There is no doubt that we are entering a cynical age – every idea, every glimmer of hope, every statement made by an authority figure – everything is to be questioned. Barack Obama was seen as this great hope and savior until he started listing some of his plans and ideas. So long as he simply said, “there is hope” and “there is change coming” people didn’t question how this hope or change would come about. Now that he is mentioning some of his plans, he has become nothing more than another joke on The Daily Show, another false hope produced by a secular society.
Generation X and, even more so, the generation following it (those born 1984-2000) has grown up an extremely nihilistic generation. I do not mean nihilistic in the way The Big Lebowski means it (where they care about nothing), but instead in what I believe to be the mantra of nihilism: de omnibus dubitandum (“everything is to be doubted”). Many people associate this saying with Descartes, but I believe it is Nietzsche that understood the real impact of the term.
In the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche uses this term and applies it to all previous Enlightenment thinkers, including Descartes. He argues that Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, and even Hume all took this mantra for granted by never questioning their own existence, their own thinking, their own absolutes, or in the case of Kant, his own synthetic a priori judgments and categorical imperatives. Nietzsche, instead, argued that we should question everything and that we may not come up with an answer to the question – we should simply question.
This, of course, leads to cynicism, which I believe we find in Nietzsche’s writings. He never adequately offers a counter philosophy to the philosophies he critiques – there is no transcendent morality because God is dead and we have killed Him, thus, might makes right. For Nietzsche, there could be nothing more than societal truths – how could the Persian tell the German what to do and vise versa? Likewise, there could never be any ultimate meaning to life, other than whatever meaning we put to it. Nietzsche is best summarized in his book The Antichrist in which he states that Buddhism is the best of all religions, because it ultimately believes in nothing.
This attitude has permeated American culture in recent years – we have not seen it blossom fully, but the stage is set. We are watching the rise of a generation of “know-nothings” and “care nots.” They are against war, not because they are pacifists, but because they believe there is nothing worth fighting for. They have lost an idea of what it means to be human so they attempt to fill this void with materialism, their jobs, money, or indulgences in sex, drugs, or alcohol.
This is a generation raised to question everything and rightfully so – they have been lied to. Obama is quickly losing his Messiah status because he is turning on things he previously said, he’s offering a structured plan and not a broad plan that one can’t be cynical about. We can be cynical about plans, but we are not yet to the point where we can be cynical about abstract ideas such as “hope” and “change.”
Worse, however, is that the media has manipulated this generation. They have been promised to “buy this,” “do that,” “say this,” “listen to that,” “enjoy this,” “reject that,” “act this way,” “be free,” and so on. Yet, in all of this they have not found true fulfillment. I have friends that are on the verge of being 30 that still act like they did in high school because they have been trained to believe that our fulfillment is found at the bottom of a bottle or under the covers living out our wildest fantasies. Realizing that there is no fulfillment in these actions, they are cynical of anything that appears to be an illusion.
Jean Baudrillard, the French postmodernist, claimed that America is Disneyland. At Disneyland all the employees are actors, trained to be happy all the time, always nice, always dressed a certain way, always acting a certain way. Baudrillard argued that the media has turned America into this atmosphere and that youth are now fed an illusion of what it is to be human (to use his term, a simulacrum). Thus, this nihilistic generation has grown tired of the façade that they’ve been fed and reject all things, believing them to be an illusion – and they are generally correct in their assessment.
Enter the Church that, for all intents and purposes, is failing miserably to not only reach out to this generation, but to even understand the problem. The Church is still stuck in this idea that everyone comes to the world through Judeo-Christian eyes and that if we can offer enough evidence that Christianity is true, or if we can rationally prove Christianity, it will be enough. Some go even further to think that if we just tell people to read the Bible, or if we just preach a sermon that addresses the Gospel, that will win the people over. Though the above two are certainly necessary and good, they are not all that is needed in this nihilistic age.
Church has ended up being just another illusion. The worship band plays, the concert is neat, the programs are excellent, but a nihilistic generation sees through this pseudo-church for what it really is; a spiritual social club. This nihilistic generation is also narcissistic, but both of these conditions are not how God intended us to be, thus we grow tired of these conditions. However, the Church merely feeds these conditions when we partake in the illusion and create a church that is “for the people” or one that “has not doctrine and stands only for love.”
A church that does the above commits two errors: (1) it makes church centered around the people, around ministering to people, and not about being a community that is seeking after God. It offers children’s ministry, youth ministry, adult ministry, single ministry, college ministry, and so on – but it never ministers. It feeds the people and entertains them without ever actually challenging them and forcing them to question their own worldview. (2) Secondly, by questioning all “doctrines of men” it effectively becomes cynical of all doctrine – it becomes Nihilistic Christianity. It is cynical of all doctrines except its own beliefs (which, of course, are never considered doctrines even though they are).
We do no favors when we entertain youth, when we offer them a fluff Christianity, when we tell them to “just believe”; we are instead only confirming their cynical doubt about Christianity.
Instead, Christians need to stand firm in the truth. We need to tell them that Christianity isn’t about how people feel about it or if people are entertained by it, but instead about truth that is outside of ourselves. Though we should question all things – especially secular society – we do not do so in a cynical manner but in a manner that measures society against Scripture.
Christians need to make this stand, answer the tough questions they bring up, and give them something authentic. We need to stop aping the world and treating churches like giant corporations that run off business models. We need to instead rely on the work of the Holy Spirit, a work that cannot be duplicated or questioned. When they see the authentic work of the Spirit in our lives, they will not they have encountered something real, something cynicism cannot touch, and they will begin to question.