A faith to live by

The challenge of ministry for university students

Iris M. Yob,Ed.D., is the academic coordinator for Collins Learning Center, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

Working on a daily basis with engaged young people drawn from a variety of backgrounds, I have accumulated a number of impressions about how they think; what they wonder about; what kind of future they anticipate; their worries, fears, hopes, and concerns; and what might be my role as a Christian in this environment.

These impressions have been gained through conversations, observations, assigned journal writings, and an exploratory questionnaire over the past three years at a residential college of Indiana University. In sharing these impressions, I am left with questions but hope that my reflections will be helpful as we seek to minister more constructively to this university generation.

Contours of a spiritual quest

My first impression is that today's thoughtful young people are serious about their spiritual quest. Only one respondent out of 193, in an anonymous questionnaire about personal meaning and spirituality, gave nonsense responses throughout. To the query "What are your big questions about life's meaning?" just a smattering of respondents gave cliche answers such as "Who am I?""Where did I come from?" and "Where am I going?" The greater number by far gave rich and highly personalized answers ranging from "Why is my mother dying of cancer?" to "Is there any real point to hurtling through space on this desolate rock?" or "How can I find balance between simple living and living how I want to?" Many answers were sincere, poignant, and moving.

These young people, by and large, are not searching merely for sweetness and light. They want to explore the darkside as well as the bright. I see this in the kinds of studies they pursue when they have the freedom to choose. Last semester they put together their residence curriculum with course titles including "Culture Wars," "The Meaning of Death," "Holocaust Memorials," and "Hystopian Literature of the Late Twentieth Century." Currently they have, among others, "Gothic Revivals," and next semester, "Apocalypse." This attraction to the grotesque and horrific is reminiscent of young children's fascination with fairy tales. They are "indirect yet effective ways for children to externalize their inner anxieties and to find ordering images and stories by which ... to shape their lives." 1 This search, I suggest, continues into young adulthood.

Another impression gained from my questionnaire is that while every quest is individual, some discernible patterns emerge through the successive college years. As one would expect for the question about the meaning of life, responses about purpose, identity, and place predominated (48 percent, but a significant number asked about the role of faith in their lives and the development of a personal code of values [11 percent]). Responses related to the matter of origins (Where did I come from?) do not appear at first to loom large com pared with questions about destiny (Where am I going?), but if the responses about the nature of human beings, wisdom, evil, and the existence of God are folded in with responses about where everything came from, then many of this group of young scholars can and do think in cosmic terms.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, freshmen and sophomores were more inclined to think globally and reflectively. They evidenced significant reflection about issues such as international peace, the meaning of suffering, ultimate happiness, absolute morality, the spiritual quest, and the existence of God.

Upperclassmen and women were more pragmatic in their responses and more immediate in their focus: "What career will make me content the rest of my life?" "How can I be a better artist?" "Will I ever get a job and leave Indiana?" Senior students were also more preoccupied with the passage of time: "Even though I am almost 22 years old, I am not even sure of my direction or my ultimate goals in life." "What experiences do I wish to have that I haven't already had?" "Am I on the right path or wasting time on what I am doing?" The least substantial answers were offered by juniors, a finding that suggests they may be in transition from the certainty and idealism of the early university years to the realism of graduating students.

There were also some relatively distinct differences between genders. Predictably, questions about relationships (including love and family) were raised ten times by women to every three times by men.2 While men students were more inclined than women to give silly answers (e.g., "I've solved the meaning of life" or "I try not to have any big questions"), women were more inclined to say that the question was too big to answer. In both cases, I suspect that these students were avoiding the question in their own way; men by bravado and the women by acting helpless.

It was encouraging to discover that by a ratio of approximately 2:1 the students believed their studies at the university would help them answer the big questions of life, with a higher proportion of women than men expecting this to happen. Most students added a precondition or caveat, such as, "I am fascinated by life, and my studies can point me in certain directions," "They will make me more aware so I can find the answers." Those who replied negatively argued that the answers can never be known by anybody or school has never answered the big questions or college isn't real life.

While a majority reported that their studies would help them, the caveats offered placed the responsibility on the students themselves. This was more than borne out in the answers given to the question: "To whom or what would you turn for help in finding answers?" Forty percent of the students replied, "Myself." "Friends" was a distant second (26 percent). Seven times as many students indicated not knowing where to turn for answers than those indicating they would turn to religion. Teachers were not as popular a choice as friends or family, but they did better than God.

When asked to identify the big is sues their generation must deal with, issues such as sex and sexuality sexual identity, abortion, teen pregnancy, peer pressure, love vs. sex, premarital sex, and marriage were identified most often (32 percent). Drugs came a close second (30 percent), followed by health issues, including AIDS, STDs, and cancer (29 percent). Human rights, race, and gender issues (24 percent), environ mental questions (22 percent), crime, especially rape and violence (16 percent) followed. Next, in order of issues most frequently identified, were: Identity (referring particularly to success), labels, having a voice, being independent (11 percent), and international relations (10 percent). Employment and the economy were surprisingly low on the scale (10 percent). Other issues named dealt with questions about government: its moral paucity and the resulting lack of trust, national polarization (9 percent), the new millennium and its challenges and opportunities (8 percent). A few identified the downside of technology, poverty, the generation gap, broken families, materialism, and the media.3

Spirituality and religion

While spirituality and spiritual development were largely assumed to be a personal and individual responsibility, service to others is clearly evident as a sub-theme in the thoughts and practices of this student group. Service learning courses are always enrolled to the maximum, philanthropic activities and activism around issues of sex, social ills, human rights, and the environment are a significant part of the extracurricular program. An influential core of students is preparing for careers in the nonprofit sector.

A challenge for this generation lies in resolving the paradox between postmodernism, with its distrust of grand totalizing theories and activism with its universal and dogmatic convictions about rights, oppression, and liberation.

A final set of observations has to do with the relationship of this generation to religion. From my perspective, these young people confront this subject from two distinct directions: They either dismiss religion altogether, or they blindly embrace it. Regarding the first of these, I observed the students in the course selection committee become excited by the "Tibetan Buddhism," "Chinese Mythology," and "Hindu Art" course proposals, while they disparaged the proposal entitled "Marian Apparitions." The Marian apparition course would not appeal to many students, they argued, because there were not many practicing Catholics in the college, and besides, they wondered if courses on religion should be taught at a public university a doubt that didn't enter the conversation when they contemplated the course on eastern religions.

In a similar vein, university students happily approved a series of worship services conducted by the Unitarian Universalists, a Passover Seder for all to attend, and a Wiccan ceremony at Halloween. At the same time, there was an outcry when a Christmas tree was decorated not with the usual baubles but with ornaments illustrating the birth of Christ.

Stephen Carter, author of The Culture of Disbelief, may be right when he claims that for religious people, "the public square can indeed seem a cold, suspicious, and hostile place."4 How ever, he is only partly right, as is Warren Nord when he writes, "It is a striking fact that in American public schools and universities students can ... earn high school diplomas [and] college degrees.... without ever confronting a live religious idea." 5 They are wrong if their generalizations are meant to include non-Western and other exotic religions, but they are largely right if they are commenting about the reception of Christianity.

In discussion groups led by peer instructors, I have witnessed denunciations of religion, which when it comes down to it are primarily targeting the Christian tradition, which they judge to be hypocritical, polarizing, and overzealous in sharing its particular faith with others. When asked who they would go to for help with answers to the big questions of life, only a handful of students (10 percent) indicated religion in some form, and as many said they would consult the Dalai Lama or eastern religious teachings as they would their priest, minister, or rabbi. Almost as many seem as willing to turn to Buddha as to God the Father or Jesus Christ.

The second religious challenge comes from the kind of responses given by students who openly profess to be Christian. When this group was asked what the big questions about the meaning of life might be, they generally gave responses such as "I don't have any questions Jesus is the answer" or "I let God answer all my questions." These kinds of answers are also disturbing but for a different reason. Essentially, they exhibit a lack of reflection and take on a dogmatic tone, the very two qualities that Israel Scheffler identifies as signs of "epistemic apathy." These attitudes, he remarks, "are perhaps more accurately described as poses or pretenses, the effect of which is, however, perfectly real to aid the denial of responsibility for one's beliefs and so to block the possibility of their improvement through the educative medium of surprise."6

Three crucial challenges

While these findings are richly pro vocative, as even this brief overview suggests, I would like to focus on just three sets of questions they pose to educators and ministers whose calling is to serve this generation. These are the "three Rs" that strike me as most significant.

1. Relevance. How relevant are the church programs we offer our young people? Have we asked them recently what their big questions and big issues might be so that we can address them in a fresh and timely way? Are we giving them the critical and creative tools for articulating their own questions and pursuing their own answers? Do we treat our students as a monolithic body or are we sensitive, for instance, to the new openness and curiosity of freshmen and sophomores, the confusion of juniors, and the immediate concerns of graduating seniors? Do we make room for a wide spectrum of different perspectives and interests, reflecting the diversity of our churches along gender and ethnic lines? Have we tapped into the current streams of awareness, such as the resurgence in the call to service and activism, the individuality and particularity of the spiritual quest?

2. Renewal. How can we renew religion in the lives of young people, given the fact that religious faith is preeminently situated to address the big questions of life and empower responses to the major issues of today? Christianity in general (and Adventism in particular, I suspect) clearly does not have the cachet with many young people which it once had.7 The renewal of religion requires more than simply attempting to expose its relevancy. This may accomplish little more than ad hoc connections between a tradition and the contemporary situation a fragmented, randomized methodology at best. A fuller rehabilitation of our faith for this generation will have to be deeper and more systemic. How can we reinstate reason in aid of faith for those who are afraid of doubting while at the same time they are driven to discover? How can we encourage an active dialogue among the great faith traditions so that Christianity is seen to be patently viable and at the same time rejuvenated by a critical reevaluation? How can we help our young adults negotiate a path between the dogmatism of the old tribal gods and the diffuse shallowness of too many gods? How can we facilitate individual spiritualities and at the same time provide for the valid traditions and particular values and verities of the past?

3. Reaching out. How can ministers and educators reach out to this new generation of spiritual pilgrims, especially those outside of our faith community? Are we willing to be serious about serving this generation in meaningful ways, even though it might mean learning a new language of dis course and finding new modes of being in the world without being of it? Are we willing to ask the hard questions and risk exposing our fallibility while rediscovering and reclaiming the foundational essentials of our faith and the source of our spiritual inspiration, for in so doing we might become fellow pilgrims with our youthful contemporaries?

Finding the relevance of religion, renewing religious faith, and reaching out to contemporary searchers for a living faith are not discrete categories but parts of a continuous whole, interdependent, and mutually implicated. Somewhere along this continuum each educator and pastor has a place and a calling, requiring the utmost in critical and creative capacities applied in the service of the next generation for the new millennium.

1 James Fowler, Stages of Faith: The
Psychology of Human Development and the
Quest for Meaning
(San Francisco: Harper
& Row, 1982), 130.

2 Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice:
Psychological Theory and Women's Development
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Uhniversity Press, 1983);
Mary Field Belenky et. al.,
 "Women's Ways of Knowing: The
Development of Self, Voice, and Mind
(New
York: Basic Books, 1986); Nel Noddings,
Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and
Moral Education
(Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1984), and others.

3 It is not surprising that the residence
curriculum developed by the students has
included courses such as "Our Culture
Wars," "The AIDS Crisis in America," "The
Arab World," "Environmental Activism,"
"Ancient Greek Men and Sexual Identity,"
"Art, Sex, and Scandal," "Women in Art,"
"Families in Crisis," and a raft of servicelearning
courses that integrate community
service and academics.

4 Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of
Disbelief: How American Law and Politics
Trivialize Religious
Devotion (New York: Ba
sic Books, 1993), 53.


5 Warren A. Nord, Religion and American
Education: Rethinking a National
Dilemma
(Chapel Hill: University of North
Carolina Press, 1995), 1.

6 Israel Scheffler, In Praise of the Cognitive
Emotions
(New York: Routledge,
1991), 13.

7 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New
York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957), 43; Mircea
Eliade, Images and Symbols (Kansas City:
Sheed, Andrews, and McMeel, 1952), 151-
178); and others, a generation ago
identified the beginnings of this trend. They
suggested that the forms of religion; its system
of symbols, rituals, and methods; once
powerfully evocative of hope and trust,
eventually become old and tired and lose
their potency.


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Iris M. Yob,Ed.D., is the academic coordinator for Collins Learning Center, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

July 1999

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