In a recent issue of New York Magazine, I came across one of those articles where something in your brain clicks and a long-missing Tetris block falls into place. The subcultural locus of my bleak theology is somewhat grounded, aesthetically, in the (then-called) “alternative”, post-punk music I discovered in high school in the late 80s/early 90s. It is worth noting that, like many adolescents, this was the first time I really started to grapple with religion, and growing up just west of Fort Worth, Texas means that that socio-religious context was Southern Baptist manifestation of Evangelicalism. So ever-present and looming Jesus + small town high school existential angst + The Smiths = a very nervous and fretty kid. So, why, then, might I seem hung up on this particular vantage point about religion? Why might all of us be hung up on our high school experiences regarding religion? Enter the scientists.
Jennifer Senior’s depressively enlightening “Why You Truly Never Leave High School” (with the tagline “New science on its corrosive, traumatizing effects”) offers a fascinating account of the socio-biological development of adolescent brains and the very permanent effects is has on future concepts of personal identity, self-confidence, and relationality. The phenomenon is called “the reminiscence bump” and multiple studies seem to indicate it is very real, “namely that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained.” And there is a solid, biochemical reason for it:
Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences. “There’s no reason why, at the age of 60, I should still be listening to the Allman Brothers,” Steinberg says. “Yet no matter how old you are, the music you listen to for the rest of your life is probably what you listened to when you were an adolescent.” Only extremely recent advances in neuroscience have begun to help explain why.
It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect—undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject (I am the kind of person who likes the Allman Brothers). “During times when your identity is in transition,” says Steinberg, “it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”
Telling. So, basically, this article says that we spend our entire adult lives wrestling in some way, explicit or otherwise, with when we first really started to form adult selves: in high school. And the article goes on to show this affects our lives in real ways, like self-confidence, personal relationships, and earning potential. So it seems plausible and simple enough that one’s high school experience of something as personally significant as religion would cause considerable “corrosive, traumatizing effects” in our adult lives, as well. And I believe it does. Whether or not we are religious, atheist, or somewhere in between, our high school experience will shape our understanding of God.
So, it makes me wonder about American theologians of a particular age, who have lived through the high school experience and have come out the other side with their various vantage points. The steal the feminist adage for my own purposes, the personal is the theological. In a context within which everything is painfully personal, it is plausible that high school shapes one’s attitudes towards religion, God, religious community, Scripture, and adherents of particular religions. High school is the paradox of fitting and not fitting in. It’s religious community on a microscale. God help those kids.
How many liberation theologians, in their various stripes, find a significant kernel of their perspective from their high school experiences, that propel them to do what they do, because they experienced oppression during their high school years. How many dogmatic theologians, like Mark Driscoll, are attempting to control something that they experienced in adolescence? In light of these sociological studies, these thoughts seem to be worth entertaining.
Theological biography fascinates us. The Bible is a lot of biography and we want to learn how people got to the beliefs that they have. In the latest of many theological biographies, Fortress Press has just released Theologians in their Own Words, edited by Joshua M. Moritz, Derek R. Nelson, and Ted Peters. Interviewed are Marilyn McCord Adams, Harvey Cox, Gerhard Forde, George Forell, Roger Haight, Philip Hefner, Robert Jenson, Ernst Käsemann, Martin Marty, Alister McGrath, Nancey Murphy, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ted Peters, Clark Pinnock, John Polkinghorne, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Letty Russell, H. Paul Santmire, Hans Schwarz, Huston Smith, Paul Sponheim, Kathryn Tanner, and Ronald Thiemann. It’d be curious to learn how much of their theology is affected by their adolescence.
Is there, as Ralph Keyes famous asked, life after high school? Yes, but we never get over our high school lives. God help us to handle the formative trauma of our youth, that trauma that makes us who we are.