From Generation to Generation

March 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Recently, I was teaching the Introduction to Judaism course at SUNY Plattsburgh. The subject was ‘Jewish ideas of redemption’ and the reading had touched on how things changed in Israel in 1967.

‘What happened in 1967?’ I asked them.


I smiled. ‘Please don’t tell me that’s when your parents were born.’

One student raised his hand: ‘My dad was born in 1967,’ he ventured.

For those who lived through it, 1967 was a watershed year. That year was the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured territories in Gaza, the Sinai, the Golan, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

But for the students in college right now, it is ancient history, an event that took place around the time when their parents were born. Think of a major historical event that took place around the time when your parents were born, and you have some sense of their relationship to it. It’s rather remote.

This experience had me thinking about something I had read: as you might recall, two weeks ago, I wrote about the Vern Bengtson’s book, Families and Faith, which is a scholarly multi-generational study of the transmission of faith from one generation to the next. In his work, he also summarized the differences between generations in their views on religion. It was fascinating, which is why I wanted to share it with you.

In one of the chapters, Bengtson gives insight into how each generation is molded by the events that it experiences in its formative years. And it really explains a lot. The kids in college today don’t remember how vulnerable Israel was prior to the Six-Day War. They don’t share that sense of miraculous deliverance. For them, the outcome is already preordained and cannot end any other way. And that changes how they relate to Israel.

So let’s walk through Bengtson’s work, to find out what’s unique about each generation, and to see what else is of interest [all of the quotes that appear below are from Chapter 2, “Religion and Spirituality Across Generations,” pages 21-53.]:

The first group is the WWI Generation (born 1890-1915)

According to Bengtson, this group does not talk much about God; religion is a given part of their experience, but not something that’s regularly discussed. As Bengtson writes, “Each of the elderly members of the WWI generation we interviewed expressed a firm belief in God or a higher power, yet many struggled to articulate their beliefs.” However, he explains, “despite such difficulties in articulating their beliefs, several members of the WWI cohort described their faith in God as being strengthened by evidence they find in everyday life, especially in the natural world.” This group, for example, would be the most likely to enjoy a sermon about feeling close to God while gardening.

Interestingly, he writes, “Beyond social value, it was difficult for members of this generation to articulate the role of religion in their lives.” When they attend, they are here for the community.

The next group is the Depression Era (born 1916-1931)

“Members of the Depression Era generation,” Bengtson writes, “came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Nearly all of those we interviewed reflected on the impact of one or both of these events on their lives, noting the great sacrifices made by their families and the resulting ethic of hard work, patriotism, practicality, and thrift.” I would bet, on this basis, that this generation is the one that bought the flags for the bimah, born out of a sense of gratitude to the two nations represented here for having provided a safe place to live.

“These individuals experienced circumstances caused by the Depression or the war that were beyond their individual control. They credit a protective, benevolent God with seeing them through these difficult and sometimes life-threatening times. Through sheer determination and a strong faith in God, they persevered and even thrived. An emphasis on hard work, beginning in childhood, is reflected in their religious beliefs as well, where actions speak louder than words. Being faithful and committed to God is important and is evident in what a person does but not necessarily what one says or thinks.” As a result, this group is less interested in services and more interested in service. They are more likely to respond to a call to help clean up after Passover than a call to fill the pews for the festival service.

Next, we come to the Silent Generation (born 1932-1945)

Bengtson writes: “Whereas members of the Depression Era cohort that we spoke to described God as a powerful being that provides guidance from on high, beginning with the silent generation – a relatively small group that was born during the lean times of the Great Depression and World War II but too young to experience the full extent of the Depression or to serve in the war – we see increasing discussion of the accessibility of God and of [God’s] ‘embeddedness’ in everyday life.” Their lives are not marked by momentous historical events in the same way as the older cohorts: they focus more on the daily aspects of life.

“Taking this a step further than the WWI cohort whose members offered descriptions of God in nature,” he writes, “ many in the silent generation expressed the belief that a higher power dwells within the human spirit. This sentiment is especially common among those who have no religious affiliation or who question their faith in God.” If you think about it, this position makes a lot of sense: they learned about God from the example of their parents, the ones who picked up the pieces after the war and rebuilt their lives. This group would most want an existentialist sermon about finding God within.

The next group is the Early Boomers (born 1946-1954)

This group is different than the ones who come before it. “Early Boomers frequently talk about religion as something one does and spirituality as something one feels through one’s relationship with God.” In fact, Bengtson writes, “Some Early Boomers take this distinction a step further, describing religious practice as being determined or scripted by a religious institution and spirituality as ‘personal’ and emerging form within an individual.”

“From these interviews we see the leading edge of Early Boomers was born in the wake of World War II’s carnage and came of age during a period of extensive social change in the United States. Political unrest, rising divorce rates, changing mores about gender and sexuality, and the increasingly influential role of the mass media in the 1960s and early 1970s coalesced to destabilize the relatively conservative social conventions of the 1950s.” This group has personally experienced some of the greatest changes with regard to the expectations of their own gender roles, for example. A woman who was not allowed to have a bat mitzvah as a girl could become a rabbi in later life.

That kind of rapid change can be very stressful. “Perhaps because of this,” Bengtson continues, “Early Boomers often mentioned that they relied jointly on religious institutions and spiritual practice as coping mechanisms and sources of emotional support; they emphasized the healing qualities of religion and spirituality.” But some have turned away: “for some in our sample – Jews in particular – the impact of the war and other tragedies proved too much to cope with, prompting them to question their faith in God.” And I do meet people who feel this way, who say that they don’t believe.

This group is the most likely to appreciate a sermon that speaks of the difficulties of finding faith.

And we now turn to the Later Baby Boomers (born 1955-1964)

“Whereas the Early Boomers we spoke with seem to value both the religious and the spiritual realms,” Bengtson writes, “the Later Boomers are less comfortable with ‘Religion’ with a capital R. Many reject what they perceive as the institutional nature of religion in favor of a more personal spirituality. Whereas all but one of those we interviewed believed in God and nearly all identified as ‘spiritual,’ only one-third claimed to be ‘religious.’”

Religion, by its nature, changes slowly. If these individuals were in favor of the liberalization that took place in the 60s and 70s, then they are likely to be skeptical of religious organizations that were slow to change in response to the times. And if they were against that liberalism, they might be skeptical of religious organizations that were trying to stay relevant.

Regardless, that skepticism has meant that “for many Later Boomers, religious practices such as going to religious services detract from, rather than encourage, a deepening spirituality.” That’s a key difficulty for congregations to overcome when speaking to the Later Boomers. I tend to approach the issue as one of rebuilding trust.

This group is the one most likely to enjoy a sermon about what’s wrong about religion and what we can do about it.

Then we come to Generation X (Born 1965-1979)

This is my generation, and I definitely fit the pattern. As Bengtson writes, “Religion informs many of the decisions religious Gen Xers make, including those related to raising children. Indeed, many we interviewed described how helpful religion is for raising children in today’s complicated world.” I would agree!

Bengtson also writes of “another theme that emerged” in these interviews: “religiously independent thinking. Many take temporary breaks from religious practice and feel free to selectively adopt doctrinal beliefs in order to make religion work for them.” Apparently, we’re a flexible bunch, not particularly prone to dogmatic thinking.

And we tend to emphasize independence. “In fact,” he writes, “‘independence’ is one of the few themes that bridge the gap between the believing and nonbelieving members of Generation X. For the believers we interviewed, freely choosing a more flexible approach to religion ultimately allow them to remain committed to their faith. For the nonbelievers in our sample, however, ‘independent thinking’ about religious beliefs and practices translates into a rejection of God altogether.”

We also want proof. As Bengtson explains, “one of the reasons for the nonbelieving Gen Xers’ lack of belief in God” is that “they can’t take the leap of faith required to believe in something that isn’t empirically verifiable.” We tend to take a scientific world-view for granted.

So my generation loves a good sermon about how to belief in God if you don’t have proof.

And our last group is the Millennials (for the purposes of this sample, they were born between 1980 and 1988)

So let me start with the good news, from a congregational perspective: “Unlike many of the Later Boomers who, regardless of affiliation, actively reject organized religion in favor of spirituality, most of the Millennials we spoke with do not demonstrate the same level of antipathy to institutionalized religion.” That’s great to hear.

And now with the bad news: “Those who profess belief often do not attend church [or synagogue] regularly.” However, even the bad news is laced with the positive: “Many commented favorably on the sense of community provided by a church or synagogue, and still others suggested they are shopping around in order to find a congregation with the right ‘fit.’ Furthermore, some Millennials, like many Early Boomers, describe the complementary nature of religious practice and spirituality.” So it is likely that they will join at some point; they are still deciding.

Interestingly, “many Millennials hesitate to adopt a single religion uncritically and in its totality, preferring a flexible belief system that draws from religion but is not entirely dictated by it. A tendency to draw from a range of religious perspectives or to selectively choose from the tenets of a particular religion reflects the nonjudgmental attitude of many Millennials. An open-mindedness and appreciation for diversity was one clear theme that frequently emerged in the Millennials’ interviews, whether they were speaking about religious or nonreligious ideas.”

I have noticed that members of this group tend to appreciate it when I take a non-dogmatic approach to religious observance. And they will question everything – such as the commandment regarding circumcision, for example – and are particularly appreciative when I can make a cogent argument for a practice or observance beyond ‘it’s our tradition to do so.’

As for me, I plan to take this research to heart when I am writing my High Holiday sermons this year. I’d like to do a suite of sermons addressing the value of participating in the Jewish community, using this material to construct arguments that will make sense to each generation, not just my own. And I am thinking that I will also use it when I teach the adult education course on Zionism later this April, to explain the variety of views on the subject.

In the meantime, I am interested in hearing from you: does your own religious experience make sense in the context of your generation? Or do you find that your personal narrative is one of difference? I’d love to know!

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§ One Response to From Generation to Generation

  • Poppi says:

    Silent Generation indeed! My brothers and sisters are anything but silent. We had to be loud to get our fair share. That could be sourced by a sense of scarcity that we all seemed to feel. There never was an excess of anything and just barely enough for all. I can see where this probably stems from our parents attitude of “You’d better appreciate this, you may never have any of it again.” A direct result of the reality of the depression.
    As for religion, my dad’s attitude was “Let them decide for themselves when they grow up”. My stepmom was Lutheran but went to church only twice a year. As a kid I went to several different sunday schools on my own but never really felt accepted at any. And yes, i have always felt religion is scripted to develop a sense of “us and them” for the “true believers”. Spirituality is a personal internal way of living within the bounds of a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Somewhat beyond the bounds of ethics.

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