Friday, March 31, 2017

Theological Puberty

Once when I was talking with a couple of respected ministry friends, the three of us ended up musing for a while on why it is that young adults, especially as they get to college, will bite--hook, line, and sinker--onto some deeply flawed belief systems and find them totally convincing. In context, we were talking about what is called 5-point "TULIP" Calvinism. (You can Google it if it's unfamiliar to you.) Since I brought it up, the biggest problem I have with Calvinism is the kind of God that system requires for the way it interprets reality. Namely, God's total pre-determined control of history removes our free will and implies that when we do evil, it is because God made us to do so. I can't get comfortable with a God who designed me to do evil, gave me no choice but to do what he designed me to do, and then would send me to Hell for doing it. But this post isn't primarily about refuting Calvinism.

As I was expressing my utter disbelief that people buy into this way of thinking, my friend made a significant point. He said, "You know, Mark, I think the reason that a lot of younger people find this belief compelling is because when they encounter it, it is often the first time in their life they have every thought deeply and academically about God, and even though the system has significant flaws, it is both deep and academic and therefore appealing as a more mature way of thinking. It's their way of hitting theological puberty."

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of my own history of beliefs. Though I didn't take the bait on Calvinism, I spent a chunk of my college years holding some other beliefs that I now see as completely misguided, mistaken, and actually heretical. In truth, I have to judge lightly because I was susceptible, too, and needed time to mature. I was also reminded of the haunting conclusion from Christian Smith's book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005). Based on his research, Smith said that even though many teens claimed to be Christian, when they would explain what they thought it meant to be Christian, their actual beliefs didn't resemble Christianity at all. Smith coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" as the actual belief system that most teens are following. Here are a few of the key characteristics: Thinking that a God exists who ordered the world and watches over people. Believing God wants people to be nice to each other. Thinking the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself. Believing God does not get involved much in people's lives unless they need him to solve a problem. And finally, assuming all "good" people go to Heaven when they die. It's pretty concerning that most young "Christians" could describe their whole belief system without expressing concern about evil and without needing to say the name "Jesus" at all.

I say all of this to invite us to think about the level of depth which we strive for in our learning about God, and especially in how we teach our children to think about God. Parents, if you think a youth minister can accomplish in one or two hours a week all of the knowledge and experience of God that your children need, the evidence says you are gravely mistaken. We need to be studying Scripture together, and asking the hard questions about how the different ideas fit together. We need to be turning to Scripture as we try to make sense of the challenging circumstances we encounter. Paul warns about the importance of helping each other reach maturity in our thinking so that we "may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Eph. 4:14)" Maturity requires ongoing effort to know and understand the God we follow, and the more we neglect our quest for God, the more we end up warped, deficient, and easily impressionable.


  1. I attended a Presbyterian church with my parents through my junior high years. I don't recall my parents discussing any Calvinist doctrine, and I don't recall any preaching or teaching in connection with Calvinism. I remember a Sunday School teacher who emphasized that we should use the "Bible only" as our guide. I memorized the Apostles Creed , and I remember the catechisms. During that period, I'm quite sure I was exposed to some good biblical teaching. It was only after I "matured" that I began to even be interested in Calvin. Now, as an elder in the Lord's church, I'm acutely aware of the maturation process. I see it at work in other members and in myself.

    1. Thanks very much for weighing in! Maturing takes a long time, and requires much grace. I know I have needed plenty myself.