Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Confirm or Question ?

I've been thinking a good deal lately about how young people appropriate their faith. "Appropriate" in the Jesuit sense, meaning to lay claim to, to absorb as one's one, to make a part of one's being. Not in the more usual sense of to steal, or to attain exclusive possession of.

The subject has come up for a number of reasons. Some of them have to do with thoughts about my own stumbling entry into the mainline church as an adult and to discussions, such as part of the one over here, about how the church does or doesn't speak to contemporary young adults. Some of them have to do with the pervasiveness of springtime confirmation services and their attendant celebrations, and some with discussions I've had with my Orthodox Jewish students. Some have to do with questions about indoctrination versus invitation.

I think I'll approach my thoughts in reverse order to what I've laid out.

The question of indoctrination comes up because of the environment in which I teach. Most of our students have little contact with the world outside their Orthodox Jewish one. As a senior girl said to me a couple of years ago, after affirming that she has no friends who are not Jewish, "Where would I find them? I live in a Jewish neighborhood, go to a Jewish school, a shul, a Jewish summer camp, Jewish youth trips to Israel, participate in Jewish service work." At the same time, she and her friends were entirely in favor of the school retaining its nonJewish teachers, arguing emphatically that they needed the exposure to views and experiences other than their own.

Most of my own circle of friends made different choices with respect to the education and experiences of our children, choices having to do with diversity and pluralism. I can remember saying at one point, "If I hear the word 'diversity' one more time, I'm going to scream!" But it has been, despite my occasional frustration and disillusionment, one of my core values with respect to human interaction and engagement.

Is one approach superior to the other? Is either more or less doctrinaire? Is doctrinaire necessarily a bad thing? The answers are not so simple.

A couple of weeks ago I canvassed my eighth grade American History students about their knowledge of Judaic culture. They all know the stories of Genesis well, and the basics of the requirements of Jewish law. They all know when their celebrations (and they are numerous!) are, as well as the stories and mandates connected to them. They know about the Holocaust. They all speak, read, and write Hebrew. Three-quarters of them have been to Israel, most of them multiple times.

My own church's eighth graders are perhaps not so knowledgeable about Christian history and practice.

I think, I said to my student eighth graders, that you learn that your numbers are so small and your faith so at risk that, if you do not learn it and carry and pass it on, you risk the complete loss of something precious. That's exactly what we learn, said one of the girls. And I think, I went on, that mainline Christians do not have such a sense of potential loss; that we take for granted that what we call religion will always be there -- which, if you take a look at secular society and the current worshipping population in mainline churches, reflects something akin to oblivion.

Our lives, said the same girl, would be completely, 100%, different in every way if we were not Jewish.

I wonder, I mused later, if any Presbyterian eighth graders would make a parallel point. Would their lives be 100% different if they were not Presbyterian? Not Christian?

The discussions about young adults and the church have also caught my attention. My own three children, ages 22, 22, and 19, have had nothing to do with church for years, although not for want of trying on my part. Many of my close friends have young adult children whose last church stops were their own confirmation services. Many of my close friends, for that matter, are not church-connected. It's not important, it's not of interest, it's kind of a pain, it's not even real. And so I wonder whether there is anything in the emergent and postmodern church movements that might speak to any of them. As I begin to explore those movements, I don't find anything that isn't already alive in my own church, or that hasn't been articulated at some time in the past, perhaps by Benedict in the 500s in Italy or Julian in the 1300s in England or Ignatius in the 1500s in Rome or even some Protestants of the past few centuries. But I realize that my own children and many of their contemporaries would not know that, because they have cut themselves off from any exposure to worlds not immediately accessible to them.

I don't claim to know what, in a practical sense, changes people. My students are saturated by Judaism day in and day out; they don't change so much as grow. For my own children, a life of faith would require a big change although perhaps, probably, like me, they would go at it slowly. My entry into the church hasn't followed any path that you would read about in a book on church growth. No one invited my husband and me to church; we just decided to go. We didn't know that churches were supposed to have "programming." We just lucked into one that did because it was Methodist and looked like a French cathedral, which meant that it had 1500 members and a lot of said "programming." No one cross-examined us about our beliefs or imposed any kind of rigor upon us in the membership queue -- a process that I have subsequently been known to criticize as worse than lukewarm, but that was surely the only kind that might have enticed us beyond the front door. When my husband abandoned his participation in the church, I didn't feel beholden to any sense that family involvement was a requisite for my continued presence; I just concluded that if God called me to continue my journey, then that was the way it was. There was never any road to Damascus in my life; there was just always the next question, and then the next one.

I can only conclude that the same Mystery is at work in all the young people I know. God calls some of them through the day-in-day-out intensity of life in a religious school, where Hebrew is spoken in the hallway and nothing escapes the scrutiny of the Torah. Others hear the voice of God through a mainline Protestant process that seems to take itself, although surely not them, for granted, and perhaps it is in the reassurance of their own belovedness that the Spirit moves as an undercurrent. And for others, that same Spirit moves in ways that remain as yet completely unrecognizeable. There is no single path, no sole mandate, widening or narrowing toward encounter with God. For each of us there is simply the one that God provides. It is, in the end, always an invitation.


Cecilia said...

I think about this issue as well, GG. I have two children, one of whom is still active in church (the younger, non-college aged one) and one of whom groans every time I mention it, talks about atheism a lot, asks how one leaves church (as in, renouncing jurisdiction, it seems to me!).

All I can hope is that seeds have been planted, and that they will grow in their time.

Pax, C.

Cynthia said...

You gave me goosebumps again with your last three lines. My daughter and I were having a conversation about this the other day. Religion no longer feels right, yet she knows that that there's something there working, beckoning, encouraging onward. My own journey has been so twisted and so solitary that the idea of true community, a cultural immersion in my faith, is something both scary and appealing.

Russell Smith said...

This is heavily on our minds -- our girls (age 6 and 2) are in that place where faith comes easily -- the teenage years are not far ahead, and I have no idea what lies beyond. We're putting Sarah Grace (the 6 year old) into a Classical Christian school this fall - But there are no guarantees (for I know many Christian school students who come out whack jobs or hating church). Parenting is one of those jobs that is driving me to trust in the Holy Spirit all the more.


Presbyterian Gal said...

I believe that God has a private conversation with each of us, whispering his invitation to the table.

How we perceive that invitation depends upon how the scenario is predisposed in our minds from our experience.

That's our job as parents, I believe. To create a truthful and profoundly inviting predisposition in our children, so that when their turn comes, their hearts will be ready.

I also believe that the Holy Spirit works powerfully in cases where there is no proper predisposition. Or where we've messed up.

Kathryn said...

I read this post at least four times before I even dared to comment.

The invitation is powerful and for me clear and unmistakable. I did the classic path of much involvement in my youth, none in my 20s, toe-dipping in my 30s, and questioning/immersion/essential part of my life in my 40s. I live in a neighborhood with many people who are Orthodox Jewish in the strictest sense so I read your school descriptions with great interest.

I am contemplating doing the Ignatian exercises starting in the fall - you are an inspiration. I have no ideas or answers about young people. Mine don't currently have a choice although we changed parishes to one with a much more active youth group. dh is not RC but attends regularly - often I think it's just for the music but whatever... I'm glad we go as a family.

Not much or too much of a comment, I'm not sure which. Please know that I have been thinking about this post - just didn't comment until now.

Gannet Girl said...

Kathryn, you're going to do the Exercises? How cool is THAT!?!

Kathryn said...

I said contemplating. I haven't managed to get the grad school applications out yet so maybe I still have too many questions.