There is a generational divide in our culture and while one can overstate this, make too much of this generalization, not being aware of this divide can make the way we talk about matters of social connection and the common good problematic. I was away at a religious conference this week with persons my age and much older. I think it would be fair to say that they are perplexed about those who are younger than they and the seeming disinterest they have in larger institutions and loyalty and participation in those institutions. And while it would be easy to dismiss this as self-interest, and in many cases it is motivated by religious leaders worried what happens to their denomination in generations to come, there is no escaping that this ambivalence applies equally to other non-religious institutions.
One church leader told me, “I really don’t understand how these younger people can live in community and not be more motivated to participate and invest in these communities.” There was deep sadness and worry in that leader’s voice. And this sentiment is widespread. Again, one could dismiss this generational judgement as constant, the function of older people looking at younger people and lamenting. There is documentation of this kind of sentiment as far back at the 1800’s, where leaders suggest that there is something missing the emerging generations. I remember Frank McKenna quoting some leader saying these kind of things and then sharing that the source came from 1860.
But there is something changing. To miss this cultural shift is to be closing one’s self off from an important reality that makes a huge difference in how we talk about spirituality and filling spiritual emptiness. So many older persons who grew up being reminded over and over again about their connection to larger causes and institutions gave up a lot of freedom and opportunity and personal happiness to support something they assumed was bigger and more important. In many cases that sacrifice was noble and well founded, the economic depression of the 1930’s was survived by many only because of the reliability of institutions and the compassion of communities. Likewise the Second World War was an exercise in overcoming horrific oppression, genocide and tyranny. BUT let us not forget that in the name of these causes there existed the Japanese internment, religious bigotry and gender assumptions that put women into the work force one day and then systematically required them all to resign to make way for servicemen returning from combat the next.
And thus we have the seeds for why this shift began, when in the name of a cause larger than self these same institutions created narratives that made Indigenous Peoples feel “uncivilized”, women feel like non-citizens, Roman Catholics and Protestants feel like separate moral worlds and personal happiness feel like an indulgence we could neither afford nor allow because of the terrible consequences (dancing would lead to sex, drinking would lead to corrupt living, being good to one’s self would be a pernicious form of lax living.)
And so came my generation and those that came after it, determined never to allow this kind of cold conformity to stunt our search for happiness, joy and fulfillment. Institutions of all kinds came under scrutiny, seen less as bastions that protected the common good and more as dying expressions of a bygone era with arbitrary and regressive social values. But this escape from institutions has had unintended consequences, it’s made us less connected to our neighbours, more focused on ourselves (why isn’t everyone paying attention to us, giving us the praise we deserve!), and frustrated and angry that our relentless pursuit of our own happiness has not led to the kind of fulfillment we were led to believe it would. No matter how many self-improvement books we bought (how many of these have titles like “Being Good to Yourself”?), Tedtalks we have watched or diets/workouts/spas/yoga groups/ we have tried something still seems to be missing.
For churches who speak of the abundant love of Jesus how we embody a social connection and a discerning spirit that values the uniqueness of each expression of the Divine is the challenge of our time.