Beyond Religious Illiteracy | Forum for Theological Exploration

Beyond Religious Illiteracy

By: Tom Beaudoin
August 16, 2011

In pastoral research, we are firmly in the age of the rage for literacy.

The consensus is striking, the baton relayed from one domain of ecclesial expertise to another: from pastoral workers, to seminary and graduate theological school faculty, to some of the most influential sociologists of religion and practical theologians, and finally to young adults and teenagers themselves, the urge to describe and denounce religious illiteracy has become both diatribe and truism in almost any discussion of the practice of faith today in Christian circles.

A whole vocabulary of spiritual insouciance is marshaled to frame common practice and to symbolize the tendency of the larger secularizing American society: teenagers and young adults are said to be “uncatechized,” “poorly discipled,” they constitute a “domestic mission field,” they suffer from any number of deformations of faith-imagination.

In all, they are characterized as “religiously illiterate” and they represent the worst of what Western culture does to faith: make it superficial, relativistic, pragmatic. Lacking seriousness.
The approaches of popular books that study the faith of teenagers and young adults reinforce each other in this rhetoric, whatever their other confessional or scholarly differences. Studies from theology and social science in Catholic, Protestant, and unaffiliated contexts, as well as various educational initiatives, like (in my Catholic milieu) the recently-approved framework for teaching faith put forward by the US Catholic Bishops for high school teachers, and the recent issuance of the first US Catholic Catechism in over a century – these all agree that there is a crisis of religious illiteracy, and thus we who care about the integrity of pastoral practice are led by this consensus to believe that the crisis really exists.

“But how might we begin to pay a different kind of theological attention to younger generations?.”

But it is important to distinguish between a genuine crisis, on the one hand, and an incitement to see things in crisis-mode, on the other. The latter is a kind of “crisis-discourse” that is readily found across the diverse ecclesial and academic conversations mentioned above. This crisis-discourse almost uniformly recommends one specific remedy: that younger generations and their mentors (parents, pastoral workers) learn to “take faith more seriously.” This approach signals a reluctance, and even a refusal, to rethink what Christianity might mean for young people specifically and for future generations more broadly. This pastoral strategy, which too often amounts to a recourse to what we already think we know to be true about the faith, is more or less guaranteed to continue being met with a range of disappointing responses, from mild embrace to the more common response of everyday indifference. (The important exception here will continue to be recent Christian immigrants, although there is little evidence that the “Americanization” of immigrants over a few generations does much to mitigate affiliation-slippage among mainline Christians.)

Why is it that so very little of this crisis-discourse in the United States takes younger generations to be theologically interesting, much less exciting? One searches nearly in vain in this crisis-discourse for the voice of a modern-day Saint Benedict of Nursia, who included in his Rule the famous dictum that “The Lord often reveals what is better to the younger.”

But how might we begin to pay a different kind of theological attention to younger generations? Here are some axioms for a counter-narrative:
The striking generality of the crisis-discourse seems to testify to something new being born that the crisis-discourse wants to suppress. Hopefully funding organizations and theological guilds will see their way to an alternative theological paradigm, and in this way finally make the church and theology have something relevant to say to the larger culture once again.

  • What we call “religious” traditions are historical phenomena; they have birth dates and expiration dates. They change, often deeply, over time
  • The “secular” lives of younger generations are the grounds out of which any theology about their lives ought to be done: relationships, media, sexuality, and more.
  • The faith of younger generations should never be treated in a way that we would not allow our own faith to be spoken of by others.
  • The religion(s) of younger generations not only are possibly new “Christianities,” but new syncretisms of Christianity with other traditions and cultures. Christianity has never not been “Christianities,” and pastorally sensitive theologians have a duty to search out and critically welcome such new formations.

Tom Beaudoin, New York City

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Tom Beaudoin is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Religion at Fordham University, New York City. He is the author of Witness to Dispossession: The Vocation of a Postmodern Theologian and Virtual Faith: The Irreverent Spiritual Quest of Generation X. Tom also blogs for America Magazine and for his own blog, ROCK AND THEOLOGY.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user elfonse

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