The Pew Research Center released their recent study, and the results paint a bleak picture of our religious future in America. It is clear: God’s poll numbers are down across the board, and especially among Millennials. Immediately, frantic media headlines prophesied the end of religion as we know it.
Is this fate? Are we destined to live in a non-religious world? I don’t think we are doomed, unless we keep doing the same things we are doing now. If we want to reverse the trend, we need to reverse course. Suggesting change in religious circles is often taboo. It reminds me of one of my father’s oft repeated (aren’t they all?) jokes. How many Ultra-Orthodox rabbis does it take to change a lightbulb? [beat] Change?!
We believers think God gave us our religions. They are not ours to be tinkered and toyed with on a whim. Thus, many believers exclaim that people are abandoning religion because we have become too flexible, too apologetic, too concerned with popular opinion and trends. Their solution is fundamentalism, as it was for the Puritans after the Renaissance, premillennial dispensationalists after Darwin, and Evangelicals in the 80’s after the sexual revolution.
Unfortunately, post-modern fundamentalists are making a fundamental mistake. Most Millennials will never be fundamentalists. Above all, they reject the idea that there is only one universal truth. Where hippies rejected authority on principle, Millennials reject appeals to authority because there is no such thing as an authority of ideas. For my entire lifetime of active learning, I’ve been able to fact check anything asserted by an authority as fact. I have never needed to trust authority or rely on the opinions of one person. Self-guided research, diversity, and subjectivity are native to the Millennial generation.
When presented with fundamentalist ideas, we don’t find the “all or nothing” packages attractive. Some of the ideas that are preached by fundamentalists have merit, but that does not translate into adopting fundamentalism. It did in the 80’s. Evangelical Christianity and the Jewish “returnee” movement were massive movements that took hold in the 80’s, and both remain in their own shadows from that time. More fundamentalism is not the answer. In fact, it’s part of the problem.
Traditionally, the non-fundamentalist option has been to change. When the rules get tough, change the rules. If some of the theology is at odds with modern ideals, just rewrite it. By drawing a target around the arrow after it is lodged in the tree, liberal religious groups can make participation effortless and guiltless. The appeal of change is that is promises everything, but the reality is that this sort of change completely undermines religion.
Millennials flock to authentic experiences. Burning Man is a perfect example of this. A Burning Man experience is powerful, unique, and above all, authentic. Similarly, artisanal foods are quintessentially Millennial. No Millennial is trading fine French cuisine for a Big Mac. We want the real thing. We want meaningful experiences.
A counterfeit religious experience is no religious experience at all. It might keep families together at church and synagogue for a few more years, but without authenticity and engagement, nothing will connect Millennials to the experience. It’s hollow. When the structural shell is removed, nothing remains.
But all is not lost. I think there is an alternative approach that respects tradition, does not compromise authenticity, and works for Millennials. The first part of my proposal is that religion is actually a collection of beliefs and practices which ask us to struggle in the tension they create. There is beauty in tension. Ambiguity and doubt are key ingredients to great art. Poetry, music, theater, visual arts, culinary arts, love, and beauty are all ambiguous. They are all open to interpretation, and they all ask us to insert our struggles into the space they create for creative understanding.
We must stop preaching certainty and begin preaching doubt and struggle. Find beauty in the tension, instead of satisfaction in certainty. Religious leaders must be honest, and publicly acknowledge their own struggles and doubts. Instead of occupying the space of certainty that is anathema to Millennials, religion must occupy the space of subjectivity, ambiguity, and struggle. Religion is not the answer to life’s questions. Religion is the tool for exploring the big questions.
We can tolerate mistakes, difficult challenges, unanswered questions, and tension between tradition and modernity. We will not tolerate platitudes, over-confidence, false bravado, and apologetics. Be honest. Acknowledge the problems. Admit your own struggles. Then, invite the Millennials in your life to join you for an authentic experience of engaging with life’s struggles through the lens of religion. The Biblical heroes were flawed and they struggled. Let’s emphasize those stories and animate those Bible passages in our teachings.
The second part of my proposal is found in the tension between nostalgia and relevance. So much of our religious instruction and experience is nostalgic. We try to recapture something magical from our childhood, or a latent memory from a place and time that tugs at us. Millennials love nostalgia, and it’s a valuable tool when, but religion cannot subsist on nostalgia alone.
Our world is so different from the world of our Biblical heroes. Our lives are virtually nothing like the lives of the centuries of interpreters and teachers of religion. We must continue to lean on the eternal teaching they have bequeathed to us, but their teachings felt contemporary to their direct audiences. When we retell their teachings, they may feel nostalgic at best and irrelevant at worst. We must continue to write and create teachings that resonate with us and tell our story.
The Bible is an incredible canvas. Religious texts offer innumerable opportunities for modern interpretation. Not the kind that strips religion of its precepts, rather, the sort of modern interpretations that bring ancient teachings to life. When we explain our rituals, we must choose explanations that add meaning to our lives today. Take ownership of our religions. We can’t expect Millennials to be spectators of their religion. Millennials want to participate with mind, spirit, soul, and body. Relevance is key to hooking religion to our lives, and not merely relegating our traditions to museums and mausoleums.
I believe in God. I believe in religion. I believe in Millennials. This is fixable problem. Let’s fix it. Acknowledge our struggles. Live in the tension. Make religion relevant with new and modern interpretation. Live a life infused with religious meaning. When the results of the next Pew report on religion in America are released, we can shock the world.
Religion is Dead, Long Live Religion! http://t.co/p4yqHMMXlL
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) July 13, 2015