“Young people today, they just pick and choose what they want to believe.”
I hear this often. It’s usually said with a scowl, shaking head, and eyes looking toward heaven. It’s assumed that everyone in my generation has a faith based solely on me, me, me. There’s nothing communal about it. It defies all logic, and there’s no respect for what’s come before us.
And it surprises me. Honestly. Every time I hear it. Maybe it just shows that I’m part of my generation’s milieu. When I hear this frustration, I smile, nod. Then I stare and blink, kind of hard, because I’m thinking, Wow. This is a shift. I want to ask, So, you just believe stuff because everyone before you did? You don’t try to make your faith sensible in your own time, place, and experience? Have you ever thought that it may not be supreme relativism that’s driving us, but an enduring honesty? That we just don’t want to parrot something that feels like a lie?
Robert Wuthnow wrestles with younger generations’ religious beliefs in his book After the Baby Boomers. It’s a valuable resource, an academic reference that I’m sure I’ll keep using. Wuthnow presents what the young adults say about orthodox beliefs, according to Gallup and Harris Polls. And he wrestles with the results, which are a confusing mix of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Carefully looking at different scenarios to explain the complicated beliefs of a generation, Wuthnow points out James Davidson Hunter’s work on cognitive bargaining:
Religious beliefs at the popular level are never quite as systematic or consistent as they are in the minds of theologians…Religious beliefs nowadays, [Davison] argues, are negotiable. Nobody is burned at the stake for denying some particular creedal proposition. Everybody has the authority to make up their own minds. That is how we understand belief–something that is personal, idiosyncratic, and always somewhat tentative (93).
Wuthnow’s example of cognitive bargaining is the orthodox belief that it’s necessary to be a Christian in order to go to heaven. It logically follows that everyone who’s not a Christian is not going to heaven. Since many young adults believe the first to be true, and cannot believe the second, then we come up with other conclusions, like God will find other ways to save non-Christians. This is cognitive bargaining. (I would ask, “Is it logical that a loving God, who created humans for God’s good pleasure, would send billions of people to hell because they were born in the wrong place or into the wrong family?”)
And I would add, isn’t this great? This means that young adults come to religious belief (and to church), not based on societal expectations or because this is what they ought to be doing, but because it’s an authentic expression of who they are. Remember Attack on Christendom? When Kierkegaard was so irritated that everyone was going to church, not because of what they believed, but because it was the state religion, the societal expectation. We don’t have that anymore.
I disagree regarding communal beliefs. I still think that they’re also incredibly important. Our generation is also longing, deeply for tradition. It’s just that we don’t swallow everything, hook, line, and sinker.
So what does this look like in our churches? Well, at Western, we don’t have an Affirmation of Faith in worship, because it’s a huge obstacle for someone who’s struggle on their spiritual journey to have to stand up in a congregation of 200 and say, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth….” Those are just really big words that can mean a whole lot of things in our culture.
Over the years, if you looked into my head, while saying these twelve introductory words, this is what you’d find:
Am I declaring that God is a man? Is Mary Daly right? If God is Man, does it follow that Man is God? What does “Almighty” mean? Does that mean that God is all-powerful? Does that negate our free will? If God’s all-powerful and all-loving, why does evil exist? What about natural disasters? Why does AIDS exist? Why are there so many other terrible diseases? Wouldn’t an all-powerful and all-loving Father do something to help his children? When I say this, am I saying that I believe in creationism? Does this negate evolution? Do I have to believe in a literal seven days? What about the dinosaurs? And heaven? Am I declaring belief in pearly gates and streets of gold, with Saint Peter and a roll book?
I’m not saying that we should can the creeds. They’re extremely important. I’m just saying that we can take seriously that we live in a world where church and orthodox belief are not a given. People may not be ready to stand up and declare everything on their first visit.
So, what does this look like in your congregation?
photo by John Baird