by Pastor Doug Kings
The topic at the next-to-last meeting of our current book discussion series was life after death. We pondered what, if anything, do we imagine our existence to be after we die?
Jesus, the Christian mystics, and most teachers of the world’s spiritual traditions agree that our essential being, our true self, is already united with God and transcends our mortal life. Salvation, these voices agree, is our discovering this truth, and centering our life on this truth, here and now. In the gospel of John, Jesus talks often of “eternal life” as a reality we can know now, rather than something we are waiting for in the great by-and-by.
In our conversation, the group recognized this topic had special significance for us because we were all nearer to the end of our lives than the beginning. Also, we were reading this book (Unbelievable by John Shelby Spong) because we agreed that many ancient beliefs no longer had much value, including afterlife in a place above the sky called heaven.
But what about younger people? Most have even less use for ancient religions traditions. And most probably don’t give much attention at this point in their lives to what happens at their physical demise. Yet they do ponder questions about life’s meaning and what is ultimately important, perhaps more than we realize.
After our session, I emailed the group the link to a short video illustrating this. It’s by Stephen Antonioni, a Canadian filmmaker in his late 20s, so a late Millennial or early Gen Z, depending how you measure those things. “Does Anyone Else Feel Like Everything Has Changed?” has nearly 3 million views, which is a lot on YouTube, especially for something that’s not a music video. Plus, it has over 23,000 comments! Antonioni obviously hit a chord.
The comments are essentially a resounding “Yes!” to the question Antonioni poses in the title. He apparently expresses for many of his generation the awareness that in their lifetime something has fundamentally changed in the wider culture, and not for the better. Much of the concern is economic. Many in their 20s and 30s believe they will likely not achieve a standard of living equal to that of their parents, let alone exceed it.
But their anxiety is not just about money. As Antonioni says, they also sense that the nature of human relationships has changed. This generation still remembers life before social media and ubiquitous smart phones and recognizes the artificiality that has been introduced into how we interact with one another. Young adults also recognize that a major loss of confidence in social institutions has occurred: government, education, business, religion, health care, you name it.
Now I think Antonioni has some hits and misses in his theories about why this shift has occurred. I also think some of the changes he notes have been underway for a lot longer than he realizes. Yet I think that Antonioni is correct that many of his generation feel that the world under their feet has shifted in an important and ominous way. When they look to the future it may not seem like a black hole, but for many it does appear to be a dense fog bank, hiding an uncertain and ominous road ahead.
What impressed me as much as the video itself was the flood of comments, most (but not all) by people close in age to Antonio. Many express gratitude to him for saying aloud what they have thought and felt. The vast majority try to express their own experiences of what Antonioni is pointing to. Here are a few examples (unedited for grammar or spelling):
I was born in 1993. All my life, I could never shake the feeling that I showed up at the end of the good times.
What’s weird to me is the shift in relationships…. Now that there are tons of apps that allow you to reach out to people, there’s hardly any communication. I lost contact with half of my relatives. For no apparent reason. I just feel so isolated. And every relationship, every friendship feels shallow. It wasn’t like this before.
Couple weeks ago i was eating dinner with my dad and i just said to him, “hey dad, is it me or are things like really really weird outside?” And he said “there’s definitely something wrong, ive seen tough times but theres definitely something deeply wrong today.” That gave me chills….
Part of why I think things feel off now is because people used to believe in the future, and now we don’t…. I remember people talking about how the future held these great things and how we could be anything we wanted to be. The world felt full of possibilities and wonders. Now everyone seems to think that you’ll need to struggle to get by and in the end it won’t matter…. I don’t know anyone that is looking forward to anything, or who believes that things are going to get better soon.
I’m 18 and I feel like I’m trying be an adult in a world I don’t recognise from when I was a child. I feel like I’ve been robbed of any stability in my life and forced into an unnatural way of life. Everyone seems to be sitting around waiting for the Internet to fail so we can go back to real life.
For me it’s a feeling of staleness, like there’s nothing to be excited for anymore. Literally going through the motions but feeling as if I’m not here. Literally like living through a simulation. Life feels unreal…. It’s like a universal jadedness. Something feels off. Maybe like everyone’s saying… We’re waiting for the bottom to drop out. I don’t know, but it sucks.
I pulled these from the first hundred comments I scrolled through, but as I said: there’s 23,000 more where those came from. Interestingly, there were also comments from people over 50 and the ones I saw were all in agreement with the video’s basic premise. How representative are these comments? I don’t know but it seems safe to say “a lot” of younger people feel this way, and perhaps quite a few of their elders, as well.
My concern here is not with what might be solutions to any of these perceived problems. Rather, I am wondering how we live in times of uncertainty and anxiety. How do we find hope? How do we live quality lives now, when the future is unknown and we fear it may be worse than the present?
Early in its life, the church became the dispenser of salvation in a life-to-come, but that product expired long ago. Nor are people interested in getting their God-talk right by learning creeds and doctrines, or enacting rituals based on such talk.
We need to reclaim those voices sidetracked by the church, including that of Jesus, who said it’s our experience of God that matters, not our beliefs. Such a God (and it may be true as some have said that that word has become an obstacle, loaded down with our misunderstandings) is real now, found at the center of our being.
If the church is still wondering where people have gone, especially young people, perhaps scrolling through this video’s comments will provide a clue. They are not looking for life-after-death, but they are looking for real life now, which transcends our materialism, technological wonders, and greed. A life based on a stable center of love, peace and joy and which carries us through any uncertainty, disturbance or loss. That, as I read him, is what Jesus meant by “eternal life.”
Blessings in your life and ministry.