For a number of years now there has been a growing concern about the religious life of young people. Or, maybe more accurately, the lack of religious life. Innumerable studies have been published and books have been written to document this disturbing trend. Since 2005 Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, has focused his attention on this issue, authoring or co-authoring five books and many articles on the state of religious life among young Americans.
In his first major work on the subject, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, he and co-author Melinda Lundquist Denton gave a name to the ethical/religious outlook pervasive among young people: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). This outlook can be very easily summarized: God made us, wants us to feel good about ourselves and be happy, and if we play nice then we go to heaven.
One can see the appeal of MTD. In the minds of most people - and not just adolescents and young adults - it seems a lot better than “Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
So the job of religious educators is to convince young people that picking up their cross is a better option than playing nice (however one wants to define that) and trying to feel good about themselves. Fortunately, we have something in our favor: reality. As a rule people do not “play nice” and, because of that, many, many people suffer. This can lead to a sense of helplessness, despair, and a belief that life has no meaning. A nihilistic outlook - one where people turn to various addictions or suicide to get rid of the pain - can only be countered by the Good News, the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ, Who: “came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
In our departmental summer reading, Converting the Imagination: Teaching to Recover Jesus’ Vision for Fullness of Life, one of our very own - Dr. Patrick Manning ‘03 - gives both a clear assessment of the problem as well as a blueprint for combatting it. Pat is the Chair of the Department of Pastoral Theology at Seton Hall University, and his text is an outgrowth of his classroom experiences not just as a teacher, but also as a student from his time at Saint Ignatius, Notre Dame, and Boston College.
We were fortunate to have Pat on a Zoom call earlier this week to pick his brain about the challenges of bringing our students to Christ in a world where young people are “wounded by...existential anxiety” and “searching for the meaning of life.” Pat’s approach is to focus on the students’ imaginations and to both challenge and support them as they work through the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual difficulties of their search for meaning in a post-modern world.
Pat calls his approach the SEE method, and it relates to the three pedagogical movements that can help a person to answer Christ’s call. The first movement focuses on stimulating (S) the student’s imagination, the next on expanding (E) the imagination, and the final on embracing (E) a new way of imagining. The influence of an Ignatian approach to education is clearly at the heart of Pat’s work as he, in different words but with the same orientation, brings his students in through their door and leads them out through Christ’s.
Pat’s approach is one that can benefit anyone searching for meaning in a world where the sands under our feet are constantly shifting. The Cross is planted in rock and provides the only anchor whereby one can get and maintain one’s bearings, but there is a cost to pay. Looking at the Jesus of the Gospels forces us to confront the Jesus presented by our culture, and upends the assumptions about Him that are embedded in our imaginations.
Despite the rather depressing picture that surveys, statistics, and studies have presented to us about the state of the religious lives of young people, there is great hope in the knowledge that young people know authenticity when they see it and they instinctively are drawn to it. Once their imaginations have been challenged by the Person presented in the Gospels they will more often than not, and through the grace of God, be open to the Incarnate Logos and the Cross upon which He offered Himself. They will SEE rightly, and will share in the abundant life that God desires for each of us.