Smith treats the religious imagination of adolescents as one of moralistic, therapeutic deism that reflects the mainstream capitalist, consumer culture. This imagination has replaced, he says, a serious engagement and socialization with established religious faith traditions. He defines this belief system not as a watered down version of any particular faith tradition, but instead as a new parasitic religious faith that preys upon “the degenerating bodies of other, particularistic religious faiths” (67). Instead of adhering to doctrine that necessitates the need for faith and acknowledgement of the mystery of the divine, teenagers create their own belief system, aided by mass consumerism, that fills a functional need in their lives. Serving primarily to allow adolescents to be happy and feel good about themselves and to solve problems in their lives, adolescents’ relationship with God is a one-way street and a relationship that is convenient for us. We choose when we want God in our lives and when we do not. In this way, we fail to engage in a friendship with God, and thus, do not engage in the Christian experience; the life of faith and charity to which we are called.
Cultivating a means of serious, committed faith formation in the modern world is difficult. Smith acknowledges the power of cultural realities and structural impositions that shape adolescents’ lives. For one, adults give in to the stereotype that teenage years are ones of rebellion, and thus teenagers’ apathy remains unaided by adults who see it as a normal phase in adolescent life. Furthermore, serious conversation about religion and identity remains absent from modern familial and educational discourse. Ideas of pluralism and respect for all provide a façade over the very substance of what faith means. As a result, adults and children are now implicated in a world in which these conversations are difficult, infrequent, and, when they do occur, revealingly inarticulate.
I felt the challenges of religious education as a catechist during my freshman year at Notre Dame. I signed up for this ministry because I had enjoyed my high school youth ministry experience, and I was excited to pursue teaching as possible career path. Like Smith described, however, my partner and I often felt a tug-of-war when planning faith activities for high school kids; How do we balance what would be perceived to be boring and informational with an activity more fun and less substantive. More worrisome, during the times when we were prepared to teach Church teachings, I felt unprepared to do so; after reflection, though, I was not surprised. My high school youth group program consistent of scattered service events and a yearly retreat, lacking substance in Christian tradition. Rarely did I engage in Scripture and relate its teachings to my life in conversation with friends or family. Moreover, I attended a secular public high school so I received no preparation on that front. How was I supposed to be an authority when I felt unconfident myself?
My uncertainties as a catechist in the Little Flower youth group serve as a microcosm of society’s pressure on faith traditions. Religion feels pressure to “accommodate the transformed definitions of self, faith, and purpose to avoid becoming culturally outmoded” (179). This means that we are in danger of simplifying spirituality as something that involves subjective feeling and personal integration without the necessary self-discipline to be holy and obedient. Consequently, religious educators feel pressure to shift their activities away from the serious, and historically dry content towards surface-level fun in order to bring more kids into at least some dialogue with faith. This surface-level treatment of faith usually fails to address the sacrifice required to engage seriously with faith.
This shift is not reflected in many statistics. Although surveys regarding the belief in God and importance of God have remained stable since the 1950s and may remain so into the future, Smith argues that a more nuisanced investigation exposes the changing substance of what religion means to the modern American world. Secular ideals, with humans’ wants and desires in the driver’s seat, today mold our understanding of what it means to be religious.
In reflecting upon my own formation, I think about my Confirmation experience in eighth grade and then compare that experience to my role as a Confirmation team member during the 2011-2012 school year. I remember my religion teacher explaining that picking a Confirmation name meant looking through a book of saints and picking one that had the same interests as you or one that has been a name used within your family. While the choice of Luke then reflected my interest in becoming a doctor, I never looked into the Christian experience of Luke on Earth. Now as a changed my plans for my future, I feel uneasy about the lack of depth in my decision-making of my Confirmation name because the connection upon which my choice was made has largely been lost.
In comparing that experience with one in which I participated in the preparation process for Confirmation candidates during the 2011-2012 school year, I was amazed at the seriousness of their preparation for the sacrament in contrast to the routineness of my eighth grade class. When some of the candidates elected to refrain from going through with the sacrament at the time, I was inspired by their prayerful reflection and keen perceptivity about the readiness of their hearts. I could hardly imagine an eighth grader thoughtfully postponing his Confirmation.