Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Does it work?: Discerning internal hurdles to sharing the gospel

When I was in middle school I remember particularly hating the day when the school counselor would stop by our homeroom for "critical thinking and personal development". "Critical thinking and personal development" consisted largely of asking odd and confusing hypothetical questions; If you were stranded on a desert Island what 3 items would you take with you? Which is more important to take into an unknown cave the match book or the spade? Who walked into the bar first, the priest, the rabbi, or the minister? Ok so that last one wasn't really one asked me in middle school, but you get the point. Theses questions were supposed to develop our critical thinking skills. Most of us remember them as foolish because they're content was so distant. The likelihood of flying on a doomed fedex freighter and becoming best friends with volleyball for 4 years is the stuff of Hollywood, not daily life.

The ridiculousness of these questions isn't the only reason I hated critical thinking questions growing up. Unbeknownst to me at the time I was growing up in inchoate postmodernism. Now before you scream "buzzword!" lets take a step back from what postmodernism has come to mean to where it began, or more accurately before it began.

Modernism grew out of the industrial revolution, as society in the west suddenly found unprecedented control over our environment. In the space of one generation we went from regional mobility with the proliferation of the automobile around 1907 to putting a man on the moon in 1969. In less than one lifetime we mastered nationwide electricity, the proliferation of indoor plumbing, massive jumps in health and wellness, and just a few years later the beginnings of the information revolution. Walt Disney's "Tomorrowland" became "Todaysville" and a quaint "Yestertown" almost overnight. With man gaining so much unforeseen power so quickly it was inevitable that self confident optimism would emerge as home, car, work and play became decidedly "modern".

Irony of ironies, it was this optimism in human achievement that would become fatalism in less than one generation. As technology was exploding and making more things work, western thinking largely followed along those same lines. That which was important, was that which could make things work. It was in this time that we saw the birth of the centrality of math and science in our curricula, a role philosophy and rhetoric held in earlier models. Philosophy and rhetoric do not invent washing machines, microwaves, and automobiles. As we dove deeper into the 20th century however our very thinking became inculcated with the pragmatism our technology dependent lives demanded. Soon the gatekeeper of our thinking was changed from the cardinal question of philosophy "Is it true?", to the cardinal question of science "does it work?".

This change in large part explains the amazing agnosticism of our age. I refer not only to the agnosticism toward belief in God, which has grown massively, but toward everything in life. The babies of the babyboomers and beyond have proven to be later and less likely to get married, less involved in their communities, in essence less likely to care about anything. The problem lies in the fact that the gate-keeping question of "does it work?" is insufficient to the task of the kinds of questions we face everyday. Pragmatism, the technical term for "does it work?" thinking, is not sufficient to answer whom should I marry? what community involvement will have the greatest value? why do I exist?. The pragmatism that was necessarily born of modernism left an entire generation believing these questions simply could not be answered. It was this absence of an idea, rather than a presence of one, that was dubbed post-modernism.

It was this ideological vacuum that I found myself in as a middle-schooler trying to answer those "critical thinking" questions. Without knowing it at the time, the reason myself and my fellows hated those questions so much was because we didn't have a philosophy in which to answer them. When framed, as they so often were as "what would you do if...?" questions, the "does it work?" philosophy aborts if the question is not immediately applicable.

The problem is as Christians we have to be able to answer the questions a generation doesn't have the philosophical base to ask. God is not God because he works, but because he is true. Because he is true, he does work, but the latter is not sufficient to precede the former. We cannot allow our inherited and insufficient philosophical scaffolding prevent us from building a robust view of the God who is, and whose being is not dependent on his doing.

If we shy away from asking the deeper questions of life because of "does it work?" frame of reference is painfully stretched, we will be ourselves insufficient to the task of applying the gospel to our own lives and the lives of others. The gospel will "work" in that it will show the fruit of righteousness, however it will not "work" in the sense of pure pragmatism. The gospel will not make you monetarily richer, easier going, or better looking. (eg. yours truly)

In truth we are seeing several generations of people who are already tired of hearing the answer to the question "does it work?". They've lived through broken homes, families, churches, and friendships that didn't work and now they're searching for something more. We as Christians must be the people who can tell them what that is. We must be the people who can see beyond "what works" to "what is true".