Bright, Salty People (February 2002)

February 2002

Bright, Salty People ©

Jesus said to his disciples: You are the salt of the earth…You are the light of the world. What does he mean by these analogies?

In the first place, we can associate many characteristics with these images. For instance, light serves as a beacon to those who need direction; as illumination to those who need understanding; and as energy to those who need motivation. Salt serves to spice up nourishment that is bland; to preserve freshness and to restore energy lost in the physical labour.

So it is easy to see that each Christian’s effort to follow Jesus is not only important in perfecting his or her relationship with God, but also in helping others do so as well. It is often said that we do not know the good we do in the world, yet we know that what we do and say will have some degree of influence on those who come across our path.

Today, we live in an age in which the sources of God’s penetrating light seem to be diminishing. Against the encroachments of darkness, we need more than ever the brilliance and warmth of faith, hope and love.

We know the trends. Canadians values are becoming increasingly ego-centered and regular church attendance continues its steady decline. At the same time, analysts suggest that there is a growing thirst for true spiritual nourishment, which is somehow not satisfied by conventional elixirs.

Sadly, too many Canadians fail to see the value of practiced faith, even though the evidence in its favour is all around us.

The last census conducted in Canada reveals a clear link between religion and social values that build and sustain personal and community welfare. Religious people, for example, tend to place greater importance on marriage, family and children.

Religious people also feel better. People who regularly attend religious services tend to have a more optimistic view of life and are less likely to become delinquent, to abuse drugs and alcohol, to divorce or be unhappily married and to commit suicide. They also tend to have healthier smoking, eating and drinking habits. Finally, they tend to feel less stressed.

Young weekly attendeers under 35 are also more likely to feel that they have very good or excellent health than non-attenders of comparable ages.

Still, Canada appears to be becoming increasingly secular as organized religions play a less important role in the lives of many citizens.

Some view the decline of religious life in Canada with a growing sense of despair while others see in the fine print significant reasons for hope. Some experience change as a destructive tornado; others welcome it as a wind of renewal, disruptive though it may be.

These opposing views take on dramatic proportions when people casually compare generations. There is a common sense that with each passing generation, moral values deteriorate. Perhaps we are looking at the wrong evidence.

Perhaps Pope John Paul II is telling us something instructive, albeit counterintuitive for some, when rallying the world’s youth under the banner: Light of the World; Salt of the Earth. Perhaps those of us who espouse conventional means of expressing profound truths have become complacent as meaning continues to evaporate from our words and gestures. Perhaps the so-called nexus generation is propelled at least in part by the life-giving breath of God.

The truth is that we err when we say that young people today don’t care about spirituality. In fact, most adults would be surprised to know that a substantial number of young people across Canada still believe in God.

Moreover, the number of youth regularly attending religious services has even increased somewhat in recent years (22 per cent of teens polled in 2000 attend a religious service weekly, compared to 18 per cent in 1992, perhaps a credit to the emphasis many denominations are putting on youth ministry as one reason why teens are coming to church.)

Forty-eight per cent say they are committed to Christianity or another faith, up from 24% in 1992 and

39 per cent in 1984.

In his book Canada’s Teens: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, Alberta sociologist Reginald Bibby, one of the country’s top researchers into youth trends, draws on data from several of his national surveys, including one conducted last year of 3,500 high-school students between the ages of 15 and 19.

Although down from 62 per cent in 1984, 60 per cent of the youth surveyed indicated “spirituality is important to me.” The majority of young adults and children born after 1985 admit they have personal spiritual needs, although only five per cent of adults polled by Bibby believe spirituality is “very important” to young people.

While the numbers have declined since 1984, according to Bibby, 78 per cent of teens polled in 2000 believe in life after death, 73 per cent say God exists and 65 per cent say Jesus is the divine Son of God.

But clearly, a professed interest in spirituality doesn’t necessarily mean an interest in organized religion. Sadly, for all too many young people who have an interest in spirituality, it’s not the Bible they’re going to for guidance; it’s the psychics within the media and numerous alternatives. Some youth are becoming more deeply involved in New Age practices and witchcraft.

Evidently churches must continue to look at new ways to attract young people where they are, rather than depending on more traditional methodologies.

Right now, Canadian teens say that they get enjoyment from a variety of areas of life, but almost at the bottom is the enjoyment they say they get from church life.

Yet almost 90 per cent of 15 to 19 year olds, for example, claim some kind of religious tie. Most say that in the future they anticipate looking to the church to carry out rights of passage relating to weddings, baptisms and funerals. Evidently, in religion, like in most other areas of life, Canadians of all ages have become highly selective consumers.

Should we be troubled by this? Not unduly. It would be wrong to linger in alarmist perceptions of the present or nostalgic fantasies about the future.

“Children no longer obey their parents.” These words were written by a Roman scholar who died in the year 43 BC. How many people do we hear utter these mournful words today, as though they had made a sudden discovery? The fact is that each generation misreads the one that came before and the one that follows. Each generation fails to truly taste the salt and see the light: Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

In fact, Bibby’s research provides surprising evidence to suggest that we tend to exaggerate generational differences.

For instance, adults appear to seriously underestimate the interest teens have in religion. Before casting scornful eyes at teens and young adults, those of us who rally round familiar reference points and dismiss new ways of expressing timeless truths would do well to closely examine the facts about the psychological dimension of Canadian demographics.

Michael Adams of Environics Research, author of two recent books that look at social values among Canadians, segregates adults into three strata: elders (50 years of age and older); boomers (30 to 49 years of age); and Generation-Xers (15 to 29 years of age). He further subdivided them into “tribes”. While he only lists religiosity as key values for two tribes (rational traditionalists and extroverted traditionalist in the elder category), he attributes to two GenX “tribes” – new aquarians and autonomous post-materialists – meritorious values such as egalitarianism, ecologism, and respect for human rights.

On the one hand, Adams says that Generation X is much more focused on immediate gratification, self-fulfilment and experience-seeking because they have refused to accept duty, guilt and fear as motivating forces. On the other hand, he demonstrates that “already on the leading edge of modern values, new aquarians and autonomous post-mateistits will be the multicultural crew on our “Strarship Enterprise”…meaning that the light of hope still shine brightly.

In the end, while we would be foolish to disregard the risks attached to thoughtlessly abandoning familiar traditions, it would be idolatrous to limit the flight of the Dove of God to familiar pathways.

In effect, the Lord’s light shines through lamps of many shapes and sizes. Each is unique in communicating the radiance of God’s wisdom. Each lamp is vital to God’s plan. We have much for which to be grateful and joyful. Amidst the darkness of ours and all ages, there are people of all ages who in the ordinariness of daily life, radiate the extraordinary warmth and brilliance of God’s loving forgiveness and compassion.

And, as such, they are instruments of God’s grace: …for Jesus is himself the Light of the World: I am the light of the world. No follower of mine shall ever walk in darkness; no, he shall possess the light of life.