The four things keeping millennials from finding God, according to Fr. Spitzer | Connor Malloy | CWR
“We need some radical surgery, we don’t need Band-Aids.”
When he’s not lecturing around the world, giving interviews, producing documentaries, appearing on his EWTN show, developing curricula, chairing boards, and deepening his own spiritual life as a Jesuit priest, Father Robert Spitzer can be found writing his latest book out of his Magis Center office on the Christ Cathedral campus in the Diocese of Orange.
The former president of Gonzaga University (1998-2009), Father Spitzer launched the Magis Center with the stated mission “to restore, reconstruct, and revitalize belief in God, the transcendent dignity of every human person, the significance of virtue, the higher levels of happiness, love, and freedom, and the real presence of Jesus Christ.” Father Spitzer has breathed new life into Catholic apologetics, utilizing his grasp of science, philosophy, and the Catholic intellectual tradition to lift the veil imposed on modern society by secularism and the dictatorship of relativism.
This is the first of a two-part interview with Father Spitzer about his work at the Magis Center, as well as about his Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence quartet of books, two of which (Finding True Happiness and The Soul’s Upward Yearning) have been published by Ignatius Press and one of which (God So Loved the World) is now available for pre-order.
CWR: In less than one year we’ve seen an entire series emerge from you, the Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence series—a quartet of volumes on mankind’s relationship with the divine. Is the sense of urgency intentional?
Father Robert Spitzer, SJ: I think it is very intentional. It comes from my own intuitions teaching college students, originally. Then, when I saw the Pew survey and other surveys that tended to verify it, I became extremely concerned. The Pew Research surveys, both 2012 and 2015 surveys plus the 2010 survey of millennials, are all pointing to one thing: that millennials are becoming unbelievers—a category the Pew Forum calls “nones”—at about a rate of 1 additional percent per year. So that’s a rate of acceleration. About 11 years ago, we were at about a rate of 25 percent among millennials; today we’re at about 36 percent. If this keeps up, we’ll be at 50 percent or more unbelievers in just 15 years. And there’s no reason to suggest that it won’t keep up. So yes, the sense of urgency is there. If we don’t turn it around and soon, it’s going to really become an epidemic.
The other thing that’s really clear is that this has a lot to do with what’s going on in education—or should I say “mis-education”—starting not just in high school and in college, but also in seventh or eighth grade, where the kids are already online, looking at the Science Channel, getting a certain view of reality. Now, much of the Science Channel is great and I love it, but much of it has that hint of the pure Darwinian viewpoint, the materialistic viewpoint, a viewpoint that’s exceeding agnostic, a viewpoint that’s undermining the faith even in times of suffering. These are the kinds of things that need to be redressed in a hurry. Frankly, morality—as Pope Benedict pointed out many times—has become relativistic among young people. They are so convinced it’s all a mere matter of opinion…. But there are signs of hope, things we can use that God has given us. I think we have an interesting opportunity but, unfortunately, in the midst of an almost pandemic crisis.
CWR: Are there specific things that you see as blocking millennials from experiencing the divine in their lives?
Father Spitzer: I think it’s four basic factors that are coming into play. They are searching for authentic happiness. I think they would go up to transcendent happiness if they weren’t blocked, but here are the blocks that I see.
The number-one block, and the one that is definitely part of the whole propaganda scheme of many of the secular materialist people in our culture, is faith and science. The basic syllogism is this: faith and science are contradictory, science is truth, therefore faith must be false, a fantasy. This is, of course, not true, but it’s been propagated by the media and certain very vocal champions of science. I would say that 20-25 percent of our young people believe that cultural myth.
The second thing that is going on is the old “crutch argument” that was put together by Freud and Feuerbach a long time ago, but which has now reached the level of a huge cultural myth: that religion is reducible solely to human individual thinking. “We have suffering to contend with, feelings of darkness, we are restless and not at peace. So what do we do? We invent God. And we make God a very, very nice and benevolent God who protects us from suffering, darkness, emptiness, and death.” This is completely unfounded. No one ever invented a God who was nice—this came from Jesus! In the history of religions, gods are really capricious and mean, but starting with Israel and Christianity we begin to see who God is. But the problem with young people is that they get chided into it: “Oh dear, I see you are believing in a crutch. Little Johnny here has naively turned to religion, I’m so sorry to hear that…” Any kind of chiding which makes our kids look unintelligent and uncourageous is exceedingly difficult for them to deal with if they don’t have really good rational arguments and defenses. C.S. Lewis saw this in the 1940s, but it has made its resurgence today with social media and people like Richard Dawkins, a media darling, and now the kids are really up against it. I’m working with a high schooler now who literally gives me 15 questions a day; he is getting chided so much. Other kids are just throwing that Nietzschean-Freudian accusation against them and they’re falling prey to it at a fairly significant rate.
There’s a third problem with the more affectively-oriented kids, the heart kids: the seeming irreconcilability of suffering with God. They’ve been taught that God is a loving God, but when they come into their critical consciousness, they see the earthquakes, diseases, friends suffering, their suffering—the failure to address this question head-on is a really vexing thing for these kids. They believe that love and suffering are opposites. And Christianity has this incredible history of the reconciliation between love and suffering. Martin D’Arcy, C.S. Lewis have written wonderful works, but we need a contemporary re-interpretation of this and we need to get it out there as quickly as possible so they can see that love and suffering are not incompatible, that many times suffering leads us to love; suffering frees us from our narcissism, as Paul tells us in the Second Letter to the Corinthians. But the kids don’t have the ammo.
I’m not blaming the Church. I’ll just simply say we haven’t done any apologetics in a concerted fashion since Vatican II. I don’t know why. I’m still trying to figure this out myself—why did apologetics became a bad word, why did it become a reflection of some kind of inauthenticity of faith? We’ve somehow drifted into a Kierkegaardianism—we have to take a leap of faith across an infinite chasm. But I’ve never thought that at all! I luckily had great teachers who believed reason and faith came from the same source, with God never intending us to jump over an infinite chasm. We build a bridge over 99 percent of the chasm and then we jump, with the bridge constructed out of all the clues He has left us in nature, in the universe, in proofs of God, in miracles, in Jesus’s own life, and everything from the Shroud of Turin to near-death experiences. But you have to make the information known. And what has happened is we have now built up this incredible and wonderful curriculum from the bishops for high schools…with almost no apologetics built into it at all. They’re not addressing the faith and science question, they’re not addressing the question of the crutch argument, they’re not addressing the question of the reality of Jesus, they’re not addressing the question of suffering on any level that’s significant enough for students to be reinforced in their faith. If apologetics has to precede catechesis in order to engage kids both analytically and affectively, and if we are doing a great job on the second level but not on the first level, then we are building statues with clay feet.
The fourth problem is what I call “the Jesus doubt.” Even though there have been the likes of John P. Meier, Raymond Brown, and N.T. Wright, our kids don’t know they have crushed the Jesus de-mythologizers. So the History Channel (which does play good things) goes out and interviews these de-mythologizers…and these kids are uncritical: they don’t know the difference between a good or bad scholar. The kids hear this stuff—they hear Jesus was just a political guy or didn’t really rise from the dead.
But we have one other problem. It’s what I call perennial distraction by new media, by the Internet. These kids, even though they’re intrigued—“There’s a game to play, a website I got to go to.” Continual distraction. We are entertaining ourselves to death and I’m not sure if there’s the depth to ask the questions with all the multitasking. So when you combine the four problems, plus the continual distraction, they are in a tough situation.
We need some radical surgery, we don’t need Band-Aids. We’ve got to change our viewpoint.
CWR: It seems apologetics now is more about defending the Church’s positions on social issues than about clarifying her theological tenets.