I have noticed in my three years of teaching high school theology that many young people who are brave, interesting and mature enough to ask really engaging theological questions tend to self identify as atheists. They have given up on Church by the age of sixteen, and the saddest part is watching these young people make the possible mistake of giving up on God and Church as if it were the same thing.
My hunch is this might actually be a semantics issue. We may need to think about a new vocabulary surrounding God. The early Christian Church was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, so it would make sense that the Christian God became a mixture, too. When Jews, who believed in YHWH, asked pagans to believe in one God, Greeks picked their most powerful god- Zeus. The problem is that the Jewish YHWH and Greek Zeus deeply contradicted each other. YHWH is humble, self-emptying, abundant love. Zeus is a self-contained, muscular, sexual, manipulative, controlling male. YHWH is relation with, Zeus is domination over. Zeus deals with creation like an appendage, YHWH is deeply in, with and through all of Creation. Our Church today is worshipping a very Greek influenced God. Zeus is winning. We have lost touch with YHWH as we read the Hebrew Scriptures less and less. Art from Western Europe, which makes up our mental prototype for God, is actually Zeus in part because one cannot draw YHWH. This reinforces our idea of a God as Zeus. We are hard wired for Zeus because he is easier to understand, more like us. And we yearn for simplicity. If we don’t start making the vulnerable, relational YHWH God accessible, we are going to keep losing young people. When I offer this idea, the overwhelming teenage response is, “YHWH is what I believe in. Maybe I am not an atheist. I just don’t want to worship Zeus.”
“A church committed to a Zeus-god will play upon our fears and keep its membership infantile in order to control it.” (Maggie Ross, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood, and Spiritual Maturity, Harper and Row, NY: 2007, p.76) And the young people I know want nothing to do with that. Our church needs to reclaim YHWH. Although there is a part of us that would like God to be a puppet-master, deep down we do not want to be in slavery to God’s will. I believe young people want responsibility in the world and an authentic relationship with the divine.
There are young, brilliant, energetic, relational, intuitive teens out there who want to make the world more beautiful. They are self-reflective youth with extremely high spiritual intelligence. They are leaving the Church in droves, and some of them are leaving God while they are at it. They see God being co-opted by our limited, sinful human brains, agendas and actions and refuse to worship Zeus as people of integrity. As we learn more about our YHWH God, we give young people the hope that the light they see in nature, justice work, in themselves and each other is actually the light of God.