By Christopher. J. Coome
There is a certain privilege that comes with being a convert. Not only do we experience that hallowed “conversion moment,” but we emerge with an irascible, rebellious confidence that only comes with bucking all trends and going in a different direction. One is reminded of the words of the Psalmist, “I am become a stranger unto my brethren, even an alien unto my mother’s children (Psalm 69).” Truly, there is no better way to become an alien in the 21st century than to pick up the Cross of Christ and take a sharp right turn while everyone else marches forward—or at least what they think is forward. Several years ago, after a four-year period of reflection, I found myself in a new city, working on my Master’s degree, and staring up at the large doors of a local cathedral. That I went inside and walked out a different person is something my friends just don’t understand; religion isn’t in their vocabulary. It’s a story that still elicits strange looks at the campus pub, and makes dating more complicated than it already is. But, for all the bluster that religion—and particularly Christianity—receives from my peers, I can’t help but fear that something is being covered up, being hidden. I fear that we are facing a profound problem, and I’d like to talk about why.
My generation — the millennials, roughly 1981-1996 — are perhaps the most well-intentioned generation in human history. From birth, we’ve been fed a healthy diet of fairness and inclusivity. Bullying in schools has gone down: the program works. We can’t abide by things like oppression (though we may be hazy on just what that means), and if we see something wrong, we speak up. Trust me, we will let you know what we don’t like. We also refuse to let things like race, creed or gender stand between us. Racism is down, ecumenism is up. Not so bad, if I do say so myself.
On the other hand, anxiety, depression and suicide have skyrocketed. My generation may be well-meaning, but too many of us can’t seem to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. We’re terrified of our peers, of trying to achieve, of failure — of Twitter mobs. Controversial ideas give us the willies. We have hundreds of digital friends and few if any real ones. This simply isn’t healthy. Something has to give.
But what caused this? Why is the generation of “change” so unhappy? One reason, I think, is what’s generally referred to as “modernity.” Modernity — here inclusive of post-modernity — is a slippery term. Its part idea and part chronological orientation. On the one hand, it’s the self-conscious reference of “we moderns” to the present, on the other, it’s an intellectual project that began during the Renaissance, picked up steam with the Reformation, and finally confronted us face-to-face during Enlightenment and the frenzy of the French Revolution. For us, modernity is the age of cellphones, the internet, rampant commercialism, fast food, Hollywood and Facebook. At its core, modernity is the radical rejection of all tradition and hyper-individualism; its secularization and the replacement of religious devotion with avant-garde political causes. Despite its very real accomplishments, something in this great project that we call “modernity” has gone terribly wrong. If we don’t start talking frankly about it, the future is going to be a very dim place — albeit a dim place with excellent commercials.
Modernity is very careful about making positive claims; it thrives in that grey area of half glimpsed shadows, where no one really knows what’s going on, but everyone is very polite, so no one complains. If modernity had a creed, it would sound something like, “You are free to believe anything you want, because all beliefs are made up, and there is really nothing to believe in.” Not exactly inspiring, is it?
Lackluster as it is, this all started with very good intentions. How do you stop people from fighting over their beliefs? How do we get Catholics and Calvinists to stop bothering each other? What about Muslims, Jews, and Hindus? You create a society that allows for personal belief but doesn’t implant any. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, as the mental health of my generation can attest, the problem isn’t solved, it’s just transformed. Instead of fighting others because we have strong beliefs, we fight within our own selves because we have no beliefs. Who would have thought, that with nothing to believe in, people would actually start to believe in nothing?
In a word, modernity lacks meaning. The big questions no longer have answers. Does life have purpose? Why am I here? What is right and wrong? Does any of this even matter? When these questions go unanswered, the silence surrounding them tends to whisper back a quiet and insidious “no.” What sort of lifestyles are produced when these perennial questions, the very questions that define the human condition, go unanswered?
Not very good ones. Free from the idea that life has meaning, my generation has found solace in its distractions. We lose ourselves in Xbox, Facebook, Twitter, drugs, and the darker places of the internet. We take everything to the level of addiction. And why not? If life has no greater purpose than what feels good, why shouldn’t we pursue a life of immediate gratification? Ideas breed actions. Shorn of an inner spiritual core, our lifestyles become radically disjointed and hedonistic. Who’s to say that a life of virtue and maturity is better than one of mindless self-indulgence? Is virtue even better than vice? That’s just your opinion, bro. The ability to challenge our most cherished beliefs is important, but sometimes we get so far outside the box that we wind up freefalling through the abyss.
This doesn’t mean that we need to repeal modernity, bring back the Inquisition, or abandon classical liberalism. On the contrary, our diverse societies require the tacit assumption that you can’t go and beat up your neighbor over their beliefs. Rather, we need to return to religion as a check on the nihilism and materialism that has hijacked our society. We need to return to Christ.
The Christian faith is a flag planted firmly in the ground, calling us to a life of meaning, purpose and dignity — and not just any dignity, but the dignity that comes from knowing that we are more than the sum of our parts. It is a dignity beyond that provided by a constitution or a charter of rights and freedoms. Dignity, true Christian dignity, is an estimation of human value that transcends any conceived morality, argument, or political precedent. It is knowing that the human being is made in the image of God.
On the other hand, millennials have been raised to believe that we’re perfect; which is an altogether different notion than Christian dignity. Being made in God’s image does not mean that we are perfect — we are a reflection, not the original. Too frequently, the idea that “everyone is born perfect” leads to vanity, and worse, it sets up individuals for crises in life, when they join the real world and realize that it is a profoundly hard and hostile place. Perhaps, in hindsight, participation trophies might not have been the best idea. Christianity has a better answer, which it has had since the beginning. We are indeed made in God’s image, though we are fallen very far from what He intended. Yet, with His grace, you can be restored and reshaped—you can even be reborn.
The gospel thus teaches a profoundly integrated view of the human being: both body and spirit, both broken and glorious. This is the truth of the human condition as only Christianity can put it. If everyone is perfect and life is just fine, how can we comprehend the reality of evil, or the daily abuse that billions of people around the world call life? This world is hard, and you are a work in progress. Christ was crucified, so buck up. This is going to be a wild ride.
In the Christian narrative we find answers to the most pressing and eternal questions. Does my life have purpose? Yes, it does. Does life have meaning? Beyond measure. Does the human being have dignity? The kingdom of heaven is literally within us. Is there actually such thing as right and wrong? Unfortunately, there is, so get your act together. And is there really a God? Yes, and he loves you. Deal with it.
There have been many other narratives, and many other “gospels,” but none have ever bested Christ. Nietzsche, that champion of nihilism, once tried. He proclaimed that God was dead, and made quite a splash doing so — but not the biggest splash. Roughly 2,000 years ago, a group of Jews proclaimed that God — the God — had actually bothered to take on human form, suffered our pain, imparted love and wisdom, and in one final act of redemption, let himself get nailed to two pieces of wood. All of this was done so that you would know that he was in this with us; that underlying all of creation was a self-sacrificing and redeeming God. Now that is heavy stuff; so heavy in fact, that some rascals from Jerusalem managed to upend the entire world with it. The same can be done again.
Anglicanism has a perfect opportunity to reach a new generation who, in many cases, have never stepped inside of a church. For my generation, the gospel can be something new, not something inherited, or passed on, or coerced. But, to make that happen, we cannot shy away from our spirituality. Anglicanism is a religion, it deals with God, morality and the soul. Of all the features that religious organizations have, there is only one they can claim exclusively for themselves: access to the divine. Charity and community are important, but they simply are not enough. If we abandon our religious foundation, we become just another secular institution, and that will not work for us; and for the multitude of churches that have already tried to become something other than what they are by nature, the failure is apparent.
When the spiritual seeker turns to Christianity, as I did, they have some hard choices to make; which church do you join? The firm moral teaching of Catholicism makes an appealing home, as does the patristic grandeur of Orthodoxy, and gospel-driven passion of Evangelicalism, but which one to choose? Then again, how about all three? Anglicanism is the only Christian tradition that lets you have your cake and eat it too. This is the brilliance of our via media: both catholic and protestant, both patristic and reformed. Anglicanism allows you to engage authentically with all that Christianity has to offer. But, if our Church becomes another secular institution, if we abandon our religious nature, we throw away the theological richness, and the life-transforming brilliance, that is classical Anglicanism. If we let that happen, then seriously, what’s the point?
Secularism can never provide all the answers, because humans are not secular animals. Politics and its prophets may promise the world, but we will spend our whole lives waiting. If we only lift our horizon from the cares of this world to the transcendent, we can see that the heavenly city is always being realized, and the kingdom is always accepting new members. The paradise we seek is a state of grace, not a political project, and spirituality, not ideology, is the narrow gate through which we enter.
The Church is the answer to modernity’s problems. It is perennial and revolutionary at the same time. We should be telling people that. We should be as confident as Paul was, barging into town and shouting with outstretched hands, “We have a new way of life and we invite you to be a part of it.” If Christ conquered the Roman Empire, what can’t we do in His name?
C. J. Coome is a doctoral candidate in History at Queen’s University, and the co-founder of a new campus ministry, the Cranmer Society.