The 1998 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture
Growing Up Postmodern:
Imitating Christ in the Age of "Whatever"
Descartes is history. That's the conclusion of postmodernity. Foundational truth is out, relativity is in. Trace it to Hiroshima, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Challenger explosion. Technology is not the panacea we thought it would be. Trace it to Watergate, liposuction, spin doctors. Truth is not an objective reality anymore. Trace it to institutional differentiation, Baskin Robbins, cable TV. Choice can paralyze as well as liberate.
Nobody knows this better than the young people whose coming of age coincides with the turn of the millennium. They live in a world where microchips are obsolete every eighteen months, information is instantaneous, and parents change on weekends. The one constant in the postmodern adolescent's experience is upheaval. Truth changes daily. The signature quality of adolescence is no longer lawlessness, but awelessness. Go ahead, youth say to the church. Impress me. When everything is true, nothing is true. Whatever.
It's true that we live in a world that considers truth too relative to specify. The comics brought us mutant "X-‐Men" and now "X-‐Women"; consumer thinking brought us X-‐brands and X-‐spouses; pop culture brought us X-‐Files and Generation X. The letter "X" is having a banner decade, labeling "whatever" we don't have the time or the inclination to explain.
Maybe the word "whatever" found its way into the contemporary adolescent vocabulary because "X" describes precisely the Truth they seek. In the early church, the Greek letter "X" (chi) referred to Jesus Christ. This generation of young people is neither the first nor the last in search of "X." Paul recognized this quest in the Athenians, who went as far as to erect an altar to "an unknown god":
What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. . .The One who is Lord of heaven and earth. . . made all nations. . . so that they would search for God. . . . God will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom God has appointed, and of this we are assured because God raised him from the dead. (Acts 17:23-‐31)
We all seek "X," God's Truth beyond relativity. We are here because we are called to imitate and obey and proclaim this Truth to all who worship unknown gods. The Truth is out there, for young people and for us. May you find grace to peruse the "X-‐Files" of your own life in the days ahead, as we grope for "X" together. Though, indeed, he is not far from each of us.
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
- “Communities of Faith for Citizens of a Postmodern World”
- “Just What Is Postmodernity and What Difference Does It Make to People of Faith?”
- “Who Is Jesus Christ for Us Today?" As Asked by Young People”
- “Youth between Late Modernity and Postmodernity”
- “Faithful Becoming in a Complex World: New Powers, Perils, and Possibilities”
- “Home and Pilgrimage: Deep Rhythms in the Adolescent Soul”
- “Global Issues Facing Youth in the Postmodern Church”
- “Imitating Christ in a Postmodern World: Young Disciples Today”
Global Issues Facing
Youth in the Postmodern Church
"Peace is hell," says Fareed Zakaria in a 1997 issue of The New York Times Magazine. "Peace is hell" — due to globalization. 1 Fortunately, this statement does not come from a new anti-globalist movement. Rather, it conveys the predicament of filmmakers who, after the end of the Cold War, have lost the enemy. According to Zakaria, moviemakers in a global world have been forced to resort to violence and to personal, instead of political, motives. Explosions are understood everywhere, and so is the concern of avenging the murder of a wife and a child. So at least in the movies, globalization may well correlate with yet another increase of murder and violence.
The term "global" has made it into general consciousness. Only about ten years ago just a few visionaries and critics would refer to the "global"; now, we find many references to it in the statements of mainline churches as well as in newspapers and even popular magazines. Some day in the future, the term "global" may well be considered one of the buzz words of the 1990s.
Yet, not surprisingly, the meaning of the word "global" is far from clear. In Germany, people speak a lot of "globalization." For them, the global is synonymous with the threat of unemployment. It is said that unemployment in the West and particularly in Europe is the natural consequence of an increasingly worldwide and open labor market that makes workers in Europe and workers in Asia compete with each other for the lowest wages. At the same time, economists tell us that economic globalization will ultimately benefit the whole world. Not only will globalization help to develop those regions of the world that have lagged behind; globalization will also lead to more economic interdependence and, consequently, will establish a firm basis for peace and cooperation. 2
This last understanding of globalization in relation to peace and cooperation comes close to what the churches usually mean by "global issues." For them, it is the page 68 global scope of today's challenges that is at stake and that they want people to realize.
Within the social sciences, globalization is often understood to be an extension of modernity. 3 This is certainly true as far as the mechanisms by which globalization is achieved are concerned. The familiar western patterns of capitalist economy, of functional differentiation, of specialization, and of individualization and pluralization have spread around the globe, which accounts for the peculiarly modern and often western face of globalization. Yet, theories of modernization have rarely focused on the international and worldwide processes of monetary and informational interconnection. If we are to take such phenomena into account, we have to consider modernization in a global context — thus going beyond the traditional understanding of modernity.
Another question refers to the relationship between globalization and postmodernity. Some interpreters assume that global plurality and diversity are extensions of the postmodern condition. Others claim that, given the global challenges of today's world, one should not speak of postmodernity since postmodern arbitrariness falls short of taking global challenges seriously. Theorists of globalization like Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens are quite critical of the concept of postmodernity. 4 While they agree that the traditional understanding of modernity has to be transcended, they feel that we should not become fixated on modernity by making it our opponent. Rather, we should move on to globalization in order to gain a new point of reference for our critical thinking.
Given the many facets of today's understanding of "global issues," clarification of the ways in which "global issues" are important for Christian education and youth ministry is necessary.
Finally, it should be kept in mind that the discussion of global issues and globalization is an emergent discussion. Up to now, there have been no definite results and no well-established theories. So we will be moving on shaky ground. We will be looking more for new questions than for definite answers.
Two Kinds of Global Issues:
“In Front of Us” and “Behind Our Backs”
Not too long ago it was a widespread assumption in Christian education and practical theology that international exchange and global perspectives were pure luxury. According to this view, 5 the tasks of youth ministry are always related to the praxis of a particular church in a particular country, and so it was the conclusion that theoretical work in these areas should best be based on local pastoral experience.page 69
However, things have changed since then. Over the last two decades it has become increasingly clear that Christian education has to address global issues if it is to face up to the challenges of our present and our future. Possibly, the first step toward this new awareness of global responsibility was the acute realization of the worldwide injustice between the so-called First World and the so-called Third World — a realization that originated in the 1960s and the 1970s. Next came the question of peace — both in respect to the nuclear threat between East and West and in respect to the many countries around the world where smaller or bigger wars are still going on — also a major topic since the 1960s and the 1970s. And finally, with the 1970s and the 1980s, the ecological crisis came into the picture, again with a global background of issues like the permanent extinction of species, the irreparable pollution of the oceans, and, at least possibly, a climatic change that would ultimately threaten all life on earth.
All these aspects of a growing global consciousness within Christian education and beyond are mirrored by the agenda of the World Council of Churches. The so-called JPIC movement — the movement for justice, peace, and integrity of the creation — may be seen as a corollary of these changes. "Think globally, act locally" has been the punchline of the educational and political efforts that are geared toward global consciousness-raising.
Especially for those who are concerned about the situation of youth, it is important to remember that many of the global issues have, indeed, first been identified by the younger generation. Often, adolescents and young adults have been among the first to realize the importance of such issues, and they consequently have tried to make adults realize what is at stake. The new social movements, as they are called in Europe, 6 almost always include a big segment of young people — adolescents and young adults who identify with the aims of such movements and who are highly committed to finding new perspectives at a global level.
Furthermore, it is important to note that Christianity has played an important role in this process of forming a global consciousness. The idea of ecumene, which may be translated as "the whole world," has important roots in the New Testament itself. According to Mt. 24:14, for example, the Gospel is meant for all the people in the whole world. Christian ecumene has been a vital motive for dialogue and cooperation among Christians around the world. According to today's understanding, the ecumentical process clearly includes issues of justice, peace, and ecology. More and more it is realized that this process must extend beyond Christianity toward other faiths and religions.
Much more could be said about these issues, which I term global challenges "in front of us." For example, there are many theological as well as ethical and educational problems concerning the difficulties of introducing children and young page 70 adolescents to issues that are far away from their daily lives. 7 However, there is also a second kind of global issue of which we have to be aware. This is the global impact from "behind our backs" that affects youth almost everywhere in the world.
Impact from behind our backs does not mean the worldwide economy, which is sometimes called the "invisible hand." The economic aspects of globalization have become quite obvious and have rightfully made their way into the statements of the church. 8 They are among the challenges in front of us. What has received far less attention is the cultural and religious influence of globalization in our own countries. One of the most obvious examples is the global influence of the media or of other carriers of international youth culture. Modern systems of communication and transportation have made it possible for young people around the world to listen to the same electronic music, to wish for the same designer jeans and T-shirts, to watch the same movies and videoclips, to drink the same soft drinks, and to try out similar kinds of drugs. With email and the Internet available in many private households, today's youth may even actively communicate with each other around the globe. However, very little is known from empirical research about how all this actually affects the religious orientations of youth in different parts of the world. In many ways, what globalization does to Christianity and to young people in the church is still a mystery.
In any case, the distinction between the first set of global issues — global challenges in front of us — and the second set — global impacts from behind our backs — has important implications for education. Global challenges in front of us are problems that need to be introduced to the younger generation intentionally because otherwise these problems might not receive the attention they deserve. In many ways, the challenge here consists in raising people's consciousness to a global level. And this consciousness-raising is to be guided by ethical, religious, and specifically Christian values and ideals. 9
However, global impacts from behind our backs are quite different. These are problems that actually affect today's youth independently of Christian education. The social, political, and economic processes themselves create a certain type of global consciousness, and often this type of global consciousness is neither beneficial nor ethically grounded. Rather, it is highly relativistic and ambivalent in its presuppositions as well as in its effects. And it is not based on Christian values or ideals. The educational problem here is the emergence of incoherent and disruptive forms of global consciousness.
It is to such consciousness and culture-shaping influences that recent studies on globalization are referring us. They tell us to change our perspective in order to see that globalization affects and redefines the local, and that it has its effects not only out there, but also in our own backyards. According to such studies, we have page 71 to learn to decipher the impact of global forces within our own local world of Christian education and youth ministry.
If it is true that with today's youth we encounter worldwide processes of social, political, and religious change, then we will have to find methods and strategies that allow us to deal with such international influences. Our traditional approach to global issues in terms of global consciousness-raising needs a new, wider basis. We have to become clear on how the tendencies of globalization affect Christian education. We have to ask how globalization describes the condition of youth in the postmodern church — in the United States as well as in Germany or in other parts of the world.
Peter and Margret: Two Adolescents from Germany
Two young people from Germany, Peter and Margret, have something important to say about how globalization affects the younger generation.
In the early 1990s, Peter, a conscientious objector in his early twenties, published an article titled "We Are the Voodoo Children." From the beginning, the text is written to provoke the older generation and to oppose attempts at interpretation. "Do not attempt to understand us!" Peter says. "You may investigate us, ask us questions, interview us, do statistics on us... develop theories... have your results, and you may even believe in them. We don't care. But you will not understand us. We are different from you!" 10
In Peter we encounter a remarkable insistence on autonomy in terms of the right of self-interpretation. No adult experts of education, theology, or psychology are to tell him what he is about. Only he himself has the right to state his identity. And this identity, he says, is that of "Voodoo child."
Peter says that he belongs to a generation that no longer possesses any sense of wonder. You can only wonder, he thinks, "about something that does not fit with a worldview." According to him, the worldview of his generation consists of an "enormous pile of unbelievable anecdotes that are too many to check all of them for their truthfulness." Now everything seems possible. "We accept everything and consider it as truth; we make it our truth because there is no more objective truth."
It is important to Peter that his generation does not suffer from this situation without "objective truth." He and his peers are just used to it. They are used not only to having a "free choice between medical doctors" but also to having a "free choice between gods." "We are separated from our roots and alienated from them," he says. "Arbitrariness rules. We are juggling balls in the hand of fortune, and fortune determines what we want to think. We are happy in spite of the meaninglessness. . . . We are the Voodoo children."page 72
In Peter's report about himself and his generation, a number of aspects may indicate the influence of global factors. Voodoo is not exactly the indigenous German religion. Most likely it has made its way there through youth culture and media. This voodooism did not come to Germany directly from Africa or Latin America but more likely via the United States or England, or maybe even through some country in Asia. So international youth culture and media have clearly left their mark on Peter's self-definition, and so also has the international exchange of capital and goods. Peter's understanding of his relationship to God is modeled upon the western consumerism of free choice. The "free choice between gods" is the choice of a consumer following his personal preference as the basis for his transactions.
The story of nineteen-year-old Margret is different. 11 Her position is less defiant, and the influence of global factors is not quite as obvious. Yet what she says is more typical of German youth, and it will give us occasion to look for the more hidden influences of global developments.
At the beginning of her interview, Margret was asked to look back at the various types of religious education she has experienced in her life, in the contexts both of the church and of formal instruction. It is striking how little she can remember of what she was to learn there. She has a vague reminiscence of some biblical stories, but she is not really able to recall them. What has stayed with her instead is the pervasive feeling that there was no real connection between all that and her own everyday life.
Then, in a very important passage of the conversation, she moves on to describe her current outlook. She is not an atheist. "I am convinced that the human is not the crown of creation," she says, "and I also cannot say that I see myself as being without faith, but I don't yet know exactly what my faith refers to. Is it to a god, or is it just faith in something divine, a faith that there are certain things that cannot really be explained? I do not believe that, when we die, everything is over, or that only what happens here on earth exists. But I just cannot yet concentrate on the god who happens in church."
The "god who happens in church" — this is not a mistranslation. In the original German it is also a very odd statement. Nevertheless, it is quite remarkable. It shows how far removed this young woman in her late adolescence actually is from the church. She views the church, as it were, only from the outside. God, as she perceives him to be presented by the church, remains alien to her experience. Her everyday life, she complains, is not addressed either by this god or by the church that teaches in the name of God.
Thinking about postmodernity, her self-description in regard to her faith is no less remarkable. She sees herself as a person of faith, but she does not know what page 73 the object and content or even the meaning of this faith is. In a different study of related interest 12 a sixteen-year-old girl says that "we believe in faith," an understanding that makes faith a purely subjective act without any content.
It is not easy to recognize the global background behind Margret's religious views. It would be possible to account for her statements just in terms of psychological development or in terms of the situation of religious education in Germany. However, if we do not limit ourselves to the more blatant aspects of globalization through economy and media, and if we look more closely at the cultural and religious dimensions of globalization, we come to realize that there might be important connections between globalization and Margret's experience of self and of religion. In order to understand these connections, we now have to take a further look at the social, scientific discussion of globalization.
Social Science Perspectives on Globalization
Within the social sciences, the term for what I have been calling global impacts from behind our backs is "globalization." Since this is a fairly new concept, it will be useful to start with a definition.
Roland Robertson, Ulrich Beck, and Anthony Giddens, among the leading theorists of globalization, 13 define it first as the process of turning the "world into a single place." 14 It is important to note, however, that there are two sides to this process. Globalization "refers both to the compression of the world and to the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole." 15 So both an objective and a subjective pole are involved. At least to some degree, then, globalization is a cultural process that entails psychological and educational consequences.
There are five aspects of globalization that are of special importance for Christian education in relation to young people like Peter and Margret
First, theories of globalization confirm and underline the importance of international, worldwide, consciousness-shaping media and youth cultural influences. In a world that is highly interconnected, such influences do not stay in one place. The research on the change of values in the western world, for example, has made this quite clear. Changing value orientations in youth are not limited to any one country anymore. Rather, according to Ronald Inglehart, such changes spread out like a "silent revolution," 16 and they affect all of the western world. Increasingly, then, youth culture and values will have to be considered as international phenomena. Does this internalization also mean homogenization of youth? The "McDonaldization" of the world certainly has its effects on Christian youth. But it also remains true that, as some more optimistic observers like Arjun Appadurai 17 have pointed out, such influences are always appropriated differently in different page 74 parts of the world. Adolescents are not passive objects of globalization. They play an active role that should not be overlooked.
Second, both Peter and Margret show an amazingly high degree of reflexivity relative to both their autobiographies and their personal religious orientations. Yet this reflexivity is not to be confused with the consciousness-raising that educators have long seen as their aim. With Peter and Margret, reflexivity does not lead to clear conclusions or definite results. Peter's identity as Voodoo child does not allow for a sound religious position. Rather, it is his way of counteracting the permanent insecurity of a world with too many truth claims and with no chance to examine all of them. Theorists of globalization have pointed out that globalization goes hand in hand with reflexivity and relativization. 18
All traditions are relativized. The consciousness of the world having become a "single place" includes the awareness of apparently endless possibilities and of the radical diversity of people and lifestyles around the world. Squeezed in between the plurality of religions and nonreligious options on the one hand and the narrow rationality of expert knowledge on the other, religious convictions come to be seen as relative and arbitrary. In this situation, faith becomes radically subjectivized — rather than being faith in God, it is turned into a purely self-referential process within the individual person. Or, to also mention the other possibility, faith turns fundamentalist by violently excluding all doubtful questions for the sake of certainty.
Third, relativization due to globalization also refers to self-identity. This is again due to the plurality of possibilities and options that a global perspective brings into focus. It is, however, also due to the mechanisms through which the process of globalization proceeds. These mechanisms have been called systemic in that they are not based primarily on individual people or on the actions of such people but rather on anonymous and impersonal systems like the economy. Over against such systems, the individual self is experienced as powerless and meaningless. In spite of this, the self becomes a "reflexive project, for which the individual is responsible." 19 Self-identity is no longer experienced as a given but turns into a task for each person. This explains the high degree of reflexive biographical awareness that we find, for example, with Peter and Margret, and it also explains the sometimes burdensome nature of this reflexivity. The metaphor of the "homeless mind," which has been coined for this situation, 20 captures quite aptly this feeling of being overwhelmed.
Fourth, theories of globalization speak of the "disembedding of institutions." By this they refer to the process in which social institutions are lifted out of "social relations from local contexts" in order to become "abstract systems." 21 Due to differentiation and specialization, institutions become separate from their environment. Especially in Margret's interview we encounter the effects of such an page 75 institutional experience. Margret experiences the church as a modern institution. This church has neither been a part of her adolescent life-world through her parents, nor has it ever become connected to her life through Christian education and youth ministry. Rather, the church remains a specialized organization with boundaries that are clearly marked and that ultimately keep it separate from Margret's life.
The fifth point is the most controversial aspect of globalization theory. That is the privatization of religion. What is meant by this may clearly be seen from the experience of Peter and Margret. Both of them view their religious outlook as a most private matter. Nobody has to tell them what they are to believe — no parent, no teacher, and no school, but also no pastor, no congregation, and no teaching office of a church. In addition to this, their religious orientations are directed primarily toward personal or existential questions of meaning and meaninglessness. So in all these respects they are prime examples of what is called the privatization of religion. Yet we should not be too fast in generalizing these two examples. Critics of the assumption of a necessary privatization of religion have pointed out other examples to be accounted for — examples that may be seen as countermovements against the negative impacts of globalization. 22 There is, for example, the enormous impact of fundamentalist movements on politics — probably the most obvious type of deprivatization of religion in response to modernity and globalization. But fundamentalism is not the only case in point. More important, at least for Christian education and youth ministry within mainline churches, is the involvement of young people with movements around issues of peace, justice, and the integrity of the creation. This involvement may be considered as a contribution to a future-oriented civil society that is religiously motivated. Given the privatizing impact that globalization exerts on religion, civil commitment should be seen as a major aim for Christian education.
Global issues in the sense of globalization are present in our home countries and in our own churches. We have come to realize that the impact of globalization on the religious orientations of today's youth is at least ambivalent if not disorienting and disruptive. It may be supposed that the homogenizing influence of international media and youth culture plays a major role in this, but we should also be aware of more hidden influences like the relativization of tradition, truth, and identity, and of the "disembedding of institutions," which also may affect churches and congregations. Finally, even if there are more hopeful signs, we should be aware of the ongoing privatization of religion.
In all of this, however, we must also remain critically aware of the very preliminary status of globalization theories. Much of what is hypothesized in these theories definitely needs further corroboration. While this is true in general, it is even more true in respect to youth and to Christianity or religion. With youth and religion, page 76 there is very little research that would allow us to move beyond assumptions and suspicions about the effects of globalization. So if we want to become serious about globalization in our field, more empirical research that is based on international cooperation and comparison will be needed.
Perspectives for Christian Education and
Youth Ministry in a Globalizing World
The main task of Christian education and youth ministry in a globalizing world consists in bringing global issues as the challenge in front of us and globalization as the impact from behind our backs together. We will not be able to bring to bear our Christian values and ideals for global life if we do not also take into account the more ambivalent impact of globalization. It is also true that we will not be in a position to adequately address the disruptive impact that globalization exerts on youth if we do not rely on our Christian and ethical visions for a global future of peace and justice.
But how will it become possible educationally to hold together these global challenges and impacts? Four perspectives could play a major role in this task.
A first response to the relativizing influence of globalization may be seen in a deeper grounding in the Christian tradition. If this has ever been needed it certainly is now. A superficial or purely emotional relationship to Christianity, church, or congregation will easily be eroded once it comes into contact with the multiplicity of competing claims, possibilities, and visions. But as important as the attempt at renewing and intensifying the teaching function of the church may be, by itself it will not be enough. We need to add a second perspective.
This second perspective may be called the dialogical and critical inclusion of other religious traditions and of competing truth claims with our teaching. Given the situation of global plurality and of the individualization of religion, it is no longer enough to just know one's own tradition. Rather, it becomes mandatory to develop an awareness of how Christian convictions compare with those of other religions and to consider what may be said about conflicting truth claims if the answer is not to be religious relativism. I am not arguing here for a so-called multifaith approach to religious education or for a neutral teaching about all religions. It is for the sake of confessional Christian education that we need to address other truth claims and convictions. Given the relativizing effects of globalization and reflexivity, there is no other choice. In an important recent analysis, Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan has tried to describe what he calls the mental demands of "postmodern life." 23 He comes to the conclusion that, with such demands, most people living in the United States today are just "in over their heads." A similar case may be built for the religious page 77 demands in a globalizing world. Many if not most adolescents — as well as Christian adults — do not have the skills to deal with the challenges and impacts that we have talked about.
Third, the dialogical and critical inclusion of other religious traditions and of competing truth claims leads on to what may be called ecumenical, intercultural, and interreligious learning. As has been observed many times by theologians as well as by religious educators, ecumenical, intercultural, and interreligious learning may no longer be considered a specialty that can be taken care of on the fringes of the curriculum. Rather, this form of learning lays claim to a central place within all religious education, both for the sake of peaceful conviviality between the denominations and religions of the world and for the sake of a more considered and mature attitude toward one's own tradition. This claim is especially important for education and ministry within the congregation because the context of the congregation is so seductive in terms of focusing on, but also limiting ourselves to, one and only one tradition.
Fourth and last are the global issues of justice, peace, and the integrity of creation that should continue to play a major role in Christian education and youth ministry. However, given the relativizing and privatizing influence of globalization, it will not be enough just to teach them as content. If we want to prepare youth for a committed life in the situation of globalization, we also have to show them how to enact such commitment. Thus, these global issues must be combined with the teaching of strategies for being Christians and building churches within civil society. It is at this point that ethical perspectives and global issues not only meet but also may be influenced and may ultimately be given a different shape that is more human.
Let us not forget that today's youth is not a hopeless case — not for the world but also not for the church. It may well be true that today's youth will teach us what it means to live in a global world.