A Generation’s Roots
The Rev. Martin E. Marty

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream bears all its sons away. They fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day." But the observer of this stream does not have to content himself with a meaningless flow. He thrills to its variations.

Sometimes the stream rushes in a dramatic wave; or it lags on a summer's day. At times it is clear and swift; at others it sluggishly gathers driftwood and debris as it makes its course.

For the stream of time is broken by generations, each hav­ing a character of its own. There is, of course, no absolute break between these generations. The mass of beings in one period— this is a generation. Within this mass, members of one genealogical rank, equi-distant from their immediate ancestors, make up a generation. Often this is averaged to approximately a third of a century.

For convenience' sake, even this is redivided by analysts. So I assume that when our editor proposes to discuss "the younger generation" he is speaking of the people who are assuming responsibilities, who are shaping or beginning to shape the character of our times' flow in the "ever-rolling stream". Having the responsibility and the opportunity to some degree, would place them in the late college, post-college, and young adult period. Not having it fully, remaining "younger" than the dominant generation, this would place the terminus below middle-age.

To characterize this generation is hazardous. What generalizations are fair to the minorities within its great varieties? If it is difficult to generalize about one family or clan, one campus or office, it is hazardous to so for a broad mass.

Yet these attempts are made, in a highly tentative and limited fashion. They are not without value. To return for a final time to the image from the hymn: be able to characterize a portion of the flow of the stream helps prepare one for dealing with it when it passes a specific point. In the case of the mission of the Church, which shall be occupying us here, even tentative generalizations are of assistance.

On these pages we shall explore a sampling of the intellectual history being written about “the younger generation." Having no means of direct access—interview, poll, or case study, we shall take note of those who do, the analysts of our time who have been recognized for their contributions, who have information and the nerve to point their shaky fingers and say "Here they are, and here, it seems to me, they are going.” They find their generation seeking roots, as we shall see in this article, and "silent" in the face of complexities, as we shall see in Mr. Baepler's article.


Since World War II perhaps no study of the changing American character has provoked so much interest as that by David Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denny in The Lonely Crowd. Three types emerge. The “tradition-directed" individual has his culture mediated through a tight group of individuals who make frequent, perhaps daily impact on his life. He is expected to act in approved fashion; his failure to do so brings shame.

The “inner-directed" gets his initial push from his parents, the "older generation", and grows ac­customed to having his psychical life regulated by those who re­semble the parents. He seems to be independent, but in part this is an illusion. His failures lead to awareness of guilt. The "other-directed" receives his initial push and his regulation from a wider circle than his parents provide. The group environment is all-important. It is cosmopolitan in character. If the "inner-directed" person is controlled by a gyroscopic type of equipment, the "other directed" uses a sort of radar over against his social environment. His response to failures in this situation is reflected in anxiety.

Riesman sees this last type as emerging in recent times in the larger cities' upper middle classes. The other-directed type has its parallels to the classic American image, the shallow, free, friendly, uncertain person recognized by European travelers for over a century. But capitalism, industrialism, urbanization, recent education, have helped shape this type in a special way in America's emerging generation.

This person seeks his rootage among his contemporaries, his peers, those with whom he is in contact. He finds it to a degree if he meets approval, if he conforms, if in his own mind he matches the image of himself that they think he should fill.

We are not called to develop or labor this thesis. Here the analysis is important for its observation of an emergent type of person in the "younger generation" which tends toward grounding itself in a conformity and a quest for status in the eyes of his peers—to help tell each who they are and what they are.


Another way of looking at the problem of the quest for roots is to examine the concept of 'belonging'. This has been studied both ethnically and religiously.

Ethnic belonging was the thesis of Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted, a study of immigrations to America and their role in shaping the American character. Handlin found that the immigrants "were American history." Seeing a paradoxical trend toward secularism accompanied by a growth in identification with the churches, Hand­lin began to note that "belonging" was made possible through association with the three major types of religious groups available to the immigrant. Through his association with one of these three he defined himself and found himself. "Men were 'Cath­olics, Protestants, or Jews, categories based less on theological than on social distinctions.”

These ethnic researchers thus inevitably raised the religious question. Will Herberg, in a recent book that is certain to provoke discussion for years to come, Protestant-Catholic Jew, begins where Handlin leaves off and develops his entire thesis on this basis, relating it specifically to the question under concern: the younger generation.

Herberg is dependent upon "Hansen's law," the suggestion by Marcus Hansen that “what the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember.” The grandfathers were immigrants in the late nineteenth century who held to their Old World ethnic-religious patterns. The sons, in their quest for roots and desire to belong, rejected both, as much as possible, to be "Americanized". The grandson wishes to remember these older roots, for he drifts without them. In T. S. Eliot's terms, he is “a seed upon the wind, driven this way and that, and finding no place for lodgement and germination." But Eliot's is a religious judgment. Herberg's is a psychological one, which finds religion a useful medium of satisfaction.

So Herberg's "third generation" belongs, identifies itself, finds roots, not in America as a melting pot" but through the religious melting pots, protestant - Catholic - Jew. The ethnic customs he cannot recover from his grandfather if he wished to. The religious he can, and must.

Critics have pointed out the limitations of this thesis as the interpretation of American re­ligious revival and religiosity but few have dared to suggest that it does not go a long way toward making up the complex of semi-tangibles which will help interpret the rising generation. It is significant here as another contribution, from a different base, toward interpreting the younger as one seeking roots.


The rootlessness of people on the move has created problems for the now nomadic American people, one more mobile than ever before. One opportunity to study this mobility has been in the cluster of studies of suburban life, such as the Fortune magazine analysis of Park Forest, Illinois. Its religious significance is obvious, and forms a part of the pattern. Slightly Cooler in the Suburbs, a whimsical book title of a few years ago, does not apply to suburbia's temperature as far as religious identification is concerned. The degree of religious fervor is another question.

Even popular fiction is in­structive. In the novel which most perceptively describes the psyche of this younger group in suburbia, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, a couple that has been "drifting" moves to a new suburb, and has new status. "And we're going to church every Sunday. We're going to stop lying around Sunday morn­ings, drinking Martinis. We're going to church in a family group."

This using of the church to man's ends, is a familiar theme. The family that prays together, stays together, we are told. Not denying the truth of the aphorism, it must be pointed out that in most cases the urging is done in a way that makes "staying together" the desirable goal, and God is a means toward that end.

Since this "family group" identification is the great temp­tation of the suburbs, prophetic religion finds great resistance. Religion becomes respectable; the devil wears grey flannel and sips cocktails, and appears to be no threat. But as Tillich warns, "if Christianity ever dies in America, it will die in the American suburban church . . . not under attacks from without, but of its own respectability."

The warning is important in that the great growth in religious affiliation is known among this group, with this mentality, in this age-group. As in similar cir­cumstances, the church here faces its greatest temptations in precisely the same areas as it knows its greatest possibilities. To see people seeking the church as a place to stand, or to sink roots can be a perversion of religion. Or it can be an opportunity, in the words of Ephesians, for the Church under the Holy Spirit to seek that "Christ may dwell in your hearts," and that sinners be "rooted and grounded" in His love. Failure to perceive this dual possibility within the younger generation's affiliation with the churches could be disastrous.


When a scientist becomes homiletical, his audience takes notice.

This is particularly true when he is of the stature of J. Robert Oppenheimer. His speech at Columbia's bicentennial may give some clue to the rootlessness and its partial solutions, which characterize "the young generation." Newness and change go on on a vast and confusing scale. "We know too much for one man to know much; we live too various­ly to live as one... Our knowledge separates as well as it unites; our orders disintegrate as well as bind; our art brings us together and sets us apart. Diversity, complexity, richness overwhelm the man of today. Superficiality and fatigue become the temptations of those perpetually and precariously balanced between the infinitely open and the intimate.

Oppenheimer's solution, it seems to us, is an observation of what is happening as much as a counsel of what should happen. It speaks of the younger generation as much as to it. Coming from one of secular orientation, it is particularly interested to hear:

"Each . . . will have to cling to what is close to him, to do what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing.”

This tendency toward a new traditionalism is also both an opportunity and a trap. The conservatism of the churches appeals to a generation which is learning to do what Oppenheimer says must be done. But complacency and satisfaction can be the too-immediate results of such a quest for roots when it finds its ground in religion. The scientist continues:

“It is at the same time a world in which none of us can find . . . sanction for any ignorance, any insensitivity, any indifference." “This cannot be an easy life... but this is, as I see it, the condition of man; and in this condition we can help, because we one another." This openness and depth must be the counterpart and corollary of clinging to what is close, to what is known, is possible, is traditional, is loved.

A remarkably similar analysis of man’s situation, first applied to youth and through it to an era occurred in an article by H. Richard Niebuhr, quoted also in Herberg’s book, who is well equipped to observe from a theological viewpoint:

“Present-day youth has to rest its large-scale security on deeper foundations and is and this is probably the source of much of its religious interest. . . . Some of it is finding no greater security than an Epicurean philosophy of chance offers; but much of it is getting down to bedrock and finding a foundation on which life can rest unmoved, if not unshaken, in these stormy times. There is a venturesorneness in this quest, but it is a hidden thing and not apparent to those who think of risk only in terms of risked capital or risked lives. In this respect, once more, youth today, so far as it participates in this movement of the human spirit toward a less vulnerable faith in life than that which has been tested and found wanting, is more representative of a period of history than merely of itself."

The security and foundations are more obvious than the venturesomeness in the quest for roots—but in the venturesomeness is the Church's opportunity.


Simone Well's The Need for Roots, a "prelude to a declaration of duties toward mankind" provides a text for the ground we have covered by sampling analyses from sociology, ethnology, religion, science, theology:

"To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recog­nized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community, which pre­serves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain expectations for the future. This participation is a natural one, in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession, and social surroundings. Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw well-nigh the whole of his moral, intellec­tual, and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part."

A solution to uprootedness or rootlessness seems to be at least part of the quest that would characterize those who are part of time's ever-rolling stream today, the "younger generation." It cannot but be of value to the churches to be aware of this, not for exploitation, but for purposes of sympathetic approach, for service, for direction to Him who alone can root and ground the human soul in divine love and a peace which passes understanding, beyond the chaos of our times.

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