A recent Wall Street Journal article surveyed the causes of the growing number of “Nones” (people who self-identify as having no particular religious beliefs of any kind) and the declining number of people who self-identify as Christians in the United States. The particular focus of the article was on the rapidly growing None population within our country’s youth. In contrast, earlier this year an article appeared in the Huffington Post on the topic of the rising number of millennial women who are choosing to become nuns. How can we make sense of both of these articles, and does this portend anything for the future of Christianity in our country?
Why People are Leaving the Faith
According to Mr. Beal, who wrote the WSJ article and who is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University, many of the Nones in his classes say they have left religion because they don’t agree with the teachings of traditional religion. Specifically, they don’t subscribe to traditional Christian views regarding sexual morality and what they perceive to be Christianity’s stance regarding science in general and evolution in particular. He backs up his anecdotal findings by citing a 2018 study done by Pew Research. According to the study, “60% of youth Nones question church teachings and 49% don’t like positions churches take on social/political issues.” Mr. Beal’s contention is that many young people today see Christianity as unnecessarily rigid and out of step with the changing realities of our time. They see church teachings as precepts above all scrutiny that must be unquestionably accepted.
How to Stop the Decline
The professor’s solution to this problem is twofold. First, he (quite rightly in my view) emphasizes to his students that religious teachings are not a matter of blind adherence. Christianity has a long tradition of debate, scriptural exegesis, and grappling with significant existential and social issues among individuals of differing views. Though there are certainly regrettable times and instances of silencing discussion or suppressing debate, such instances do not characterize the whole or even the majority of Christian intellectual history. And neither is Christianity unique among religions or any systems of thought in this regard. To this end, Mr. Beal routinely encourages and fosters debates in his courses centering around lively and pertinent issues of our time, and various Christian stances one could take in these debates.
The second solution is emphasizing the fact that religious teachings can and sometimes must change. For this reason, Mr. Beal invited Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister, to his class to speak to his students about the need for a “sexual revolution” in Christianity akin to the Protestant revolution of the 1500s. It is here where professor Beal’s solution clashes with the reality that a growing number of millennial women have decided to enter the religious life as nuns.
Rise of the Nuns
Eve Fairbanks writes about how many of her high school friends have left their secular lives and embraced the Catholic faith. What initially astonished her about this was the fact that essentially none of her friends were particularly religious, nor did they herald from religious families. What’s more, their high school was a thoroughly secular institution. In Ms. Fairbanks’ experience, her friends, and many others like them, turned towards religious life because of the structure it provides, as well as the radical contrast it offers to typical secular ways of living. In a word, they found a purpose in religious life that was worth more to them than anything the world could offer.
Patrice Tuohy, who publishes many vocation searching guides for young women, told Ms. Fairbanks that not long ago she would only receive 350 queries a year. Now she receives over 2,600 queries a year from young women looking to be nuns, and a full 60% explicitly ask for information on religious orders that require members to wear a habit.
Not only this, but in contradistinction to the Pew survey and Mr. Beal’s own findings, these young women have found peace in the traditional teachings of the Church, rather than constraint. They did not blindly accept the teachings of the Church and forsake all of their intellectual and physical talents to do so. Rather, they saw the Church and religious life as an avenue for putting their minds and abilities to good use serving God and neighbors.
Making Sense of it All
Now, what should we make of all this? We have two sets of data giving us contradictory prescriptions for the same problem. The answer, I maintain, lies in a proper understanding of the intended scope of Christ’s teachings. It seems clear that Christ wanted the Good News to be preached to all people at all times (Mat 28:16-20). He also tells us that He is a cause for division, that no servant is greater than his master, and for this reason His followers will be persecuted just as He was (John 15:20; Luke 12:49-53). Now, in putting all of these elements together it should not be surprising that Christianity will have its detractors.
A religion that is meant for all people at all times cannot possible fit the mold of any one epoch because it was made for all epochs. For this reason, Christianity, if it stays true to itself, will always clash with whatever culture and time it finds itself in. Indeed, if Christ Himself was a cause of division, how can we ourselves fail to be causes of division if we are truly following Him?
Where to Go From Here
The question then is not principally about whether or not Christianity needs to change its teachings to be “relevant.” Rather the question is, is Christianity true? Herein lies the importance of debate and a free exchange of ideas. God wishes for us all to be happy and to love Him and one another. But, He wants us to make this choice freely and so He will never force us to follow Him. Jesus Himself did not force anyone to believe in Him nor did He banish debate from His midst. Rather, He implored Thomas to touch His hands and side and utilized miracles as a way of proving His claims of divinity (John 20: 24-29; John 14:11). St. Paul implores us to test everything and retain what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).
Christianity does not require blind acceptance to doctrine because Christianity is not principally about believing in doctrine but about falling in love with Christ and His people. In order to truly fall in love, it must be with one’s full consent and knowledge. You cannot love unwittingly. For this reason Fulton Sheen remarked that, “Sin is not so much the breaking of a law but the hurting of Someone we love.”
Follow the Nuns
Ultimately though, a free exchange of ideas will not typically be enough to make anyone fall in love with someone they can see, let alone Him who cannot yet be seen. How then do we stem the ever-growing tide of Nones? We must be the face of Christ to those around us in our service, our openness to discussion, and our radical love of God and neighbor, even and especially if it runs counter to our culture’s commonplace characterizations of happiness. In that way we can offer the Nones a meaningful and stark choice and not a milquetoast version of the secular lives they already lead. Let us, therefore, follow the example of the burgeoning community of young nuns in our midst.