Why Young People Are Attracted to the Sublime

Why Young People Are Attracted to the Sublime
Why Young People Are Attracted to the Sublime

Liberal writers have trouble explaining the attraction of young people for religion, especially in its more traditional forms. This attraction is not supposed to happen. It short circuits the logic of their exhausted narratives. Young people should be drawn to revolutionary narratives that preach division 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 uniting and all-loving God.

When such writers cannot find class struggle inside this religious attraction, they default into a litany of charges accusing young devotees of being racist, misogynist, homophobic and even elitist.

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Tara Isabel Burton’s lengthy story in The New York Times (May 8, 2020) added one more adjective to the collection: traditional young Christians are weird.

Two Perplexities

The author caused an uproar with her essay titled “Christianity Gets Weird.” She self-identifies as a traditional young Christian attracted to 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.” However, they also end up exasperated, labeling what they cannot understand as “weird.”  Tara and many who join her online accept the label in jest with ironic resignation. For lack of a better adjective, they considered themselves “weird” Christians.

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A Desire to Get Real

Thus, “weird” Christians are appearing on the cultural scene, often in Internet spaces where they can congregate and share their views.

Tara 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 represents the liberals’ worst nightmare. What disconcerts liberals is not the attraction these young Christians have for traditional forms, but their rejection of the liberal order’s a-metaphysical foundation. That rejection is accelerated by the political and economic breakdown of that order wrought by the coronavirus.

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Not Knowing What They Seek

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. Tara claims a “punk” rebelliousness characterizes the movement that seems to be against everything establishment, including modern economy.

They are driven by “their hunger for something more than contemporary American culture can offer, something transcendent, politically meaningful, personally challenging.”

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They do not know exactly what they seek, but seeing something that enthralls them, they latch on to it with great passion. Superficial critics of the movement dismiss this attachment as clinging to externals that can lead to dangerous things.

Seeking the Sublime

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 their souls and leads them to reject the contrary. Western philosophical thought calls this beauty, the sublime.

Edmund Burke rightly calls it “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” The sublime consists of those things of transcendent excellence that cause a person to be overawed by their magnificence. It invites a person to turn beyond self-interest and gratification and look towards higher principles, the common good, or ultimately towards God, thus giving the meaning and purpose missing in one’s life.

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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 as Source of Sublime

The Church purposely surrounds herself with sublime things that overawe the faithful in their transcendent excellence. They are the normal 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 sublime grandeur. Human nature is naturally attracted to them. These things are also attached to principles and doctrines that enthrall the intellect by their logic and wisdom.

The young Christians are right in assuming that the things that overawe them are part of a worldview that encompasses a way of life. They are also correct in perceiving the irreversible breakdown of the liberal order that offers them nothing sublime. Thankfully, there is nothing “weird” about their exploration of a Christian social order that runs contrary to individualistic alternatives.

Their rejection of the liberal order horrifies the left, which has nothing of truth, beauty, and goodness to offer those hungering for meaning. The left dreads the desire for the sublime. It knows that the sublime’s welcoming attraction that always proves hard to suppress.

Liberalism does not feel threatened as long as traditional Christianity agrees to be one of many elements in the cultural smorgasbord. However, when people reject the philosophical infrastructure that sustains liberalism, the tyrannical left becomes concerned about those who stray outside the box.

The problem of these searching young Christians is not the objects of their admiration but how to take the next steps that would normally lead to a deepening of their Faith. They must go beyond “weird” and embrace the sublime in all its fullness and authenticity.

As seen on The Catholic Thing.