CNN published this article by journalist Jill Filipovic, who tells of her experiences as a millennial and a religious “none.” Her article appeared on Good Friday, and reflects an appreciation for the social dynamics of religion. Despite drifting from formal religion after entering adulthood, Filipovic’s early life exposure to Christianity left a resonance she believes is shared widely among millennial nones: a longing for “community, connection, devotion. Something like church, without the church part.”
Community is Filipovic’s top concern. She fondly recounts family gatherings at Christmas and Easter and suggests that tradition is important, not only for her, but for many other non-religious millennials. Filipovic states that it is the traditions, and not the beliefs, that serve as “anchors and trampolines” for millennial nones, “ways to keep us moored in our cultures and family histories as well as jumping-off points to discard what does not serve us or feels ill-fitting to our values and beliefs.”
Filipovic’s column raises all kinds of questions, and also includes a debatable explanation of what Christians believe about the meaning of Easter. But my point is not to refute her claims. Rather, it is to point out that Filipovic represents a common viewpoint about religion. Further, I argue that this viewpoint is not new, but I will return to that in a moment.
In light of the longings expressed by Filipovic, pastors and leaders are called to respond by raising the right questions and providing helpful, compelling answers. Here are three questions inspired by her column, though there may be more.
First, Filipovic writes that her and her generational cohort long for community. Why? What is it about human beings that drives us to connect with one another, and how does Christianity uniquely address this longing?
She also writes that the notion of tradition is attractive. What is it about Christian belief that compels the faithful to gather, week by week and year by year, telling the same stories and seeking God together? The underpinnings must be important. What leads us to establish these traditions?
Lastly, Filipovic adds that the Easter message of starting over and new beginnings, which she associates with spring, is something she can “feel.” What is this felt need for a new start in the face of our stumbles, mistakes, and human limitations, and how do Christian teachings on sin, repentance, redemption, grace, and sanctification address those needs? C. S. Lewis takes up this question in Mere Christianity:
The Christian says, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same,” (“Chapter 20: Hope.”)
Pastors and leaders must carefully listen to millennials and address their questions, even if they are not sitting in your church when you gather at the present time. In all likelihood, their parents are with you, and if not their parents, then their employers. When sentiments such as those expressed by Filipovic are offered, the body of Christ will need to be equipped with both a finely tuned ear, a compassionate heart, and a gentle and respectful answer.
Lastly, while reading Filipovic’s column, I couldn’t help but recall Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. Bellah’s study was published in 1985 and explored religion, public life, and the common good. The study also uncovered a trend toward “religious privatism,” illustrated best by the case of Sheila Larson. Here is Bellah’s summary of an interview with Sheila:
Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as "Sheilaism." This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. "I believe in God," Sheila says. "I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice." Sheila's faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls "my own Sheilaism," she said: "It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other." Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points. (Bellah, 1985).
The sentiment expressed by Filipovic differs from Sheilaism in content but not in form, placing high stress on individualism, pragmatism, and utilitarianism. In both examples, beliefs are held not because they are necessarily true or logically coherent, but because they work and feel right. Despite differences in a few of the particulars, this approach to religion is not new.
Christians are called to demonstrate that following Jesus Christ is both intellectually compelling and existentially satisfying, possessing a logical coherence with explanatory power and an emotional resonance that answers the deep longings of the human heart.
“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” is not only a traditional saying that binds our community, but a spiritual reality wherein we partake of the divine grace that Filipovic and others like her seek. Christians believe that our longing for community is satisfied in Jesus, not only by binding us to others who follow him, but by uniting us to God through the Holy Spirit in this life, and in the life to come.
Bellah, R. (1985.) Habits of the heart: Implications for religion. Retrieved from: http://www.robertbellah.com/lectures_5.htm
Lewis, C.S. (1952.) Mere Christianity. Retrieved from: http://pdbooks.ca/pdbooks/english/L/Lewis-C-S--Mere-Christianity/yudbwx_files/OEBPS/Text/Section0026.html)