Last week, I spent some time reading a set of reflections on the faith lives of Millennials. This has, of course, become something of a national sport among those in the “religion sector;” we’re all trying to figure out why so few Millennials choose to associate themselves with institutions of any kind — clubs, societies, interest groups, or houses of worship.
What I realized as I read, however, was not anything about the faith of the Millennials: what I saw was the privatization of public discourse, the disintegration of the public square. Over and over, the same theme came out: that Millennials tended to be people who did not accept received ideas, but who tested the ideas that were passed on to them and made conscious choices about what to accept.
This is, of course, nothing new: in every generation, people of intelligence have been and continue to be people who question, who probe, who are not satisfied with easy answers or half-baked explanations. But what seemed different here to me was that these young people were, more and more, creating personal syncretisms: taking one idea from Hinduism, another from Zen, adding one or two ideas from a Christian creed and salting the whole with a few tenets borrowed from a political candidate to end up with a personal credo that worked for them. I found myself wondering: if you accept all of it at this moment, where’s the idea that challenges you and stretches you and calls you to grow beyond the person you currently are? And, more importantly, where’s the overlap with anyone else?
On any given Sunday in my congregation, the people in the pews profess with their lips a lot of ideas with which they struggle in their heart. In some cases, they may believe that they have rejected one or more of these ideas definitively. In others, they know that they are not clear whether they believe the idea or not. In still others, they speak the words that give them life, that send them out into the world strengthened and renewed and revitalized to do the work God has given them to do. The key thing is that we are all struggling together, learning together, seeking to grow together. Each of us has had the experience of a previously rich idea suddenly seeming barren, and of a formerly ridiculous notion that came to life in our mouths and fed us in a lean time of our souls. It was doing the work of belief together that enabled new life to break into the closed circles of our lives.
Yesterday, I saw what this might look like in our time. I had gone with three members of my parish to the annual Bread for the World Lobby Day, a time when about three hundred people from all over the United States converge on Washington to meet with their Senators and Representatives and advocate for policies that would end hunger. The banner at the front of the room said it all: Working Together to End Hunger by 2030. (Think about that. To end hunger in sixteen years! Sixteen years, when it has dominated human history for millennia. It’s possible!)
But that’s not the moment I want to talk about. Bread for the World is a Christian organization, and so the day started with prayer and with the singing of hymns. During one of the songs, I looked at the table next to mine and saw two women standing there and not singing. Instead, they were giving one another a wry glance. I don’t know what that glance meant, but it reminded me of the looks I used to exchange with my non-Christian friends back when I was a Jewish kid attending a Christian school. It meant, “Here we go again….” — and yesterday, it gave me great joy to see it. It gave me joy because, if I was right, these were two non-believers who had nevertheless come to participate in a religiously-sponsored event because they shared with the believers a conviction that it was necessary to eliminate hunger. They were willing to come out of their own private houses and into the common square.
Today is the Feast of St. Barnabas. Barnabas was one of the first to believe in Jesus; the book of Acts remembers him this way: The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that the thing which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common…Thus Joseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
He has been remembered for two thousand years because he took the best of what he had and offered it to the community. What would we look like if we shared our best ideas with one another? How rich would the public square become if all of us were part of the conversation, if we came together to speak and to listen and to learn? How rich would our souls become if we entered each day willing and eager to encounter the other, to be transformed by that encounter, and to grow?
(The title of this posting is borrowed from the poet Adrienne Rich.)