[The following is the first in a series of selections from editor Daniel Schwindt’s new book, available on Amazon here.]
This letter was written with a very specific audience in mind: one which shares, at least to some degree, my experience of life, my struggles, my doubts, and what you might call my spiritual idiosyncrasies.
This implies, almost automatically, that these pages will only really be accessible to those of my own generation and of my own country, which is the United States. Readers who fall outside those narrow limits will likely find very little truth or edification in what follows. They may find curiosities, confusions, and plenty of offenses, but they will not be able to comprehend or internalize the problems dealt with here. To those readers I can only apologize ahead of time, and say that, had I had them in mind at the start, I would have written a different book. Perhaps I will write such a book one day, addressed to members of some generation or nation far removed from my own.
Here and now, however, I speak mainly to my own cohort. It is their situation which concerns me most, because it is my situation, and because I believe that my generation has a very unique fate, and thus a very unique opportunity. I believe that we so-called “Millennials” were born at a rare culmination of social, political, and spiritual tension; a brief period of chaos when old things fall apart and new things are born.
This means that, like it or not, the collective energies my generation brings to bear on this world will have consequences much more profound and far-reaching than would normally be possible during periods of stability and peace. Thus, our situation is a precarious one because it asks us to endure the sense of chaos and unrest that accompanies all times of transition, while simultaneously placing at our feet the responsibility of giving birth to something new.
The difficulties felt by men and women under these conditions are necessarily unique, and so this letter is my attempt to bring comfort to my comrades, hopefully easing some small amount of our shared confusion, by describing what I myself have seen and explaining where I plan to go.
And one final note concerning what follows: The word “elders” will be used throughout this letter, usually with a negative connotation and without qualification. Although I will use it in such a way, it is not meant as a generalization. I know many men and women, much older than I and wiser than I, who guide the lives of young people with utmost concern and with loving counsel. However, there is also a substantial number of individuals who would attribute all the woes of the current era to young people exclusively, abandoning entirely their post as wise guides for an inexperienced youth. Their mantra is a scornful “Kids these days!” It is to this group that the term “elders” is meant to apply in this particular letter. I use the term in this way, as if speaking generally and universally, simply because it would be monotonous to explain each time that I mean only our disdainful critics. The reader must not forget this, because to dishonor in general those older than oneself is a great injustice, not only to the elders, but to one’s own well-being. The commandment about honoring thy father and mother was a piece of two-fold wisdom, necessary for the sanity of both child and parent. Nothing will fill you with more bitterness and turmoil than to harbor hatred for those who gave birth to you. Thus, you may only break the commandment to your own wounding. Neither do I intend to break it here.
It seems to us that God has died of old age, and we exist without a goal…We are not embittered; we start from zero. We were born among the ruins. When we were born, the gold was already transmuted into lead.
–Paul van den Bosch
The essential characteristic of our generation is a deep-seated, almost fundamental, agnosticism. I do not mean the type of agnosticism that is acknowledged and professed as a conscious decision someone has made about the world or about a god. I’m not referring to anyone’s “convictions.” Our agnosticism is not so much about religion as it is about things in general, although religion is of course included. We entertain a basic uncertainty about people, traditions, institutions, and especially about ourselves.
It is not a “willful” agnosticism. We would believe if we could—maybe not in God, but at least in something—because belief represents certainty, and certainty represents comfort. We long for that comfortable rootedness and security. We just can’t seem to find it; and if we find it we can’t seem to maintain it for any period of time.
It is as if all those notions that our forefathers took as “common sense” and “self-evident” are now almost impossible for us to grasp. We can touch them momentarily but not hold them. We grab at them and they evaporate from our closed fists. Whatever faculty it is that allows “faith” to take root in a man, insulating him from doubt about his existence, has become atrophied in us. Many of us try for years to hold on to the traditions of our parents and our society, but sooner or later find the effort too taxing. We become exhausted and collapse, and then we lay inert from the exertion.
Therefore, it must be understood that I use the term “agnostic” in its broadest sense, with very little spiritual or moral connotations. I use it to describe an elementary human condition. I apply it universally to our generation, because I perceive it universally.
Whether the individual happens to be Christian, atheist, or even a consciously professed “agnostic,” it matters little to me. He is a member of the agnostic generation. That is us, dear reader—you and I.
I want to clarify further that I use the term without implying any guilt. It isn’t the kind of agnosticism that comes after a person “rejects God.” We are agnostics fundamentally and not necessarily by any conviction. It is actually quite the opposite of a conviction: we are agnostics by our utter incapacity to maintain any sort of conviction about anything. The claim that something might be true “once and for all” presents serious, often insurmountable, difficulties for us, and we reject it almost instinctively.
We can’t take anything on faith. We cannot give anyone the benefit of the doubt, because we can’t even give it to ourselves.
Some lament about “moral relativism”; they think that this is the spiritual plague which characterizes us. They bombard us with arguments about “right” and “wrong,” trying to convince us that these things do exist and that they are certainties. But again, we don’t have certainties—that is what they miss, and that is why they miss the whole point. They think that the relativism of our generation is a cause of something, but it is an effect, and a very late effect at that. It is the inevitable result of our state. It is the only moral philosophy we could possibly maintain—it is the philosophy of “I don’t know.”
One more thing: What I’ve said so far applies more to knowledge than to passions. When I say that we cannot maintain convictions, I do not mean that we are heartless—quite the opposite! We have passions, sometimes white-hot passions, but they are never centered on anything absolute.
Our generation, we fight for “causes,” and not beliefs. They are often very worthy causes, but they are still not convictions. We always stop short.
We’ll fight for our neighbors too. Again, we do have hearts and a great depth of feeling. We are great humanitarians, and that is perhaps one of our most respectable qualities. But we won’t fight for any particular truth about our neighbor. We just fight for him when we feel he is suffering injustice. Sometimes we get confused, however, because justice requires absolutes. We don’t have absolutes, so we don’t always know what we are fighting for. Nonetheless, we are willing to fight. That’s my point—that we’re fighters.
So that’s where we are: you and I and our contemporaries. I won’t try to explain how things reached this point. That would require too much space, too much time, and it isn’t my concern in this letter. I only want to state things as I see them and try to get our bearings. I needed to start with this fundamental characteristic, this existential agnosticism, because it is our generational starting point. We are born in doubt.
Doubt is a miserable starting point, I admit, because doubt is paralyzing. It can render you inert, and it takes a massive effort of the will to overcome this paralysis which is our constant mental companion. It’s a miracle we get out of bed in the morning. So this is where we must begin—we must begin from zero.