It’s been nearly two decades since the psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett coined the phrase “emerging adulthood” to describe young people between the ages of 18 and 29. Previous generations, Arnett observed, moved from adolescence into adulthood without much preamble; it used to be common to marry right out of high school, start a family, and work a steady job.
But then things started to shift. Arnett observed young adults milling about the waiting room before entering adulthood, compounded by an uncertainty about how exactly to start “adulting.” And yes, that verb is now in regular, if still somewhat self-conscious, circulation, thanks to a website of the same name that promises to teach young people “how to become a grown-up,” “in 468 easy(ish) steps.”
Around the time Arnett published his ground-breaking work, Britney Spears, the poet of emerging adulthood, wrote a song called “Not a Girl,” a song which could be considered the ballad of the in-betweeners.
I’m not a girl / Not yet a woman
(I’m not a girl don’t tell me what to believe)
All I need is time / A moment that is mine
While I'm in between
Neither Arnett nor Spears probably fully understood the development that would end up reshaping emerging adulthood more than any other: the emergence of the Internet as the dominant social context of our time. The Internet today is a pervasive presence, a thoroughgoing part of existence. Young adults still experience the intensity of being in-between, living in the “age of identity exploration,” as Arnett put it—only now they experience it online.
It is easy to forget just how new, and how startling, this shift is. In the past, a person could try on different personas as he milled about, waiting for things to really start. He could work out his belief system, his network of friends, his relationship with his parents—all of it in relative privacy. The idea of making any of this truly public, available in principle to anyone and everyone, present and future, while it was still in process, would have been unimaginable (not to mention impossible).
Today most Americans use social media: 62 percent of all adults are on Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. That rises to 82 percent for those between the ages of 18 and 29, the same demographic that Arnett identifies as milling about the waiting room of adulthood. Facebook may have the reputation of no longer being the trendiest social network, but reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. Add other social media platforms to the mix—Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and so on—and it adds up to this: being a young adult means being online. Being online offers young adults “their very lifeline to the world,” as Arnett stated in a summary of his most recent research on the topic.
The Comment Section Effect
Does it matter that young people are inching toward adulthood, developing their beliefs, their practices, their core identities, all while using social media as a “lifeline to the world”? The short answer is: we don’t know yet. The Internet hasn’t been around long enough to fully assess its effects on human experience. But in the meantime, the question of social media’s influence takes on added complexity for young Christians.
Along with the usual concerns all young people share—finding stability, a meaningful job, a relationship that makes the heart sing—for those who profess Christian faith there is a far greater one: working out your own salvation with fear and trembling. Matters of the soul, your place in the church, questions about the goodness of God or even his existence, questions of death, eternity, sin, the problem of evil—matters that have been of concern to young people all along—are now all being worked out in public, in real time. This process used to be a sometimes-agonizing, always-private rite of passage. Not any longer.
Think of Augustine in the 4th century the hedonist, the follower of various philosophers before becoming the famous convert to Christianity, the Augustine who finally lands on saying “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Now imagine following along with Augustine as he documents this entire process, in the manner of a life lived online, as it is actually happening. We read about the late nights, the partying, the nine years as a Manichean, the complaints about his overbearing mother, the workload of being a teacher, the years with his concubine and lover. Pretty juicy stuff.
If Augustine had a blog, readers might have lost interest just about the time his restlessness resolved in finding Christ. Or maybe readers would have talked him out of finding Christ. Maybe the comment section of Augustine’s blog would have altered his entire journey toward sainthood.
Blogger Micah J. Murray grew up in the midst of Bill Gothard-infused fundamentalism and came of age at the same time as the Internet. Murray has spent the last few years writing in detail about the experience of losing his religion before finding it again—with qualifiers—in a series of posts with titles such as “I Don’t Know if I am a Christian Anymore” [sic] or “The Day I Stopped Believing in God.” Dedicated readers follow along. It’s self-confession as online reality show, a sort of pilgrim’s regress.
Murray seems in no way disingenuous. There is no sign he is making a calculated attempt to appeal to his fellow emerging adults. On the contrary, his sincerity is heartfelt, with the pain of losing the God of his youth almost palpable at times. Murray’s readers offer equally heartfelt responses to his personal narrative, sharing painful stories of their own. The comments section of nearly every post is a litany of theological and experiential struggles, a congregation of emerging adults, nearly all of whom offer the same perspective.
This sort of public call-and-response has its appeal, but it runs several risks. The first and most obvious is that the very act of documenting one’s every move on the spectrum away from or toward belief will influence and alter that trajectory. It’s similar to what is called the observer effect in science. In life, as in science, you can’t watch something without changing the qualities of the thing being watched.
The risk is compounded when the process takes place in a forum that is entirely your own, unvetted by voices other than the ones you allow. In spite of the Internet’s potential to connect us to the diversity of Christian faith, past and present, too often it becomes a set of claustrophobic corners.
The young Christian becomes limited by a context in which time is always immediate, history is limited to one’s own personal existence, and the only readily available responses consistently confirm one’s own experiences. Theological difficulties are mediated through self-expression. It’s a waiting room full of people echoing what you just said, and little else. No wonder faith narrows and chokes, maybe even suffocates, in this setting. Everybody is trapped in the same room and nobody seems to know where the exit is. Maybe we should amend Sartre this way: hell is relentless, real-time commentary by other people just like yourself.
A Solitary Place
A few years ago, in an effort to understand the mindset and rationale of young adults who are leaving religion in droves, Larry Alex Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation surveyed self-professed non-believers across college campuses. Most of the participants in Taunton’s project came from a Christian background. And for most, Taunton wrote in a piece for The Atlantic, “the Internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.”
In the connected world we live in, it is inevitable that the Internet, generally, and social media, specifically, will “factor heavily” into the process through which young adults develop their identities. Railing against this reality is like demanding that we all use film cameras instead of digital, contending that the process of developing film, with its long delays and darkroom solitude, produces superior pictures. How much does process matter, anyway? Maybe taking the long way around to arrive at the same destination—that belief in God is a delusion, that evangelical Christianity lacks sufficient liturgy—does not offer an inherently better route.
But then again, maybe it does. Some processes suffer from upgrades; newer does not always mean better. Technology offers a means of connecting to other human beings in new and expansive ways. But in some cases, these connections harm more than they help.
And one of these cases might just be the one most central to working out one’s own salvation with fear and trembling: the cultivation of the soul. The process of finding God, or, in more current parlance, finding your identity as a believer in God—the ongoing work of cultivating the soul—benefits from time and silence. Both of which are anathema to a life lived primarily online. The Internet is a noisy and crowded place: the tweets and retweets, posts, likes, and shares taking place at merciless levels of sociability, all running counter to acts of contemplation.
The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said there is “nothing in the world that resembles God as much as silence.” Another mystic, the Puritan theologian Isaac Ambrose, agreed, devoting the month of May each year to retreating from his public work, heading to the woods long before Thoreau had the idea. In Ambrose’s 17th-century account of the contemplative life (with 17th-century spelling), he says “I know not what other’s experiences may be, but if I have found anything of God, or of his grace, I may thank a wood, a wildernesse, a desert, a solitary place for its accommodation.”
This was their reality, and it is ours: the intimate accommodations of grace demand silence and solitude. This is required by grace’s very nature. Achieving intimacy, with God or with another person, can only come from the sort of plodding care and attention that is necessarily private, the boring stuff that is never worth watching. All of this presents a problem for the 21st-century human being, as digital space is designed, above all else, for performance. Online, every action demands a reaction. This creates a tension, to say the least, with the goals of cultivating the soul and the life of the mind.
All I need is time, sings young-adult Britney, and on this point at least she and the 16th-century Christian mystic Teresa of Avila might agree. “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon him in yourself,” Teresa wrote. Young adults need time, maybe even an Ambrosian length of time on occasion, to cultivate the soul, to emerge into adulthood and into the community of the church, more fully formed—time in ”a wood, a wildernesse, a desert, a solitary place.”
Perhaps the one advantage we have over Isaac Ambrose is that in the age of digital space, all you have to do to enter “the wildernesse” and leave the cacophonous company of your fellow human beings… is to turn off your screen.
S. D. Kelly writes about culture, high and low, from her home in coastal Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and three kids and runs a nonprofit community organization.