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Disquiet over the prevalence of social and economic individualism has a long history. In a world of mobile Capital and increasingly mobile people, communities of common tradition and locality appear to be under threat from the advent of a fragmented market society. Are these complaints against individualism justified? And crucially, how should Christians respond to them? Digging down into the substance of these questions, this project will consider the theological, liturgical and scriptural resources Christians have for understanding the notion of individualism in relation to issues of education, public life and the formation of democratic citizenship.

Believing and Belonging in Student Christianity: Implications for Practical Theology

 

This project considers the ways in which Christian students have their religious identities formed, reformed and challenged by in the course of their study. The research is divided between two contexts, Manchester and Dublin. The split-site nature of the research is intended to provide a framework for comparison.  

Key Research Questions

  • How do students understand their faith in the course of their study?
  • How do pastoral workers understand student faith?
  • What are the differences between student experience and the perceptions of pastoral workers?
  • What do these differences tell us about the nature of Christian student identity?
  • What are the implications of this identity for Pastoral Theology?  

Student Identities

In preliminary interviews with University Chaplains and clergy in both Manchester and Dublin, a common narrative immerged about the nature of student identity. Many expressed concern that students existed in multiple levels of theological disorientation. Such disorientation falls broadly into three categories:

1)      Student as Drifter: A concern that students are ‘un-Churched’: neither connected to Christian communities or traditions. 

2)      Student as Individualist: A concern that students are radically orientated towards personal identity and individual satisfaction (to the detriment of community).

3)      Student as Consumer: A concern that students have a consumerist and arguably negotiable attitude towards their faith commitment. 

This notion that these young adults as existentially uncommitted, individualistic and consumerist cohort echoes similar representations of students found in both experimental psychology and Social Science. A key category in understanding student experience in these accounts is that of transience.  As Vanslyke-Briggs et al (2014) remarks: ‘Students are sorting out who they are and who they want to be. Their lives are marked by transitions and transience’. (p. 119). Such an experience is often understood both structurally and culturally and the formation and contestation of identity. Due the fast pace of the University experience, many university students adopt the values of the city (personal independence, desire for freedom, identity-politics, consumerism, small-friendship circles and selective interest-groups). Various student subcultures rooted in music, film or fashion epitomise a distinctly consumer approach to the self- predicated upon a self-transforming an aesthetic of choice and personal identity. According to this reading, students are ideologically and contextually opposed to older communitarian organisations and values (M. Bell, p. 188). As the sociologist Ronald Inglehart argues, younger generations have entered into a new ‘postmaterial phase’ of social values in which aesthetics and self-actualization rather than work and material security are primary motivations in life. According to this narrative traditional structures of authority and legitimation are side-lined in favour of personalised projects.  

Implications for the Practical Theology

Such is the influential nature of these portraits that a number of practical theologians have suggested that the structures of the Church must be altered radically to better correlate with contemporary social conditions. As Pete Ward reflects in his book Liquid Church, Christian communities need to re-orientate themselves from spaces which satisfy needs for certainty, authority and fixity, towards ‘fluid spaces’ which attend to a variety of needs through a variety of settings and networks. As Ward notes:

Liquid Church would replace congregation with communication. The networked Church would connect individuals, groups and organisations in a series of flows. Connection would gather around hubs and would be made up of connecting nodes. A hub might be a retreat centre, a sports team, a music group, a record company, and so on. Connection to individuals and groups would involve sharing the life of God in a variety of ways (Liquid Church, p. 87).               

At the core of this analysis of institutional change is the acceptance of Manuel Castells notion of the ‘network society’. Instead of functioning within a culture of fixed hierarchies and monolithic relations, Castells suggests that individuals and groups now operate in a society dominated by networked and horizontal relationships, powered by the internet, e-mail and globalisation. While notions of identity and belonging are still concentrated within particular social institutions, Castells insists, ‘meaning is organised around a primary identity’ which can be constructed from a variety of sources: ‘from history, geography, from biology, from productive and reproductive institutions, from collective memory and from personal fantasies, from power apparatuses and religious revelations’ (Castells, The Power of Identity, p. 7.)  Yet since the network society is constructed in part by the pluralising influences of globalised economic and technological forces, there are now multiple sources of meaning, a fact which Castells believes, ‘is a source of  stress and contradiction in both self-representation and  social action’, (p.6). Fluidity in this context involves the Church embracing the contingency and vibrancy of a world of multiple and contested sources of meaning in ways which enhance its message and core identity. According to Ward, this can only achieved if the Church develops a new experiential emphasis (a spiritual hunger with God) as the basis of its organisation and worship.  This means a creative openness to alternative sources of meaning (including New Age Spirituality). Such an approach accords with a culture in which meaning functions pluralistically.      

Qualifying the Narrative

But is the above narrative true? And is liquidity the solution to the situation the Church finds it in? While speaking to groups of Dublin students it became obvious that there was some disjunction between how Chaplains and pastoral workers viewed students and how student viewed their own identity and priorities. Chaplains and pastoral workers were concerned about individualism and disconnection. Yet, students had a different set of priorities. They were concerned about finding roots, new connections and personal affirmation, in a world of fluidity and pluralism. In some ways we can see these desires, not as individualistic but highly communitarian. Yet, it is communitarianism with a difference. It is a communitarianism which is universalistic- severed from limited localities and constructed by a variety of personal preferences. Many students saw the Church is able to be ‘anywhere’; limited only by their ability to correctly discern its proper manifestation (its localised form). So it appears that students are operating according to an individualist norm, but the object of these individualisms is to find community. How should we interpret these ambiguities? Chaplains worry that students are disconnected, disorientated and un-Churched. Students, while being mobile and savvy choosers of religious community, worry about the nature and extent of their connection. Is this difference of perception accounted for by cultural and generational differences between students and Chaplains? Or are the localised forms of communitarianism simply unable to meet the new communitarian desires expressed by students?