30 July 2013

Millennial religion and the sovereign self

Claiming to speak for an entire generation to which she admittedly does not entirely belong, Rachel Held Evans tells us Why millennials are leaving the church. A sample of the reasons she cites:

Armed with the latest surveys, along with personal testimonies from friends and readers, I explain how young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. . . .

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

Let's for the moment leave aside the Episcopal Church. Held Evans appears to see Rome and Constantinople as little more than exotic ports of call for a disaffected generation whose members nevertheless retain their own spiritual autonomy. In all things, including spiritual, they jealously guard their right to choose, and their criteria for doing so tend to be idiosyncratic at best. Some people simply like smells and bells, so go for it!

Yet that is definitely not how these two communions understand themselves. To become Roman Catholic is to accept the authority of the Bishop of Rome, the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the decisions of Vatican II, the Bible, etc. To become Orthodox entails accepting the authority of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Bible, the patriarchs and bishops, etc. Both of these communions set forth teachings on sexuality, ordination, contraception and other issues with which it is difficult to imagine Held Evans agreeing.

During Great Lent and other seasons throughout the year, the Orthodox Churches impose a far stricter fasting regimen than most westerners are willing to tolerate. Rome obliges members to attend mass, say confession, follow its own teachings, fast on designated days, and so forth. Ex-Catholics regularly excoriate their former communion on grounds of legalism, if not worse. Indeed, attending mass and living as a Catholic is a matter of obedience, not merely of soaking up a "high-church" atmosphere with ancient roots while continuing to live as one wishes and following whatever agenda seems most congenial to the sovereign self.

Ultimately, the same can be said, not only of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but of any church communion taking seriously the normative character of the Christian faith. The way of the cross is always one of obedience. To come to the church with an idiosyncratic checklist of demands is to take the church as church less than fully seriously.

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