It was late at night in a dodgy neighborhood of Athens, Greece. I argued with a cab driver who clearly wanted to be rid of his irksome passenger and call it a night. I’d arrived at the Athens train station after midnight after a long ferry and train trip from Brindisi, Italy. I clutched a piece of paper with the phonetic spelling of the address I wanted to go to, a house owned by the American embassy. The cabbie, probably thinking he’d get in one last fare before heading home, had put my luggage in the trunk and ushered me into his car.
Apparently my phonetic spelling and pronunciation were off the mark—it was, roughly, Popiomati Street—and the cabby started to unload my luggage on the corner of a neighborhood that was not the type the embassy would find amenable. No, I insisted, this isn’t right, pointing at my piece of paper and throwing my luggage back into the cab. (This was long before the days of cell phones.) He pointed to the street sign written in Greek lettering and, using volume to make up for my lack of comprehension, emphatically said … something. Unfortunately, it was all, quite literally, Greek to me.
I remembered that experience when I read about a new book by sociologist Christian Smith called Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. In it, Smith, along with his co-author Patricia Snell, interviewed thousands of “emerging adults” ages 18 to 23 for their views on religious and moral issues.
Long story short, when it comes to talking about these issues with many young adults, we might as well be speaking Greek. They literally cannot understand what we’re saying. Smith, a sociologist by trade and the director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, writes:
[W]hen we interviewers tried to get respondents to talk about whether what they take to be substantive moral beliefs reflect some objective or universal quality or standard [or] are simply relative human inventions, many—if not most—could not understand what we interviewers were trying to get at.
James Tonkowich of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, commenting on Smith and Snell’s study, writes,
Not only are they [emerging adults] moral relativists, they can’t conceive of a moral system that does not depend entirely on individual judgments. The implications of this level of subjectivism for American religion and the American republic are significant and disturbing since this makes meaningful consensus nearly impossible.
Take this example from one of Smith’s study subjects:
Morality is how I feel too, because in my heart, I could feel it. You could feel what’s right or wrong in your heart as well as your mind. Most of the time, I always felt, I feel it in my heart and it makes it easier for me to morally decide what’s right and wrong. Because if I feel about doing something, I’m going to feel it in my heart, and if it feels good, I’m going to do it.
This emphasis on feelings over reasoning, Smith says, is “a shift in language use that expresses an essentially subjectivistic and emotivistic approach to moral reasoning and rational argument,” meaning, he says, that such young adults “are de facto doubtful that an indentifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people.”
This is the world in which we live. Moral and religious judgments are based on personal preference and feelings, not objective truths. How many times have you listened to a conversation on a religious or moral topic and heard, “I feel …” instead of “I think …” or “I believe …”? To appeal to universal truths that are applicable to all people in all places in all times is the equivalent to speaking a foreign language: you get in return a blank stare of utter incomprehension.
In the 1960s Francis Schaeffer told Christians that they would have to rethink how they presented the gospel to a new, postmodern generation. Start with where they are, he said, and reason from there. We need to do likewise. A common language does exist. Everyone knows in his heart of hearts that some things are wrong, especially when they’re on the receiving end. Deeper still, they know that we’re supposed to do right and not do wrong, even if they can’t define why or what those things might be. This is part of what it means to be created in God’s image. There are core truths that everyone lives by, whether or not they realize it. Start with those core truths and build from there. It’ll often be a laborious project, and many will bail out along the way. But as Mother Teresa so wisely said, “We’re not called to be successful, just faithful.”
Epilogue: So, did I ever make it to my destination in Athens? I refused to get out of the cab, and the driver started circling around, probably looking for a policeman. Only a few minutes later, though, we came upon two men standing on the corner, talking. (You have to realize that at this point it’s about 2 a.m.) The driver got out and talked to them, and one of the men came over and started talking to me … in German.
“Sorry,” I said, “but I don’t speak German.”
“Oh, you’re American,” he said in perfect English.
After picking up my jaw from the ground, I told him where I needed to go, showing him my scrap of paper with the phonetic spelling. He knew exactly where I was talking about, gave crisp directions to the cab driver in Greek, and 10 minutes later I was dropped off at the correct house. I gave the driver a large tip in drachmae—at least I think I did—and went into the house, wondering what were the odds of finding a trilingual man at 2 a.m. in the middle of Athens who also happened to know where I needed to go.