It’s become rather common here on the Bloggernacle to talk about Mormonism in terms of a “two church” theory–namely, that there are those who are internet-savvy, who have a fair amount of education, who are somewhat critical in the way the make use of science, philosophy, and history in how they think about the truth claims of the church, and then there are those who mostly are and do none of those things. Some people have made a big deal about this divide, whereas others have pushed back against it just as strongly. I don’t think it’s necessary to commit to strong sociological arguments about who belongs to which group or whether they even exist to acknowledge the very simple fact that, as times change, and especially as technologies change, the ways people think about and teach about their own religious experiences change also. If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t see the church’s effort to embrace better scholarship, nor the discussions those efforts give rise to. That these changes are both motivated by and received by populations of the faithful of different ages in different ways is probably an unavoidable reality.
The current iteration of this reality focuses much on the growing number of “nones” in American life–that is, those who do not affiliate with any religious body or identity–and the slow but general falling away from most forms of organized Christianity by large numbers of people, particularly younger people. Those who study these matters recognize that this is not solely a generational phenomenon, nor one specific to a particular ethnic or socio-economic group. All Americans who are touched by the larger, structural, secularizing and pluralizing forces of today are finding it easier to move away from the sources of faith that had once been assumed by so many. But for those who have particular pastoral responsibilities–and here I mean everyone from ward bishops and Relief Society presidents to mothers and fathers in their homes–the focus really does tend to be on young people, and the question of how to teach them (or what to teach them) when so many of the cultural assumptions which undergirded traditional curricula in the past now are questionable. There’s a good discussion of these matters taking place here; I have little to add, except one short observation: that whatever particular response parents or church leaders develop, it should be remembered that the rocky transitions of religious faith over time are nothing new.
A century ago, in 1915, the not-yet-famous Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr began 13 years as the pastor of a German-American Evangelical church in Detroit (German Evangelicalism in America being one of the forerunners of the United Church of Christ). Niebuhr in the 1920s was a powerful exponent of the Social Gospel, and was strongly critical of the nominally “Christian,” but actually racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic social mores that, in his view, polluted the minds of the people whom he had been called to serve. (The Ku Klux Klan was a popular force in Michigan at the time.) This mean, predictably, that he had to find ways to express his Christian faith in ways that he thought spoke to the best of those he thought could lead his ethnic community and his country in a better direction, while at the same time attending to the faith of those older German-Americans who made up the backbone of the congregation at Bethel Evangelical. In a passage from his memoir of these years, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, he talks about attempting to teach a young man who has doubts about the Christian faith while simultaneously fending off (one must assume with much polite compassion and quietly gritted teeth) the “assistance” of his pious grandmother: “It is no easy task,” Niebuhr concluded, “to build up the faith of one generation and not destroy the supports of religion of the other.”
When a friend called this passage to my attention, I found myself thinking about how my oldest daughter simply gave up on attending Sunday School after she’d been lectured to yet again, harshly and judgmentally, about how wrong she was for accepting the principles of human biological evolution…and about how that same woman who did the lecturing was one of the strongest, most dedicated members of the church in our area, who had served and devoted her whole life to it. And my sympathies went out once again to those of us–all of us, really–who have to deal with the reality of generational change, with the simple fact that as some teachings (the legality and social normality of same-sex marriage is the next one on deck, but there will be others which follow it; there always are) get taken up and rethought in light of one’s religious belief by one group of the faithful, another group of the faithful will, of course, dig in even deeper, and start muttering in apocalyptic tones, because it may be that that very issue is central to their own religious belief. There is no easy solution here, as Niebuhr realized a century ago. The essential Christian message may endure, but getting it to grow in one generation’s hearts may involve rooting it (or at least what they understood that “it” to involve) out of another’s…and similarly, nourishing the faith (as it exists) in the hearts of those who have lived and served long within the church may be exactly what makes it that much harder for it to take root in those who are new to the faith, and still young. Thank goodness God is going to forgive us all, for everything we do wrong–because sometimes, when I think about those I love most in the world, I doubt there’s any good I can do for them that won’t do someone else, somewhere else, something quite wrong.