God and the Teenage Mind

A religion teacher today faces students schooled in both scientific methods and vague understandings of what is meant by the spiritual. Students often exhibit a strange mixture of hard-headed empiricism and naïve superstition. When I suggest to my students, for instance, that reality includes the intangible, which can be glimpsed in the light of faith and reason, they nod in agreement and confess their belief in the predictions of Nostradamus, about whom they have seen a documentary. For them the intangible means the realm of fortune-telling and ghosts, to which they are willing to give assent because of the “empirical” evidence offered by television and the Internet.

In such an atmosphere, teaching religion requires familiarity with a range of subjects seemingly unrelated to those covered in the religion textbooks. Teachers of religion need to be able to explain the distinctions between different kinds of knowing, the various ways human beings arrive at truth claims, the type of understanding proper to the spheres of science and religion, and the relation between mystery and faith.


Too often both textbook and teacher simply assume that students understand what is meant by the term God. I have seen many student texts intended to be an introduction to Catholicism that use the word God from the first page to the last without once attempting to explain just who or what they are referring to. As John Haught states in his aptly named book, What Is God?, “Unless there is some common ground of reference when people speak of the divine…it seems pointless to speak to them of the divine at all.” Unfortunately, for many students God-talk is pointless.

Five years of teaching high school religion have led me to concur wholeheartedly with the suggestion made by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton that adults, including religious educators, need to “develop more confidence in teaching [adolescents] about their faith traditions and expecting meaningful responses from them.” This suggestion, from their book Soul Searching (2005), is backed by interviews and surveys of more than 3,000 teenagers regarding religion and spirituality. Among other findings, the authors contend that most teenagers, even those in Catholic schools, have an extremely poor understanding of the most basic concepts and beliefs held by their particular faith traditions. While Smith and Denton do not lay the entire blame for this situation on the shoulders of religious educators, their suggestion that adults attempting to communicate the faith to adolescents need both confidence and high expectations certainly challenges those of us whose job it is to teach and transmit the Catholic faith to our students.

Before high school religious education can be reinvigorated, then, the confidence with which educators themselves speak of God must be built up. Their education must go beyond a passing knowledge of terms and formulations of doctrines to include a fundamental and rigorous analysis of such concepts as meaning, truth, belief and knowledge, as well as the ways in which human beings arrive at these concepts in the first place. In other words, we need to place philosophical theology at the heart of educating both religion teachers and those they serve.

Tapping Tradition

Most students in fact have already formed their own basis for belief or unbelief, and in both instances their implicit “philosophies” are cobbled together from some of the worst God-talk popular culture has to offer. In this sense, there is no question that students are up to the task of philosophical reflection about God. The problem is that this reflection is taking place without the direction and input of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

For the last several years I have begun my classes with a lengthy unit on the doctrine of God. I have introduced students to thinkers from Thomas Aquinas to Karl Rahner and Elizabeth Johnson. We have looked at what we mean by God from several perspectives, like the analogy of being, the logical movement from creation to creator in natural theology and issues of gendered language. I have had to work hard to translate this material into vocabulary, examples and conceptual models that my students are able to understand, and they have consistently risen to the occasion. After all, these same students are also taking courses in geometry, chemistry and world history. If they can master the Pythagorean theorem and the complex interaction of chemical substances, they are up to the task of understanding the relation between freedom and transcendence, and the need to use analogical language when speaking of God.

In these times of worry over the loss of the Catholic identity of both secondary and higher educational institutions, such explicit use of philosophy in the service of understanding faith also serves to highlight the Catholic roots of religious education. The inextricable link between faith and reason is one of the hallmarks of the Catholic tradition. When students understand that Catholicism has a rich history of encouraging and using reason to approach mystery, they begin to overcome their sense that intelligence and faith are antithetical. They also begin to understand the distinctly Catholic take on issues like evolution and biblical literalism, issues fraught with conflict for many other Christians. In an age that often conflates knowledge with scientific empiricism and faith with uncritical fundamentalism, it is important to provide students with a Catholic approach to understanding the complexities of the “God question” that enables them to give meaningful responses to questions about faith.

Recently I witnessed an example of what can happen when students have engaged in the challenging process of thinking about God. A transfer student from another Catholic school arrived in my sophomore Scripture class several months after we had completed the unit on the doctrine of God. As I was explaining that ancient Israelite cosmology viewed the universe as composed of three tiers, with God residing above the dome of the sky, one of my students raised his hand to say that technically this could not be correct because God is infinite and cannot therefore be confined to a single space; that would place a limit on God, who transcends all limits. The transfer student raised her hand in confusion, and I attempted to explain what the other student was talking about by mentioning that God has no body. Still confused, she said that she had always thought of God as being like Hercules, “but real.” Several students then tried to explain to her that God is not a “thing,” but rather the act of existence itself from which all “things” proceed. Though the transfer student remained confused, and I suggested she see me later, this was one of those moments teachers dream about. My students had actually listened, understood and were able to communicate that understanding in response to live questions.

A Personal, Relational God

None of this is to suggest that religious education should focus solely on the philosophical comprehension of God. In fact, if this intellectual understanding is not followed by a presentation of the personal, loving and gracious God of revelation, then the philosophical aspect might do more harm than good. Addressing the reasoned basis for faith in the God of revelation is only one component—albeit an extremely important one—of a faith education that seeks to form students as whole persons: mind, body and soul. Liturgy, prayer and service are equally necessary if students are to deepen the understanding they have begun in religion class. Nevertheless, if we truly desire to form a generation capable of facing the problems and promises of both the church and the world, we must make the ability to give a reason for the hope within them (1 Pt 3:15) a necessary precondition.

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9 years 11 months ago
This is wonderful; I wish I had had a teacher like you in high school. You lay out well the reasons I became a philosophy major in college.
Christopher Mulcahy
9 years 11 months ago

What a blessing that Mr. Rothrock share his empirical experiences with high school religion class!  I share Edward's sentiments above.  Also, it is refreshing to think we have a cadre of dedicated, orthodox Catholic religion teachers in America (Massachusetts, yet!) in orderly classrooms where such learning can happen.

Sadly, however, the misconceptions Mr. Rothrock describes finding among his Catholic high-schoolers give evidence of another problem-the content of Sunday sermons.  Here in Florida we are treated to unending exhortations to love our neighbor and embrace social justice.  Have I mentioned love and social justice yet?  Is there no place any more for pedagogy on Sunday?  The nature and importance of the sacraments?  An outline of the Church's teaching on the nature of the triune God?  Or, holy smoke, how about the other three of the cardinal virtues (can you name them, other than "justice")?  I realize the twelve gifts of the spirit or, gasp, the seven deadly sins would be too much to ask. (These latter include sloth and envy, and I believe these topics are forbidden on church grounds.)  But we could define prayer (from the Baltimore catechism "raising our hearts and minds to God")  or discuss the marks of the Church (one, holy, catholic, apostolic).

Anyway, it seems like we could.  But of course love and social justice are the most important.  (Question: once we know this, why do we need to come back?)

9 years 11 months ago
Very good.  I agree completely.
Rudy Bernard
9 years 11 months ago

I agree that a philosophical understanding is required to understand the Catholic intellectual tradition. It is important to counteract the pervasive lack of real thinking promoted by our consumerist and entertainment culture. It is a real uphill battle and I hope that Brad Rothrock will continuie his valiant efforts.

However there needs to be some way to connect such an approach with the Jesus of history and faith, arisung from such a different cultural milieu wherein the experience of God in Temple and synagogue worship and Jewish law  was taken for granted by the whole society.

The concrete historical particulars of our religious history are very foreign to our modern secular culture and pose quite a challenge for our 'good news'. I don't have the answers to that challenge and wish Brad Rothrock the best in pursuing that goal.

Sherrill Mc Mahon
9 years 11 months ago
Thank you for this article. I think it would be helpful if Mr. Rothrock could be a consultant to publishers of religion text books and catechetical materials. His approach would also help with the re-evangelizing of adult Catholics who may never have learned the basics of their faith. It seems that so many Catholics who leave the Church never really understood the jewel they had. 
Mary Keane
9 years 11 months ago

Hoping others are brave enough to try to navigate the adolescent storms.  More than foundational doctrine is lost, however, as if that were not enough.  A crisis in faith is very common in adolescence, but not much addressed.  Former President Carter has mentioned it in some of his autobiographical writings, but I haven't come across much out there that is current beyond 12-step moments, which are good for many things, but a wee bit of movement beyond the subjective could expand horizons.

Surely no such thing as adolescent doubt and dismay would be tolerated in the "good old" days.  Fortunately, those days are gone, but the path to chart now may be fairly complex.

Richard Sullivan
9 years 11 months ago

For me, catholic education begins with scripture and a fundamental belief that Jesus is the light of the world, the way, the truth, and the life. The teacher must demonstrate his or her conviction that this is so and thereby share his or her faith.

I think Catholic doctrine needs to be interpreted much like Scripture with a thorough understanding of the mind set of its formulators, their philosophical concepts and their limitations. For too long we have looked at doctrine as if its human formulations had the imprimatur of the Holy Spirit. Hopefully, the formulators prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit but in actuality they worked according to their lights and limitations. There should be lots of questions about what those limitations produced.

I am seventy five years old and I still struggle with the idea of God. To say that God is the “act of existence” is very abstract. In a recent review of the book “Do Scientists Believe in God by N.H. Frankenberry, William Cleary notes that faith may be a “great deep awareness of astonishing mystery around us, within us, under us. Call this mystery “God” if you like: most people do. Others do no want to name the mystery at all, lest we think we know what we’re talking about.”

Jesus taught that God was like a loving father. He also taught that we must love God and each other and we cannot say that we love God whom we do not see if we do not love our neighbor whom we do see. My personal belief is that we love God when we love who we are and love each other as they are and respect all things living or non living as they are.

I do not think that I can talk with God directly anymore than a flea can talk with me yet a flea has more in common with me than I have with God. A flea, however, can get my attention and I can get God’s attention or indeed have God’s attention all the time for I believe that I exist in the divine and the divine exists in me.

Theologians say that God is spiritual and we accept that without any proof. But why can’t we believe in a God that is both spiritual and material as we are? Are material things like our bodies, like sun rises and sunsets, gentle breezes, flower gardens, roaring seas, thunderous storms and an ever expanding universe not worthy of being identified with God, be in God be of God? Pantheism, pantheism you say as if that were an answer.

Perhaps, if we believed in the materiality of God we would not have tolerated the wholesale abuse of the ecosystem.

Nicholas Clifford
9 years 11 months ago

I have no experience teaching religion to students of the sorts faced by Rothrock and O'Malley (though I am tempted to ask since when Catholics were expected to  know much about the subjects on which they all too easily lay down the law?) But in a sense Mr. Rothrock states the question (how do you approach teen-agers and young adults), and Mr. O'Malley shows why it isn't being answered (because the latest guide to teaching, at least from his description, has been drawn up by people with no experience in the subject).

Catholic educators of the young, Mr. Rothrock says, must be to speak of God with confidence, going beyond a "passing knowledge of terms and formations of doctrines" to a "rigorous analysis" of meaning, truth, belief, and knowledge. But why just educators of the young? How about bishops and (many) priests? Are they not supposed to be teachers - of adults as well as of the young? All too often, it seems, their idea of "teaching" is to play it safe by proclaiming on those subjects which have "written ecclesiastical validation" (Fr. O'Malley's words. But proclaming is not educating, and any of us who've been in the teaching business knows you don't get far by simply by announcing your own ideas and expecting them to be lapped up (Listen up, class: Germany started World War I by itself in 1914, while Britain, France and Russia were innocent bystanders of the Hun onslaught. No questions permitted). And if the bishops are not up to the task of education themselves, then they should staff their diocesan newspapers (for instance) with at least some who understand the need for for it, and why education is not simply proclamation.

Some years ago the highly intelligent Catholic chaplain of a great university (not 20 miles from Trenton, New Jersey!) told me of a series he'd started for Catholic students to help them deal with the sorts of questions they were already facing and would continue to face in the wider world. How can you continue to be a member of a church that treats women the way it does? That is embroiled in financial scandal? (this was at the time of the Bank of the Holy Spirit's problems, among others) And so on. He appeared to think it worked. But the approach demands not only courage, but also the sort of confidence about which Mr. Rothrock speaks.

9 years 11 months ago

This essay presumes that the God of revelation must somehow fit the God of philosophers. In other words, the reality of God must be made to fit this or that idea coming from this or that philosopher about who or what God is. Worse still, it implicitly suggests there is no disagreement between philosophers, that is, that God has somehow been philosophically defined.

I think it's the other way around. In natural theoiogy one used to quickly learn that the term points to the idea and the latter to the reality. This essay errs by putting the cart before the horse, that is, the idea before the reality.

There is the real God who reveals Himself as a personal Savior, that is, as Yahweh to the Jews, then as Jesus Christ and now as Holy Spirit, and who communicates with us through the sacraments, Holy Scripture and prayer. This is where Catholic philosophy needs to begin. If it doesn't it reaches a dead end fairly soon given the limitations of concepts and of language.

Catholic philosophers should strive to help us understand this Mystery to the extent that they can, if they are to remain relevant to our faith, as they have been.

9 years 11 months ago
The student was right when pointing out one cannot limit God, not even philosophically. After all God himself in the Old Testament speaks of heaven as His throne and the earth as His foot stool. If this is true and I believe it is. Then God cannot be limited by a physical structure erected by human hands such as the Jerusalem temple and presumibly even less by human thought philosophical or otherwise.
9 years 11 months ago

Following are some further comments in response to this provocative essay:
"God is infinite and cannot therefore be confined to a single space." That God is infinite doesn't say much.. Infinite what? Infinite space? Space as we perceive it is only an appearance (even Einstein would agree), if it indeed exists at all. //
"God....cannot therefore be confined to a single space; that would place a limit on God, who transcends all limits. " Well if God can transcend all limits and space exists He should be able to confine Himself anywhere including a single space.//

"God ...has no body'...is not a thing." Scripture tells us Jesus Christ had a body before and after resurrecting. Jesus Christ is God according to Catholics. Therefore it's fair to ask if the author of this essay subscribes to Catholic teaching. If he does not why is he is teaching Catholics religion?//
God is "... the act of existence itself ...." The act of existence? Which one? God is when I drink a cup of tea? God is when I sin?

God is that ¿...from which all “things” proceed". Proceed? Like Emanations? So God is not free to create or not create? Is He not Intelligent?  Does sin proceed from God? Murder? No difference between God and me? Sounds like pantheism.//
A.N. Whitehead also conceptualized God as 'not a thing', that is, as a process. For Whitehead events were the basic constituents of reality and he called them 'actual occasions' or 'actual entities'. Everything was made of actual entities (not 'atoms'), yet for Whitehead these were structured. An actual entity had a mental and a physical pole; evaluated other actual entities; and freely determined whether or not to join others to create more complexly structured and desirable processes (organisms). The valuation resulted in a 'feeling' attracted and thereby possibly joined by the feeling or repulsed. //

God, for Whitehead was just another actual entity, but a complex one, also with a mental and physical pole but its character was oposite to that of creation. In addition, for him God was also a trinity of sorts: God primordial (Infinite possibility, Creator), God Consequent (God in the post creative act, resulting messy beings needing improvement) and God superjective (redeemer, makes new proposals given results). //
I think a Catholic religion class might consider asking 'Was Whitehead right?' or 'What was Whitehead right about' in light of our experience of faith and Scripture?

9 years 11 months ago
Excellent Article Brad! I think the unbeatable point here is we need to give/ aid our youth with a vocabulary with which to articulate and understand the truths of the faith. Many teenagers struggle to articulate their own personal understandings of God muchless the Catholic Church's, mostly due to a lack of vocabulary and understanding. I hope more Catholic Educators and parents take to heart the reality of giving our children a vocabulary and then a context with in to use it.
9 years 11 months ago
Please post my first comment in the appropriate location or explain why it was not posted. Please don't respond that only one is allowed per person per article for that hasn't been the case before, and in any case, it would be one of the worst possible reasons to censor.
9 years 11 months ago
If I could do high school all over again, I'd move to Lynn and attend St. Mary's.  Sir, we need more of you.  We need more of you in elementary schools, in secondary schools, and we need you in our Catholic Universities.  Keep up your fine work and I pray that others follow in your footsteps.
9 years 11 months ago
We should not put the blame on the teenagers. They are simply the by-products of the modern age which is unprecedented in human history. THe Teachings/Doctrines of the Church cannot be understood outside Liturgy. Any attempt to separate them which modernity did as early as the 16th century will have catastrophic results. It will surely be a recipe for destruction. And that's what's happening in Mr Rothrock's classroom...
9 years 11 months ago
Rothrock says most Catholic teenagesrs have developed ideas about belief based on "some of the worst God-talk popular culture has to offer."  He then suggests a remedial curriculum that high school religion teachers might use in order to counteract those ideas.  I suggest an added remedy: help Catholic parents teach their pre-school children about faith.
When toddlers ask such questions as, "Do gold fish go to heaven?" or, "Are you crying because grandma died?", a parent has an opportunity to explain how everyone struggles with belief in a loving God.  Are parishes across the country systematically assisting parents to seize such opportunities?  (I don't think so.)  Little children who are not taught about faith at home are left to spend their first six or seven years absorbing from TV and elsewhere "some of the worst God-talk popular culture has to offer."


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