In recent discussions about Millennials’ reasons for leaving the church, one recurring theme has been churches’ failure to answer their questions, or provide a context in which difficult questions can be raised. Churches and their leaders have all too often presumed that traditional beliefs could survive without giving a careful account of themselves in an age when the cultural momentum that once perpetuated them has long since dissipated. Understandably disillusioned with a church in which they feel that their intellectual responsibility is being forced to capitulate to an unquestioned orthodoxy, many Millennials leave, refusing to make such an unreasonable sacrifice.
The renewed emphasis upon the importance of questioning among Millennials is in many respects a healthy one, a necessary response to the stifling of enquiry. The desire for questions without predetermined answers can be a desire to give the act of questioning its due weight and seriousness.
Despite the great value that I place upon questioning, however, I am uneasy with the form that Millennial emphases on questioning often take. In his recent book, The End of Our Exploring, Matthew Lee Anderson encourages us to be more questioning about our questioning. Rather than shutting down our questioning, I believe that it is precisely such an intensification of it that Millennials could most benefit from.
We seldom give as much care to our questions as we do to our answers, though the wrong questions can often be far more damaging than the wrong answers. Wrong questions can misdirect our enquiries in ways that leave essential elements of reality unexamined or unexplored. The best questions usually only emerge out of deep and lengthy engagement with the reality that they examine. A question asked without profound attentiveness to the reality it investigates can produce more confusion than enlightenment.
Our questions reveal the terms within which we approach reality as our object of enquiry. The wrong questions force reality into ill-fitting frameworks of understanding. People who take the appropriateness of their questions for granted are people who presume the universal applicability of their terms of understanding, of their ways of perceiving and framing the world, not alert to the possibility that reality might only be rightly understood on quite different terms.
Above almost all else, gifted questioners need to be prepared to be questioned themselves. And it is at this point that I believe that Millennials face particular dangers. All too often, resistance to ‘predetermined answers’ can be a self-serving posture, designed to fend off anything that might make claims upon our loyalty and duty. With a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ we can distrust and selectively ignore all external authorities that might seek our obedience. A posture of cynicism leads us to be sceptical of all supposed beauty, truth, or goodness that might call us to change.
Having been let down or betrayed by authority figures in the past we can feel the need to protect ourselves, but we risk doing so in a manner that merely places our own authority in their place. Questioning everything can become a way we resist anyone that would call us to give account of ourselves or exert authority over us, even God. The constant drive to place unwelcome traditional interpretations of scripture into whatever doubt we can (‘Has God really said…?’) can be a way of wriggling free of God’s authority. We pay lip service to its authority, while reserving the deciding vote on its meaning for ourselves. As Jamie Smith has observed, we risk championing a scepticism that cuts God down to the size of our doubts.
Despite an emphasis on questioning, Millennials can often be surprisingly prickly about being called into question themselves. Challenges to our sexual mores and desires, the ethos and inclinations of our generation, our reliability as interpreters of God’s truth, and our qualifications to act as theological and moral authorities can be met with great hostility. This is frequently the dangerous flipside of ‘questioning everything’: a self-validating position of entitlement, which refuses to open itself up to question.
Yet this opening of ourselves up to question is central to our Christian duty. Near the heart of the Christian message is the declaration that we are in the wrong, that our subjective position is radically compromised, and that we must be put to rights by someone else.
Perhaps with their emphasis upon questioning, Millennials are in a position to meet God as the one who exposes us to the most devastating and revealing of cross-examinations. As He interrogated the questioning Job from the whirlwind, the God who knows us through and through can lay the reality of our hearts and lives bare before Him.
If a previous generation viewed Christ chiefly as the answer to all of their questions, Millennials could rediscover the Christ who questions us:
‘Why are you persecuting me?’
‘Why did you doubt?’
‘Who do you say I am?’
‘Do you love me?’
Talkin’ bout my generation
Read Rachel Held Evans’s CNN post on ‘Why Millennials are leaving the Church’