believe, still are quite into talking about heaven/hell as one of the big reasons to become a Christian.  I think fundamentalists use this as a scare tactic, while many evangelicals would say they try to emphasize the importance of a relationship with God instead…

But here’s the thing.  I don’t think the rest of us (who aren’t fundamentalists using hell as a scare tactic) have figured out what we really think about hell or how to talk about it.  Especially as some of us have begun to embrace a larger understanding of the gospel that focuses largely on God’s renewing this earth and establishing a kingdom here, we don’t know what hell is anymore (especially since various Greek works are translated as “hell”…  *sigh*), and we do a poor job explaining this aspect of Christianity to ourselves and others.

So from one evangelical to another: let’s figure it out.  Let’s keep asking questions, let’s acknowledge all we don’t know, let’s think carefully.  And while we are not ever going to know everything there is to know about the world, let’s try to come up with a better alternative to silence.  Because if there’s silence, all Laci or anyone else has to go by is what fundies say.  And that doesn’t seem fair to Laci or us either one–it’s not a representation of what many of us think Christianity is about.  I haven’t taken 90% of my seminary courses yet, so maybe I’ll come up with some fabulous answer before you know it, but the fact is, if I, a seminary student who was raised in church and has a lot of experience in the evangelical world and also has read more than one nerdy book relating to Christianity…  if I don’t know what to think about hell, many regular people in pews who aren’t wacko-nerds are at least as clueless as me.  And that’s a problem.  If we don’t give people good theology, there’s a vacuum–and people will absorb somebody else’s theology without even engaging in a dialog with ours.

Secondly, Laci talks a lot about how strongly she was encouraged to make a faith decision as a young child (as well as how excited she was to make one), and it seems she now resents this.  I am not saying we shouldn’t talk about religion with children, but I wonder if we emphasized conversion as a process rather than a moment this would be less of an issue.  I also wonder if we are foolish sometimes to think a kid so young can really know what they’re doing.  In some ways, this is the beauty of infant baptism.  Everyone knows a kid isn’t making a decision then, and that’s ok.  We help them make decisions big and small as they grow up and move toward being able to really decide what they believe.  Addtionally, we often offer classes for teens that allow them to learn about our faith more formally.  It doesn’t always work out, of course (not only do some leave the faith but some remain Christian but of a very nominal sort which is possibly much worse), but it offers a little more autonomy, perhaps.

I know a lot of people feel strongly about “believer’s baptism”–requiring a profession of faith before baptism rather than baptizing babies–and I can respect that.  But as someone that has spent a good deal of time in traditions on both sides, I think we need to figure out ways to better shepherd kids that do make “decisions” at a young age.  In some ways, I almost feel it’s appropriate to downplay those decisions and let them know that, yeah, we understand they’re sixteen now, that they have bigger questions than when they were six, that, in a sense, they do need to decide again at sixteen, and maybe at twenty-six, and maybe at thirty-six and eight-six, too.

I think there are ways to still emphasize conversion as a process even if we like to make a conversion moment with baptism.  And I think that the better we emphasize this faith journey, the more freedom teens will feel to actually ask tough questions.  They need to know that they’re not locked into a simplistic form of Christianity forever, that it’s ok to have doubts and struggles and to wrestle with them honestly.  That’s the only way, I think, for anyone with questions to make an authentic adult decision to remain Christian.

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