... is that there are so many people for whom spiritual interest, thinking about ultimate questions, is minimal," says Mark Silk, professor of religion and public life at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.
That is from this USA Today article about the "'So What?' set":
Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:
•44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking "eternal wisdom," and 19% said "it's useless to search for meaning."
•46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.
•28% told LifeWay "it's not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose." And 18% scoffed that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.
•6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum's 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.
Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the "apatheists"
It's a clever and apt name, as indicated by these quotes:
Helton, a high school band teacher in Chicago, only goes to the Catholic Church of his youth to hear his mother sing in the choir.
His mind led him away. The more Helton read evolutionary psychology and neuro-psychology, he says, the more it seemed to him, "We might as well be cars. That, to me, makes more sense than believing what you can't see."
Ashley Gerst, 27, a 3-D animator and filmmaker in New York, shifts between "leaning to the atheist and leaning toward apathy."
"I would just like to see more people admit they don't believe. The only thing I'm pushy about is I don't want to be pushed. I don't want to change others and I don't want to debate my view," Gerst says.
Most So Whats are like Gerst, says David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me on young adults drifting away from church.
They're uninterested in trying to talk a diverse set of friends into a shared viewpoint in a culture that celebrates an idea that all truths are equally valid, he says. Personal experience, personal authority matter most. Hence Scripture and tradition are quaint, irrelevant, artifacts. Instead of followers of Jesus, they're followers of 5,000 unseen "friends" on Facebook or Twitter.
My own introduction to this general mentality came about twenty years, when my girlfriend (now my wife) was working on a project for a class on evangelization at Multnomah Bible College. It involved asking three non-Christians a series of questions about life, death, and a few other light-weight topics. One of the questions was, "What do you think is the meaning of life?" I was with her when she asked the questions of a relative of mine, a forty-year-old man with a Masters degree in education who taught at the local high school. He paused for a few moments, with a blank expression on his face, and then said, with remarkable honesty, "That's a really good question; I've never thought about it before."
I think I've mentioned that response more than once on this blog, if only because it shocked me and it showed me there are, in fact, many people who go through life without asking the Big Questions or even knowing of their existence. It still surprises me a bit, but of course I've seen and heard much more over the years along the same lines.
It brings to mind another conversation I had a number of years ago, with a longtime family friend (a Catholic!), who used to babysit me when I was very young and whose husband, a doctor, was something of a cultural and intellectual mentor when I was growing up (we talked often, for example, about Mozart, T. S. Eliot, and Frederic Remington, and he introduced me a lot of great music and literature). She said, "I remember that when you were three or four, you would often sit on the sidewalk in front of your house and simply stare into the distance for long periods of time." And then, with a laugh, she said, "I wondered for a while if you were mentally handicapped" (well, hey, who hasn't wondered that?!). I told her that I remembered sitting there, usually in the morning summer sunlight, and that I had been thinking. "Thinking about what?", she asked. "God and eternity", I said, "I was fascinated by the notion of eternity, and I was equally fascinated by the idea that God is eternal. So I would sit and mull it over." She thought I was joking (as I usually am joking), but I assured her that I was telling the truth.
Granted, I didn't make any breakthroughs or chart new theological territories sitting on the sidewalk as a young boy. But the point is not about intellectual abilities or acheivements, but about the basic questions of human existence. From a very young age I wondered: What is this life about? Why am I here? What does it mean to exist? Why do I exist? And while I certainly took comfort in the answers given by my Christian parents, I often pushed and poked at those answers as well. I took it for granted that people, at the end of the day, had the same questions.
This is why, I'm sure, that authors such as Chesterton and Walker Percy—two very different personalities with quite different approaches—resonated with me upon first read. They both came from agnostic backgrounds and went through times of spiritual darkness in their youth, but emerged as men of faith and champions of reason who believed the proper response to existence is not apathy and despair, but wonder and gratitude. And what you find with both men—just as you find with Augustine and Aquinas and Newman and so forth—is a profound humility before the mystery of life and the Mystery of God. And that humility is coupled with doctrine, dogma, and devotion, precisely because the authentic and mature pursuit of meaning does not involve dallying with vague mutterings about "being spiritual" and "being good" without really considering what is means to be spiritual, to be good, and to be a creature made in the image and likeness of God. "I would maintain", wrote Chesterton, "that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."
Chesterton also wrote that when we talk about "modern thought", we tend to forget "the familiar fact that moderns do not think. They only feel..." What the USA Today piece describes as apathy is indeed a form of sloth, or acedia, but it is also a clear type of emotive cowardice. Men who refuse to ask, "What is man?", are not really men, but are, in the words of Eliot, hollow, stuffed men, leaning together, headpiece filled with straw:
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion; ...
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The beach of our age is attractive enough, formed by a million glittering grains of technological gadgets and devices, hi-tech trinkets and data-crunching baubles. The waters of this tumid river consist of instant, streaming information; our civilization has not only mastered the art of distraction, it has made it the ultimate art form of meaning, and nearly everything touted as necessary and current is meant to distract our mind, deflect our gaze, and define our soul. The meaning of life is now, increasingly, said to be that life has no meaning since "meaning" is not meaningful. The questions that guide our days are practical and of no eternal significane: "Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?" We have become a society of Prufocks.
This is a further, sad sign of what Percy called "an ontological impoverishment". Percy believed that art and literature were means of responding to this malnourishment of mind and soul. The contemporary novelist, he wrote in the essay "Diagnosing the Modern Malaise", "must be an epistemologist of sorts. He must know how to send messages and decipher them." Therein also lies the great challenge for everyone who believes that Truth exists and can be known: send messages and decipher. After all, isn't that what God, the Artist par excellence, did when he sent the Son, the Eternal Word, into the world? What greater message is there than the Incarnation, who has deciphered the human condition by becoming man and dwelling among us?
Christ is born! Glorify Him!