Baby boomers may have their mutual funds and second homes, and slackers their computers and coffee shops, but many have become spiritually unmoored. So says Scotty McLennan, author of Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning. The real-life chaplain at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and the inspiration for the Rev. Scot Sloan, the red-bearded, idealist minister in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury, McLennan, 51, tells disillusioned adults that religion “isn’t the constricted, judgmental thing you thought it was when you freeze-dried it at age 12. Give it another shot.” He did. A Presbyterian turned atheist when he entered Yale University in the ’60s (Trudeau was a classmate), he saw his faith rekindled when he attended “A Seminar for Friendly Disbelievers” run by the activist chaplain William Sloane Coffin. After receiving degrees in divinity and law from Harvard, McLennan was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1975 and spent nine years as a legal-aid lawyer in Boston before taking his post at Tufts. McLennan, who lives in Milton, Mass., with wife Ellen, 52, a real estate broker, and sons Will, 17, and Dan, 15, spoke to PEOPLE contributor Tom Duffy in Medford.
Do Americans still care about religion?
Yes. More than 90 percent say they believe in God, and 50 percent take part in some sort of religious observance at least once a year. Certainly I find more students saying that they are spiritual. When I came to Tufts 16 years ago, people questioned whether we even needed a chaplain. Since then, Jewish and Protestant services have doubled, and Catholic services have been packing the chapel.
Why do people seek spirituality?
Scientific and technological revolutions and material success have not provided all we’ve hoped for in making the world a safe, healthy and trustworthy place. We seem to be moving toward ecological disaster, there’s been an increase in poverty, and we don’t have enough time for family and community. That’s left people without a sense of balance and wholeness.
Why don’t they simply return to the religion of their childhoods?
There’s a real suspicion of institutions and of the clergy because they keep preaching against promiscuity and materialism, then get caught soliciting prostitutes or building financial empires. And mainstream religion can be too concerned with dogma and make demands that seem unreasonable. People typically go through what I call an independent stage in late adolescence and early adulthood when they reject doctrine, demythologize Scripture and look at God as a force or energy instead of as a person.
Often, as people develop careers, they begin to ask whether their life has meaning. Between 35 and 40 they often come to a more nuanced understanding of God. They can understand God intellectually and at the same time pray and draw inspiration. Very few people reach the final mystical stage in which they see God in all things and all things in God.
Why do you encourage people to follow an established faith and not mix different religious practices?
In the long run, I don’t think spiritual depth is possible by grafting together different traditions that are not fully experienced or understood. It’s like thinking you can learn a foreign language without learning the vocabulary or grammar or speaking with other native speakers. It takes work and discipline. Like anything that’s worthwhile, there will be moments of discouragement. But I don’t want people to think religion is all dour and sour. Don’t forget to have fun along the way.
Speaking of which, you do look like Doonesbury’s Rev. Sloan. Any other similarities?
He is a liberal, politically active character who has gotten into the same issues—the sanctuary movement, the antiapartheid movement, getting one’s Web page up as a chaplain—though usually before I have. I would hope that he’s a little more simplistic than I am. But Garry never consults me about this.