Millennials and Spirituality: The Religion Professor as Secret Agent, a.k.a. Danger Man

Welcome to Christianity in the Ivory Tower, or a guide to the inner knowledge and folk wisdom of The Village. For starters: the more Americans, especially younger Americans, appear to discard religion, the more spiritual they become--if one follows the popular wisdom within the so-called "mainline" of Christianity. Former Episcopalian head Katharine Jefferts Schori, when asked in 2006 whether Episcopalians were "interested in replenishing their ranks by having children," famously opined, "It's probably the opposite." But from where exactly does Schori expect the congregants to come--especially as grandchildren now bury their grey-maned forebears and happily proclaim "spirituality," or "No Religion," or combine a dab of Christianity at key "holidays" with aromatherapy and periodic adjustments of their spiritual auras? Young people appear less and less interested in more traditional forms of "corporate worship." Upscale brands such as Episcopalianism are struggling to fill the pews. Yet this hides a critical irony: young Americans not-so-secretly adore religion as much as their elders, even if their methods of handling it are much more eclectic and at times confusing. I've been a professor of the History of Christianity since the Carter years and can definitely see this trend among the students who seek my services. I am not just a professor of Christianity, but am also expected to be a chaplain, indeed a tour guide of sorts who puts together the most "bang for the spiritual buck" at the lowest psychic costs with an abandon that would make Flo from Progressive Insurance blush...

I got into the academic religion game at a delicate moment, just as secularization was the fashion and as Christian indoctrination was being replaced on campuses with sterilized, encyclopedic surveys of world religions. The result became the new discipline of "Religious Studies", or simply "Religion." The secularization of the Ivory Tower took a strange twist during the Reagan years and shortly thereafter, however, as the Culture Wars between the Christian Right and the progressive Left unfolded. Religious Studies, under the pressure of political and cultural realities, tended to morph into a program of surreptitiously tolerated advocacy. I became less and less involved in lecturing on the allegedly dry realities of what Christianity looked like, and I instead became (or was expected to become) a life coach, and indeed one whom undergraduates could trust with the cultivation of what religion they still regarded as meaningful. I became a spiritual guide of sorts whose job it was (and remains) to help students interpret and survive the Culture Wars. This demanded a delicate eclecticism from me, one that eschewed the sterilized approach of the 1970's, and became a veiled advocacy for sophisticated, spiritual "safe spaces" where students could fortify their psychic lives before re-entering the world. Although my job title does not reflect the change, my students expect me to perform thus as a learned, enlightened spirit guide through the bewildering landscape of American religion, especially as we embark upon 21st-century challenges....

As I have examined my changing role, especially given the academic turn toward aesthetics in the widest sense courtesy of postmodern influences, I find myself looking back at those strange years I spent at the Yale Divinity School of the Reagan years, which was then still a curiously Christian environment. My training had prepared me to serve teaching the History of Christianity, but my experience has demanded a rather different role. Today, I often see myself as a kind of secret agent amid the various demands and competing, contradictory signals emanating from the popular culture, the political climate, and the needs of my students. One thing is certain: I must fulfill tasks my mentors likely never imagined. It is one thing to tell a hospitalized convict, chained to his medical gurney in City Hospital, St. Louis, and awaiting transport to prison, that God has a great plan for his life before he takes permanent residence in his cell. But it is even more challenging to help students who want me to push the buttons on their cultural Cuisinarts and serve double portions of the mixture, often Exotic Christian, they have chosen to become their expression of spirituality. Now (as it turns out) this is an exhilarating task, one far more liberating than the afternoons in training as a potential hospital chaplain. I am more than happy to work with brilliant young minds in planning their spiritual lives, even if I am not entirely sure that I am doing so properly, or with the formal approval of university officials. No one talks about my role in this regard, or about the occasional referral I make to a therapist. It is not in my job description. It invites controversy for professors in this position even to describe their roles thus; but make no mistake: it is very much my job now, and (I gather) the job of a surprising number of my colleagues of all backgrounds around the country.

In sum, I had expected by 2015, certainly, that I would be lecturing on the intricacies of how post-Reformation Christian Thought operates, albeit with a more nuanced syllabus corresponding with the demands of the postmodern university. I still perform those digitally-enhanced lectures, too; but I also have a hidden, an undercover role as a spiritual mentor for a generation of millennials, who want to eat at a spiritual buffet, not consume à la carte religion, and certainly not polish off what appear as the past-date morsels ordered up by their grandparents. One can say, with little to no embellishment, that I am a secret agent within the manicured grounds of the Ivory Tower, er, My Village...

I hope to explore the self-understanding I have gradually and painfully accumulated over the years, and what this has meant for my teaching and publishing, especially after 9/11, in subsequent installments of this blog. Be seeing you!