Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
As a demographic cohort, “millennials” are the last generation to have been born in the 20th century. By conventional assessment, they are agile with technology, shaped by social media, self-absorbed, fixed in the moment and ignorant of history, morally immature and unaware that they have been shortchanged by inadequate and polemical educators. They are as vulnerable as Shakespeare’s “wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation.” Their lack of reason, and their subservience to political correctness, can be astonishing. But these are generalizations, and one can be just as astonished by the integrity and spiritual vigor of many who are lumped together with their superficial contemporaries.
There has been a big drop in religious commitment among the millennials, but youths predictably assert their independence and return to serious thoughts about God later on. What seems to be an abandonment of faith, may largely be due to the delay in maturation and marrying and the assumption of other responsibilities. Of those who lack a religious outlook, nearly 90 percent were never reared in a stable environment. The large number of millennials who embrace Christianity are outnumbering the “Baby Boomers” who were warped by the trauma of the psychedelic 1960s. They react against the moral chaos they have lived through in their own broken homes and decaying culture.
Many so-called mainline denominations are collapsing, but these almost invariably are those that have tried to “keep up with the Spirit of the Age” rather than with the Holy Spirit. Quoting one sociologist: “When the so-called ‘progressive’ churches question the historicity of Jesus, deny the reality of sin, support abortion, ordain clergy in same-sex relationships and perform their marriages, people desiring real Christianity head elsewhere.”
A joint study by researchers at Indiana and Harvard universities contradicts the impression that religion is in decline. The number of Americans who are the most vigorous in prayer and worship is actually increasing, from 39 percent in 1989 to 47 percent today. And another study estimates that the percentage of Americans who attend church regularly is four times greater today than it was in 1776.
Young people who engage in healthy friendships and religious worship, and who work responsibly, are far happier than those who spend a lot of time on the internet. For Socratic philosophers before Christ, the goal of life was eudaimonia, or “happiness of soul.” Virtue alone could not attain that. “Fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11) is to be found in Christ (John 17:13; 1 Peter 1:8-9).
Saint Augustine said that “happiness is itself a joy in the truth, and this is a truth in you, God, who are the truth...” For the Christian, happiness is not an option; it is an obligation. In some ways the young Augustine—like many millennials—had been absorbed in himself, but divine grace pulled him out of that, and none too soon: “Late have I loved thee, beauty ever ancient ever new.”