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Metallica and Jesus

The big lesson that I’ve learned in the 25 years since I was a camp counselor actually didn’t come from any research or data.  Instead, it was a simple question that a college student asked me after I had given a talk.  He wanted to know if I had always wanted to be an academic.  At the time, I was a professor and researcher about religion in America. 

“No,” I replied.  “For the longest time I wanted to be an NFL quarterback or centerfielder for the Texas Rangers.  And I was an undeclared major until my college refused to let me enroll in any more classes until I made a decision.  So I picked English since I had the most credits accumulated there already.  But I couldn’t really figure out how to do anything productive with that, so I went into Americorps in Washington D.C., volunteered for some public policy organizations while there before ultimately landing in graduate school for sociology.” 

In other words, when I was a teenager and in my early 20s I certainly did not aspire to be a professor or be a researcher in any way, even though I was very grateful to have the opportunity as an adult. 

This simple question got me thinking about young people in a new and different way.  Who among us is doing the thing that we dreamt for ourselves when we were 13, 14, 15 years old?  I’m not married to the girl I was dating in high school, I don’t live where I thought I would live, I don’t drive the car I lusted after. In fact, my life now looks different in nearly every material way than I would have imagined it as a teenager.  And that’s all for the better, I might add.  My teenager self had some very odd aspirations!  I suspect the same is true for most you as well.  Sometimes, when I give talks and I want to make this point, I ask the audience to close their eyes and recall themselves in their childhood bedroom.  What posters are on the wall?  What music is playing?  What are you wearing? 

And then we open our eyes and share our answers before I ask one more set of questions.  Who is still wearing those same clothes?  Who was listening to that music in the car on the way over here?  Who has those same posters on their walls?

The answer, of course, is that very, very few of us are the same in any real, substantive way as we were when we were young.  It doesn’t mean that our values have radically changed, but the expression of them almost always has.  It would be comical to meet a 45 year old adult who acts the same as they did when they were 15.  Perhaps you know a few!

We understand intuitively that youth is a time for exploration, experimentation and trying on new identities, finding passions and causes and vocations that allow us to channel our values, beliefs and commitments into a unique expression of ourselves into the world.

And the science backs up our idea of youth as a time of exploration.  Research in various fields of psychology, sociology, and neuroscience supports the idea that it is normal for young people to explore different identities, careers, beliefs, and more. These studies shed light on the developmental processes that occur during adolescence and early adulthood, highlighting the significance of exploration and self-discovery during this period.

Psychological research has shown that this identity formation and exploration is a crucial aspect of development. According to psychologist Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, individuals go through a stage called "identity versus role confusion" during their teenage years. This stage is characterized by the exploration of different roles, values, and beliefs, as adolescents strive to establish a sense of self and determine their place in society. It is during this time that young people actively experiment with different identities, trying on various personas to understand what resonates with their authentic selves.

Sociologists who study work and occupations tend to take a different approach but come to a similar conclusion.  They emphasize the importance of exploration in shaping one's career path and life choices. The concept of "career construction" suggests that individuals construct their careers through a series of choices and experiences, rather than following a linear trajectory. The exploration of different occupational possibilities, interests, and skills allows young people to gain a deeper understanding of their strengths and passions. This process of career exploration helps individuals make informed decisions about their future and align their work with their personal values and aspirations.

And brain scientists offer yet more support.  Neuroscience research has provided insights into the brain changes that occur during adolescence, which contribute to exploratory behavior. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision-making and self-regulation, undergoes significant development during this period. This maturation enables young people to engage in more complex cognitive processes, think critically, and consider different perspectives. It also facilitates the capacity for introspection and self-reflection, encouraging individuals to question their beliefs and seek new experiences.

Additionally, exposure to diverse experiences and viewpoints during youth promotes cognitive flexibility and adaptability. By exploring various identities, careers, and beliefs, young people broaden their horizons, challenge assumptions, and develop a more nuanced understanding of the world. This process of exploration fosters personal growth, empathy, and a greater appreciation for diversity.

In other words, the science is pretty unanimous that adolescence is a time of exploration, experimentation and a kind of “trying on” of different identities, roles and activities.  And not only do scientists agree that these things typically occur during adolescence, they also make it pretty clear that the evidence shows that it’s good for us to be exposed to new ideas and ways of living during this time of life.

But you probably don’t need science to know all of that.  You’ve lived it.  If you’ve been working with young people for any length of time, you’ve even seen this development take place.  We not only understand that adolescence is a time of exploration, we often support and encourage it as normal and healthy. 

Except when it comes to faith.  When it comes to religion and faith and spirituality its like we forget everything we know about young people.  We suspend our reality for long enough to think that if we can just shelter them from influences we don’t agree with and make sure they are really, really steeped in our own religious tradition then they’ll never stray, never doubt.  If we can just fill up their bucket enough, they’ll never explore.  But that’s just not the case.

Given that so much of adolescence is about exploration in all areas, it should come as no surprise that young people take this same approach to their religious and spiritual lives as well. Just as they experiment with different identities, careers, and beliefs, adolescents often engage in a period of exploration and questioning when it comes to matters of religion.

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