In the February 4th issue of USA TODAY Stephen Prothero, whose book “Religious Literacy” deserves a wide readership, writes about the religion of the millennial generation, Americans born between the late 1970s through the 1990s. His somewhat patronizing look at millennial spirituality is at odds with my own experience.
I have been teaching this population for the past few years, and find that millennials are looking for a dogma-free faith that honors diversity and life in this world, something they don’t find in conventional churches and synagogues. As one of my students put it, “I can’t reconcile the narrowness of my birth-religion with what I am learning about other religions. It seems that my religion is afraid of the world, but I’m not afraid at all.”
While it would be easy to dismiss millennial struggles as the vague ramblings and rebellion of youth, I think that would be doing them and religion a grave disservice. My students are serious about religion, even if some of them reject religion. What they desire is Wisdom and a Way to experience it for themselves.
What they are finding in their churches and synagogues is hollow harangues about hellfire and tribal loyalty that just don’t speak to them. What they are offered is a worship service that mistakes emotion for spirituality, vapid poetry for meaningful discourse, and a temporary high for a more transformative mystical experience.
Millennials are not lazy, but they do lack direction and guidance. If priests, pastors, and rabbis could speak to the genuine millennial search for universal wisdom rather than denominational dogma, and transformative contemplative practices rather than cheap thrills or nostalgic musings, many millennials would listen with open minds and hearts.
When asked my students will share mystical experiences they have while painting, or writing poetry, or walking in the woods. They will speak about the shrinking of the “I,” the ending of time, and the sense of connectedness with, and love for and from all things. They may or may not use the word “God,” but the sense of the divine is present in their words and their experience.
Millennials are seekers just like the rest of us used to be (and maybe still are). They find Wisdom in literature, art, myth, poetry, and nature. They understand love at least well enough not to pollute it with violence and eternal damnation. They don’t accept the reduction of myth to fact, of parable to history, of metaphor to science that seems to be the way of conventional religion. They know that Wisdom is universal even as the ways we express it are particular. They know that love leaves no room for hate, and salvation is not limited to some self-proclaimed elect. They see through the lies, if yet the Truth.
The fact that conventional clergy can’t get these people into the pews is a sign of hope not horror. If it were up to me I’d put a warning label on every religious institution saying, “Warning: This institution contains ideas that can lead to insensitivity, violence, fear, and trauma. Use with caution if at all.”