Many liberal writers have trouble explaining the attraction that young people have for religion, especially in its more traditional forms. This attraction is not supposed to exist. It short circuits the logic of their preferred narratives. Young people should be drawn to revolutionary narratives that preach progress and equality. History, liberals say, is a succession of power struggles that divide people into exploiters and exploited. Young religious people do not fit the narrative because they seek a reconciling and all-loving God.
When such writers cannot find class struggle inside this religious attraction, they default into a litany of charges, accusing young believers of being racist, misogynist, homophobic, even elitist.
Tara Isabella Burton caused an uproar recently with a New York Times essay titled “Christianity Gets Weird.” She self-identifies as a traditional young Christian attracted to older external forms. She loves incense, chapel veils, Gregorian chant, and sacramentals. However, as a postmodern young lady divorced from any major Western narratives, she finds it hard to explain her attractions to the medieval splendor and “historical pageantry” of worship in Latin.
Secular liberals observing the trend face a similar perplexity. They try to explain away this religious attraction as a youthful craze. They blame it on a superficial and fetishized attachment to “otherworldly aesthetics,” which leaves them exasperated, labeling what they cannot understand as “weird.” Burton and many who join her online have adopted the label with a certain irony.
Thus, “weird” Christians are appearing on the cultural scene, often in Internet spaces where they can congregate and share their views.
Burton claims that “More and more young Christians, disillusioned by the political binaries, economic uncertainties and spiritual emptiness that have come to define modern America, are finding solace in a decidedly anti-modern vision of faith.”
These millennials and Gen Zers sense the hollowness of the postmodern cultural wasteland. They also reject the shallowness of the mainline Protestant churches that have watered-down supernatural truths and exalted the trivial. These online pilgrims detest the barren, ugly and brutal aspects of modern life.
They want something real and profound. Their penchant for returning to the Middle Ages and traditional belief is a liberal’s worst nightmare. What disconcerts liberals is not only the attraction these young people have for a robust Christianity but also their rejection of the liberal order’s anti-metaphysical foundations, which has been accelerated by the political and economic breakdown of that order wrought by the coronavirus.
The problem with this counter-cultural current is its difficulty in defining and expressing itself. Its followers never knew the traditional world they now admire. They are victims of a chaotic postmodern culture without structures and stability. Burton claims a “punk” rebelliousness characterizes the movement, which seems to be against everything establishment, including the modern economy.
They are driven by “their hunger for something more than contemporary American culture can offer, something transcendent, politically meaningful, personally challenging.”
They do not know exactly what they seek, but they sense something that enthralls them, and they latch on to it with passion. Superficial critics dismiss this attachment as clinging to externals that can lead to various dangers.
The critics are wrong.
There is a name for what these young Christians seek and find in traditional worship forms like Latin Masses, incense, and solemn Vespers. They find an authentic beauty that moves and elevates their souls, and turns them away from much modern ugliness. Western philosophical thought has called this beauty, the sublime.
Edmund Burke rightly calls the sublime, “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” It consists of transcendent things that inspire awe at their magnificence. It invites us to step beyond self-interest and gratification, and to look towards higher things – the common good, holiness, ultimately God – things that give meaning and purpose to life.
Whether manifested in works of art, great feats, or religious liturgy, the sublime incites sentiments of loyalty, dedication, and devotion that can fill the emptiness of the postmodern wasteland.
The Church surrounds herself with sublime things, the proven things (sadly abandoned by progressives) that draw and convert people to the worship and service of God. These things are external manifestations that reveal something of God’s own grandeur. Human nature is naturally attracted to them, as well as to principles and doctrines that enthrall the intellect by their logic and wisdom.
Young Christians are right in assuming that the things that produce awe are part of a different way of life than they find in the world today. They are also correct in perceiving the irreversible breakdown of the liberal order that offers them nothing sublime. There is nothing “weird” about their exploration of a Christian social order that runs contrary to the barren individualistic alternatives that are the real weirdness in human history.
Postmodern liberals do not feel threatened as long as traditional Christianity agrees to be just one among many elements in the cultural smorgasbord. When people reject the philosophical infrastructure that sustains liberalism, however, they get alarmed.
The problem for these searching young Christians is not their objects of wonder, but how to take the next steps that would normally lead to a deepening of their Faith. They must go beyond “weird” and frankly embrace the sublime in all its fullness and authenticity.
*Photo: Charlie Leight/The Arizona Republic