Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Craig Haas on College Student Spirituality

What I’m Learning from My College Students
Anecdotal notes on the spirituality of the youngest adults

by J. Craig Haas

I teach at Penn State’s Capital Campus (Penn State Harrisburg) in Middletown, Pa. My title is Instructor of Philosophy and Humanities, and I teach courses in philosophy (including symbolic logic), interdisciplinary humanities, religious studies, and (occasionally) American studies.

The discipline of religious studies is not religious instruction—which would not be constitutional at the Pennsylvania State University—but rather the academic study of religion. Nevertheless, there are occasions in which students visit my office to use me as an ad hoc chaplain.

The following remarks refer only to middle- and working-class college students in the mid-Atlantic region, who are 18-25 years old. No doubt they will apply to other young adults also, but I make no guarantees.

* * *

Today’s college freshmen have lived the majority of their lives in the twenty-first century! (If any in their families were at Woodstock, it was probably their grandparents.)
Their world is wider than any previous generation’s, due to globalization, immigration, travel, and media; and they engage in intense social interaction via technology. One of my colleagues, who teaches communications, assigned her students to go one full day without any form of mass media—electronic (including audio CDs) or print. The students found it unsettling, some even jarring.*
They also stand apart from older generations in that their lives have all been on this side of the sexual revolution.
Young people today experience a prolonged adolescence. (Some college students still refer to themselves and their peers as “kids.”) They might move back with their parents after college and wait till 30 to get married.

Today’s young adults are coming of age in a secular, pluralistic society that can no longer pretend to be “Christian.” Much of their knowledge and perception of religion comes from family, friends, or movies and television—including televangelists, sensationalized cable documentaries, and comedy shows.
One or more of the following is frequently the case:
  • Their parents are of differing religious points of view and/or degrees of commitment.
  • Some parents are unwilling to “impose” religion on their children, satisfied that their children will find their own religion “when they’re ready.” (This leaves them growing up without a religion, and in many cases, gives the impression that a religion is not really needed at all.)
  • Some of their parents demean religion, due to their own bad experiences.
  • The family stops going to church after divorce or other significant life change.

Many of these young adults have been raised by one parent.
One common form of young adult religion seems to be a brand of folk religion we might call “Grandmaism”: they remember how “my grandma always said….”
Some students in religious studies courses apologize for having no religious background, and may feel inferior to peers who can speak more confidently about their beliefs.

Almost universally, young adults claim to embrace “spirituality” and reject “organized religion.” In fact, to be described as spiritual is to receive a compliment. (Ironically, there may be a touch of Pharisaic pride here!)
“Spirituality” is seldom well defined, but suggests a custom-made do-it-yourself relation to God-or-whatever, that is suited for the individual. It suggests virtues like kindness, honesty, loyalty, and concern. It operates cafeteria-style, allowing an individual to make personal selections valid only for oneself, without accountability to anyone else.
There seems to be a near-unanimous belief among college students that “It’s not about church,” but your own “personal relationship” to God.
Art and music of all kinds are important conduits of spirituality for young adults. (Of course, the whole history of the church testifies to this!)

Today’s college students have almost no knowledge of the contents of the Bible or of the Bible’s own history and setting. (Lutheran students are as biblically illiterate as Catholics.) What they say they believe about the Bible is usually some general slogan, either positive or negative. Their views range from fundamentalist to a purely metaphorical reading.
They are frequently surprised by the Bible’s contents once they are assigned to read it.

Students are often bewildered by the many religious choices; denominations are confusing and meaningless to them. But they often say they want to learn what all the differences are.
Some have been steeped in forms of evangelicalism that pitch their message with fear: threats that “if you don’t accept Jesus,” or “if you don’t go to church, etc.,” or “if you do this sin,” then you’ll “burn in hell.”
Many students have a concept of Christianity that is otherworldly—a strong heaven-or-hell orientation. But they are also very curious about this. They are also interested in purgatory, the Book of Revelation, and the relation of evolution and creationism, science and religion.—They seem to pay lots of attention to the beginning and the end, but much less to the middle!

Many of these young adults are looking for spiritual help and instruction in places other than church. This may include college courses, Bible studies, Native American powwows, Wiccan or pagan celebrations, or New Age and occult practices.
College students are extremely eclectic in their beliefs and practices.
The student who has taken more courses with me than any other is a former Irish Catholic whose grandmother’s veneration of saints inspired him toward ancient polytheism—specifically, Celtic paganism. He’s still fine with Jesus as one among many teachers, and he’s taken most of my religious studies classes, including the courses on the Old and New Testaments. But he is studying for the pagan priesthood while he works successfully as an artist.
“Tolerance” and “diversity” are cherished words. The claims of Christians are seen as exclusionary, dismissing other views and religions wholesale.

But college students can be conservative, traditional, and rigorous (or even closed-minded!).
Young people frequently want something to commit their lives to. Some young adults will in fact be drawn to fundamentalism as a sure foundation. Black-and-white answers can serve as an anchor for a perplexed young person who has not yet accrued much learning from life experiences.
Some young adults will seek out traditional religious practices for their beauty and symbolism. Others will embrace tradition as a stabilizing agent. I taught one of my students during the time she was going through a conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. Although baptized a Catholic, she was the daughter of divorced parents who were spiritually adrift. Orthodoxy presented itself to her as the original church that doesn’t change with fashion. “If it’s the truth, how can you just decide to change it?” she wondered.
Young and old alike should be reminded that tradition is what our ancestors deemed worthy of passing along, indeed, what has stood the test of time. But from time to time the new wine of the gospel requires new wineskins. No century is sacred; no generation is normative.

According to religion journalist Terry Mattingly, 49% of 18-29-year-olds want more news coverage of religion and spirituality, compared to 25% of those over age 50.**
On college campuses nationally, enrollments in religion and philosophy courses are way up.
Numerous students in religious studies courses describe themselves as unsure of their beliefs, or as agnostic, or even atheist. But I believe they have taken these courses because they have not given up the search for something to believe in: if not a whole faith, then maybe a helpful part of one.
Today’s young adults are a generation of seekers, packing classes, but not churches.
In matters of the spirit, young adults are the homeless.

With young adults, the church has a serious communication problem.
It is important that we try to understand how some of our commonly used words might have a different sound or feel to college students:
  • “God”—sometimes connotes a surly old man who is impossible to satisfy.
  • “Jesus”—could be a sentimental childhood image, a cartoon hippie, or a televangelist’s “Jeeee-zus!”
  • “Christian”—can suggest an aggressive “Born-again Christian” or all the ideas that created a decadent, violent, and imperial “Western Civilization.”
  • “church”—makes people think of a building, or a bullying hierarchy, or the memory of long boring services in childhood.
  • “organized religion”—often suggests “established religion” (the mixing church and state) or religion hijacked for political power.

With young adults, the church has a serious image problem!
In the perception of many young adults,
  • Church is a “have-to” rather than a positive experience. They often experience conventional church services as boring.
  • Church is a place where you are judged, yet they see church people (correctly or incorrectly) as rife with hypocrisy.
  • Church is a know-it-all place where no questions are allowed. Why do students jam religion courses at college but vacate churches? I believe that the main reason for this is that students believe that the church will not tolerate questions, while the university encourages them. (Once in class a student told me, “If I had gotten an answer like that from my church, I’d still be there.” I no longer recall his question, but I remember my answer; it was “I don’t know.”)
  • The church is a taker, rather than as a giver, wanting to be served rather than wanting to serve. I sometimes hear, “They just want your money.”
  • The church wants to control everything—to control individuals and to control society.

Further, many see organized religion as the single greatest contributor to violence in the world; to join a church (as they see it) is to comply with that violence.
Since I’ve learned to anticipate how so many of my students regard church and religion, I sometimes try to “get there” ahead of the students and acknowledge the past and present failings and sins of the church. But I also alert them to the many things good churches do for their members and their communities, and the ways most churches make a better world.
Religion is like mushrooms and berries: most of them are good for you, but some are poisonous, even deadly. People need to learn how to tell the difference. (I once told a class, “some of you need to leave your churches.”)
Young adults need to hear positive answers to the question, “What does the church do?”

We are challenged to be Christ’s church better.
The church can be, and ought to be, a surrogate family for this transient and transitional group.
If we want to catch fish, we must first go to the water. We must meet young adults on their own turf, not simply invite them to join our programs or lure them with gimmicks.
Teach! Teach! Teach!
  • Reiterate Trinitarian monotheism: Jesus is the presence of God among us, and the truest picture of who God really is.
  • Teach that peacemaking is the work of God, and therefore our work too. It stands at the heart of the gospel. Serve the world; don’t try to run it. Avoid linking discipleship to political partisanship, and hitching the power of the gospel to the power of the state. Stop blessing military action in the name of Christ.
  • We should make clear that we have listened to the opposing arguments and taken them seriously, and that we are not afraid to address militant atheism.

We need to consider a more postmodern understanding of truth, in which truth is no more a matter of one-size-fits-all; but we must also avoid a crass relativism too.
While young adults are searching for answers, they are also wary of those who claim to have all the answers. We should avoid a purely parental type of moralizing that talks down to educated adults. If we present ourselves as “the church with all the answers” and don’t listen to their questions, they will surely stay away in droves. We must be honest; we might even humbly advertise that we don’t have all the answers!
We should remember that before Jesus is the Answer, Jesus is the Question!—and he remains so throughout our lives.
Young adults will not make a commitment if they cannot ask questions and expect honest and informed responses. Before we can ask young adults to make a commitment to the church, the church will need to make a commitment to them.

*   See attached report, Excerpts from “No Media Day” Student Reflective Essays.
**  Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era, April 17, 2010, p. B5.
Excerpts from “No Media Day” Student Reflective Essays

General Humanities courses provide opportunities for students to reflect on their cultural surroundings, including popular culture and the media. Each semester, students in Catherine McCormick’s COMM100 Mass Media and Society class at Penn State Harrisburg are asked to go one day without consuming any mass media (TV, radio, recorded music, newspapers, magazines, books, Web sites, film, video games, etc.) They write about the experience in a three-page Reflective Essay.

Here are some of their insights:
  • I have no social life besides the appointments I keep with the television.
  • It was funny how something so simple made me feel so deprived.
  • After going a day without any media what so ever, I feel like I’ve been living under a rock.
  • I never realized how much the media impacts our daily life.
  • It was definitely a wake-up call for me.
  • The drive felt like it took twice as long as it usually takes.
  • We did not know what to do so we ended up playing cards.
  • The assignment not only affected me, but my friends.
  • . . . the assignment was invaluable.
  • I think that this media watch was one of significant importance.
  • By cutting out the television . . . in a sense [it took] away a little bit of our personalities.
  • I had to guess the weather from its appearance.
  • The world seemed to be a little more drama free.
  • The media is the center of society and without it, we are nothing.
  • Why are we so reliant on media? I think it’s our way of pinching each other to let ourselves know that we’re still here.
  • Not being able to watch or listen to media reminded me of Amish people.
  • The main problem that I had was that without media, I had very little to do.
  • I played solitary with an actual deck of cards and not the computer.
  • . . . I felt like I was dead to the world.
  • I found it very hard to ignore the media.
  • I have determined that media is not something you necessarily seek out, but something that seeks you.
  • On the average day, I would be awake not even an hour before using five different mediums.