A young friend of mine asked me some difficult questions. By now, you know that such questions delight me. After all, Jesus said, seek and you shall find, ask and it shall be given to you. We rarely find answers to questions unless we’re looking for them. And the fact that the questions are difficult simply indicates we’re really searching diligently.
The question comes down to something like this: many young adults find the church too hidebound and inelastic, unresponsive to today’s questions. But then there are those young adults who seem to revel in the most legalistic, most restrictive aspects of religion. How can that be?
Probably there is more than one answer to that question, and I cannot pretend to know what’s happening in every individual. But working with and observing young adults for more than 40 years, certain trends emerge.
We often hear that young people are ‘idealistic,’ and to some degree this is true. They like the words of Robert Kennediy (actually quoting Warren Harding, of all people), when he said. “Some people look at the world as it is and ask ‘why?’ I look at the world as it might be and ask ‘why not?'”
Surely, there is some wisdom to this. Most of us want to make the world better for our having lived in it. And this requires going against the prevailing culture at times. Or, as George Bernard Shaw said, ”
“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”
At the same time, there are limits that we cannot overcome– limits to our human nature, for example.
The quality we call “maturity” is learning when and how to adapt the world, and when and how to adapt ourselves to that world. Or as the Serenity Prayer puts it, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Youth often is impatient with the idea of “knowing the difference.” If something needs to be changed, it needs to be changed, and that’s all there is to it. Another way to put it is that Youth does not like shades of gray. They much prefer binary choices: Yes/No, Right/Wrong, Good/Bad.
And the short answer is that the more traditional approach offers a binary world, a world of certainty. Today, our post modern culture rejects such certainty. But that actually makes it more attractive to some; in a post modern world traditionalism becomes counter-culture, holds a certain appeal to young people testing boundaries.
And in an increasingly uncertain world, the certainty of categorizing everything in a binary way can be quite appealing. One doesn’t have to evaluate whether this book or that one is good, is wholesome, helps develop our character or tear it down, if we simply declare all reading evil. The same thing holds true of movies and television.
We could go on and on. Having long checklists of what is good and what is bad, what is forbidden and what is compulsory, while it may be somewhat tedious, at the same time it saves us from the anxiety of having to decide, and perhaps make mistakes. On its face, it can be very appealing. If one is convinced that the checklists come from God, or at least from a prophet, that makes it all the more comforting for some.
I have more to say on this, but that’s a good start.