Emerging Adults: Individualists in Every Way

At least once each semester we like to dedicate our CSF meeting to questions and answers, or at least some attempt at answers, about faith, religion and the like. Sometimes we make this just a regular weekly CSF gathering and thus get most of the normal crowd, other times we advertise and recruit and double our numbers with new students and visitors. During such nights those of us giving the responses can generally expect which questions we will get. Nearly every time someone will ask about world religions: If Christianity is true, what about other religions? What about people of other religions who never heard about Jesus? How does Jesus compare to other religious figures throughout history?

In personal conversations with students, both those dedicated to Christ and those who are not, the same questions come up. People are interested in other religions. College may be the first time they meet people of other faiths. They may be taking a religious studies class and learning about other religions. Or they may have had such questions for a long time but never received an answer from parents or pastors back home..

As they encounter such new worldviews they may go through an internal dialogue with themselves. On one hand, they have been taught their whole lives that Jesus is the only way to God. On the other hand, their friends of other religions are decent people, are they just going to miss out and go to hell because they were raised outside the Christian faith?

Ironically, many of these questions came up last evening in the small group my wife and I are a part of. That shows these are not just questions college students are asking.

All of this came to mind as I thought over Christian Smith and Patricia Snell’s description of the cultural world of emerging adults in their book Souls in Transition. Many descriptions were of a stark individualism, live and let live, everyone has their own truth and who am I to say someone else is wrong.

Over and over again Smith and Snell found that for emerging adults “it’s up to the individual” (49). They write that “according to emerging adults, the absolute authority for every person’s beliefs or actions is his or her own sovereign self. Anybody can literally think or do whatever he or she wants” (49). Individualism for emerging adults results in them recognizing that everybody’s different. Smith and Snell noted that often in answering questions the interviewees would say, “well, everybody’s different, but for me…” (48).

Smith and Snell argue that this is not just typical American individualism but instead “is individualism on heavy doses of multiculturalism and pumped up on steroids of the postmodern insistence on disjuncture, differance, and differences going ‘all the way down’” (48). Getting a bit philosophical, emerging adults find it hard to see an objective reality beyond their own selves:

They seem to presuppose that they are simply imprisoned in their own subjective selves, limited to their biased interpretations of their own sense perceptions, unable to know the real truth of anything beyond themselves. They are de facto doubtful that an identifiable, objective, shared reality might exist across and around all people that can serve as a reliable reference point for rational deliberation and argument (45).

What this means is that emerging adults have trouble believing in a truth or reality that is true for everybody. Truth, morality, reality and such are fully centered on the individual. What is true for one person is not true for another.

This does not mean that all emerging adults are hedonistic nihilists. Smith and Snell found that most emerging adults see right and wrong as easy to discover. It is like common sense: right and wrong are discovered by being aware of your feelings and intuition. A common theme for emerging adults is that not hurting other people is self-evident. The researchers point out that emerging adults cannot say why hurting others is wrong, it just is. Finally, many emerging adults have a belief in a sort of karma, though they did not learn it from any religion. For the most part, they simply believe that people just somehow get what they deserve in the end.

I could keep going as other traits of emerging adults also relate to this individualism: being more open-minded, seeing all cultures as relative, morality depending on the specific case, helping others being a mere optional and personal choice. But I think the point has been made.

The challenge for campus ministry is that Christians believe in an authority beyond the individual, our Creator God. Along with this are truths that are true for everybody: that this Creator God became human in the person of Jesus Christ, died for our sins and rose again. Therefore, how do we present the Christian message in terminology that will even begin to make sense to emerging adults? Importantly, this is not just a question for campus ministry…unless you think these young people will magically change the way they view the world as they get older.

I do not really have an answer to the above question. Well, that’s not true, I have lots of answers but I want to keep this short. I think a starting point is realizing that Jesus always meets people where they are at. So when working with emerging adults we should find things we can affirm in what they already believe. Along with that, a good dose of humility is needed: objective truth is found only in the Creator God and our limited understandings of this truth, as good as we think they may be, are not fully there yet. In other words, none of our theologies are perfect.

To return to where we started, one form of the answer I give when other students ask the questions above is to affirm and emphasize the exclusivity of Jesus but not of my way of being a Christian. All we ever ask of anyone is to let Jesus Christ enter their life. In this, Jesus will find some good and some things that need changed. Thus, all we ask of others is what we must ourselves be doing each day: inviting God (Father, Son and Spirit) into our lives where some good may be found and other things will need to be removed and changed. More than anything else, more than our words and arguments, only an encounter with the risen Christ and God’s Holy Spirit will change the lives of radical individualists (or of anyone else).

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