© 2014 Robert Osburn
My friend has been active in campus Christian apologetics for along time. One of the brightest Christian students that he has known—on a campus renowned for very bright high achievers—is now actively pushing back against the Christian faith he once professed.
That his former student had become a philosophical naturalist (believing that matter is all there is) was obvious to my friend. If his student has any hope of coming back Home, the very brittle assumptions of naturalism deserve a stiff challenge.
Notwithstanding the fact that it is the operative worldview for many of our leading scientists in the academy (such as Steven Pinker at Harvard), naturalism is a profoundly flawed worldview because it completely fails to account for human consciousness, morality, and meaning. Simply put, pure matter cannot generate self-awareness, nor does it offer behavioral commands, and most certainly it cannot tell us the meaning of our lives. Thus, even an atheist like the great philosopher Thomas Nagel has written a book with the title Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012).
Naturalism, or any form of materialism, is a perennial underlying reason that explains why bright students of the Millennial generation resist the Good News. But, postmodernism also plays into the resistance, and it has everything to do with the way students hear our arguments for Christian faith.
I asked my campus apologist friend, “Why is it that so many students today seem so ready to reject all the positive arguments for Christian faith while heartily embracing the negative arguments against it?” The positive arguments include the salutary effects of Christian faith on human civilization, the way the Christian worldview accounts very well for human experience, and the internal coherence of the biblical narrative. Negative arguments include supposed contradictions in the Bible, the violence that God commanded against the Canaanite at the time when the Jews claimed their Promised Land, and the hypocrisy of some Christians.
The reason that negative arguments are eagerly embraced is, in part at least, because the spirit of postmodernity breeds suspicion. Everyone and every claim is a subtle power-play: Others want to control your soul, your destiny, and your life. Resist them at all cost! And so any positive arguments that recommend a worldview—Christian or otherwise—are rejected because they merely mask the human appetite for mastery of others. Of course, postmodernists want us to believe that they have transcended such desires, and thus many postmodern professors eagerly and freely evangelize on behalf of postmodernism.
No doubt, my friend’s former student is not only a naturalist, but he has embraced the spirit, if not many of the assumptions of postmodernism. Thus, schooled in suspicion, all positive arguments for Christian faith are rejected out of hand. Rather than rejecting the negative arguments against Christianity as a subtle power play by those who evangelize for a rival worldview, those negative arguments are blithely accepted as part of the package necessary to destroy the plausibility of Christianity and its evil minions bent on world conquest, empire, and domination. Your evangelism is not an act of love; it’s evil and unjust and should not be tolerated in a diverse society.
There may be a third reason for the rise of millennial student resistance to Christian faith. Naturalism and postmodern suspicion are clearly two of the reasons, but it seems that cynicism and skepticism collude to generate a powerful acid eating away at the bedrock of Christian faith.
To understand this third explanation for opposition to Christianity, I have to explain the difference between cynicism and skepticism. Without exploring the Greek roots of these two concepts, cynicism is an assumption that everyone is to be distrusted, and that nothing could possibly merit respect or honor. In this sense, the suspicion inherent in postmodernism directly feeds cynicism.
When I asked a millennial why the intense cynicism of the age, he suggested that it is not only due to postmodern suspicion, but also because honest self-assessments reveal hearts of evil. In other words, if I am evil, and evil mutates in a million ways inside me, then why should I assume anything but the worst about others and their worldviews? A surplus of evil in the world reinforced by the tremendously high rates of family fragmentation in the West also generates wary cynicism.
Skeptics, on the other hand, are a fruit of modernity: They use rational methods to question assumptions and carefully assess evidence. The skeptic only accepts claims after carefully checking them, but, unlike the cynic, he is prepared to believe something. The skeptic can be converted because he values reason, and indeed the Bible enjoins a little holy skepticism in I John 4:1.
The cynic, however, resists reason itself as a strategy of evil, and thus is left to grope about life with mere sentiment and feeling. While many Millennials are bathed in non-rational sentiment and feeling, I suspect that very bright Millennials marry cynicism with the modern methods of skepticism to birth an acid that rusts all religion and tarnishes most theories and philosophies. When the rational skeptic becomes convinced of Christian faith, the suspicious cynic is more than happy to extinguish the possibility.
It’s tough being a campus apologist these days. The resistance is real, thanks to naturalism, postmodern suspicion, and the acids produced by cynicism married to skepticism.
Lest this be a counsel of despair, should we not continue to expose the tragic failures of naturalism, at least for those who still use reason? Should we not make the strong and positive case for Christianity, while also showing the subtle power play of the postmodernist? And should we not tell the cynic that the Bible agrees with their diagnosis of personal evil?
Then we show them that there is a way out, and that Way is wrapped up with the character of a good and great God. He paid an extraordinarily high price to not only forgive our sin but to also give us, by virtue of being united with Him through regeneration, a heart that is good, generous, and just.
That is good news for those who resist, and the apologists who reach out to them.