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Tuesday, May 2, 2017

A Return To The Church–How ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Never Satisfies

The Sixties will be remembered for many things – the counter-culture, political activism, drugs, anti-fashion, and communalism among others.  Above all it was an era which denounced traditional religion as patriarchal at best and irrelevant at worst. 

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Both the Old and New Testaments were considered to be little more than mythical tales rooted in the socio-cultural milieu of Palestine and Egypt.  They were prescriptive, punitive, and intolerant.  Yahweh was a brutal and inflexible tyrant; and Jesus Christ insisted that anyone who did not believe in him or his word would be condemned to the fiery inner circle of hell.

Most of the Sixties generation were brought up to believe in the divine authority of Yahweh or the miraculous Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  They made their First Holy Communion, their Bar Mitzvah, and their commitment to Christ.  The church was not simply an institution but the institution of divine and secular authority.  Misbehavior might be within the jurisdiction of civil authorities, but behavior itself was the purview of priests, ministers, and rabbis. 

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Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov (The Brothers Karamazov) argued for the integration of the state within the church.  How insignificant, he said, were the threats of civil punishment compared to the divine.  God’s law would and should always trump any secular law.  While man might be obliged to conform to secular law for matters of civic convenience, he will always respond first, foremost, and finally to God.

While few in the pre-Sixties ever doubted the separation of church and state, fewer questioned the moral authority of the Church.  Its religious laws – the Ten Commandments, the injunctions of Christ in the Gospels, and the guidelines of faith written in the Epistles – were their laws.

What happened? Why did so many children who had gone dutifully to Catechism classes, Bible camps, and Yeshivas, suddenly change direction?  Why, given the revolutionary revolt against traditional authority, should the fundamental principles of religious belief be so easily disregarded?

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Like in most demographic movements – the Sixties were above all a collective protest of the biggest population bulge since the waves of immigration in the early 1900s – there is always a central identifying principle which becomes the official stamp on the card of membership.  Anti-establishment thinking defined the Sixties, and no institution was exempt.  Although many young people may have doubted the movement’s rejection of religion and spiritual authority, they dismissed their doubts in favor of belonging to a much more immediate and relevant tribe.

The Sixties movement lasted only a decade; and by the 80s, with Reagan nationalism and individualism resurgent, the communalism and progressive values of former decades faded in currency and appeal.  Defiance of American institutions, of which the church was perhaps the principal member, decreased in intensity.  More importantly such defiance was not only discredited as a calling card to American modernism, but ridiculed as both idealistic and irrational and anti-American.

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The church, however, was slow to make a comeback.  Capitalism, individualism, frontier justice, and expansive entrepreneurialism were first and easy.  Religious faith lagged far behind.  The Sixties had not just discredited religious institutions but had insisted that spiritual evolution was a matter of individual ambition and honesty.  There was no such thing as conforming faith, but nonconformist belief.  One could take the most relevant bits of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and New Age belief and weave them to make a personal spiritual quilt.

In recent years the Sixties generation has come to reconsider formal religion.  Now in the final quarter of life, they wonder if their blanket dismissal of structure and authority was wrongly-decided.  Perhaps there was something more to the Catholic Church than the patriarchal, territorial, and authoritarian papacy they had decried decades earlier. 

Perhaps there was a more essential wisdom to the theology of Augustine and Aquinas than they had thought.  Perhaps the notion of transubstantiation might be less myth and more divine revelation than they had imagined.  Perhaps the doctrines of faith and grace and a personal reconciliation with and acceptance of Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior were not the excesses of televangelism but immediately relevant precepts of salvation.

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If the Sixties generation, facing as it is, the final years of life, is returning to traditional, conservative, religion;  what about Generations X, Y, and Z? How will they deal with the legacy of the Sixties and the return to faith of their fathers?

In a discussion with Jonathan Merritt, the theologian James Emory White discussed the ‘post-Christian’ generation.
The latest research shows that for those between the ages of 18-29, 39 percent would actually place themselves in the “nones” or religiously unaffiliated category. As for a third of Americans attending church regularly, that means that two-thirds (again, a majority) do not. The word “post” means “past” or “after,” so “post-Christian” means “after” the dominance of Christian ideas and influence. To my thinking and observation, this is where we are culturally.
These young people are neither the conservative church-goers of the Fifties, nor the spiritual seekers of the Sixties, nor the diffident secular individualists of the Eighties and Nineties, but simply indifferent.  If there were a box to check on the census which said, “Do not care one way or another”, the numbers would be significant.

What has happened? And why such indifference? One simple explanation is that the institutional religion of the Fifties and centuries before is so far removed from contemporary life and so far in the past, that it has drifted off the radar screen entirely.  Another is that New Age spiritualism derived from Sixties eclectic searching has been shown to be hopelessly idealistic, romantic, and impossible. 

The modern reform of traditional churches – e.g. the new accessibility of the Catholic Church as exemplified by Pope Francis or the increasingly militant progressivism of Methodism and the United Church of Christ – has neither the powerful spiritualism of the pagan religions invoked in the Sixties nor the scriptural and Biblical weight of the old church.

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Perhaps most importantly, it is naïve to assume that the young people of these new generations can even sense the intimations of mortality which sends former unbelievers into the arms  of Christ.
Pastor White offers his suggestions as to how to interest Generation Z in traditional religion:
In light of today’s realities, there must be fresh attention paid to the process that leads people to the event of salvation. The goal is not simply knowing how to articulate the means of coming to Christ, but how to facilitate and enable the person to progress to the point where they are even able to consider accepting Christ in a responsible fashion.
Hardly, and far too vague and solipsistic to be of relevance; and far too laden with ‘responsibility’ and ‘salvation’ to resonate with young people.

The answer, not surprisingly, will come from social and cultural revolution just as it did in the Sixties.  The country has had – or so it would seem from the Trump election – enough of secularism. Americans have had enough of decades of progressive derogation of religious institutions, universal moral values, and the foundational principles of civilization. 

Citizens have seen how a nation loosed from religious and moral tethers, dismissive of institutions and social hierarchy, and hostile to integrative tradition in the name of ‘diversity’ must be adrift.  Neither the nation, nor the minority communities now favored, nor individuals can possibly benefit from a centripetal society.

Young people will embrace traditional religion as part of a more general protest against progressivism and its denial of institutional legitimacy.  The second and third decades of the 21st century will be the anti-Sixties.

Not only will Generation Z rejoin religious institutions as an expression of faith in a restored secular state based on Christian principles; and not only will they accept the sacraments or other statements of profound belief; but they will have a renewed respect for religious history and tradition.

Religion, as Aquinas said, is not a matter of spontaneous epiphany; but an appreciation of the logical conclusions that lead to faith.  Neither Sixties spiritual idealism nor extreme fundamentalist ecstasy can ever replace the intellectual foundations of faith – those established by early church fathers and modified by Protestant reformers.

The more Generation Z is brought into the church in full awareness and appreciation of its foundation and antecedents, the more satisfied they will be in their spiritual quest.

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