The unprecedented decline in religious affiliation and church attendance among young people today can be explained from a variety of angles. But perhaps one of the simplest is this: We have forgotten the great mystery of Being. Religious faith is the answer, but we have forgotten the question. Even if everything else in the world works against faith, it has a way of sprouting in the human heart and mind so long as this mystery is remembered.
To be a 21st-century person is to be a busy person; to be busy is to be on autopilot; and to be on autopilot is to take certain basic assumptions for granted. The most basic of these basic assumptions is that it’s a perfectly normal and even humdrum thing for Being to be. All the really interesting stuff in life—our goals, passions, duties, relationships, politics, jobs, travel plans—is spread on top of Being like layers of paint upon a blank canvas. Our days are patterns of brilliant, winding, intersecting colors; Being is the condition for life’s portrait.
But the mysterious thereness of Being lies in wait, ready at a moment’s notice to seize the unsuspecting mind. You might be doing something completely ordinary—maybe doing laundry, talking to a friend, or walking under the night sky—when suddenly your mind is overcome by the presence of this world. Not, mind you, the various problems in society, the diversity and complexity of nature, or even the great expanse of the universe stretching out billions of light years—as overwhelming as these all can be. But rather, existence taken as a single whole: the very actualization of a ”here and now” here and now before us.
Without warning, that everyday scene then warps into something more alien than the surface of Mars. We are electrocuted, as it were, out of our normal dealings with what things are into the realization that they are. What is this “place” into which we’ve been thrown? What is this stubbornly there out there, this something standing out against the backdrop of nothing without explanation? The thereness of Being utterly confounds us. This laundry room, that conversation, or this nighttime scene suddenly becomes an expression of some mystery deeper than my life, human life, and even the life of the universe; it expresses the dancing flame of Being.
This can be a disorienting and even terrifying frame of mind to enter into. We can manipulate our goals, plans, and even relationships, and we can abandon our duties, passions, and politics. But Being is something we can neither control nor escape. It appears without our consent or input or even understanding; yet we are caught up in it at every moment just by virtue of being alive. We do not summon it and cannot make it stop; but we are already embarked upon its waves before we can wonder where exactly we’re headed. It cannot be understood, but neither can it be ignored.
The mystery of Being, of there being something rather than nothing, also transcends the two greatest tools of the mind that we have at our disposal: science and philosophy. Science explores the empirically observable, philosophy the rationally knowable; but as important as both are, both take Being for granted, looking at it from different aspects to gain some measure of control or understanding. Through them, we come to know the physical and the metaphysical, the nature of beings and the nature of being; but the sheer fact of Being, the ongoing “leap” of reality into reality, cannot be seized empirically or rationally. Through the latter we may get a bit closer than the former, but ultimately, we still stand at a remove, abstracting Being and turning it over in our mind like a plaything. One can engage in eloquent, rational discourse about why there is something rather than nothing without ever really being bowled over by the question; it remains a harmless abstraction. But Being is not something we turn over; it is something that turns us over. It can only be received with the amazement and puzzlement of a child or a mystic.
Thus, there are only two possible answers to the question posed by Being. The first is that there is no answer: Being is a meaningless “there”—a swollen, suffocating, “sticky” mess into which we’ve been thrown, a tale signifying nothing, a scramble in the void. This world is, as “the Judge” puts it in Blood Meridian, “a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent.” Being is absurd, without purpose, and sooner or later, its unbearable weight will grind us down and crush us. We cannot rebut this nonanswer—it is a live option for all of us—but we also cannot abide by it. Being strangely remains—and therefore remains far too strange to be about nothing at all.
The second answer is that Being participates in God, who continually creates it out of nothing. The mystery of Being is a kind of signpost to the even greater mystery of God, who is the ultimate reality. Life is a marriage proposal for eternal life, Being an invitation to Being itself. If this answer is the correct one, then learning who God is, what he has said, and what we ought to do in response must follow. And the true religion would seem to have to give us some way to move through Being and up to God; since we cannot hope to do that ourselves—we cannot even move up to Being without being overwhelmed—it would have to bring God through Being down to us. Awakening to Being awakens us to God, and awakening to God awakens us to the Incarnation.
Reigniting a passion for spiritual matters and stirring up a “religious sense” in the culture today is vitally important, and there are various good ways to do it. Apologetics, catechesis, art, service, witness, fellowship—all of it is valuable and important. But we should not forget the power of moving young minds to remember Being, to see Being, to pose the great question of Being, launching them like a rocket on the search to find the only answer that was there in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: the world without end that is the glory of God.