People in the academy often ask me, why religion? Why is religion so helpful for kids to thrive? Among the several things I might say, I point to the transformative power of transcendence: an encounter that is so meaningful and pro- found that it propels change in how kids understand themselves and their place in the world.
Second, I suggest that religion not only offers an encounter with the divine, but also provides an embodied belief system—a real community of people offering defined ideals, values, beliefs, and actual examples of how to live them out. In this way, religion provides a community of coordinates.
Coordinates are necessary to locate oneself in the world. Young people are not ultimately intelligible apart from the family and community within which they exist. Furthermore, people are not intelligible without reference to the transcendent horizon within which they exist and to which their deepest longings point.1
I used to love to play Battleship with my brothers, and now I play it with my kids. Do you remember how to find a boat? C4 . . . B6 . . . A9 . . . The boats are located by coordinates. Similarly, youth need coordinates to locate themselves, to form an identity. They need reference points to know their course. Navigating the waters of adolescence is no easy task. There are abundant opportunities, but there are also turbulent and deep waters.
As youth today work out their lives—their sense of self, their identity, their purpose, their “sparks”—they have so many options through which to discover and explore all of this.
They have so many outlets, it’s dizzying. A multitude of allegiances compete for their attention and time. These are not just activities, but so many options to follow— Facebook, Instagram, other social media. Kids are invited to follow . . . to like . . . to belong. It’s hard to know who you are and to whom you belong when you are following so much. These are all different stories that youth are literally following. How does anyone make sense out of that?
Religion provides an alternative: a grand story to follow and to which to belong. It gives a set of coordinates in which young people can find themselves. When youth know what story they are part of, they can begin to find and understand their role in that story: whether it is the gospel narrative of being a follower of Jesus, aligning oneself with the Jewish notion of tikkun olam—of being a part of God’s covenant people in the repair of the world—or understanding oneself as a contributing citizen of a democracy.
When you know the story to which you belong, and when you know your role in that story, you have a profound sense of purpose. That is what we are invited into: the ultimate story of God’s ongoing work in this world. When we find ourselves contributing to a greater story, we thrive.
If we understand thriving in this light, then we understand the invitation is not simply to accept what God has done through the cross, but also to accept and embrace our part in God’s ongoing and unfolding story of faithfulness. Our invitation to thrive is then understood as an invitation to a new order: one set forth and defined by the pattern— the logos—of Christ. We understand that when Jesus says “Follow me,” he’s not referring to Instagram or Facebook; he is referring to a way of life and participation in his ongoing ministry here on earth. We remember that when he left this earth as a physical man, he gave us his Spirit to empower us and to continue his work on this planet.
Now that’s a set of coordinates.
+ This article was excerpted from Dr. King’s installation address as the Peter L. Benson Associate Professor of Applied Developmental Science on May 5, 2016. More at thethrivecenter.org.