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Adolescence and the Creation of the Secular Age of Unbelief

By January 9, 2017 No Comments
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This article is the first in a two part series focusing on the relationship between adolescence, as a cultural category, and secularity in the West. In this article Andrew Root provides a theological and cultural analysis. The second article, written by Kevin Alton asks the “So what?” question: What does this mean for youth ministry?

Like an erratic rash that seems to clear up to only return, an old debate has resurfaced once again in discussions of Protestant youth ministry.  This debate surrounds the very nature of adolescence.  What is it?  And where did it come from?  The tension is between those that assert that adolescence is a social construction of Western modern societies and those that see it as a universal biological reality.  In other words, to put it crudely, the questions of debate consist in these, “Are adolescents created from the forces of culture or the powers of natural biological determinism?  Is it industrialization, secondary education, and consumer society that make adolescence?  Or is adolescence just the natural stage of an organism that everyone, across time and space, has moved through?”

This debate has resurfaced mainly because a popular youth ministry book by Crystal Kirgiss has challenged the presumption that adolescence is a social/cultural construction of the modern west.  The book has garnered a few significant endorsements from academic practical theologians and ministry specialists, like Kenda Creasy Dean who has asserted (with her usual writing flair) that this popular book “has taken one of youth ministry’s most sacred cows and turned it into hamburger.”  It appears that the side of natural biological determinism has won a major score with this little book.

Through produced literature (novels, sermons, and paintings) Kirgiss seems to believe that she’s discovered the smoking gun of biological determinism.  She claims that these 5th, 15th, and 17th century documents prove that Western adolescence is no creation of industrialized modernity, but a universal reality that pre-dates the 20th century.  She shows that just as some worry about the bad behavior of youth in the church today, so too did 17th century preachers complain about the young.  But Kirgiss’ book seems to have a certain implausible presumption.  First, she seems to conflate “youth” and “adolescence” as if they are the same thing.  But “adolescence” is a psychological category used to interpret the experience of youth—those particularly on the cusp of shifting into adulthood.  Kirgiss is right that there have always been people on this cultural cusp, but it has only been recently (since the creation of a discipline like psychology) that we’ve labeled and interpreted this period as “adolescence.” Second, and related, Kirgiss seems to miss this nuance because of her view of history.

I’ll leave it for historians to affirm or question the use of her historical sources and method, and instead lift up a certain hidden philosophical presumption of how cultures and societies evolve from which she seems to be operating.  This philosophical presumption is best understood through an analogy of an electrician.  When an electrician wires a house he or she zigzags wire from one electrical box to the next, splicing wire between the boxes until he or she has made a way to the electrical panel.  Yet, if you have a big appliance that needs a lot of energy, like a 65” television, your electrician may decide to make a “homerun” running one sole, un-spliced wire from your dedicated TV’s outlet all the way to the panel—as a straight shot.  The philosophical problems with Kirgiss’s book are many, but what seems most problematic is that she presumes too many “homeruns,” too many straight shots.  She discusses a document or sermon without following the cultural zigzags, never exploring just how different the 18th and the 21st centuries are.  Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has argued that there are few (to no) homeruns in western history.  Deduced straight shots are not how culture flows.  He often calls these straight shot/homeruns “subtraction stories,” meaning that rarely can history be seen outside the production (the zigzagging) of multiple phenomena.

Taylor has offered the most ambitious of histories, providing a kind of philosophical genealogy of our secular age in his award-winning book A Secular Age.  While Kirgiss is trying to argue for a strong continuity between 15th century young people and those of today, Taylor sees something very different.  Rather, Taylor believes there is a shocking discontinuity between the social imaginary of those in 1500 and today.  This discontinuity is expressed best in Taylor’s central question, “Why in 1500 was it nearly impossible for people in Western societies to not believe in God, while today it is not only possible, but seems more likely?”

Taylor will use (a mere) 950 pages to tell the zigzag story of the rise of our secular age.  And this zigzag story has impacted nearly everything in our Western world, even (I believe) our conception of youth, adolescents, and the teenager.  Yet, it is unfair to make Kirgiss defend herself next to Taylor.  After all, she’s written a popular book for youth workers and Taylor a tome for academics.

Therefore, for the rest of this article we’ll allow Taylor most of the space to speak, returning to Kirgiss to show how Taylor’s story elicits a completely different “take” on the cultural evolution of youth, allowing us to re-conceptualize the debate at hand.  The question that should be particularly interesting for ministers and theologians, is not solely whether adolescence is a social construction or a natural biological given, but rather, how has the conception of adolescence or teenage-hood been a component in the creation of our secular age?  What I’ll argue below is that adolescence, as an interpretive concept, has played a particular role in expanding the universe of unbelief.  While Kirgiss may be right that certain behaviors of youth were present in earlier periods, what is quite new is how teenage-hood or adolescence has served a distinct, important role in shifting the conditions that make belief and commitment to a personal God completely optional.

So, in the end, this debate, and maybe youth ministry as a whole, should be a major concern of theologians and pastors, for youth play a not peripheral but central role in the formation and continuation of our secular age of unbelief.  Youth ministry is not a snare to capture the affiliation of youth, but ground zero for engagement with the continued production of our secular age.

But, How? 

Part III of Taylor’s A Secular Age is called “The Nova Effect.”  This part is made up of four chapters called “The Malaises of Modernity,” “The Dark Abyss of Time,” “The Expanding Universe of Unbelief” and “19th Century Trajectories.”  In these four chapters Taylor begins a direct mixing of historical storytelling, with contemporary cultural analysis.  To make my point that the concept of adolescence has played a particularly important role in the dawning age of unbelief, I’ll focus specifically on these chapters.  But to understand the significance of these chapters, a few of the plotlines of Taylor’s story must be understood.

Up to Part III, Taylor has already spent 300 pages zigzagging back and forth, showing us how the reforms (most particularly the Protestant Reformation) of the 16th century had the unintended impact of “buffering” the self and disenchanting the world.

A buffered self stands in opposition to what Taylor calls the “porous” self.  Over the last 500 years we’ve shifted our very conception of a self.  Once we assumed that a self (an I) was open and vulnerable; demons, evil spirits, and other magical forces could overtake a person.  The young particularly were at threat, not necessarily because they were young, but because they lacked the skill and attention of prayers and practices that could protect them.  In Salem, young daughters were killed as witches not because they were odd, experimenting adolescents that were annoying and worrying their elders, but, rather, because they were assumed to be putting the whole village at risk.  Evil spirits had entered them and they needed to die to protect the whole.  Taylor says it this way, “So we’re all in this together.  [This] puts a tremendous premium on holding to the consensus…. Villagers who hold out, or even denounce the common rites, put the efficacy of these rites in danger, and hence pose a menace to everyone.  This is something we constantly tend to forget when we look back condescendingly on the intolerance of earlier ages. (p. 42)”

There may be continuity of worry for young people between the elders of pre-16th century and today, but the imagination of what is worrisome is drastically different.  Pre-16th century elders worried that the young would become possessed, instruments of evil spirits.  Yet, over the last 500 years we’ve been buffering the self, enclosing the self in a mind that possess every volition to control itself.  Healthy minds are no longer haunted by the threats of evil forces, for in our broader Western society we’re not even sure such things exist.

Modern adolescence becomes the time when the more transcendently-inclined mind of the child is enclosed in a buffered self.  The child can still feel a deep haunting, truly believing that a monster is under her bed, or joyously embracing the magic of Santa Claus.  But to be a modern adolescent is to abandon the magical/transcendent world of childhood and embrace a buffered self (feeling the temptation to elevate rationality over mystery).  Most adolescents are particularly skeptical because they are coming to grips for the first time with the buffered self—and this is a cultural construction.  Of course, there are biological/developmental overtones, but it is finally a cultural construction, for it is the forces of western modernity that has turned the self from porous to buffered.  The dramatic distinction between the porous and buffered self is enough for us to call into question the kind of continuity Kirgiss assumes in the concept of adolescence.  Elders may have continuity in worry, but as we’ve moved into modernity, what is worrisome has radically morphed.


When the self is buffered and the world becomes disenchanted, a major shift comes with it.  Taylor explains that in Western Europe before the Reformation, society was ordered to respond to transcendence, seeking to protect people from evil and move them into salvation.  This order meant a certain accepted hierarchy. Some—like priests, monks, and nuns—lived their lives at a higher speed than others.  They were expected to take the high-speed route of continued prayer for the people.  Others, however, needed to live at a lower speed, attending to farms, children, and trade.  This hierarchy existed for mutual benefit; the priest prayed for the farmer, protecting his porous self, while the farmer provided the praying priest with milk and vegetables.  This hierarchy and exchange meant that, for the most part, each member of society had a part to play.  And this part was not primarily economic but spiritual; attention was on transcendent realities like salvation, as opposed to material progress.

This meant that few people (outside of the noble class) had the time and privilege to behave as we imagine adolescents do today (seeking leisure, novelty, and expression). In Luther’s day, a parent of means, dreaming of a child’s future success, would encourage him to remain unmarried, giving him the option of participating in the more highly lauded speed of the monk or ecclesial authority.  It is of little doubt that these young men got themselves into mischief as they awaited the move into the higher speed.  And judgment and worry inevitably followed (particularly because of their ecclesial ambitions).  But to assume that it’s a straight shot of continuity between these young men and contemporary adolescents is to miss the stark difference in social imaginary.

By the 15th century, however this hierarchy didn’t sit well with the people, mainly because the higher-speed class of priests and monks seemed to abuse their power.  The reforms, and particularly the Protestant Reformation, upended the hierarchy and ended a society built on multiple speeds.  But it did this by transferring the responsibility of the prayers, and the practices of the monk, onto everyone.  Now, the farmer as well as the pastor needed to devote himself to scripture reading, daily prayers, and the overall discipline of spiritual erudition (hence we get Luther’s small Catechism).

Calvin, particularly, would help such a new order take shape by forming a discipline and polite society, where every individual member was expected to correlate their very self to the standard of holy living.  I believe it is plausible to see the nascent origins of the modern idea of adolescence through this transition (though these are only antecedents, and it will take a lot more cultural zigzagging to get us to today’s teenager).  The foundation for this conception of young people is laid by a shift into individual responsibility and the loss of the multiple speed ecosystem.  The Reformation makes each individual responsible for her own spiritual state and Calvin particularly gives this cultural direction.  Now the transition from child to adult bears the weight of spiritual responsibility.  You are a buffered self, who, in and through your own mind, must decide for this higher order, disciplining yourself by giving yourself to prayer and avoiding drink, sex, and loose (undisciplined) living.

This period of late childhood (youth) now holds particular significance, for it is the time when participating in the discipline society becomes your own responsibility (it is this participation that makes you an adult).  It is no wonder that Kirgiss finds sermons worrying about such people, for the new culturally constructed imaginary means that such young people must take on greater responsibilities for their own spiritual lives.  This is not a biological determinism, but a social construction born out of the shifts in the structure of belief itself, the nascent first conceptions of something like adolescence actually come out of these shifts in belief and what is theologically plausible.

In this period, maturity would have been solely seen as spiritual, but would have had its concrete manifestation in regulating and training oneself for productive participation in polite/discipline society.  Thomas Bergler’s books, The Juvenilization of American Christianity and From Here to Maturity, seem to me to fall into this very trap.  While in so many ways he offers good historical analysis, Bergler’s definition of maturity appears bound to this early Calvinist commitment to the polite/discipline society.  He seems worried that the young will not correlate to these standards and therefore lack faith.  Bergler’s understanding of faith appears to be mixed with an odd residue of the rigidity of Calvin’s polite/discipline society.

In the discipline societies inspired by the reforms of Calvin, education and development of manners became the growing task of the young, for the salvation of their own soul (and of society as a whole) was dependent on disciplined self-regulation.  It was a shift away from a porous self and the multiple speeds, and into a buffered self in the disciplined society of a disenchanted world that lays the hidden cultural foundations for the concept of adolescence.  For now, the obligation of the young was to take on a more passive disposition, using education to work on a buffered self outside the direct flows of the dawning new society.  This new society would begin organizing itself around an economy of exchange over protection from evil spirits.  The discipline/polite society became the perfect locale for trade and economic advance, and education became the preparation of the young for righteous participation in polite/discipline society by gaining the skills of the new exchange economy.  It is disenchantment that allowed the first cells of modern adolescence to evolve through this change in belief that is the cultural incubating force for our conception of adolescence.

Moving into Unbelief

Taylor explains that two other zigzags occurred that moved us further down the road toward our secular age.  As the elites continued to shape the discipline society, seeing the importance of education, they continued to draw on humanist sources, becoming convinced that human flourishing was an objective.  The discipline/polite society not only could provide eternal salvation for buffered souls, but could also manifest the signs of this election by creating structures of human flourishing (often through economic means—as Max Weber argues).  Education, for instance, not only allowed the young to discipline themselves through bible reading, but also provided training for them to shape and manage the institutional structures of society.  Human flourishing now becomes a central concern of those living particularly in the Calvinist (and then Anglican) societies of Europe in late 17th and 18th century.

But the zig moved to the zag when some in these same societies began to question the presumptions of the reforms.  This society-wide move to raise the bar and call all people to live by the standard of the medieval priest and monk became questioned.  Some began to wonder what would happen if they refused the discipline of spiritual practices and moral responsibilities, experimenting with the possibility that you could still have human flourishing without all the discipline of religion or even conception of an active God (welcome to the world of Enlightenment and Providential Deism). They wondered, What if they simply lowered the bar?  This started an experiment that would zigzag for the next two hundred years.  This experiment would be a move to an exclusive humanism that asserted that there was no other goal in life than human flourishing.  The objective was no longer salvation or the encounter with the transcendent but attention solely to immanence (to that which is material and cultural).

The arrival of full-blown modernity came with what Taylor calls “the immanent frame.”  The immanent frame is “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural (rather than supernatural) order. (James K.A. Smith, How Not to be Secular p. 141)” We have come a long way since the time before the Reformation.  In these short 500 years we’ve shifted the very conceived order of our existence from supernatural to fully, finally, and only natural.  Taylor believes, then, that we are in a secular age, not necessarily because people choose not to go to church, but because the order we perceive and concede to is solely a natural one.  This order not only doesn’t need God, but also finds any attention to transcendence unbelievable.

We then live with an “unthought” (an unreflective presumption) that is very different than the “unthought” of the sources that Kirgiss uses from centuries past.  Our unthought, even for believers, is that the world we meet is completely material.  Taylor explains the immanent frame this way, “The sense of the immanent frame is that of living in impersonal orders, cosmic, social, and ethical orders which can be fully explained in their own terms and don’t need to be conceived as dependent on anything outside, on the ‘supernatural’ or the ‘transcendent.’ (Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age p. 307)” This then is a reduction, an assumption that human life and the earth itself is not part of a cosmic spiritual order of mystery, but is simply a reducible natural realm.

It is within the cultural construction of unbelief and the immanent frame that the concept of adolescence is forged.  Of course, this construction is laid on the early productions of discipline/polite society and its attention to education.  But these are only the base cells of an all-new cultural creation called teenager/adolescent that simply could not be without the economic realities of a large middle class.  But more (and central to the contribution of my position) without the impinging malaise of modernity and the cold hard chafing of the immanent frame.

The Malaise of Modernity

In Part III, Taylor, takes us by the hand and leads us into what it feels like to be living in this order of the immanent frame.  He calls this “a malaise,” a kind of dissatisfaction that almost borders on sickness.  We have a kind of illness in which we are dissatisfied with the immanent frame, but see no reason to overthrow it.  He explains that the malaise takes at least three forms: “(1) the sense of the fragility of meaning, the search for an over-arching significance; (2) the felt flatness of our attempts to solemnize the crucial moments of passage in our lives; and (3) the utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary.” (The Secular Age p. 309)

This is an accomplishment that comes with an unease of regret.  To have shifted western societies away from such strict belief into an exclusive humanism that sees the world as only natural and material has been no small task.  And it has produced invaluable realities, like attention to human rights and trustworthiness of institutions.  Yet, nevertheless, these accomplishments come as a malaise because this loss of a transcendent referent has left us with a nagging feeling of loss, even boredom, as Taylor says beautifully, about the buffered self in the immanent frame, “What you won’t hear at other times and place is one of the commonplaces of our day (right or wrong, that is beside my point), that our age suffers from a threatened loss of meaning.  This malaise is specific to a buffered identity, whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it [at all]” (The Secular Age p. 303).

To get us to this new order of the immanent frame, reality itself had to be reduced.  It is within this reduction that we feel dissatisfied and cross-pressured as we embrace this immanent frame, but wish or wonder or hope for more.  Many in this cross-pressure create all sorts of “third ways” to make meaning and ritual moments of passage to infuse the ordinary with significance.  These third ways could be as diffuse as yoga, slow-pitch softball, clubbing, eco-advocacy, and so much more.  Taylor’s point is that the immanent frame’s blocking out of transcendence is nearly too much for many of us to take, so up against its cold stripping of transcendence we seek significance of our own making.  Some, of course, return to organized religions, but the unfolding of the immanent frame itself produces the freedom to seek this pseudo-spiritual sense of meaning outside of religion’s orbit.  And these third ways of personal meaning-making become what Taylor calls “the nova effect.”

What continues to fuel the nova effect is the cultural shift into a new ethic called authenticity.  It now becomes the task, or privilege, of each of us to follow what is consequential to us (and us alone)—what speaks to me is what I follow and find meaningful (and therefore authentic).  And what is ultimately meaningful (giving order to the passing of time and infusing the ordinary with significance) is most often bound within the immanent frame itself.  It becomes our task to find significance and embrace an authenticity within the impersonal reductions of immanent frame itself.  And it is here, at this very cultural location (where the immanent frame and authenticity coalesce) that the modern conception of adolescence becomes noteworthy.

As the immanent frame closes in, we can spot a handful of youth movements that seek to resist the heavy reduction it brings.  To name just a few, we can spot the Wandervogel in late 19th century Germany, in which middle class youth resisted the boredom of the immanent frame by recovering the romance of the medieval artists and poets who lived with a porous self in the exciting days before the immanent frame.  Or in North America, the flappers of the 1920s began dressing and congregating in new ways, throwing off the discipline society for the fun and excess of dance and eroticism in urban settings.

Interestingly, nearly all these youth movements (or distinct youth cultures) are linked to a burgeoning middle class (bound to the evolving of disciplined/polite society).  Adolescence itself seems to be a cultural creation dependent on a middle-class ethos where the adults have particular motivations and anxiety around the perpetuation of the immanent frame.  Parents and elders continue to remind the young that life is about the immanence of career, education, and material advancement.  Living inside the privileges of the immanent frame, its boredom lands heavy on the shoulders of those moving into adulthood.  The young, feeling cross-pressured and dissatisfied, create third ways, using the very realities the discipline/polite society found out-of-bounds to escape the boredom of the immanent frame that the middle class supports.  The young use drink, music, and forms of copulation to infuse the immanent frame with a pseudo-spirituality of meaning.  This only worries parents and elders more—not because they have now opened themselves to evil spirits, but because they have put success at risk in the closed reality of the immanent frame itself.

Adolescence and Unbelief

But how does this link adolescence and the expanding universe of unbelief?  While one can spot all sorts of small youth movements popping up throughout the 19th and early 20th century, it isn’t until after WWII that the stage is set for the concept of adolescence to become fully ingrained in our society, and an essential component in the growing age of unbelief.

The 1950s brought forth at least two essential ingredients.  First, for the first time in America we had an exponentially growing middle class.  Like a dream many couldn’t have fathomed even a decade earlier, the 1950s gave millions access to upward economic mobility.  Second, whether it was cause or effect, this new large middle class formed large families bringing a boom of babies, setting the stage for a large population of middle class young people.  These young people, like their predecessors, began feeling bored and restricted by the immanent frame they had been spoon-fed by the middle-class ethos.  And the immanent frame would taste particularly bitter because, in no small measure, the 1950s was the last best effort to impose a strict discipline/polite society.  While the cultural commitment to religion remained strong, the other spheres of the culture turned toward technocratic methods in business and society (it became a boring time of plastic, and grey flannel suits, in cookie cutter neighborhoods of track housing).

Yet, ironically this wouldn’t lead to an overthrowing of the immanent frame itself.  The fear of possession, or the demand of obedience to a higher order, was something to which few wished to return.  Rather, the objective became to find a way to create spiritual meaning without a personal God to obey and fear.  The 1960s, and the counter cultural youth movement became the distribution of the nova effect to the whole of western society.

By the mid-1960s the cross-pressure of the immanent frame became too much, leading the middle-class youth raised in the ethos of the immanent frame to seek a radical third way, beyond or counter the mainstream discipline/polite culture.  This generation would distribute the new ethic of authenticity, showing the generations before and after how to go about living within the very strictures of the immanent frame itself.  They showed that if you sought your own way or path, embracing your freedom, you could actually find the meaning and direction that would make the immanent frame livable—until it didn’t.  This new ethic of authenticity didn’t stand against the immanent frame so much as the discipline/polite society, which was labeled repressive and a blockage to fun, excitement, and expression that brought meaning to the ordinary in the immanent frame itself.  Those full of youth became the new prophets of the new ethic of authenticity.

Then it could be argued that adolescence is a cultural construction created surely by the forces of an economic middle class.  But more, adolescence is a culture construction formed as a way to blunt the cold hard imposition of the immanent frame. Adolescence and its disposition of youthfulness decorate the beams of the restricting and deducing immanent frame with the graffiti art that gives it the illusion of depth and importance.  To be an adolescent is to be youthful, which means to be seeking an over-arching significance through pleasure, to be bound in ritualized times richly textured by romantic love, emotion and expression.  It is a time when the emptiness of the ordinary is flooded with dreams of an unfolding future of passion, desire, and fame.  Adolescence is the time where you are most free to follow the ethic of authenticity, to seek your own path without being constrained by obligations, responsibilities, or demands.  It is assumed that if one could recover the freedom of the adolescent (a spirit of youthfulness) then the immanent frame itself would be livable—one need only think of all the movies glorifying adolescent youthfulness moving from Mrs. Robinson to Porky’s to Fast Times at Ridgemont High to American Pie to all the Jackass movies.  Adolescence then becomes the concrete way (a longing disposition) that makes the unbelief of the immanent frame plausible.  Adolescence (and the continued longing for freedom) is the time to embrace a youthfulness and authenticity that makes the immanent frame inhabitable and the reduction of reality it brings conceivable.

Taken from this perspective, adolescence, then, is not a biological given, nor is it solely the construction of economic realities.  Rather, adolescence is a cultural construction that plays a central role in the plausibility of our unbelief.  Beginning in the late 1960s, a shift to the glorification of the adolescent began.  It is true that at times we return to past conceptions of the young, manifesting Salem’s worries that the young are corrupt, demonizing them as threats to civilization.  Or maybe our temptation to demonize adolescence rests in our sense that they are best situated to find meaning in the immanent frame and yet we know that it is foolish for us to try to be like them.  But this is becoming more rare.  Rather, our danger is how we have idealized the adolescent as possessing the concrete way to be in the immanent frame (one thinks of Ricky in American Beauty, who is the sage that teaches Kevin Spacey’s character how to truly live).  The adolescent stands as an example of how to live (even thrive) inside the reduced presumptions of a society that has moved beyond the bliss and torture of transcendence and the need for a personal God of encounter (to quote Katy Perry, we all have teenage dreams now).

We, as a culture, are obsessed with youthfulness (looking young, staying young, etc.) because youthfulness has become a way of continuing to create meaning, ritualizing time, and infusing the ordinary with importance.  In the immanent frame there is no meaning that is not discovered inside the buffered self.  All meaning outside of us has been reduced.  The adolescent is admired for she lives from inside the buffered self, obeying the drives of the self to find excitement and pleasure; passion and pain seem to spill from her pores giving her even a sense of transcendence that is ever dulled and silent in the grind of progress, exchange, and promotion of the supposed adult-world.  In this world without transcendence and the encounter with a being outside of you, excitement and pleasure become the perceived fuse that lights the explosion of inner meaning and purpose.  So if age will not allow you to be an adolescent, you can hold to the essence of the time by seeking to be forever full of youth.  Free to follow the ethic of authenticity, you can rebel against the discipline/polite society, and find meaning inside the frame that has no room for the frighteningly exciting times of demons, enchantment, and the transformation of being.


Adolescence (the category) is an essential component in our unbelief that decorates the immanent frame with meaning. To say this is not to condemn youth (the people) themselves.  Rather, often, youth have found ingenious ways to inhabit the immanent frame.  Some of these, of course, are destructive and others are beautiful, but most of these ways are a deep seeking of the human spirit to find meaning and even transcendence.  We should rightly admire youth for finding ways of making meaning within the reductions of the immanent frame.

Then, in an ironic twist, seeing adolescence as the production of our unbelieving age actually allows space to engage the very humanity of young people, participating with them as they vigorously seek to make meaning in the vacuum of the newly felt immanent frame.  Youth are positioned to feel the cross-pressure of the immanent frame.  Giving them space to express what it feels like to encounter this reduction opens possibilities for ministry itself.  Seeing youth through biological determinism of adolescence, or even the creation of consumer modernity, locks the young in a category that makes it much more difficult to give their experience significant attention (other than to fetishize it for the gain of adults, who use youthful expression without youth themselves to find meaning in the immanent frame).  But if we see adolescence as the production of our unbelief, as the response to the cross-pressure of the immanent frame then we might admit that the people put in this category may indeed see something clearly, making their stories, feelings, and experience essential for us to embrace.

The irony is that though adolescence (as category) further traps us in the immanent frame, it nevertheless opens a doorway to question the immanent frame itself.  The very ethic of authenticity that justifies the immanent frame, in the end, is the only way to upend it, creating space for stories, prayers, and togetherness that bring forth an encounter with the living God through the shared life of co-humanity.

This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at or on Facebook at

Andrew Root, PhD is the Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is most recently the author of Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross (Fortress, 2014) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker, 2014).