Religion is to this generation what sex was to some previous ones ; something which embarrasses students because they do not know much about it, what they know makes it seem difficult, and they do not have a language in which to discuss it. What they hear about it in the media makes it sound scary; when they hear it discussed directly, it is often from contemporaries or older people with an axe to grind, and since they know so little about it, they feel out of their depth. In a recent class, several students said that they didn’t like to say they had a faith, partly because they felt they would be judged adversely as ‘stupid’, and partly because they felt it was ‘personal’. Exploring that a little, it became clear that what was meant was that they did not know how to talk about their own feelings in a way which made sense of what was ‘out there’ in the media; there was an almost total disconnect between institutional religion and their feelings. As one of them put it: ‘if it is true, how come there are so many different types of Christianity?’ A fair point, made not as a polemical one, but as a statement of fact which puzzled the person who made it.
Where we do discuss this in the classroom it is either specialised into theological discourse, or it is done in a reductionist fashion: so, religion as social control, power-play,part of an economic/political system – in short, anything but faith itself/ This is like talking about sex when you are discussing love. In fact, if one substituted the word ‘love’ for the word’ Christianity’ in Dawkins’ books, you would see the defect in his methodology very clearly. Yes, one can say that we are descended from monkeys and that since monkeys copulate pretty freely, we can see that ‘love’ is a concept invented by humans to channel sex into more socially acceptable forms; but we end up talking about a function of one part of a bigger whole, instead of the thing itself. One might stretch the parallel further. Can we prove we love some one? No, there is no agreed scientific measure. Yet people in this society live together on the basis of a concept they hold by faith. Whether that is better or worse than previous versions of marriage as contract is not relevant here; what is are lives based on faith in a concept those believing in it cannot prove – even to each other.
So, if I was discussing sex with a seminar of modern students, they would be fine: they have a language in which to discuss it, and feel comfortable doing so as it is out there in their world. But when it comes to faith, and to the one which helped shape the world in which they live, the same intelligent and capable students are disabled from doing so by lack of a language in which to discuss it. So, as an experiment this semester, a few of us here are taking the poems of George Herbert (Jess will be pleased) and T.S. Eliot, and seeing if we can use them to unlock the mysteries of the interiority of religion to a generation which has spiritual needs it has not the language to conceptualise. Wish us luck – we need it.