Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Pragmatism, Behavior and Religion

Here is another study concerning America’s youth and their attitudes toward religion and spirituality.

I don’t “follow” these kinds of studies closely like may pastors and culture watchers do, but when I run across them some of their findings fascinate me. I find that there are a lot of pastoral and missiological implications contained in their findings.

The primary point of this study is that Gen Y likes choice in religion. Like their iPods, they want to be able to control their intake of religion. But I want to focus on one of the last lines in the Washington Times article:

However, although many of these young Americans worry about getting good grades and finding work after school, their biggest concern is the solidly "moral" issue of nonmarital sex -- 35 percent of Generation Y members are "very worried" about "getting a sexually transmitted disease," the study noted.

Don’t ask me why “moral” is in quotes in the article-sexuality is a pretty standard moral issue.

Anyway, some might read this and think it is a good thing. “Whatever their motivation, they are avoiding sinful behavior,” is probably what most think. And I don’t necessarily disagree.

What I am worried about is why they are seemingly avoiding extra-marital sex. The motivation reflected in the article is not moral, theological, relational, marital, societal, philosophical, familial, etc….it is raw and unashamedly pragmatic. According to the study, young people are not thinking about God or other humans when they have the thought, “extra-marital sex should be avoided.” They are thinking of themselves only.

Sure-maybe they are avoiding destructive and sinful behavior, but the reason they have for behaving that way is corrosive. This kind of pragmatism leaves no room for truth, moral rectitude, societal consequences, or other goods we hold in high esteem. It knows only the base drives of the self.

Why is this so corrosive a view? What sort of effect do you think this kind of view of the world has on religion? You might as well throw out any attempt to be unique or exclusive, and you had better not trod on an individual’s “right” to self-determination. So much for Christ and His Cross. Here is a thought experiment: does the typical youth group appeal to theology or pragmatism when trying to get kids to avoid drugs or extra-marital sex?

I have said before on this blog-pragmatism is a philosophy that corrupts people’s souls and will divide them from the grace and bliss of repentance and forgiveness. If we try to play down to the narcissistic drives of individuals, we will end up corrupting our own faith.


Res Ipsa said...

Good post. I trust, however, that there is hope for Generation Y.

Phil Steiger said...

Res Ipsa-

Thanks for the kind words and the comment. I hope so as well. I can't help but think that when the Church stands for what is real and lasting speaking the truth in love, it will be an incredible draw to young people raised in an ephemeral culture. (I think the Pope's popularity among young people is an example of that.)

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the contemporary church's slide toward using pragmatism to "motivate" (especially) youth to avoid the "wrong thing to do" has been exacerbated by the fact that very often, pointing to practical consequences is the only thing that works. Perhaps pastors have found that appealing to (non-pragmatic) moral reasoning or theological truths just don't "do it" for the young folk - they just don't care, it's all "just theory."

One can imagine that if our (youth) culture just isn't excited by moral proclamations, but does respond to "sticks and stones," then perhaps pastors find themselves appealing to pragmatism on the grounds that getting the youth to do what's right for the wrong reasons is better than failing to get them to do what's right at all. That must be an awfully tempting route to take, especially if one is pessimistic about the chances of reviving a sensitive moral conscience in our culture - which, I suppose, just highlights how truly corrosive and self-strengthening such pragmatic reasoning really is. Quite agreed, my friend.

Brian B

Nathan said...

I really don't know how much youth ministry teaching on sex is driven by pragmatism alone. I know in my ministry, I mixed positive & negative pragmatic motivators, but capped it with a discussion about marriage being a type of the relationship Christ has with His church. I tried to move beyond just appealing to their selfish desires and/or fears, and instead tried to explain the significance of it all. That being said, I had to come up with my own curriculum for it. Most of what is out there is either a rules-based system (God says you shouldn't have pre-marital sex, so don't do it) or a pragmatic one.

The question, though, of what drives this phenomenon is fairly easy to answer: the adult church. Go into any Christian bookstore and you will find the ultimate symbol of pragmatism - the how-to book. "7 Steps to ..." or "How to Experience... dot our literary landscape. I agree with Brian B's last paragraph, but only after you remove "youth". This is something that affects the church at all levels, not just with the kids.