The New Copernicans: Millennials and the Survival of the Church
Recognizing the loss of many Millennials (18–30 year olds) from evangelical churches, The New Copernicans proposes a solution that will return them to the pews. The author and entrepreneur, John Seel, notes important factors in the contemporary scene: the diminishment of secular humanism; the growth of spiritual practices; the exodus of young people from church; and the consensus that we are in “the post secular age.” Seel’s insights are correct, but they do not make his solution correct; indeed, it is woefully wrong and insidiously dangerous.
Seel posits that Millennials (“the New Copernicans,” as he calls them) are not only the problem but also the solution. Copernicus (1473–1543) courageously stood alone against church authorities, maintaining that the sun, not the earth, was at the center of our universe. For Seel, Millennials are “Copernican” by standing tall and speaking truth to church authorities. The church’s error? It has depended far too long on “left-brain,” 18th century enlightenment rationalism instead of the “right-brain” intuition and feeling of contemporary mystics.
I find it curious that Seel creates a parallel between mystical Millennials and Copernicus, an intellectual polymath and polyglot genius whose left-brain brilliance brought the world into contact with the outer universe. If left-brain is such a problem, why is Copernicus used as an icon? Leaving aside this logical conundrum, we see that Seel faults the evangelical church for trusting “left brain” worldview apologetics to defend the “truth” of Christianity against the modern atheistic denial of God. The Millennials have understood, he reasons (yes, he uses his own left brain), that faith in doctrine and reason will get us nowhere.
Seel’s historical construction is false. At the Reformation, long before the outbreak of eighteenth-century Enlightenment humanism, the church was committed to left-brain doctrinal discourse in the production of extended confessions of faith. This was equally true in the church’s earlier history, when the universal creeds were written.
On the basis of incorrect historical analysis, Seel identifies doctrinal evangelicalism as the great modern failure of Christianity. He insists, along with mystics of every hue, that religious truth must always be absorbed via “right-brain” emotive “intuition,” laced with heavy doses of “authentic” doubt and insecurity. He does not reckon that God gave us two sides of the brain to work in harmony and that critical thinking is no less important than emotional attachment. Learning to know and love God involves both intelligence/reasoning and emotion/intuition. The only support Seel offers to his thesis that the mystico-skeptical approach to divine truth is the only way today’s church can witness to Jesus, is his observation that Millennials function intuitively. Seel blithely proffers the keys of the kingdom into the grasp of Millennial instinct, trained as it was by the pagan thinking that has flooded the West since the 1960s. Millennials now define genuine Christianity.
The New Copernicans is a dangerous book. Seel’s analysis of the spiritual condition of the church is misleading and self-serving; behind this flattering image of the Millennials as “Copernican” stalwarts, opposing the powers-that-be, stands Seel himself, a spiritual man of many doubts. He appoints himself as a 60-year-old spokesman for and defender of much-maligned Millennials. His warm feelings about his relationship with “Jesus” convince him that he can speak of himself as an evangelical, though he never once cites with approval any recognized evangelical leader. His “prophets of the New Copernican sensibility” (NC 69) are Rachel Held Evans, Frankie Schaeffer, Pete Enns (NC 69, 105), Jen Hatmaker (NC 196), and “Queer Christians” (NC 196), who reflect a new “progressive” view of Christianity. All these could be fairly described as adopting various levels of Christian apostasy. Certainly they all reject or seriously weaken the very basis of evangelical faith: the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. The faith they share is not evangelical Christianity, but a brutal honesty about their lack or loss of faith. According to Seel, this authenticity, which Millennials love, is their true path back to the fold. Thus Frank Schaeffer, Francis Schaeffer’s son, is lauded because he writes, “Why I Am an Atheist Who Also Believes in God,” a book spawned by radical doubt and designed for wandering young evangelicals.
Seel graduated from Covenant Seminary, an orthodox Christian seminary associated with the Presbyterian Church in America. Apparently things did not go too well for him, since he rejects seminary education as far too “left brain.” Seel later worked for the Templeton Foundation and recognizes the billionaire investor, Sir John Templeton’s deep influence upon him (NC 103). “Right-brained” Sir John eschewed dogma, declaring that little can be known about the divine through scripture. Instead, he espoused a doubting, “humble approach” to theology that remains open to the benefits and values of other faiths, including those of Hinduism and the Unity School of Christianity,
Out of the blue, Seel willingly and perceptively recognizes that “neo-paganism is the spiritual voice of popular culture”—a voice that has mesmerized the Millennials. This is the “post-secular age.” Indeed, he quotes cultural critic, Camille Paglia who observes: “We’ve returned to the age of polytheism” (NC 115). Surprisingly, Seel approves Eastern mystical techniques, the search for “magic” (NC 155), and even the scandalous celebrations of Burning Man (NC 90–94). Why? Because they are positive, right-brain “on ramps” for Millennials to find their way back to true Christianity. To reach Millennials, he tells us, the evangelical church needs people like the Roman Catholic mystic and Oneist, Richard Rohr (NC 101), or the Buddhist Dalai Lama (NC 106). He actually calls on the church “to celebrate and appreciate this neo-pagan cultural turn” (NC 116).
Such an approach is seriously irresponsible. The godless sexual and spiritual ideology that overran the West after the Sixties Cultural Revolution was (as the once radical, feminist, Marxist historian, Elizabeth Fox Genovese put it) a “catastrophic cultural transformation.” The mores and philosophy of that transformation were normalized for the following generations by Hollywood and the academic left. Seel now recommends such thinking as the church’s path forward. By failing to recognize the deadly danger of pagan mysticism, Seel risks sealing the fate of countless Millennials caught up in a form of false spirituality that the Bible thunderously denounces.
Both pagan mysticism and atheistic rationalism are pagan systems, of course. They are both “Oneist” systems that deny God the Creator, “who is blessed forever” (Rom 1:25) and worship the creation itself. Oneist rebellion can take two forms. 1. Atheistic paganism, which denies the existence of God the Creator and worships the human mind; 2. Spiritual paganism, which denies God the Creator by equating divinity with nature and the self. True worship respects the difference between God and his creation and is thus a “Twoist” system. God is distinct from his creation and worthy of worship, which, by implication, Seel denies, since he rejects the binary (NC xix, 76). Interestingly, it is most often the “spiritual” version of paganism that is denounced throughout Scripture: For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens (Ps 96:5); They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, “You are our gods” (Isa 42:17–18). Pagan idolatry is not a biblical “on-ramp” to true faith. It is an off-ramp to hell, detestable and an “utter shame.” Either form of rebellion—rational or mystical—denies the transcendent God who is to be blessed forever.
I pray that eager, seeking Millennials will not give ear to John Seel, but will rather hear, understand and believe what the Apostle Paul says, as he reveals to us the mystery of the Gospel and the person of Christ, on which a true Christian feasts with both sides of the brain:
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:13–20)