Twenty-First Century Spirituality

Catholic Theologian John Haught Speaks with BustedHalo about Ecology, Religious Education and its Influences on Young People

Dr. John F. Haught has spent nearly 40 years as an educational innovator in creating an understanding of religion combined with educational facets of cosmology, biology and ecology. In 2002 he was the winner of the Owen Garrigan Award in Science and Religion which honors an individual who has made outstanding contributions to the fields of science and religion.

Haught was recognized in 2004 with the Sophia Award for Theological Excellence. The Sophia Award is given annually in several categories by the Washington Theological Union, recognizing leaders in religious education and ministry.

Aside from leading the Theology department at Georgetown University, Dr. Haught was the only theologian to testify as an expert witness in the landmark 2005 trial that ruled against teaching intelligent design in public schools.

What’s Really Going On?

His latest book, God and the New Atheism was published in March, and he was the Keynote Speaker at the Spirituality for the 21st Century Conference, May 16-17 in Iowa.

On May 16, he presented, ‘What’s Really Going on in the Universe?’, a lecture that looks at why so many scientifically educated people today view the cosmos as “pointless,” and also examines several 20th Century theological attempts to respond to modern and contemporary cosmic pessimism.

His May 17 presentation was titled, "Evolution and Faith: What is at Stake?" This lecture looked at post-Darwinism and the possibility of a plausible understanding of God that is consistent with traditional beliefs and core ethical aspirations while at the same time being adequate to the reality of evolution.

BustedHalo: How is spirituality in the 21st century different now for young people than in past generations?

John Haught:
From my point of view, I have found that young people now desire a more holistic and relational spiritual experience. They desire to have a spiritual affiliation that takes part within the current natural world, which is a lot different than past generations.

Young people are torn between traditional spirituality, the destiny to get beyond this world and new spirituality in what they can offer this world while they are on it. There is a new sense that life is history and that we are a part of the long story of the universe.

BH: What do you feel are young people’s current perception of theology, and how does today’s information overload, particularly nonsense information, effect deep, spiritual issues for people in their 20s and 30s?

"Currently, ecology will never be taken seriously by Christianity until evolution is taken seriously. However, one place to start the much needed renewal of spirituality is to question why we should take care of the natural world."

JH: I’m hopeful, but not terribly optimistic about their current perception. The current idea of a personal God is too small. We learn about our personal God as small children, then we grow and our ideas of a personal God does not grow with us due to poor religious education. I am trying to reconfigure the sense of God so it is power to the world of science, justifying it by scientific thought.

Seminaries and schools of theology are not doing a good job of displaying how interesting life faith can be when integrated with other subjects people are interested in. There are too few courses in science and religion in seminary, and people come out of seminary without the ability to apply what they have learned in biotechnologies and information sciences.

To really connect religion and spirituality with today’s younger generation we need to completely rethink religious and spiritual traditions, and that process has only barely begun. Until it completely begins, religion will continue to stagnate and will not do a good job attracting young people.

BH: Do you think the Pope’s recent visit to the U.S. had any effect on young people?

It was a very positive event, as a lot of people got to experience his warmth up close and personal, but I don’t believe it will have any long-term effect on our nation’s young people. The Pope’s spiritual sensibilities are not really geared for contemporary life.

BH: When you led Georgetown’s Theology department, what surprised you in working with young theology students?

It was amazing that so many students from so many religious backgrounds knew so little about their own religious traditions. I taught a course, ‘Problem of God’ where I tried to provoke students to critically examine their own faith and religious traditions, so it fits their life, instead of having it placed upon them.

BH: How do you feel the new trend of going “green” will affect religion and theology?

I believe ecology itself is a good point of departure for religious discussion, and examining the question, ‘Why should we want to take care of the natural world?’ is a question that can lead us into a deeper discussion of what major religions’ views are. Currently, ecology will never be taken seriously by Christianity until evolution is taken seriously. However, one place to start the much needed renewal of spirituality is to question why we should take care of the natural world.

BH: How do you believe religious education needs to change for young children?

When children get in the late elementary and middle school grades, religious education needs to take the proper historical and factual viewpoint and separate it from science by not taking everything literally. There is no reason why we can’t start early and get students to interpret biblical text in a sophisticated way. The lack of doing so is why many young people lose faith in college with their advanced education of the sciences. Modern religious education is so important today, and is really one of the major problems facing us as a society.

BH: Finally, what do you want the BustedHalo audience to know about their personal relationship with God?

JH: When you use the word “God,” ask yourself what do you mean and what images come to mind. People need to reflect on their own experiences when they felt their personal world was falling apart and reflect how they looked back at that time and are almost glad to face reality while feeling more connected to life in an ultimate, inexhaustible deep way. At first it feels frightening, but once we allow ourselves to be gathered by the depth of our lives it feels better than ever before, and that is God, providing that depth and security in our lives.