A Call for Wisdom in an Age of Information

April 30, 2014
A Call for Wisdom in an Age of Information
HDS professor Emily Click. Photo: Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Millennials—Americans aged 18-34—who say they 'talk to God' outnumber those who say they do not by almost a 2-1 margin, according to a new survey by the Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

At the same time, only a bare majority of this cohort—52 percent—says that they look to religion for guidance.

What's behind the apparent disconnect between personal faith and organized religion? Emily Click, Assistant Dean for Ministry Studies and Field Education and Lecturer on Ministry at HDS, offers her thoughts.

HDS: What do you think is signified by the fact that a majority of younger people say they speak with God?

Emily Click: Certainly here at HDS we would include, but not limit, religious interest to the practice of "talking to God." I could imagine that a wider, more capacious definition of religious involvement might raise some very different perceptions which would indicate a way millenials do value the Divine, but do not focus on talking to God.

For example, I would describe our students as coming to spiritual interests via a deep concern for humanity. They observe injustice, suffering, inequality, and want to do something about it. They may want to be part of a wider project, one that emerges from community. That’s when they discover that one arena for that type of work is in religious communities. So they come into religious study/practice via the route of paying attention to human needs all around them. They probably would not be inclined to label "paying attention to human needs" as talking to God. But in a way, that's just what it is, if you believe, as I do, that every living being is a unique creation of God.

Where do we find the face of God? In our neighbors, in the vulnerable, in the poor, the meek, and so forth.

HDS: Why don't 18-34 year olds who say they talk to God also look to organized religion for guidance?

Click: Millennials have an abundance of places to turn for what they understand to be "guidance." What they may not yet realize is that there is a significant divide between information and wisdom in relation to "guidance." Probably many of them turn to Facebook, and to blogs, and they get some valuable information there. They gather information wherever they can. They need to experience the difference between gathering information and being embraced by wisdom.

I think many millennials are intrigued by Jon Stewart or John Oliver, because they operate with very impressive levels of wisdom. But their insights are often tainted by cynicism. I yearn for millennials to find a place where their tender hearts can bloom, inspired by others who are motivated by altruism and the greater good.

They need to experience the power of building an interpretive framework that draws upon more than cultural resources, but also turns to the wisdom of religious traditions. That’s when they will realize that the folks who are trying to carry these pieces of wisdom often, though certainly not always, are found in religious institutions.

HDS: What do you think religious leaders and organizations might do to put the spiritual impulse together with their traditions?

Click: We need to find avenues of intersection between what is happening in the world and the interpretive frameworks that have stood the test of time—experiences that surface the power right outside our doorstep, and show the ways that an organized faith community can bridge what otherwise would be a gap.

I think about the Sunday before the anniversary of the Boston Marathon. Our minister preached on the familiar passage in Ezekiel about dry bones coming to life again. She made the connection to our moving into a celebratory season, even as we recall the kind of carnage evoked by Ezekiel. She harkened to our marathon scarf project. It is a brainchild of some women in the church who thought it would be great to round up some new scarves knitted in the 2013 Boston Marathon colors of yellow and electric blue to share with several hundred runners the day before the 2014 Marathon. So they put out the word. Thousands of scarves arrived at the Old South Church, filling several of our large rooms.

Our minister asked three of the women who conceived the project to read a sampling of the notes that have arrived along with the scarves as a conclusion to her sermon. What the notes told us is that people literally around the world have been grateful to be invited in and to be a part of knitting together a new story. That was the wisdom piece. It made our lives richer. We need to think of ways to bring that experience to a new generation.

—by Paul Massari