When I told some of my friends that I would be attending a meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Westmont College, their responses fell into three basic categories:
• Horror: “What? Why? That sounds so boring.”
• Confusion: “Ummm, you’re doing what?”
• Bafflement: [no response, change the subject]
None of them asked to come along!
You would think this cold response from intelligent and thoughtful adults would persuade me that it’s more difficult to interest young people in examining contemporary philosophies, religions and worldviews.
The fact is, I’ve been exploring philosophy with high school students since the 90s, and they love it! Perhaps you can learn from my experience in helping equip the minds and hearts of your students.
They Want It!
I first became interested in having philosophy discussions with high school students in the late 90s as a youth pastor when I met with my core group of student leaders to plan our summer calendar.
When we started discussing possible topics, one student said, “I want to talk about other religions!” Faster than you could say, “Scientology,” they all agreed.
As I started preparing that summer of lessons, though, I realized I needed to build a good foundation from which to work. For example, how would I compare the truth claims of different religions if we didn’t talk about a reliable definition for truth in the first place?
This caused me to dust off some textbooks from my college and seminary days, which was a good refresher course for me and a great way to prepare for my group.
I proceeded tentatively, but was stunned to find the students were completely engaged. They had a million questions about Islam, Buddhism, Scientology, Mormonism, Scientology, you name it.
Rather than point out how each of these belief systems was wrong, I took the opportunity to challenge them grow up in their own faith.
“Look,” I said, “you are taking honors level classes in English and calculus. Why don’t you move on from a felt board, little-kid level of faith, too?”
They admitted that while they were growing up intellectually that their faith was falling far behind, remaining camped on the basic, simplistic lessons of their childhood Sunday School classes.
My students really wanted to talk about belief, world religions and the existential questions of life, including:
Why is there suffering and evil in the world?
How do we know Jesus is the only way?
What is the meaning of life?
What happens after we die?
How do we really know right from wrong?
In time, it became clear that my students wanted to explore philosophy more than they wanted to discuss dating. One student told me, “Our parents want us to talk about sex, but we want to talk about this stuff!”
An Alternative to MTD
A few years later, I was teaching a religious studies class at a Christian high school. After finishing various series on the gospels, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity and the Book of Psalms, I received many questions from students about—you guessed it—the big questions of life and other religions.
I responded by teaching a series on what I called “The Isms.” I planned to do a survey of every major religious worldview and philosophy from ancient history: polytheism, pantheism, monotheism, dualism, deism and atheism.
My motivation with these Christian high school students was to address the issues raised by Christian Smith’s impressive research in Moral Therapeutic Deism. Smith’s detailed research defined MTD as a set of beliefs, most of them vague and shallow, which are held by a majority of Christian teens and young adults:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
Rather than hold my head in my hands in discouragement, I tried to come up with a sustainable way to start chipping away at the foundations of MTD in my own students. Just as I had discovered in the 90s, I decided the best place to start was to define big concepts such as truth, purpose, views of evil, divinity and so on.
I used James Sires’ The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog as a roadmap to get started. Because I was facing a tough audience of teenagers with short attention spans, I wanted to make sure I would not dismissed before they heard what I had to say.
Hooking Students on Metaphysics
That meant I could not use a droning, incoherent voice that bored them to death. How could I get their attention with this stuff and not have them groaning?
I fell back on a tool that has been steadily reliable throughout my 30-year career with youth: Hook Book Look Took.
Anyone who has spent any time teaching young people (or people of any age, for that matter) knows that we need to create interest in a subject before we start teaching about it. The best way to do that is to make an emotional connection with the topic. This is known as the hook.
While I will be the first to admit that some of my favorite hooks involve either funny mixers or food, I want to recommend an excellent article from the YouthWorker Journal archives: “Teaching to Kids’ Unique Learning Styles” by Marlene LeFever.
Here are the three main types of hooks I used to engage my students last year in our ism study:
1) Video Clips
These are so effective because our students love media. I often refered to a movie rather than show a clip if it was a very popular film. In fact, when I referenced a film, many of the students spoke up and wanted to retell the plot and how it connected with the topic; they basically taught the lesson for me!
I showed a clip from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy called “The Answer to Life, Universe and Everything” to set up the entire series. Later, I referenced Avatar, The Lion King and Pocahontas (using photos from the films in a PowerPoint presentation) when teaching on pantheism; and The DaVinci Code when we talked about dualism.
Through the years, I have found that students love to solve riddles, puzzles and brainteasers. So I enjoy creating hooks that force them to figure out how to solve something related to a lesson.
I created word searches that included all the main words we were going to examine in the study of isms. I gave them a page from one of the gospels as rendered in The Jefferson Bible, a highly edited version of the New Testament that omits all supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life and teachings, in order to prepare them for a lesson on deism. I told them to try to figure out everything he had cut from the gospel story. They found every missing thing!
I also have found that some students like to ask people questions and bring back their responses—one athlete in particular, who was close friends with two non-Christians. One was an atheist; the other claimed to be agnostic. I asked him to ask his friends, in a respectful way, what they believed. He asked them through Facebook, and sent me their replies. It was incredible how thoughtful (and intelligent) their replies were. I used them in a PowerPoint presentation about what atheists and agnostics believe.
Students listen to their peers (inlcuding strangers) more than adults, so I leveraged that to my advantage. When their friends defined their beliefs in atheism or agnosticism, I used those conversations to get my own students to understand the beliefs contained in these worldviews.
Beyond a Sunday School Understanding
This may seem to be a lot to manage, but let me encourage you by describing the three key motivations that inspire my forays into my students’ philosophies and worldviews.
First, I have found the average American teen who grows up in church tends to maintain a child-like, Sunday School understanding of faith. We can change that. As young people mature physically and grow intellectually through their schooling, let’s do our best to help them mature spiritually, as well.
Second, our students are surrounded by a culture that routinely explores—and promotes—non-Christian worldviews and philosophies. It is crucial that we equip them in knowing how to engage intelligently with these big ideas through the lens of their faith and not just receive it all at face value.
Third, one of the main reasons students are not continuing with their faith into college and beyond is because younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. (See Barna.org.)
If we don’t teach our kids to engage respectfully and confidently with those of other faiths, we set them up to fail and to be accused of narrow-mindedness.
A Rope over a Precipice
C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed brought me to tears when I read it, having just experienced the loss of a dear friend.
I will end with a quote as a reminder of why we want to study isms with our youth:
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy for you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose that you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?…Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief.
Through the years, some parents have expressed their concerns to me that philosophical discussions such as these will foster doubt in their children. In response, I patiently explain that I would much rather explore doubt with them face-to-face than to hear about how they walked away from the faith of their childhood once at college.
Remember, God gave Jacob a new name—Israel—which translates to “he who wrestles with God.” May we wrestle (spiritually) in our ministry with youth and help them to mature in their faith.