And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?
Those are the last lines from the incomparable Mary Oliver’s poem, “Swan,” which came to mind after I finished reading this article, “Why would a young person today be religious?”
Provocative title, huh? And the author, Damon Linker, makes a cogent – if very brief – argument. He discusses “nones” – the rising percentage of people, particularly millennials, who do not identify with a major religious tradition. They are spiritual but not religious, to use an oft repeated phrase. Linker believes this is because religion is fundamentally at odds with the spiritual quest of nones:
Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to getting the nones to treat traditional religion as a viable option is the sense that it simplifies the manifest complexity of the world.
To me, this is a solution in search of a problem.
Scientists speak of the Grand Unified Theory; but I don’t think anyone would suggest the attempt to resolve quantum physics with the laws of relativity is “simplifying” in the pejorative sense, as in “dumbing down.”
Likewise religion, as I understand it, is not about this kind of reductionism. Buddha did not escape the palace walls, Mohammad was not transported through the night, and Jesus was not driven into the wilderness in order to simplify the manifest complexity of the world, but rather transcend it. I think you could argue that they, too, were searching for a “grand unified theory” but let’s be just as clear that they offer no easy answers. Sure, a stripped-down version of a religion fits Linker’s characterization to a tee. But it is a straw man’s argument.
Religion, at its best and at its core, is something like Oliver’s poem, which seeks that which “pertained to everything” but not to resolve its complexity; rather, I think, to delight in it – to embrace beauty – to change one’s life.
So, I’d like to provide an alternative to Linker’s argument by simply yet significantly tweaking his question: “Why wouldn’t a young person today be religious?” They wouldn’t if we over-simplify the tradition; they wouldn’t if we appeal to pure reason rather than engage the mystery; they wouldn’t if we address the superficial rather than the beautiful. This suggests that the “problem” lies – not with the religion and not with the nones – but with those of us who claim to be religious.
In her blog, Heidi Neumark described a Maundy Thursday service, the likes of which some of us who claim to be religious will celebrate this evening:
We Lutherans say that Holy Communion is not a mere symbol. We say that Jesus is really present in flesh and blood, even if it looks like bread and wine. And so it was. Jesus really present, even if he looked like a hungry man eating chicken and a hungry woman washing the grime from her face.
I’d say that is manifest complexity at its most beautiful.