Texting God

This afternoon, I gave a talk at the Annual Pastoral Conference Day at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. It was delightful to speak at this gathering of pastoral workers from around the area, particularly because they are so often the brokers of the theological life of so many Catholics. Pastoral workers are in the trenches of faith, often working a kind of spiritual triage in the parish context, giving people hope, inspiration, support, and challenge. I have never not felt a palpable wisdom and care -- however much hard-earned weariness may also be there, too -- in the midst of such teachers, ministers, counselors, administrators, and more.

My talk was called "Texting God: Faith and Culture Among Youth and Young Adults Today," and in it, we first heard about the various pastoral locations of those assembled, including their observations and questions about youth and young adult faith today. This naturally led into my presentation about contemporary religion research on younger generations, in which I focused especially on the seven or eight books so far that have been generated by the National Study of Youth and Religion, which are presently the most substantial, thoughtful, important and influential studies on young persons and religion in the USA.


I underscored the finding, stated variously in NSYR-inspired publications, that the majority of youth and young adults are not highly affiliated, are not, in their language, "committed traditionalists." In one text, they estimate 15% of young persons are. Most young persons, these works argue, are in a range of moderate affiliation to disaffiliation, are "selective adherents," are "spiritually open," or are "religiously indifferent." Most young adults, in other words, cannot relate to any form of religious management (whether by institutional leaders or theologians) who want to require them to accept some religious (as doctrinal/ritual/praxical) whole as a condition or definition of orthodoxy. One challenge is that often the religious leaders and theologians imagine themselves/ourselves as the "committed traditionalists" (whether conservative or progressive), and we are experientially a long way from where most young adults are. And the young adults are not likely to move in great numbers away from this configuration. It appears to be the case that the pattern of religiosity set in place by one's mid-20s is likely to stay in place into adulthood, and be elaborated, but not radically altered -- except in unusual cases.

I argued that these "middling" positions should not be assumed to be "deficient" positions theologically. That before such a case can be made at the level of care of souls -- which is finally the first and last theological level, the deepest theological task -- the caregiver/theologian must learn the story of the young person that led to that selective adherence, that spiritual openness, that religious indifference -- or that committed traditionalism. We must consider, and indeed pastorally and theologically we should initially presume, that in what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a "secular age," that these are positions held with more or less integrity by people who are trying to make sense of their lives.

I then discussed my sense for the kind of theological imagination that is fitting for this situation, an imagination in which Ignatian spirituality plays a significant role. One of the tasks of pastoral work becomes helping people make good discernments about the practices that really characterize their everyday lives, to notice movements of desolation and consolation, to honor the mystery that they bear and that they are. There is much more to be said about this style of ministry and this way of proceeding theologically, which is going forward in many different ways today, but patiently taking the measure of faith as it is today, and being immersed in people's lives in the interest of finding out what good news means in the present, is a start.

With my undergraduate students, I have asked them to imagine "texting God," and to write about what that text -- that quick and informal personal note -- would say. And I ask them later to imagine God texting them back, and what that text might say. Then to open up this imaginative exercise by following up the parts of it that provoke them or evoke feelings that they notice, and to write about that for themselves. This kind of exercise can be as helpful at getting students to take an indirect avenue into their experience as can asking academic theologians to review our own written work for the presence of our own spiritual biography, however veiled, throughout. (This latter exercise, which I recommend in a recent book, is perhaps somewhat rare so far as I can tell.)

These are all ways of learning to pay deeper attention -- for committed traditionalists as much as selective adherents, the spiritually open, or perhaps even the religiously indifferent.

Tom Beaudoin, New York City

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