“Anyone concerned with the future,” wrote Sergius Bulgakov,
is most anxious about the younger generation. But to be spiritually dependent on it, to truckle to its opinions and take it as a standard, testifies to a society’s spiritual weakness. In any case, an entire historical period and the whole spiritual tenor of intelligentsia heroism are symbolized by the fact that the ideal of the Christian saint, the ascetic, has been replaced here by the revolutionary student.”
Bulgakov is writing in 1909 about the young, sectarian intellectuals of Russian society, who according to Nicholas Berdyaev were “artificially isolated from national life.” They had taken upon themselves a sort of megalomania, assuming to be the heroic saviors of Russia, a sort of atheistic incarnation of Providence. The student, full of passion and idealism, had become the Übermensch for educated Russians, only barely subdued by the failed revolution of 1905. To Bulgakov, this idealizing of the youth amounted to a “spiritual pedocracy.” Russian society looked to the youth—the least experienced and therefore least wise—for spiritual leadership. Are we making the same mistake in America today?
Our culture today is not the same as Russia in the early twentieth century. The young (including myself, no doubt) are no less idealistic or isolated today than the Russian intelligentsia, but on the whole we lack a strong revolutionary spirit by comparison. Instead, our society idealizes youth in general, most prominently in pop culture, focusing on pleasure over power-struggle. It is not controversial to assert that youth has become the American ideal: magazines, television, anti-aging products, “contemporary” worship services, youth-designed concept cars (!), our whole tech-savvy culture in which the youth do indeed have a natural advantage—even those with good motives end up “truckling” to our opinions, taking us as the standard.
Indeed, the new study conducted jointly by Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, which I have recently commented on, is only one among many similar studies in recent times. Back in December I too jumped to the hasty conclusion that my generation was uniquely irreligious due to a Barna study saying roughly the same thing at that time. However, in my most recent post I cast doubt upon the significance of this conclusion. It is true that the youth are less religious and more idealistic than older generations today, but when compared with similar statistics regarding older generations when they were the same age, the trend may be quite typical of the youth at any point in time. Perhaps the youth are just young.
Whatever the case, it is my conviction that the peril at hand is not that the Millennial generation is less religious, more liberal, leaving the church, etc. It is that we seem to be obsessed with the youth at all. If we put young adults on a pedestal—as we have done and continue to do—if we look to them, to my generation, to be the makers of culture, to set the standard, to create their own identities, then we will encourage spiritual stagnation by idealizing the Millennial generation’s uncertainty and confusion, their personal journeys, as an end. After all, if we have already “arrived,” then there can be no improvement from our present condition. Stunted growth is the new tall.
What we need instead, in my opinion, is a new ideal. (Perhaps this is where my own idealism reveals itself.) Where is “the Christian saint, the ascetic,” in our mindset today? Where is the elderly sage, the wise man or woman? Where are the people who have no desire to “have it their way” but seek the betterment of others at their own expense with mature minds and pure hearts refined by faith, self-discipline, self-denial, and, above all, experience? Just like the Russian intelligentsia, we view them as relics (in the pejorative sense) of an age long passed, dead and gone, to our own detriment. Indeed, many depict the elderly today as “cute,” ignore them, hide them away in “homes.” Anything not to take them seriously. Anything to silence their voices. But, if we are to turn the tides of our American spiritual pedocracy, we desperately need them… now, more than ever.