In The Christian Science Monitor, author Courtney E. Martin notes a distinct paradox that, for her at least, doesn’t really demand resolution.
We [in the Millennial Generation] are less religious than either the boomers or even Gen-Xers were at our age. Whereas generations past might have formulated their ethical values from the lessons of formal religious figures – priests, rabbis, imams – we are far less connected to them and, at the same time, have come of age during the great disintegration of institutions. Everything once anointed – from the nuclear family to Wall Street, from Penn State football to the Roman Catholic Church – has fallen, not on our watch, but as we were watching….[W]ith ever more complicated ethical knots to untangle, it seems we’ve never had so few formal tools. For instance, fewer young Americans rely on Scripture as a way to understand what we are reading, watching, and experiencing on a daily basis. Instead, as columnist David Brooks posits, we are “social animals,” constructing modern-day moral codes from a wide variety of source materials….
Even if many Millennials don’t identify with an organized religion, we still, at base, hunger for a spiritual source.
Which is all to say, not that the youngest Americans are lost, but that we are searching for new ways of understanding who we are, why we are on this Earth at this horribly unjust, incredibly promising time, and what we are meant to do about it. We’re not reaching for the old maps, and doubt that they would work even if we did. Instead we’ve got a solid sense of direction and the reassuring knowledge that every generation before us also inherited a swiftly changing world that demanded ethical ingenuity and spiritual reinvention.
If the generation in question really does find itself proceeding into a morass of increasingly ambiguous ethical and moral decision making (and that’s certainly what it feels like), shouldn’t it want every available tool at its disposal?
My own generation – GenX, characterized as shiftless yet searching – often feels as though it has elected to set formal religion to one side. Perhaps coming of age in an era of burgeoning rigidity for political correctness means that it’s wrong to be so specific about the places whence one derives one’s tools: that the Golden Rule is sufficient unto itself and doesn’t need to have come from anywhere or any one in particular; or that the idea that it’s wrong to suppress a resident alien is generally good on its own terms. There is also the impulse to disavow the bad and only keep the good, and distance from the source quickens that process until the point of Jesus’ whole life – just in the instance of Christianity – is “Be a good person.”
I don’t mean that Jesus would not have advised us to be good people. I just mean there’s more to it than that. A religious system of thought – with all its good and bad laid out for examination, all its narrative and ethical fundament, rightly divided and rightly understood – is a much more serviceable and flexible faith. A comprehensively instilled faith has fewer excuses for forgetting who and what it is or where it came from, and those are things that happen to matter.
To put it differently. In this season of Christmas, our celebration of the redeeming nature and love of God takes a specific shape and form. Jesus has a body, which makes him inherently specific and political, and he occupies a given span of time about which we daily strive to learn more. When he tips tables in the Temple court or (as in the question of the lawfulness of taxes) tells Caesar he can have his face back, that’s specific criticism levied at a specific and concrete institution, but such criticism is funded out of both his religious heritage and the nature of who he is.
Oversimplification and disconnection from narrative, on the other hand, without the backgrounding, is a disservice. Millennials may be as Martin characterizes them, and at the same time they may be hungering after something prior generations are altogether too embarrassed to be specific or passionate about.