Generations of Religious Tinkerers—A Review Essay

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Generations of Religious Tinkerers—A Review Essay

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  BOOK REVIEW Generations of Religious Tinkerers  —  A Review Essay Richard Cimino Published online: 27 November 2008 # Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2008 Theories concerning the effects of generations upon society have existed in one form or another for closeto a century. In hisclassic 1928 essay  “ On the Problem of Generations ” , KarlMannheim (1952) defined a generation in terms of a collective response to a traumatic event that unites a particular group or cohort of individuals into a self-conscious age stratum.Because they were self-organized they could serve as sources of opposition to societal normsand bring about social change. Generational theory is itself a product of modernity as it  presupposes a fluid society undergoing far-reaching changes that rival or interrupt thetraditional influences of class, family, and the life cycle. In this view, periods marked byindustrialization, financial booms, depressions, and other changes shape the worldviews of the younger generations raised in such milieus, who, in turn, influence society.The emergence of the baby boom generation (which encompassed those born between1947 and 1964) and its confluence with so many changes in a short period of time revivedgenerational theory with a vengeance. For instance, the public ’ s attitudes toward authoritiesand institutions, particularly evident in the spheres of politics and religion, showed dramaticchanges in the same time period of the baby boomer  ’ s youth and young adulthood (1965  –  1975). It is still debated whether this was strictly a generational change; these attitudes werealso displayed among those of older ages as well as in nations without a large baby boomgeneration. But the move toward  “ expressive individualism ”  and distrust toward traditionalinstitutionsandauthoritiescametobeidentifiedwiththegenerationwherethischangewasthemost visible and dramatic. Patterns of disaffiliation from religious institutions took particular shape among this generationin theirteen andyoung adultyearsthat would have repercussionsfor decades. Mainline Protestant churches began the 1960s with strength and confidence, but  by the end of the decade they were shaken by membership losses and showed uncertaintyabout their once prominent public role in American society. More traditional Jewish andCatholic institutions ’  ability to transmit their identities to younger members seemed to be indisrepair and found few takers. Conservative evangelical churches and the rise of newreligious movements (or   “ cults ” ) caught the attention and devotion of a segment of baby boomers, though often the media exaggerated such growth in the case of the latter.Of course, much of this was only understood a decade or two later as sociologists provided us with clear snapshots of the pre- and post-boomer religious terrain. The benchmark study of Wade Clark Roof (1993),  A Generation of Seekers , showed that many baby boomers found more value in staying at home and meditating and cultivating their  Int J Polit Cult Soc (2008) 21:75  –  79DOI 10.1007/s10767-008-9041-9R. Cimino ( * )Sociology Department, The New School for Social Research, New York, NY 10003, USAe-mail: CimiR315@newschool.edu  own kind of spirituality rather than going to church or synagogue. Those of a moreconservative bent might leave a particular denominational heritage and attend a non-denominational congregation. Dean Hoge ’ s longitudinal study of a group of Presbyterianconfirmation students as they moved into young adulthood found that most had droppedout of their churches by their 30s (Hoge et al. 1994).The generational theory made sense tosocial scientists and other observers who found the classic secularization thesis in jeopardy(belief in God had held steady throughout the changes of the 60s and afterwards, despitetheological pronouncements on the  “ death of God ” ), but who also admitted that   something  had shifted in American religion since the baby boomers came on the scene; these youngadults did not just return to the traditional religious behavior after a spell of rebellion. Sincethen, there has been no shortage of works suggesting that the subsequent   “  baby busters ”  (or  “ Generation X ” ) and  “ millennials ”  (born in the 80s), who are more numerous than the baby boomers, are also remaking religion and society in their own generational images. Such popularizers as authors Neil Howe and William Strauss believe generations have wide-ranging predictive value for everything from family life to fashion trends.  After the Baby Boomers  (Princeton University Press, 2007), by Princeton Universitysociologist Robert Wuthnow, is bound to raise the level of discussion about the religiousattitudes, beliefs, and practices of these up-and-coming generations. Wuthnow is reluctant totake a strictly generational approach to those young adults following the baby boomers.Unlike the baby boomers, the younger generations are not defined by specific national or world events as much as by demographic and social changes that affect everyone, but especially young adults (those under 45, according to Wuthnow). The book is clear on thefact that young adults today are less conventionally religious (on such measures as churchattendance) than their baby boomer predecessors were at their ages. He attributes this to thefact that young people are delaying or forsaking marriage and childbirth  —  factors that havetraditionally raised religious participation. In other words, the demographic group that tendsto be the most religious  —  married couples with children  —  has declined while the number of those who are the most secular   —  singles and umarried couples without children  —  hasmushroomed (there has been an 18% increase in the unmarried since the last generation). Thelarge increase in female employment likewise drives down the participation of women whohave filled the pews in the past. Wuthnow is convinced that these indicators suggest that thefuture of American religion will be bleak unless religious leaders find a way to engage youngadults and help them navigate these crucial early life stages.Wuthnow draws on a wealth  —  some might say a surplus  —  of survey data to detail hisargument that these changes are largely across the board  —  affecting mainline Protestants,evangelicals, blackProtestants, Catholics,andothertraditions. Itis here that Wuthnowdepartsfrom the reigning religious economy school in the sociology of religion, which holds that thecompetition created by the American separation of church and state and religious pluralismfavors  “ upstart  ”  groups that make clear demands on its members and generate greater commitment (such as evangelicals and Mormons, for instance). Wuthnow sees no definite “ winners ”  or   “ losers ”  in the post-baby boomer religious economy. He acknowledges that  black Protestants actually have more young adults than they did in the last generation and that Catholics and Jews have relatively stable numbers in this age group. But most of this growthandstabilityhasbeen amongthoseintheir30sand40s; all thegroupsshowamarkeddecreaseintheirnumbersofyoungadultsintheir20s.Wuthnowalsoreportsthat evangelicalsarebetter than mainline Protestants in retaining their young people, which would seem to support thenewparadigmtheory. The greatereducational and occupationalmobilityof the lattermayhelpexplain this trend, but surely the significant involvement and investment of evangelicals inyoung adult ministries (including their plethora of campus ministries) deserves more credit. 76 Cimino  Wuthnow himself gives some credence to religious economy or   “ new paradigm ” concepts when he refutes the idea that the U.S. is moving closer to the European pattern of secularization. On first impression, it is not implausible to think that the widespreaddisenchantment of young adults with religious institutions in the U.S. represents asecularized vanguard much as it did in Europe in the last century. But the U.S. case remainsunique; it still rates highest in church attendance compared to European countries  —   both for married and unmarried young people. In fact, young adults in the U.S. who do not havechildren are still more likely to attend religious services than young adults who do havechildren in every country except Italy. Even if there is some convergence in religious participation between Europe and the U.S., the  “ historic factors that have distinguishedreligion in Western Europe from religion in the United States  —  such as the presence of statereligions and stronger working class political parties  —  seem likely to continue separatingthe two regions, ”  Wuthnow concludes. He appears to agree that new paradigm ideas arerelevant to American religion because of its pluralistic denominational and market structure, but this does not necessarily imply a universalistic rational choice framework.It is the chapter on spirituality where Wuthnow is at his analytic best in describing how the post-baby boomers may change the face of American religion. Spirituality has been animportant issuewhen seeking to understand thereligiousviews andpractices ofbaby boomersand those in the younger generations. Wade Clark Roof  ’ s work portrayed many baby boomersas experiencing a divorce between institutional religion and spirituality. Spirituality, whichcould be expressed as mysticism or as finding the sacred by getting in touch with one ’ s  “ trueself, ”  was set against adhering to a body of doctrines or belonging to a tradition or institution.Once spirituality is disembodied from institutions, it could easily applied to a wide range of activities (witness the seminars and books on the spirituality of sports, art, sex, work, etc.) or remain as a free-floating and elusive entity that propels  “ seekers ”  into the spiritual andtherapeutic marketplace. In any case, today ’ s mantra of being  “ spiritual but not religious, ” suggests that the split between institutional religion and spirituality has been generalizedthroughout American society as well as found in exported and  “ home-grown ”  varieties inEurope and other parts of the world. While Wuthnow agrees that   “ spiritual seeking ”  is a keycharacteristic of many young adults, he does not see it as the leading trend in Americanreligion. He estimates that somewhere between a sixth and a third of young adults are spiritual but not religious. But he makes the interesting point that seeking often leads to  “ tinkering ” when it comes to spirituality, as people piece together available resources, information, andskills to create their own spiritual identities and fulfill religious needs.The concept of tinkering is close to the  “ cultural toolkit  ”  approach of Anne Swidler or,more literally, to that of the  “  bricoleur  ”  (Claude Levi-Strauss) or handy person in pre-industrial societies who uses the tools of his or her trade and materials at hand to fix things.The precondition for tinkering is one of uncertainty and a recognition of the difficulty of solving problems through predefined or prepackaged solutions. In much the same way, theuncertainty of the modern and postmodern situation makes choice and practicality in thespiritual search of the utmost importance, especially since religion is itself a hedge against uncertainty. As Wuthnow notes,  “ A centuries-old creed may be a succinct statement of what a person of faith should believe. Making sense of the implications of that creed, though, isan act of tinkering ”  (pp. 15).He adds that the possibilities of tinkering increase as one ’ s access to information andsocial networks expand, which describes the situation of most young adults. The spiritualtinkerer sorts through a  “ veritable scrap heap of ideas and practices from childhood, fromreligious organizations, classes, conversations with friends, books, magazines, television programs, and Web sites. ”  In his mining of survey data, the author finds that religious ideas Generations of Religious Tinkerers  —  A Review Essay 77  among young adults most likely circulate by word of mouth (contrary to media stereotypes,young adults talk frequently about religion and spirituality with friends, though they rarelyread religious books or magazines), which means that they are influencing each other informing opinions about religion far more than they are being shaped by the formalteachings of religious institutions. In his discussion of tinkering, Wuthnow sets his ideasagainst the reigning rational choice theories when he argues that not all religious behavior ismarket-oriented. For example,  “ church hopping ”  is not the same thing as church shopping,as the former implies less of a deliberate consumer strategy that can be expressed in visitingdifferent congregations because of a more transient lifestyle or social obligations (i.e.,visiting friends or parents). While believing in a religion that promises heaven is rational if one believes that the alternative is an eternity in hell, the fact that many others  “ opt for different belief systems make them no less rational. It rather begs the question of rationalityto the point that rationality becomes meaningless apart from the cultural assumptions wemake about it. Spirituality is sometimes the product of rational choices and sometimes theresult of contingencies and influences that involve no choices at all. ”  (pp. 16)Another distinctive argument of Wuthnow ’ s, which sets his apart from most generationaltreatments of spirituality, is his emphasis on practice. Spirituality is on its way toward becoming religion when seekers and tinkerers engage in practices that are enmeshed insocial and bodily forms, whether they be communal or individual (i.e., prayer, meditation,Bible study). The problem is that relatively few young adults engage spirituality in thismanner (fewer than half of young Americans pray compared to about three-quarters of those in their late 40s and older, and only 8% of young adults meditate compared 31% of those 65 and older). The post-baby boomers tend to take a more open attitude to therelationship between the arts and spirituality. This means that, far more than for older Americans, they can find spiritual value in wider ranges of art forms and styles that exist outside of religious institutions and sponsorship. As is the case with religious behavior ingeneral for the younger generations, marriage and child-bearing raises the chances of post- boomer spirituality finding a social or practice-oriented expression.As Wuthnow throws some doubt on the generational perspective and then disavows new paradigm and rational choice theories, it often seems as if the book does not have anoverarching theoretical framework to explain the multitude of survey findings he presentsrelating to religion and American young adults. This is not necessarily a serious flaw, sincethe author views the book more as an empirically driven and clarion call for congregationsand other religious institutions to address the needs of young adults than as a theoreticalthesis for social scientists. Reading the book in this light will provide even the non-believer with illuminating glimpses of the future (or possible lack of future) of American religion.Thus, he finds education as shaping the main cleavages taking place among young adults,and not always in expected directions. For instance, the college-educated were more likelyto score higher on levels of religious orthodoxy than those not attending college. But onissues of religious tolerance, those young adults without college education were more likelyto be intolerant of religious and ethnic minorities.As for the future of the religious right, Wuthnow sees a split among young adults runningthrough the so-called  “ culture war  ”  issues; they are more polarized than the baby boomers inthe early 1980s (with 56% leaning toward religious liberalism and 38% toward religiousconservatism). There has been much talk lately of a more liberalized younger segment of evangelicals, as seen in the support some evangelical leaders have given to Barack Obama.Wuthnow sees some indications of this; younger evangelicals are more favorable toward gaysand lesbians and the ACLU than older ones, though he notes that church-going evangelicals(of all ages) tend to be less accepting of other ethnic groups compared to other Americans 78 Cimino  (leading Wuthnow to speculate that congregations may have an insulating effect). Youngevangelicals as a whole still stand out for their social conservatism (especially on abortion)compared to mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and black Protestants in their age group. Incontrast to such observers, as Alan Wolfe who argues that evangelicals often do not practicewhat they preach when it comes to politics, Wuthnow finds an  “ evangelical difference ”  that will likely translate into continuing political tensions and division.Wuthnow concludes that congregations are ill-equipped to deal with young adults andthe changes they represent. To remedy this, they have to become an important resource for  “ networking, for maintaining intergenerational ties, and for transmitting values ”  to theupcoming generation as they do for older adults and children. But a segment of the post- baby boomers are moving beyond seeking and tinkering (if they have ever engaged in these behaviors to begin with) and are finding a measure of community, even if it is mainly withtheir contemporaries. The new book   Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation  (Rutgers University Press, 2008) by Richard Flory and Donald E. Miller,sheds more light on how the attitudes and behavior of the post-boomers are findinginstitutional expression. Through in-depth research on Christian congregations andministries dealing with this generation, Flory and Miller categorize post-boomer ministriesinto four camps: innovators, appropriators, resisters and reclaimers. The innovators includethe  “ emergent  ”  movement, which stresses  “ authenticity, ”  community and intimacy in their experience-based (and often multi-media) worship and social outreach. The appropriators,such as the Christian rock groups and skate boarders (and other   “ extreme ”  Christian sport groups), try to adapt to popular secular culture in order to find a hearing.Resisters, as their name implies, actively resist the inroads of relativism and postmodernism in the culture and the churches. Such ministries and organizations as theDiscovery Institute (in its promotion of intelligent design) and much of the Christian right and other groups stressing a  “ rational Christianity ”  and a  “ Christian worldview ”  fall intothis camp. The reclaimers include those post-boomers who have been drawn to ancient tradition and ritual-based churches, such as Eastern Orthodoxy and conservativeAnglicanism and Catholicism. Many churches and ministries catering to baby boomersand older people can probably be placed in at least two or three of these categories, whose boundaries the authors themselves agree are fuzzy to begin with (the resisters andreclaimers share so many features that they may represent just different dimensions of same phenomenon). Flory and Miller clearly see the resisters as fighting a losing battle, particularly since they rely on an  “ expert system ”  of approved theologians and teachers that seems to be out of touch with the more democratized approach of post-boomers.Whether they are defined by generations or not, Flory and Miller do capture thecomplexity of the young adult religious search and its institutional expressions that aresuggested in Wuthnow ’ s work. They make the interesting point that the reclaimers,appropriators and innovators all hold to  —  in one way or another   —  an  “ expressivecommunalism ”  that stresses embodied and experiential forms of Christianity  —  a thesis that itself suggests the enduring influence of the 60s generation. References Hoge, D., Johnson, B., & Luidens, D. (1994).  Vanishing boundaries: The religion of mainline baby Boomers . Louisville: Westminster/John Knox.Mannheim, K. (1952).  Collected works of Karl Mannheim, Vol.  (vol.  5 ). London: Routledge.Roof, W. C. (1993).  A generation of seekers . San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.Generations of Religious Tinkerers  —  A Review Essay 79
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