15 October 2004

Generational shift: rediscovering orthodoxy

Those of us who are educators have a vested interest in the younger generation and its future. We delight in seeking and finding signs of hope in both individuals and the generation as a whole. That's why I find the following article by Colleen Carroll Campbell such an encouragement: "Reporting on the ‘new faithful’ in America."

In his celebrated 1908 book, Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton recounts the story line of a "romance" he had once thought to write, about a yachtsman who leaves England on a voyage of discovery. Somehow the man ends up back in England and, thinking it a strange land, comes to experience the familiar in fresh ways. His new discovery, which he so relishes, turns out to be his own homeland. Chesterton sees this story as his own. Searching for the new and untried, he ended up embracing the old and tested faith of his ancestors: Christian orthodoxy.

Campbell claims to have found many such stories among the post-baby-boom generations in the US, raised amid the follies of their parents, who had spent their own youths rebelling against societal conventions and traditional mores. Now it seems that members of so-called generations X and Y (what comes after Z?) are claiming as their own the christian tradition in its several forms, including confessional protestantism, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Furthermore, many are going so far as to enter the most demanding of religious orders, such as the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Carmelites. All of this flies in the face of the notion, prominent in the media, that each generation must necessarily become more secularized than the previous. Writes Campbell:

The demanding nature of Christian orthodoxy is closely associated with its appeal. Consider the findings of a study conducted by the Glenmary Research Center in 2000. Researchers found that the fastest-growing congregations in America between 1990 and 2000 were socially conservative churches that demanded high commitment from their members. The study also found liberal churches, like the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ, hemorrhaging members at the fastest rate.

That study probably came as a shock to leaders of liberal denominations, who believe that adopting the values of popular culture is the best way to fill the pews. In fact, it is the countercultural quality of Christianity – not cultural accommodation – that is attracting today’s young converts. They want a faith that demands something, means something, changes something. And they favor religious leaders who articulate that faith with clarity and live it with sincerity.

Is this development a product of wishful thinking on Campbell's part, as some have charged? It is true that the evidence, recounted in her book, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, appears to be mostly anecdotal. Moreover, the trend she isolates is thus far still only a minority phenomenon. Yet there are unmistakable signs of something larger being picked up by the pollsters.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed that among young adults, support for legal abortion – which has been steadily dropping since the early 1990’s – hit a new low in 2003, with less than four in 10 young Americans supporting it. That’s down from nearly 50 percent who supported abortion rights a decade earlier. Federal statistics also show a significant increase in the number of teen-agers reporting that they abstain from sex. More than half of all male high school students reported in 2001 that they were virgins. In 1990, only 39 percent said the same.

I sometimes regret having grown up as a baby-boomer -- as a member of a generation which not only reduced narcissism to a fine art, but, in rejecting the old orthodoxies, established a new and more oppressive one based on the overweening self. If it were possible to apologize for my own generation's follies, I would certainly do so. I would not presume to claim that my becoming a teacher is a means of atoning for these follies. But I hope and pray that, with God's help, my own efforts might contribute, if only in small ways, to securing the foundations of the generation standing on the brink of adult responsibilities.

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