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SIDIC Periodical V - 1972/3
Modern Youth in Search of God (Pages 11 - 18)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Modern Youth and the Search for God
Francis Martin



Since the end of World War II, there has been throughout all of western civilization a growing uneasiness with the status quo. In the late 1940's and early 1950's, the Trappist monasteries in North America were filled with men who, directly or indirectly, had been touched by the disillusioning experience of a world « in progress » exercising upon itself the scientifically organized inhumanity of Coventry, Anzio, Dachau, Dresden, and finally Hiroshima and Nagasaki. European youngsters had heard the noblest of words and ideals used to stir people to slaughter one another, and unconsciously forerunners of the drop-out generation, they wandered around the continent creating what their elders termed « the teen-age problem ». The terminology revealed the diagnosis. The postwar economy and the style of life and education it created reflected the influence of the United States, the only part of the world to have « teenagers » as a sociological class.

It is true that the majority of those young people who would not conform to the expectations of their parents were from that strata of society that had the leisure to reflect and could postpone the assumption of adult duties and thus assess what life held out to them. But the uneasiness went deeper. The German students who heard Helmut Thielicke confronting Nihilism in his Tubingen lectures of 1945 were not the pro-duct of economic abundance, but of a near-despair. The youngsters who began to walk around Europe ten years later were not only enjoying the fruits of the Marshall Plan; they were looking for something authentic enough to rely on.

These « sullen fifties » as they are sometimes aptly called, had a different tone of voice on either side of the Atlantic, but they were saying the same thing; our civilization is smothering under a cloud of insincerity and falsehood which we use to hide our avarice, aggression, hate and fear. Not much changed in those days, but the wedge had been driven in, or to continue the previous metaphor, a fleeting opening had been made in the cloud. Those who would be the leaders of the Establishment in the sixties were already too disillusioned with their present experience of life, and too disappointed by their own ineffectiveness and compromise to be effective opponents of the reaction set loose in the ten years between 1960 and 1970. Such people might rejoice and join the new movements or they might oppose them with all the emotional and physical power at their disposal. In either case it was obvious their reactions were born of the same vague intuition: what was being condemned was not this or that political or economic system, but a whole way of considering and relating to life.

The opponents in North America remembered the Depression, at least as a childhood scar of fear and insecurity, while those who had the experience of World War II fresh in their minds, were unable to entertain the « anti-materialistic » theories of youngsters who have never known want. Still, the very witness of these young people has set up echoes in the hearts of their elders everywhere. Much of our modern western life-style stands condemned, and no amount of excuses or political readjustment can do justice to what some know and many suspect is the truth of that condemnation.


This article is about modern youth and the search for God. The epithet « irrelevant » so often applied to and merited by the traditional expressions of religious life in our culture, both Jewish and Christian, derives ultimately from the fact that, unconsciously for such traditions, the search for God has become a specialized pursuit of those who have nothing else to do. It is the striving after knowledge of a « Super Thing » which, when once found, will confer security on its finder. But what has the Living God in common with this Object among others, this Thing which is divorced from « life », and to which attention should be paid in times of stress and seasonal liturgical celebration? If God is one thing among other things, greater and more impressive to be sure, but still a « something » or even a great but limited Someone, then it is quite possible to organize a human life without him. Our failure to provide a life worthy of man while claiming to believe in God makes younger people question either the existence of God altogether or our sincerity in claiming that we know him and know his will.

The search for God which characterizes these early years of the « Age of Aquarius » are connected with the rise of the « Counter-Culture ». The beginnings of this modern phenomenon are hard to trace, and the causal connection between the chain of events in Europe and in America is obviously different. Still, it must be said that events in the United States and the various reactions to them have served as a catalyst and reference point for youth the world over. As has already been implied, the beginnings of this search for God were not so much a religious revival as a sense of the wrongness of modern life and a painful awareness of the dichotomy between what was said and what existed.

In February 1960, four black high school students in Greensboro, North Carolina, refused to leave a coffee counter until they were served. This gesture marked the « pinch of salt » symbol which touched off the struggle for the liberation of the black man in America. With the progress of that struggle came the subsequent unmasking of the latent and violent aggression of those who would not relinquish positions of advantage, would not suffer the « conversion » that those who propounded the manifest justice of their cause had hoped would come about. From this also sprang an awareness on the part of many other groups that they too were actually unable to have any share in the decision-making processes which affected their lives. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley began shortly thereafter and along with that many other student movements of varying degrees of maturity and nobility. From these movements came a greater sense of collective identity, framed in the beginning mostly in terms of opposition to the « Structure » or the « Establishment » but showing already a self-consciousness that was constitutive and not merely differentiating. This is not the place to study the interaction of the various components that went into making the Counter-Culture: draft resisters, deserters, the student groups, the war protests, the marches on Washington, Black Power and the Black Panthers, Ralph Nader and his young helpers, the assasinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Fred Hampton, to mention only the most outstanding, student riots in France, Germany and Japan, the suppression of Czechoslovakia, communes, psychedelic drugs, the new sex (a)morality, etc. Some of these factors will present themselves in the following discussion but it will be helpful to listen to what some authors see as the most characteristic traits of modern youth, and then how this relates to the search for God.


In the last four years, there have been many articles and books dedicated to a study of this new mentality. Some of these are written by young people actually engaged in creating this mentality, others are written by the forerunners and « prophets » of this culture, and still others by those who have been intimately connected with at least some aspects of it. There are collections of writings that have appeared in various « overground » and « underground » publications,' and there are book-length studies describing the genesis and present state of this emerging culture.' These analyses differ in their starting points, the relative importance they attach to various factors, and in their assessment, but in their phenomenological descriptions they are remarkably convergent. Dr. Bruno Bettelheim in a recent article' sees the rebellion of youth and the concomitant sense of uselessness and despair arising from unresolved conflicts within the person himself which are then projected onto society. When efforts to change things prove fruitless and the evils one attacks are found within one's own ranks and ultimately within oneself, the result is helpless resignation to a perverted state of being, or suicide. This sense of helplessness is heightened by the long period of inactivity known as the « school years » or « adolescence », and is all the more bitter because there seems to be no place in the society for the intense awareness ofpersonal worth which these « school years » engender. Jerry Rubin, the Yippie leader, once put it: « Who the hell wants to 'make it' in America anymore? The American economy no longer needs young whites and blacks. We are waste material. We fulfill our destiny in life by rejecting a system which rejects us. » The intensity of the animosity with which the American system is attacked by youth throughout the world is explained by Dr. Bettelheim as based not on the power or avarice of the industrial-military complex or on oppression or opposition at home and abroad, since in most of these areas the U.S. is outdone by the Soviet Union and many other nations to the extent of their resources; but rather: « It is modern technology with its automation and computers that seems to make man and his work obsolete, seems to rob him of his personal importance in the scheme of things. And since U.S. technology is the most advanced, it is the U.S. that becomes the main target, whatever it does or does not do. » This blaming of technologization is not new: it is the theme of authors as diverse as Marcel, Ellul and Fromm,' and forms the basic insight of studies of the counter-culture like those of Roszak and Reich to which we will return in a moment.

There is no doubt that there are deep-seated conflicts in modern youth, conflicts imposed upon them by the psychic fall-out of the culture into which they are born. This way of life, as it heads towards its logical conclusion, produces a new kind of awareness. It is of this different awareness that Margaret Mead is speaking when she states that there will be no mutual understanding possible until the fact of the generation gap is accepted.' Peter Marin, in a striking article, juxtaposed these two statements, one from a student of his and the other from Franz Kafka:

... you are caught between 2 doors and the old one is much closer & you can grab it all the time but the other door it disappears that door you can't even scratch and kick (like the early settlers were stung by the new land) but this new land doesn't even touch you & you wonder if you're doing the right thing to get in.

He feels imprisoned on this earth, he feels constricted; the melancholy, the impotence, the sickness, the feverish fancies of the captive afflict him; no comfort can comfort him, since it is merely comfort, gentle headsplitting comfort glazing the brutal fact of imprisonment. But if •asked what he wants he cannot reply... He has no conception of freedom.

The terms and consequences of this inner conflict differ widely, and the degree of what Dr. Bettelheim calls projection can only be measured against what someone considers the « objective » state of our society as opposed to what is « normative ».

Descriptions of what is lacking in our modern culture abound. Theodore Roszak speaks of the « Myth of Objective Consciousness »: « for the myth at its deepest level is that collectively created thing which crystallizes the great, central values of a culture. It is, so to speak, the intercommunications system of culture ». He distinguishes three characteristics: (1) the alienative dichotomy (a false division between « subject » and « object » — what he calls « psychic contraction » (2) the invidious hierarchy (depriving objective reality of any but imposed values) (3) the mechanistic imperative (taking automaton-like action as the apex of efficiency):

Charles A. Reich in his famous The Greening of America, speaks of « Consciousness II » and, among his other observations, speaks of the aloofness of the « lostself » engendered by the anonymity of the corporate state. He appeals to « Consciousness III » with its transcending and physical personalism as the way to redress the balance.' This corresponds to Roszak's appeal to Shamanism and poetry and bears a close resemblance to the four characteristics of the counterculture as given by Myron Bloy: Communality, knowledge through active participation in the historic processes, a repairing of the body-soul dichotomy through an appreciation of the physical, and finally an openness to the transcendent.'

What all these analyses have in common is the realization that man has reached the pointin his mono-dimensional development where his evolutionary process threatens to stifle the living, spiritual and conscious source of his growth. As Dr. W. Galvin said recently:

I feel we have stretched man so far away from certain basic elements of his biological makeup that we've made a kind of monster out of him... I think what has happened is that the technological society has estranged us from certain normal functions, and what formerly was our glory and our power, what formerly served to enhance us, has begun to reduce us. We feel progressively impotent in the face of the pleasureless social institutions which we created but which now seem to possess us. 10
Our technological advance, pressed on at a diying pace because of the drive for comfort and power, has upset our possibilities for knowing and living. What we hoped would be a security blanket has become an alienating and stifling tent-cloth.


The search for meaning is a religious act. It is as Mircea Eliade has said: « The awareness of a real and meaningful world is intimately related to the discovery of the sacred. » 11 Sometimes, however, the search for meaning begins by turning away from meaninglessness. The things that man has made, the societies and societal relations that he has created are meant to be productive of the knowledge of God. When what man has produced is inhuman, the reflection of God is obscured. God created man in his image and likeness, and this resemblance is most evident in man's exercise of his own creativity. For man too, in bringing things into being, invests them with a reflection of his own inner reality: the beauty or chaos which man then sees is an image of what he has done to his own being. The squalor of a city slum, the moon-surface left by the bombers in Viet Nam, the riots on the part of the poor, the students and the police, indicate not only how deeply western man's search for security and power has alienated himself from his fellow man, but also how he has become a stranger to himself, unable to find in his activity clear traces of his own origin.

When people reject a way of life as inhuman, even though they may not refer consciously to God, they have begun a search for God, because some deep inner sense haunts them: their norm for what is human derives from a sense of God. The trajectory from a mystical aura surrounding political action in the early sixties in the United States to a political aura surrounding mystical endeavour in the early seventies may be viewed as typical of the instability and fadism of youth, and in some cases such a charge would be justified. However, at a deeper level, this dialectic only reflects the metaphysical truth often obscured by our « myth of objective consciousness » that human existence is a unified though polymorphic reality, and that compartmentalization of consciousness is a sign of disintegration. What then are the phenomena which accompany this search for integration, this search for a human life, this search for a way of existing that in allowing man to be himself enables him to image God, and living, confer and receive a glimpse of God? There is first of all the rejection of the alienation of the thinking subject from that which he considers. This is manifest in all those attempts to find unity between consciousness and feeling, such as mind-expanding drugs, oriental religions with their deep appreciation of man's bodily existence, and the various forms of « ins » — love-ins, be-ins, etc. There is a violent rejection of the status quo: it is a rejection because the impersonal and smothering quality of its mode of existence conflicts with the heightened sense of person and talk of liberty which characterize the prolonged period of education: it is violent (either psychically or physically) because of an unresolved and guilty fear of losing the security an oppressive system guarantees. The search for God begins, if it begins at all, in the wilderness of ambiguity, in the place beyond a utopia whichproves to demand more discipline and yield less security than people were prepared for. It is this two-fold discovery of the need for effort and the relative nature of the results, that disillusions or inspires people when faced with the challenge. The search for God begins to assume a certain psychological consistency and degree of reflectiveness when in one way or another we admit that the image of God is not God.

The search that modern youth undertakes falls prey to all the illusions and weaknesses of human nature but it also shares in its grandeur. We praise God in the psalms for having « renewed our youth like an eagle » (Ps 103:5). What is this youth if not the capacity to remain buoyant and optimistic despite failure, to continue to search with a fresh certainty that beyond where we stand there is a vision of beauty that brings joy? We gave youth the anguish of a world gone astray, choking in the abundance of its own distractions. We gave youth the leisure to appreciate the debacle. Youth is giving us a sensitivity to what is human and another kind of anguish at our mutual plight. It is, of course, impossible to imagine that when we speak of « modern youth and the search for God » we are describing an homogenized reality. In fact, the difficulty experienced in trying to describe the new culture's attitudes in turning from modern society is increased when we try to describe what it is this culture is searching for. There are two possible approaches: the first would be a survey-type analysis of what people in this other culture mean when they say « God »; the second approach would be to reflect from a position within our own tradition what it is that this culture is saying to us. The first approach listens to the other as speaker, the second joins the other as searcher.


What is the speaker saying? We have already heard him speak in his rejection of man's perverted image of himself in what he has produced.

« God » in such a context means something or someone more authentic, more pure, transcending the trivial, the banal, and the cruel in life. God is often identified with the deep source of one's own consciousness; the terms of the oriental religious traditions are often used but the content is most often a western assertion of the uniqueness of the human person. If God is within all things then there is something the Structure can't touch, and which at the same time can be a basis for communication. God is an experienced Presence, a living source of energy, or God is a state of total human communication between man and nature, man and woman, and between all men. Somehow, strangely, though the need for security inspires much of the search for God, some deep soul-instinct leads people to respect his mystery. For those who are finding Jesus there is a sense of liberation from the experienced pain of every day, not because pain is removed, but because it is given a name, a model, and a context within the plan of God who is Father. Among the periodicals published by people in the Jesus movement there is one characterized by a certain human balance and general lack of those simplistic answers so characteristic of fundamentalist movements of any sort: it describes itself as coming from « the catacombs of Berkeley ». The following two testimonies are typical of one or two artides in every issue:

As a teen-ager I was very rebellious. After being kicked out of several schools I married at the age of 16 and my son was born five months later. I soon left my husband and took to the streets... For a while I tried to find peace and a way of life through Zen Buddhism. I put down drugs and went on a strict diet cf vegetables and rice, raising Meeka [her daughter] that way for two years. By that time I was so lonely I gave up Zen and moved into the Greta Garbo hotel in San Francisco. My life as a Speed Freak began... Finally, insane from speed and acid [LSD], I abandoned Meeka in a laundromat one night in the Haight-Ashbury [a section of San Francisco]. After that nothing mattered to me. Dope seemed the only escape from the guilt and sorrow I felt. I lived in one speed commune after another... My life became hell. Whale [her new husband] was busted [arrested for selling dope] twice in one month so there was no more dealing and all our money went for smack [heroin]... About this time we met some people we used to know who had become Christians... we had Holy Communion with the brothers and sisters. I didn't know it then, but that evening was the last time I was ever high on dope... I began to think about Jesus and I observed clrefully each Christian I met... Then one day on the Berkeley campus as I listened to a speaker, I was overcome with sorrow for the way I had lived. I loved Jesus and I knew he was the Savior. I offered him my life and I was baptized that day. 12

The second account reveals a very different temperament and background:

From my sophomore year in college, I was an « activist ». It seemed all I could see was injustice, in the form of war, racism, and poverty... Six months after my graduation, I married an angry, violent, black militant leader for whom I had a great deal of admiration and respect... Black nationalist leaders do not have white wives. Within two years we were separated... Over the years there were small victories, but defeat and discouragement were by far more frequent. It's very hard to pour one's whole life into such a constantly losing battle. In time it messes up your mind, like banging your head against a wall — eventually it hurts pretty bad... I was in a graduate psychology seminar. We were doing some exercises when I started to scream. I guess all the frustration, anxiety, anger, and hate of the past eight years just exploded inside me... I became aware of my emptiness, meaninglessness. People seemed the same everywhere — living for dope and sex. One day I read about CWLF in Time Magazine and decided to come to Berkeley just to check it out... I must admit that I really had my doubts about whether Christ would work in me as He did in others. But now three months later, I know that the gift He has to offer is available to anyone...13

These stories are typical in the, sense that they embody factors common to most youth experiences in the search for God. There is a sense of alienation and helplessness, and a striving for some surcease of tension, either individual through drugs, sex, or religion, or on a social level through various resistance and revolutionary movements.


At this point the speaker becomes the challenger. He is bearing witness to an experience whose source, he says, is God. And we are forced to choose: Is his witness to be reduced to psychological and social forces, or is it to be accepted as a valid, if imperfectly understood, testimony to the action of God? Only if we let our speaker become a fellow searcher, with all this implies in regard to our own commitment and honest acknowledgement of limitation, will we understand him. As James Douglass has recently pointed out, if we can communicate with a man who is searching for God only by sharing his desire for true liberation for all men, and not experience what he senses as a personal call of God, we will never know in ourselves or in him the depth and necessity of the search for wisdom." The speaker says many things, and by the very diversity of what he says, he bears witness to a desire for a wholeness of human life beyond what man can devise or bring about. Deeper still, this many-sided conversation is but the beginning of a search which brings man to a place of knowing and unknowing in which his mind trembles at having no security. The fact that he does not flee this place in terror is his first experience of his own interiority.

The searcher is one who knows that the sufferings and ambivalences of human existence are not an adequate image of God or of God's care for man. The searcher cannot deny the twisted and unresolved mystery of what he and all men have done to this world, but at least he refuses to attribute the chaos to God. The search begins with an admission of sin. If it does not, it will be a long and fruitless effort to make of God, man's means of self-justification. The searcher says, « God, You are better than this. God, we are lost and scattered like sheep without a shepherd. The works of our hands cannot save us, cannot even reveal us to ourselves, much less You. God, You have made us and we have wandered from You. The pain in this world is a mystery beyond our capacity to understand or alleviate, but we know that You are God and that You will not abandon us to the darkness we have pulled around ourselves. God, You are greater and holier and more beautiful than Your works show forth and our works besmirch. You are so great that in Your mercy what we do can still reveal You. God, despite what wise men tell us, You are too great to take complacency in the pain we have made for ourselves. God, you are better than this. »

Youth is searching for God, for the Absolute. Such a search begins with the illusion that the Absolute is merely a purified version of what we experience; it will flounder and lose itself in distraction unless helped at that crucial point when it begins to be evident that the Absolute is absolute. Then man must begin to search for God because God is God, and not because God is security. The tradition which we have received and which our fathers lived is a tradition which finds a secret and fierce joy in the experience of the incomprehensibility of God. It is this that we have to offer to youth as they search for God. They have no need of the methods which we designed to domesticate God. Youth still, like an eagle, is searching for God, out beyond all experiences of man's radical ambiguity. But what will the Jesus freaks do when Jesus is no longer a trip? What will the practitioners of Zen do when meditation does not absolve them from the fascination of wondering who God is? What will the drug users do, when having explored the constellations of their own interior, they still have no one to worship?

What will we do then? Quote the Bible to them? Or will we give them the word of God? We have been saved time and time again from the complacency of thinking that we know God, but every time the storm passes we retreat into the forest of our own deviousness and tremble when we hear God call us. Modern youth is searching for God and nobody knows who God is. We who have inherited the biblical tradition sometimes stand idly by while others promise wisdom. We wonder, not ever having tried it ourselves, whether our God can stand up to the pressure of being interrogated by people in pain. Until we become nomads of faith we cannot greet as fellow pilgrims others who have left the charred ruins of bombed-out and burned-out cities, or the neon flesh-lights or the world's Time Squares, refugees from man's indifferent hatred.

Where is the wise man who rests in the unknowable nature of God? Where is the prophet who shares God's pain in his people? Where is the man who has stepped out of the security of wallowing in or hating the obscurity of our existence? Where is the man, who in the depth of his own being, knows the meaning of liberation, and who, having no need to dominate or impress others, is by his very presence a good odor recalling to me the fragrance of God? Where is the man who knows obedience? « In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and entreaties with a great cry and tears to him who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and having been perfected, he has become for all those who obey him, the cause of eternal salvation, declared by God High Priest according to the order of Melchisedek » (Heb 5:7-10).

The grace that youth has conferred upon our civilization is the grace of being shaken outof insensitivity to our brother's pain, of being forced to face our incapacity to answer his deepest longing and ours; of finding ourselves unable to turn from the fascination, the pain, the renunciation of control, and the utter rightness of a search for and a waiting upon God.

1 The best collection of this type is: The Movement Toward a New America edited by Mitchell Goodman (New York, 1971).
2 Some of the more important of these studies are referred to in what immediately follows.
3 B. BETTELHEIM, « Redundant Youth » Realitę (Eng. Edition; Dec. 1970), o. 38 ff.
4 GABRIEL MARCEL, Man Against Mass Society (Eng. Trans. New York: Regnery, 1952). JAcQuEs ELLUL, The Technological Society (Eng. Tans. New York: Vintage Books, 1967); ERICH FROMM, The' Rev-olution of Hope (New York: Harper and Row, 1968).
5 In an address given at the American Museum of Natural History, reported in the New York Times Mar. 16, 1969.
6 P. MARIN, « The Open Truth and the Fiery Vehemence of Youth », The Establishment and All That (Santa Barbara: Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, 1970), p. 90.
7 See The Making of a Counter Culture (New York: Doubleday, 1969), Ch. 7.
8 The Greening of America (New York: Random House, 1971).
9 « The Counter-culture: It Just Won't Go Away », Commonweal, Oct. 8, 1971.
1° Center, V, No. 4 (July/August, 1972), p. 74.
11 M. ELIADE, The Quest (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1969), Preface, p. 1.
12 Right On (April, 1972).
13 op. cit. (Jan. 1972).
14 T. QUIGLEY, ed., « The Yin-Yang of Resistance and Contemplation », Freedom and Unfreedom in the Americas (New York: IDOC, 1971).
Father Francis Martin, a priest of the Madonna House community, Combermere, Canada, is presently teaching Sacred Scripture in Rome.


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