Rebel with a Cause

Rebel with a Cause October 23, 2006

What do you do with a rebellious teenager?

Monsignor Guissani–founder of Communion and Liberation says go with the flow.

Well, he doesn’t say that in so many words, but that’s what he means. In his book The Risk of Education he says that for education to be authentic a young person has to examine what he has been given and see if it works.

This is especially true of religious education. In childhood we’re given a whole set of (let’s face it) pretty incredible propositions, prohibitions and principles to live by. The big authority figures dish them out, and we have to eat our vegetables.

In our teenage years we’re facing the big challenge of life. We’ve got to see if the stuff we’ve been given actually works. We’re about to jump out of the airplane, and we’re need to see if the parachute’s packed correctly; so we begin to test what we’ve been given.

The grown ups don’t like this. Because the testing is often expressed negatively they crack down on this ‘teenaged rebellion.’ Guissani says this is the wrong response.

Instead we have to accompany the young people as they verify the Truth. What’s wrong if they question it? If its true it will stand up to questioning won’t it? Are you chicken? The problem is, too many grownups haven’t really tested the faith for themselves. they’ve settled for the easy way out which is just, ‘Do as you’re told…obey the rules and you’ll be okay.’

This isn’t good enough. It is not a real engagement with the faith, and young people know that. They actually want a real engagement with the faith. They want to wrestle with the angel. They want to verify the faith. They want to know if it works. Otherwise, why put all their trust in it?

We have to first of all have the experience of living by faith ourselves. Secondly we need to know enough about our faith to provide the answers. Third, we need to be able to admit when we don’t know the answers, and fourth, we need to have the courage and maturity and good humor to encourage them to examine and verify for themselves.

I tried this the other week coming home from Mass. My thirteen year old said, (in a rather stressy way) “Why do we have to sing all those dumb hymns at Mass?” Her mother reprimanded her for asking a stressy question. Remembering Guissani’s wisdom I jumped in and said, “No, she’s asking a question about her faith. It’s a good question. The hymns aren’t dumb, they’re just not to your taste. Once you get to know them you’ll probably like them, but you’ll never get to know them if you just sit there thinking how dumb they are and not singing.”

She calmed down and accepted the answer. Most of all she wanted permission to ask the questions, and permission to set out on her own journey of faith. I’d rather have her do that with some hard questions–even questions that I can’t answer, than to have her become a grinning squeaky clean Christian teenager who never does anything wrong, but who also never really does anything right because she’s never really chosen to do what is right from a position of real choice.

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  • Once again you are right on the button, Dwight (if I may call you that).Like you, I have come to the Church via several different traditions. Although I’m only 23, for various reasons, I’ve experienced most of what English Christianity has to offer, both good and bad.I have come to the conclusion that too many Christians are unwilling or unable to apply their God-given reason to theology. It’s as though they have accepted the post-Enlightenment lie about the separation of faith and reason. Particularly in youth work, there is far too much emphasis on encouraging kids to feel rather than making them think. The faith is made out to be about feeling good and not having to worry, about feeling Jesus’ presence rather than understanding the Real Presence. The problem is that when they reach university or the workplace and encounter serious intellectual challenges to the faith they simply do not have the tools to defend their beliefs, except to fall back on a kind of wet and woolly subjectivism. I myself was lucky not to fall into this trap when I was a freshman. We must encourage the young to ask the difficult questions – “Is it rational to believe in God?” “Why should I give the Bible more credence than the Koran?” “Why do I have to go to Mass?” – and give them the sound answers.This will not only strengthen the faith – which is absolutely essential here in England where the Church is quite literally dying – but help young people to recognise vocations (I have often argued that there is no “vocations crisis” as such; there is a crisis in the recognition, discerning and nurturing of vocations because of a broader intellectual crisis in the Church. God has not stopped giving vocations; we have stopped accepting them.)

  • I love this post, not only because I experienced the flip side of your “she can ask questions” mentality in my own youth, but also because I’m a mother, and this is so very important to remember. Oh yeah, and because I love your writing! 🙂

  • I’m glad I found this. I’m pulling my not-read-yet copy of The Risk of Education off the shelf. My oldest is 13 with an attitude. Last spring he infirmed me that he is an atheist.

  • My kids aren’t at that age yet, but I’ve already met similar questions from them. I hope to remember this post the next time they ask.