Books / Pluralistic World / Spirituality

The New Copernicans: An Interview with Author John Seel

In his The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church, cultural analyst, social-impact consultant, and author, John Seel, draws attention to a fundamental shift already under way in American culture. In offering an analysis designed to steer the church toward greater faithfulness touching its younger members (those carrying this shift), Seel balances his very real warning with an ultimate outlook that remains warm and hopeful.

Timely, even prescient, Seel’s volume is an important resource that repays careful reading. Destined to provoke questions and already producing some disagreement, The New Copernicans is neither a biblical-theological reflection nor a blueprint demanding uniform implementation. It is, however, a sustained plea to take stock of where we are and to reconsider how we misperceive, minister to and invite into ministry, the millennial generation. Serious in tone and sincere in its aims, Christ-professing millennials struggling with feeling understood and older readers desiring to understand present and coming generations both stand to benefit from Seel’s research. Most important of all, The New Copernicans, is a critical read for those presently in church leadership wrestling with marked cultural change and turning over leadership to those who inhabit the world differently and who express their Christianity in ways still taking shape.

Respected sociologist, James Davidson Hunter, refers to Seel’s work as the kind of careful listening that has been missing to date and as providing important insights into a massive generational shift. Delineating the contours of the coming shift and current responses to it, closely examining the way millennials see reality and what this means for the church if it is to retain and benefit from the coming generation, The New Copernicans, lands amid disquieting statistics of Christian decline and significant debate over the transference of leadership to millennials and post-millennials.

Without necessarily agreeing with everything, and with my own shortlist of questions and clarifications to pursue, nonetheless, I have already benefited immensely from this volume and am glad to recommend it to others. I am also glad for the recent opportunity I had to actually pose several questions and clarifications to Dr. John Seel and I thank him for his generous willingness to allow our back and forth to be shared here with readers of Critique:

Mark Ryan: Having read The New Copernicans multiple times and having sat with it for some months since its release earlier this year, I have come to characterize this work as both a labor of love and as an ultimately encouraging volume. That said, you do introduce The New Copernicans by way of referencing the Titanic and by issuing a pan-pan alert! You also express up front that the church itself is creating the growth of the unchurched and what we are doing to reach the next generation is not working. Is the situation facing the evangelical church really that concerning? Are we really mishandling our moment in time and the next generation so poorly? And what, at root, are we failing to see?

John Seel: Social scientists need to be careful in predicting the future. Moreover, there is a rhetorical danger in crying “Wolf, wolf.” This book was written in October of 2016. Since then the evangelical church has had to deal with the fallout from its alignment with the Trump administration. Historian John Fea’s book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump tells this story. Recently evangelical leaders met at the National Press Club to discuss, “Donald Trump and the Moral Collapse of American Evangelicalism.” Dr. Rob Schenck, the president of the Dietrich Bonheoffer Institute, was hosting the event. Perhaps there are parallels between our current cultural accommodation and the Weimar Republic. In addition, the full weight of the #MeToo movement has not fully impacted the wider evangelical church though the scandals at Willow Creek and Southwestern Seminary are at best cautionary tales. In the public mind, “complementarity” is being equated with misogyny, and often for good reasons. And finally, after the book was published the Pinetop Foundation released its report, “The Great Opportunity: The American Church in 2050.” It describes a “pivotal moment in the life of the American church,” with the largest and fastest numerical shift in negative religious affiliation in the history of this country. And they say that they are understating the problem. So I actually believe that the problem is far worse than I describe and that the existential crisis will come sooner than I suggest. Christian colleges and seminaries may be first to feel the full impact of these changes because they work so closely with and are dependent upon the coming generation. So to stay within the metaphor used in the book, there are more icebergs looming just ahead and they are closer than anticipated.

As I state in the book, the Titanic was not sunk because of the icebergs, but because of the captain’s reaction to them. If the ship had steamed directly into the iceberg it would have caused a huge crash with probable loss of life, but it would not have sunk the ship. By turning sharply, the iceberg ripped through five watertight compartments thereby dooming the ship. I fear the same for the evangelical church. Under pressure they are apt to take draconian steps—in effect, doubling down on the past—that will further alienate the coming generation and make things far worse for the church, all this in spite of good intentions. Steps taken at Inter-Varsity (sexuality statement), American Bible Society (statement of faith), and Cedarville University (Philippians 4:8 policy) are all early examples of such doubling down. We will see more. Blind to our cultural moment, evangelical leaders are reacting in ways that are very likely to doom American institutional evangelicalism. We might even see a revival in mainline churches (ELCA, RCA, PCUSA, etc.), which is something evangelical hubris has not been willing to admit. So I’d say the analysis in my book is highly constrained.

MR: In speaking of this ‘frame shift’ that evangelical churches are facing, you boldly suggest that the new way of processing reality that today’s (and coming) generations are carrying is not only different but also better. Indeed you say that it will make the church more like Jesus. What are the broad contours of this ‘frame shift’ and how might embracing such change serve our millennial church members and strengthen the church as a whole as it pursues Christlikeness?

JS: Spiritually-oriented millennials or “new Copernicans” are the first post-Enlightenment and post-secular generational cohort. In the spirit of Lesslie Newbigin’s missiological critique of the Western church, millennials are calling attention to the evangelical churches’ 300-year accommodation to the Enlightenment. What is being suggested in my book is not an uncritical accommodation to a millennial frame, which is the instinctive pattern of liberalism, but a renewed self-awareness of our current accommodation to the Enlightenment so that we are called back to an ancient faith so as to be better prepared for post-Christian missional opportunity. We need to go back in order to go forward. This is the same argument being made elsewhere by James K.A. Smith.

In terms of the sensibilities of their frame, new Copernicans are more incarnational, Trinitarian, aspirational, communal, relational, mystical, and revolutionary. I ask, “Who does that sound like?” They may not have the right software, but they have an improved operating system.

MR: One of the ways you describe millennials is as ‘seekers’ (or ‘explorers’), as opposed to ‘dwellers,’ with the difference being one of open mindedness and of a continued searching for answers versus those who are happy where they have landed and who feel they have reached the truth. Given the typical evangelical quest for certainty and the prizing of conviction, how is this more open mindset beneficial and not unsettling? What prevents openness or the embrace of an epistemological humility from sliding into skepticism or relativism?

JS: An open perspective and attitude toward truth and conviction, is not quite the same thing as “open mindedness” as in, “I’m open to believe everything.” It means that there is an honest self-reflectiveness about my beliefs and convictions:
1) reality is more complex than I can understand
2) I could be wrong, and
3) There is much that I could learn from you.

The typical evangelical “quest for certainty and the prizing of conviction” is symptomatic of an Enlightenment framing of faith as a cognitive exercise of belief. If faith is understood in contrast in relational categories, then other words dominate such as trust, reliance, and faithfulness. Philosophically, giving up of foundationalism does not automatically lead to skepticism or relativism, but can lead also to critical realism. Epistemological humility is an acknowledgement that I am not God and that an acceptance of contingency is a correlative to my status as a creature. An open attitude toward truth does not mean that I don’t have convictions that I hold, even strongly, but that my attitude toward my beliefs is more aware of the human complexities in all belief—partial, mixed motives, socially conditioned, and the like. Here new Copernicans more honestly embrace that all belief is a simultaneous mixture of faith and doubt. Here the postmodern critique of modernist objectivism is worth following. I’m aware that this shift feels threatening to older evangelicals, but it is also more human and honest in the end.

Let’s put the point bluntly, “How do we hold to the faith once received without the Enlightenment?” The answer is going to be found in the practice of the ancient church and its priority for engaging the imagination through liturgy, worship, community, art, music, and experience. This is what James K.A. Smith has been advocating in his “cultural liturgies” volumes. Frames are secured through the imagination. The imagination or intuition is not subjectivism, but an alternate way of knowing as in Pascal’s “the heart has its reasons of which reason itself does not know.” Lewis adds, “All truth is first won through metaphor” and later “the imagination is the organ of meaning and reason the organ of truth.” We clearly need both but when we start with reason it becomes hegemonic; the imagination is negated in a manner that is intellectually crippling. This is the thesis of neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary. Sadly, just at the time when the church is most in need of imaginative apologetics, its weakness in this aspect of its faith and practice is being exposed. Where are the new Tolkiens and Dysons who can lead contemporary modern followers of Norse myths, Lewis’ favorites (as in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods), from myths to myths that actually happened? Evangelical pastors are ill equipped to move people from Joseph Campbell to Jesus Christ. Handing out updated versions of Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict is not going to do the trick. The task is first one of imagination not reason, of myth not fact, of addition not subtraction. In most seminaries, just the talk of myth or Jungian collective unconscious is enough to freak them out. C.S. Lewis has a great deal to say to us today. If he were still here, he would be right in the midst of these discussions.

MR: You rightly note that those of us who believe in absolute truth, or what the late Francis Schaeffer termed “True Truth,” struggle with the millennial penchant for greater openness and tend to hear relativism rather than humility. As a non-millennial, how might you help others of us resist this tendency and to better value millennial openness and their more provisional orientation toward what we deem true?

JS: Millennials are not opposed to truth as much as how truth is framed. They remain interested in securing an accurate assessment of reality and human nature. While they may not assume confidence in past sources of authority and may approach them with learned skepticism, they are not opposed to truth, particularly if it is framed in a humble manner and able to be appropriated phenomenologically and existentially. This is more in keeping with “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

It is the insecure bully who on the playground insists loudly that it is their way or the highway. In contrast, Francis Schaeffer’s approach was to encourage others to go and live like hell and come back and tell me how that worked. Or as Dallas Willard states, “Anyone who can find a better way than Jesus, he would be the first to tell you to take it.” We have not heard that stated from a church pulpit in some time!

We need to learn again that reality is Trinitarian, by which we mean fundamentally relational. We need to return to such an understanding of faith. Jesus did not say, here is a short list of things that must be believed in order to qualify for heaven and not hell. No, he said, “Follow me,” which is an open-ended invitation to pilgrimage. We need to abandon Gnostic Scantron-thinking, which becomes a self-serving “hall of mirrors.” The evangelical church is unaware of how much of its theological frame has been shaped by the Enlightenment—where cognitive abstractions dominate, where either/or thinking is necessitated, where superficial belief is inevitable, and Pharisaical judgment the consequence. Millennials are pointing to a better way—a way that is more like Jesus.

MR: Elsewhere, and as a further aspect of your describing millennials, you highlight this generation’s prioritizing of human connection and new experience over theoretical engagement (e.g. book learning and abstractions). You speak of this sensibility as highly incarnational and of much of modern day evangelicalism as having lost this embodied incarnational feel—which in turn is to lose the reality and scope of Christ’s work. While you clearly describe the former (the experiential turn among millennials), might you further flesh out the latter (what you mean by evangelicalism’s loss of reality and the scope of Christ’s work)?

JS: It is well known that being a seminarian is usually bad for one’s spiritual walk with Christ. Some seminaries have identified this as a problem and have taken steps to address it. When we treat a subject abstractly, we hold it at arms length, with the assumption that some how we can control the subject. Moreover, when we use left-brain thinking on the subject, we break it down into its smaller parts, dissecting the truth in a way that makes it much harder to see it as a whole, much less experience it as a lived reality. If we were to apply this way of processing reality to our marriages, it would not make us better husbands or wives. We might even be able to talk a good game, but we’d continue to be weak on authentic connection. When Jesus presented the gospel or good news, it was about the immediate availability of the kingdom of God: the telos of indwelling unity in Christ through his Holy Spirit, “living water” to the Samaritan woman, “eternal life” to Nicodemus both of which are available now to everyone who believes. The Gnostic strain in evangelicalism, particularly Reformed evangelicalism, is well documented and must be resisted. Jamie Smith’s emphasis that we are lovers before we are thinkers gets at this problem. We teach the Bible through an Enlightenment lens: observation, interpretation, and application or head, heart, and hand. In fact, we learn best in just the reverse order: hand, heart, and head. Contemporary neuroscience has critiqued this Enlightenment fallacy.

MR: Shifting toward engaging millennials within the church and effectively reaching millennials without, you advocate no specific recipe or particular program but call us toward becoming ‘a certain kind of person.’ Whereas you list a few examples—some of whom are likely to reassure fellow evangelicals, others of whom are likely to startle them—whom else might you point to as an exemplar? And what other qualities do you include as essential to your list of gentleness, flexibility, patience, winsomeness and openness?

JS: The audience of this book is both older evangelical church leaders and spiritually disenchanted millennials. Each will react differently to the people I quote. I am trying to hold ground between Tim Keller and Rob Bell. There are many within the “evolving faith” movement that readily identify with the questions Rob Bell is asking, but may not want to leave the church or abandon their love of Jesus. To these wanders one might need to mention Templeton, Rohr, and the Dalai Lama, just as Francis Schaeffer in his day mentioned Sartre, Camus, Antonioni, and Bergman. To these folks The Tao of Pooh, Beyond Religion, and Velvet Elvis may be useful starting points in their spiritual journeys. In an evangelical politically correct world, one can’t quote a theologically accurate statement by Rob Bell without being assumed a heretic. For this association one reviewer calls my book “insidiously dangerous.” This evangelical political correctness is not particularly a game I’m willing to play, and therefore I will take the potential misunderstanding as a badge of honor.

There are common characteristics of those who I believe are most effective in reaching the next generation—characteristics to which I aspire but have in no sense reached. As Brené Brown writes, the doorway is vulnerability. This is the opposite of those who would make the “uncertain, certain and the imperfect, perfect.” These are folks who are gentle, inclusive, loving, mystical, spiritual, and self-aware. Pope Francis is this way, as was, I imagine, C.S. Lewis. NPR’s Krista Tippett and novelist Anne Lamont are this kind of person. Francis Schaeffer is more of a mixed bag, as early Schaeffer—pre-film—was more this way, but late Schaeffer became more binary and rigid. Early Schaeffer was cultural and European, whereas late Schaeffer was political and American. I was Francis Schaeffer’s driver in Switzerland prior to the film and this was the kind of empathetic person I knew. But I also take Frank Schaeffer’s critique of his father more seriously now, as I see Frank as an exemplar of the new Copernican ethos: Why I Am an Atheist Who Believes in God.

Elder Porphyrios, a Greek Orthodox monk, observed, one needs to be a poet before one can become a Christian: “Whoever wants to become a Christian must first become a poet.” One needs to be able to connect with the right-brain moral imagination. Porphyrios goes on to say in the next sentence that one becomes a poet through suffering. Many of these new Copernican spiritual exemplars are men and women who have had broken-world-experiences. They walk now with a limp. They live in the midst of vulnerability. This I take is a mark of their greatness.

MR: Further on in your outlining of responses the church needs to take up, you speak of providing safe places for honest conversation, of building relationships before demanding creedal affirmation, of agenda-free loving and listening. An impediment to achieving this, however, is what you describe as the church’s specializing in instrumental relationships and not knowing how to be in relationship without an agenda. From your study and relating with millennials, how do we learn to be in relationship without agenda? And how do we do this with integrity when part of our interest and desire might be evangelistic?

JS: We think first in pictures. If we think of conversion as a long slow pilgrimage rather than an immediate light switch (“on/off”), we’ll be in a position to handle people much more effectively. Lewis’ own spiritual journey from secular atheism to pantheistic mysticism to Christian theism took over fifteen years. Life is a movie not a snapshot.

Millennials are very sensitive to being used or hustled. Some of our evangelistic training serves to encourage us to become emotionally unhealthy people. In the first twelve verses of Matthew 7, Jesus deals with the deadly way we try to “manage or control those closest to us by blaming and condemning them and by forcing upon them our ‘wonderful solutions’ for their problems.” Jesus warning applies to evangelism, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs.” The antidote is “gentle as doves and wise as serpents.” In general, if people get defensive in your presence or because of something you say, you’re doing something wrong. See my longer article on this point in Critique, #3, 2016: “Pilgrim’s Stories: Evangelism is a Dirty Word.”

MR: For you, and now that The New Copernicans has been out for some months and is starting to be read and reflected upon, what is that you most wish for current evangelical leaders to take away from your book? And what is it that you most wish millennials to hear and know as they contemplate their future in relation to the church?

JS: My desire is that church leaders my age begin recognizing that what they are doing with young people is not working and that they need to begin to listen closely and with a growing appreciation. On the other hand, millennials need to embrace a spiritual pilgrimage and gain confidence in the wisdom of their own voice and perspective. They have been beat up and put down for too long. Their time is now and is long overdue. New Copernicans are not only the missional front lines of the American church, but they are also the solution to its growing cultural irrelevance.

MR: I am thankful to Dr. John Seel for his willingness to allow our back and forth to be shared here and I trust many of you will take time to read and grapple with The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church.

Copyright © 2018 Mark P. Ryan


Book recommended: The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church by David John Seel, Jr. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2018) 205 pages + notes