In an introductory course on practical theology that I teach for undergraduates at Fordham, spaces are left open in the syllabus to focus on the practical-theological questions arising from their lives in college culture. Once they, as a class, identify some shared questions, I help them fill in these spaces by selecting theological readings that will flesh out the topic. One of those topics this term has been "religious identity." They are interested in what theology has to say to the practice of religious identity during the college years. A great question!
Practical theology often works critically and constructively with interdisciplinary material on practice from the social sciences, and so one reading we did this week was from the new book by Christian Smith, with Patricia Snell, from the National Study of Youth and Religion project: Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford, 2009). (The first, and now famous, book from this study was Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton's Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, 2005).)
My students and I read a chapter from Souls in Transition that argued for the character of religious identity among "emerging adults" today. In short, the authors find much continuity in religious identity, belief and practice between the teenage and young adult years, but also, for many, a significant decline in religious identity, belief and practice. This is particularly true for Catholics. The book also discusses sources of emerging adult interpretations of religiosity. The brief discussion of "friendship" in the text elicited, for me, the most interesting part of the discussion.
My students pointed out how spiritually and religiously diverse their friendships are, and how these friendships are a constant source of inspiration and challenge to them in the clarifying of their own practice. Whatever else is going on in terms of decline in official religiosity among this cohort, they seemed to be saying, their experience has been that friendships are a laboratory for spiritual awareness.
All of this made me think about how little we deal with friendship as a theological topic, and in particular in theological education. My students seemed to be telling me that a more direct theological engagement with friendship in our curriculum might land productively in their living and thinking. I left class thinking also about how utterly central friendship has been to my formal theological education, and how very important it is now in professional/professorial life. I feel fortunate to teach among friends, and am challenged to think more about how my friendships at Fordham are forms of theological sustenance. For me, as solitary and introverted a person as I am, it is not too much to say that my teaching and writing are directly the fruit of friendships. This is probably an important but acknowledged source for the generation of much of our academic theology, and certainly is an important dynamic in theology in everyday life.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, United States