In 1999, when I began teaching at St. Louis University, my students were a mix of Catholics and Protestants. When asked about their faith, a few would say that they were “raised x but questioning,” but most identified with a Christian denomination. In  the fall of 2012, my students were split down the middle between Christians and “Nones” (those who do not affiliate with any religion), and my whole way of teaching theology has had to change.

The rise of the “Nones” has been well-documented by the Pew Forum, which reported this fall that 20% of all Americans and 32% of 18-29 year olds, now call themselves “unaffiliated.” Putnam and Campbell, in their wonderful book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, show how this category, which until very recently claimed only a few percent of Americans, started to gain in popularity in the 1990s following the rise of the religious right in the 1980s.  In their view, young adults turned away from religion because they found it hypocritical, judgmental, and insincere. While fewer than 5% identify as atheist or agnostic, the rest, who are open to the divine, are looking for more tolerance and spiritual depth than they find in mainstream religion.

This shift has had a huge effect on my classroom. My “Faith and Politics” class used to be marked by spirited debate between Christian conservatives and Christian liberals.  I loved getting these students to talk to each other and learn to understand and even respect their “enemies.” I was practiced at reigning in overly-zealous crusaders on both sides.  I could count on passion and commitment.  I worked on dialogue,  tolerance, and getting students to see that moving from faith to politics is complicated. Over time, this has been changing and this fall, difference had arrived. Very few students are passionate about faith and politics. As Putnam and Campbell predict, they are all about tolerance. Debates aren’t nearly as spirited. I have to really work to get students to seriously entertain the idea that theological claims have political implications. I often speak about Christianity with a distance that used to mark my teaching at California State University, Long Beach.  I can no longer assume that “we” are Christians arguing amongst ourselves about how to live well.

Of course, there are many good things about the new situation. My Christian students are less parochial and judgmental. They see more gray and are much more able to affirm that religion and politics are complicated.  More and more, I have a few students who are Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. Their comments and questions are tremendously valuable to good ethical conversation and they sometimes help Christian students see their religion in a new way.

Still, I can’t deny a sense of loss. I feel it especially in a class called “Christian Moral Life,” when I introduce students to the idea of liturgy as a source of ethical reflection. The beautiful writings of David Matzko McCarthy, Therese Lysaught, and William Cavanaugh, which have been so influential for the new generation of Catholic moral theologians (many of whom write for this blog), often fall flat. When given the freedom to speak, students tell of their deep disconnect from liturgy. Most simply can’t imagine that anyone (or at least anyone interesting) actually loves liturgy and wants it to shape their lives.

Apart from the very important question of why liturgy is so alienating for this generation, what concerns me is the difficulty students have imagining that intelligent, spiritual people see their lives through the lens of Christian symbols, story, community, and tradition. Recently, Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own wrote a story in the New York Times Sunday Book Review entitled, “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”  He mourns the loss of serious fiction that grapples with faith, and speaks of his continuing search:

All the while, you hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade. You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all to­gether. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable.

In our classrooms and even on this blog, we often discuss the implications of belief but overlook its essence. As Elie says,

When we talk about belief we talk about what is permissible — about the sex abuse scandal or school prayer or whether the church should open its basement to 12‑step everything. What about the whole story? Is it our story? Is belief believable? There the story ends — right where it ought to begin.

Perhaps if moral theologians are to engage a new generation of students we will have to begin in a different place. We will have to tell the story and find ways to show our students that this story still speaks. We can’t simply rely on the fiction of the past (O’Connor, Dostoevsky, Merton, Day), although this might be a place to begin to show that belief is credible and beautiful. We will also have to read what matters to our students and see where they find the depth that is missing in their experience of Christianity. It will be a new kind of conversation, an attempt to talk together about what matters across lines of belief and unbelief. It may not be what we envisioned when we began teaching, but it could be a way to find grace in unexpected places, like classrooms full of “Nones.”