Its About Tradition

Passing on the Faithby Edited by James L. Heft, S.M.Fordham Univ. Press. 321p $22
This is an important book for the crucial question it raises and its mode of response, as much as for how well it succeeds. It asks about “how to pass on religious tradition to youth in the context of the contemporary culture of the United States.” The response, derived from papers of a symposium held at the University of Southern California in October 2004, brings together scholars and practitioners from Judaism, Islam and Christianity to learn from one another across religious lines. Recognizing our common task and challenge, the contributors also look at success stories—congregations that are effective in “passing on the faith,” while avoiding both fundamentalism and relativism.

In every era, all communities of religious tradition face the make-or-break issue of “passing on the faith” to following generations. From our contemporary perspective, however, it seems that this was more easily done in bygone days, and mostly through cultural osmosis. Time was when particular faiths were distinctly located and combined with their cultures for a powerful marinade that could seep in to the marrow. Not only was this true in the villages of “the old countries”; it was replicated in many communities of the New World as well. Anyone who grew up in a 1950s Catholic family and parish in Boston, for example, will remember that taking on Catholic identity was almost inevitable (and had a lasting effect). Even for people who might try to erase that primary socialization, the traces remained. Now, such enclaves have largely disappeared in the United States and even more so in Europe. The essays in Passing on the Faith provide an insightful summary of the key reasons.


One is the cultural and religious pluralism of today’s “villages,” coupled with the often counter-inculturation by the media in various forms. Just imagine: “as the Millennials build their entertainment cocoon,” 71 percent say that pornography is their first choice, reports Jack Miles. Another is the insistence on personal decision in all matters, making today’s youth “more autonomous in what they want to continue of the practices and beliefs” of their parents (James L. Heft). Add here the dim-inished credibility of religious autho-rities as well as the “unchecked commodification” of religion that presents “reductive and pandering ex-pressions” of faith traditions (Miles). Such watering down and sugarcoating may first appear effective but encourages only a “therapeutic deism” (Christian Smith) among young people in-stead of “real commitments to religious ideas and ways of life that make demands on them” (Nancy Ammerman).

Besides reviewing the difficulties, various essays help to summarize important sociological studies on the religious attitudes and practices of American youth and young adults. The overwhelming conclusion, Heft points out, is that “all religious traditions in the United States face extraordinary challenges, given [our] pluralistic and consumerist culture.”

This book resolutely eschews the typical hand-wringing about the indifference of young people to religion, and their naïveté in attempting to be “spiritual but not religious,” to “believe without belonging.” Instead, it makes clear from success stories in all three traditions, that itis possible for faith communities to “pass on” their faith effectively.

The formulas for success seem surprisingly obvious. Young people need a life-giving faith community in which they feel included and respected and in which they can actively participate; they need to have “a sense of ownership” and “to be met where they are” (Tobin Belzer and others). They need to participate in both personal and communal religious practices; these practices, however, must be “real prayer” and “real worship” rather than mere tokens (Br. John of Taizé). Young people need a thorough grounding in their own faith tradition—“nonreductive and nonpandering”—and yet should be readied to “bridge in an open and dialogical way the ever-increasing religious pluralism of the contemporary world.” (Peter Phan’s review of the theological warrants for “religious identity and belonging amidst diversity and pluralism” is helpful here.) Participa-tion in the works of justice and compassion is particularly effective to “inspire and require” faith commitment in young people (Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon). Of course, it helps if a congregation has a staff person who can “connect well with youth” (Heft). And instead of putting all responsibility on the congregation, parents should practice all of the above, in their own way, within the family (Smith).

I note with appreciation the consistent attention to language. The Rev. Melchor Sánchez de Toca argues that contemporary faith needs “a new language that takes into account both intelligence and emotion.” Ammerman proposes that youth need to be “culturally bilingual,” knowing well the “native parochial language” of their own faith and also having accessible language to represent their faith in the public realm. The book’s introduction by James Heft is a fine overview of what follows, and the two closing essays by Jack Miles and Diane Winston raise further questions while pointing forward with hope.

As with all books, one could note weaknesses, beginning with the standard comment that essay collections are uneven. Also, the title and theme of “passing on the faith” could be taken to suggest that any faith is a static affair to be simply “passed” from generation to generation. For Christians, this would not reflect the “fresh waters” that Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman and to Christians ever after (John 4), nor his urging that scribes learned in the reign of God must take “from the treasury both new and old” (Mt 13:52). Though the collection brings together a distinguished coterie of commentators, none could be identified as a scholar of religious education—the academic discipline defined by its concern for “passing on the faith.” This lacuna is particularly evident when authors force sociological descriptions to become prescriptive.

Nonetheless, this is an excellent resource that should be read by anyone interested in youth and the continuity of religious tradition.


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