Thinking Teenagers

by Anne Ostrowicz.

Having just started one-to-one Theology lessons with a pupil considering studying Philosophy and Theology at university, we found ourselves discussing the first chapter of “Proverbs of Ashes” [1] which outlines six different theologies of the cross, the authors explaining the difficulties they have with some of them. For each approach I asked him what sort of God was being presented, and what sort of people it assumed we are and should be becoming. This pupil started life in a village in China to which Christianity had only newly arrived, embraced by some of the older villagers and expressed in a theology mediated by individuals with limited learning, and which endorsed the existing patriarchal social structure.

“When I came to England”, my pupil said, “I thought how very rational everything here is in contrast with life in my village. However, when I go to the Christian Union [he identifies as an atheist] I find reason, science, human experience, all sometimes abandoned. I have great trouble with the idea that two people sinning thousands of years ago somehow affects each of us today, and that God wants ‘atonement’ for our sins. Some of these other interpretations of the cross make more sense to me, but my Christian friends seem unaware of them.”

He went on to say that he was delighted to study religion at school in England but it wasn’t the intricacies of kosher, or variations in practices like eucharist, that teenagers needed to learn about. Far more meaningful to them are the fundamental ideas asserted by religion and philosophy which underly these practices, like the one we had been discussing, ideas which require deep consideration, with potentially major possibilities both for individuals and societies.

At the risk of being controversial, I mention that in the last two years there has been a government-led change in focus in RE in schools, more to learning the facts about “what people of a particular faith believe and do”, less on engaging with what I would regard as a more in-depth study and discussion of theological, ethical and philosophical concepts and issues. In many schools, numbers of pupils opting to study the subject at exam level have suffered.

Much of my own thinking has been engaged in asking, If we focus in RE on deep discussion of central ideas in religion, which concepts and ideas are really significant and of value and interest for our teenagers to study? My own list includes exploring what faith might be; where theists ultimately get their ideas from; why people believe and disbelieve; modern movements in theology to realise it is an ongoing , organic, exciting area of study, responding to political and social conditions; the  reality of the range of interpretations of a text within any one religion; some of the significant overlaps between religions; understanding the idea of what a personal, living faith might entail as well as engaging with the idea of the possibility of God as a Mover in history and in what sense this might be; exploring the concepts of forgiveness and of non-violence. As long as these concepts are grounded in a specific text, individual or event, they become something young people can understand, find genuinely stimulating and are keen to discuss.

Turning to our religious communities, I wonder if we need to think carefully here, too, on what our teenagers really need from us. Do we create an environment where they feel able to ask their deepest questions? Are we aware of how interested they are in the possibility of the existence of a spiritual reality and in what that might consist? Can faith and reason co-exist? Do we have serious study and discussion of a range of views and interpretations of issues? Do we realise how very much they are able to understand, and often need to understand in order to find enduring faith in a world with so many contrasting beliefs? Do we come alongside for a time, ultimately trusting to God’s ongoing work in their lives?

A few weeks ago I found myself with some of my sixth-form pupils in Berlin’s Gemaldegalerie, standing in front of Rembrandt’s powerful painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Jabbok [2]. This ‘wrestling’ with questions of spirituality and morality seems fundamental to humanness, to the way we acquire understanding, appreciation and eventually wisdom. And that includes teenagers!  Satish Kumar writes, “There is no destination outside the journey” [3].   Wherever we encounter teenagers, may we give them the best spiritual journey possible.

[1] Proverbs of Ashes, Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, Beacon Press, 2001

[2] Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Rembrandt, 1659, Gemaldegalerie, Berlin

[3] Earth Pilgrim, Satish Kumar, Green Books, 2009, page 23

6 thoughts on “Thinking Teenagers”

  1. ‘a government-led change in focus in RE in schools, more to learning the facts about “what people of a particular faith believe and do”’
    Maybe stemming from a worry about social cohesion, and therefore seeking to promote understanding of “other people”?
    Maybe treating religions as cultural phenomena to be studied, rather than experiences to be lived?


    1. My daughters school doesn’t even really even cover ‘the facts’ let alone provides anything near an opportunity to approach the questions you raise Anne. And thank you for your post. My experience is that the teenagers do indeed share the questions and issues you identify and our faith communities go no where near providing an environment for exploring these. Worst, most teenagers I come across are all but entirely left with the impression that such issues are not considered by anyone in the church at all and that to ‘question the basics’ as your student does, is not really an option. The tragedy is that this is far from the case within the Methodist Church in particular – which is why my family joined. However the capability and capacity does not seem to exist at local level to provide a forum for these kind of questions to be part and parcel of their learning. It’s a small window before teenagers start to disengage and I suspect the lack of opportunity for appreciating that discussions of this kind are alive and well and in fact are ‘allowed’ is a key factor – although not one they will be consciously aware of.


      1. I do think that a radical re-think of what we do with our teenagers in our religious communities, and how we view who they are and what they need, is very much due in many worshiping communities.


    2. Yes, I think promoting social cohesion via understanding is definitely a part of the government’s aim for RE, and of course admirable.


  2. Thank you Anne. I have read the most fantastic book on evidence of belief. It is written by Francis Collins, leader of the human genome project entitled. ‘ The Language of God,’ Pocket books Popular Science £8.99. From an atheist to a Christian it really speaks about the relevence of spiritually in this modern day.


    1. Thank you for this book recommendation! I put up a wonderful article by him on my classroom wall a number of years ago.


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