You Lost Me: Secular vs. Sacred Education

You Lost Me: Secular vs. Sacred Education April 2, 2015

Secularism! Be afraid! It is a demonic force overtaking religious institutions as it consumes and extinguishes the spirituality of youth. Recently, this frightening narrative has received considerable online attention. I confess to hold some interest in the discussion.

I recently purchased a copy of the book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith. I’ve found it to be a fascinating study, well-worth considering. The book shares the findings of a massive research project conducted by the Barna group exploring some of the issues that have caused over 60 percent of young people in America who went to a Christian church as teens to disengage from institutionalized religion.

I’m not going to review the entire book in this blog post. But I would like to share one idea that relates to the fears often articulated in online discussions. As expected, this study shows that there are many contributing factors causing younger Christians, ages 16-29, to reject institutionalized religion. And one of them is “secularization.” Here is the way the author, David Kinnaman explains the matter:

“Christians maintain a false separation of sacred and secular. Many of the interviews we conducted among young Christians focused on the false dichotomy they feel between the church world and the outside world. Our research shows that this generation does not see a divide between the sacred and secular, at least not in the same way their parents do.” David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Kindle Locations 1450-1453). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If there is one thing that characterizes the younger generation (and always has) it is an openness to experimentation. This desire to “invent” is especially strong amongst millennials who unlike previous generations have grown up at “one” with computer technology. Younger Christians often complain that religion creates fear of technology, science, knowledge, and the world. And yet, as millennials explore the world with advanced information accessibility, many of them come to believe that it is not nearly as hopeless or as terrible as their religion suggests. Ironically, the older generation’s characterization of secularization often contributes to millennials leaving the Church.

One way that religious groups can address this issue is to avoid creating a false dichotomy between religion and secularism, especially in the context of education. Religious groups should not present critical thinking as a “secular” pursuit. Doing so is one of the factors contributing to the loss of youth raised in a world where information that challenges their beliefs is simply a click away. Instead, critical thinking that questions traditional assumptions can be defined as a spiritual pursuit, and therefore incorporated into the religious experience. Don’t be afraid to pursue academic knowledge that directly challenges your belief.

Fortunately within Mormonism, there have been those who have pioneered a perspective that models this process. I’ll draw upon two examples of Mormon intellectuals who defined education and critical thinking as a central part of the religious journey. First, consider the following quote from LDS educator and philosopher, Lowell Bennion:

Lowell Bennion

“When faith and reason meet in the life of a college student, something must give; some type of working relationship must be established. … One position a student can take is to hold fast to his faith and let no knowledge or experience gained in study disturb it. … There is a simplicity about this approach. One is spared much mental effort and anguish by wearing blinders which shut out peripheral vision and even set boundaries to the view straight ahead. … But those of us who go to the University, who read books, who learn to view life from many angles of vision, thoughtfully and critically, cannot with integrity don blinders to reason in order to protect a child-like faith. To be sincere, to have integrity, faith must be examined and cherished in the context of one’s total life experience. Furthermore, a faith that cannot withstand and transcend the light of reason, is not a faith worth keeping.” Lowell Bennion, “Carrying Water on Both Shoulders” in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6.1 (Spring 1971), p. 110.

There is much that can be gleaned from Bennion’s perspective that critical ideas, which challenge traditional assumptions, should lead to spiritual growth. For Bennion, this process–like a refiner’s fire–was something to be embraced rather than feared.

Hugh Nibley is another in Mormon history who shared this same world-view. For anyone interested in the topic of critical thinking as a spiritual pursuit, Nibley’s writings are without question a “must-read.” I especially love the introduction Nibley gave to his essay, “Zeal Without Knowledge” in Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless:

“This talk was given on request as part of the celebration of Academic Emphasis Week [at BYU]. Once a year, for a whole week, our students are free to turn their minds to things of an intellectual nature without shame or embarrassment. After this cerebral Saturnalia, the young people mostly return to their normal patterns: concealing the neglect of hard scholarship by the claim to spirituality and strict standards of dress and grooming. Yet from time to time a student will confess to wayward twinges of thought and find himself wondering: If ‘The Glory of God is Intelligence’ (our school motto) might there not be some possible connection between intelligence and spirituality?’ Under temporary license from the Academic Committee, we have presumed to touch upon this sensitive theme” (p. 261).

Hugh Nibley

Written as satire (in the way only Nibley could), this statement expresses a profound perspective concerning the pursuit of education as a sacred rather than a secular endeavor. Nibley believed that Mormonism is more than simply a rigid set of ethics and behaviors; Mormonism constitutes a pilgrimage of the mind. Like Bennion, Nibley certainly adopted this approach as a frame for his life’s work. He provides a helpful role-model for those in the LDS community who wish to combine learning with faith.

It is a fact that many of today’s youth are struggling with religion. One of the reasons why is that older adults often create a dichotomy between the sacred versus the secular rejected by millennials. This is especially true in the context of education. There certainly is evil in the world. But the pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking that challenges traditional religious assumptions should not be defined as a pernicious, secular pursuit, not if the older generation wishes to avoid losing today’s youth.

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