Passing on Our Religious Tradition to the Next Generation

By Jennifer Tanabe

My new publication, The Quest to Pass on our Religious Tradition to the Next Generation, co-authored with Dr. Rollain Nsemi Muanda, discusses the difficult challenge faced by all parents of faith in passing on their tradition to their children. The following is based upon excerpts from this book.

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When we think about passing on our religious tradition to the next generation, we can assess how successful our parents were in passing on their religious tradition to us, their children. If we happily accepted our parents’ religion, there is no problem. The job was well done.

However, in many cases, including both of the authors, the children do not accept the religion of their parents, never committing fully to the beliefs, values and traditions. They pursue their own quest, searching for answers that they did not find in their own parents’ faith tradition. They may reject outright their parents’ beliefs to join a different religion, or even embrace atheism. In such situations, how should the parents respond?

We observe parental reactions that range from extreme negativity, disowning their child, through the compromise of agreeing to differ but avoiding any further discussion of religion, to the extremely positive response, where the parents may even come to embrace their son or daughter’s new-found faith.

Becoming a parent is such a deep and profound experience that changes our lives forever. Parents long to see their children happy and fulfilled, and to avoid the suffering and confusion that comes from lack of spiritual direction. Especially for parents with strong faith, it is their deepest desire for their children to become people who respect God and serve others.

Until the 20th century, the child’s world was limited to their immediate environment, that is, their parents, extended family, their village or town; later, a job or profession. Communication was limited as was travel. Thus, children had few opportunities to experience life beyond that of their family and community. Young people grew up with a lifestyle resembling that of their parents, and they also believed in their parents’ values and traditions. In other words, passing on the religious tradition was referred to as handing on to the next generation the values that determine the identity of a given society. Handing on the religious tradition was a communal affair. It was everybody’s concern: the family, the school, the church, the community, and the society. Parents did not have to worry about cultural messages from outside the family outweighing their values, for the culture usually reinforced what was being taught in the family.

These days, however, our young people are exposed to what may be called “destructive forces” which weaken the support system provided by their family and friends. Parents are faced with raising children in opposition to the dominant cultural messages. As Baptist pastor and author, Dr. Jack Hyles, notes in How to Rear Teenagers:

The parent must win the teenager daily. Each morning presents a new challenge. Remember you are in competition with the world, the school, with other beautiful young people, and you must plot your course daily in an effort to hold your own against your competitors.

More than ever before, handing on the religious tradition to the next generation has become a real challenge. It is not merely a matter of particular verbal formulations or cognitive learning. Rather, it is an ongoing process and practice. The coming generation will not inherit our religious tradition unless we witness to them through our way of life and through practical experiences in our daily deeds. Religious tradition without practice or concrete actions is perceived as a dream, an ideal which cannot be fulfilled and, therefore, it has nothing to do with them.

Today’s young people may disregard learning about any religious tradition that is not communicated in a fresh, culturally relevant manner. As David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins’ research has shown in You Lost Me: Why Young Christians and Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith, large numbers of young adults are leaving the churches in which they were raised. Sadly, despite spending years participating in religious youth activities and attending hours of Bible-centered teaching, these young people find no connection between their faith and their life. This comment from their book describes this unfortunate situation well:

For me, frankly, the most heartbreaking aspect of our findings is the utter lack of clarity that many young people have regarding what God is asking them to do with their lives. … They have access to information, ideas, and people from around the world, but no clear vision for a life of meaning that makes sense of all that input.

The young generation is the hope of the future; they are the ones responsible for a better tomorrow, and that is how it should be. If they do not know God’s direction for humankind, how will they create a better tomorrow? Rev. Sun Myung Moon spoke this way, in his 1974 speech “The Standard Bearer of Tradition,” on bequeathing the religious tradition to the next generation:

In a family, the one who inherits the tradition of the family is not an old man but a young man. Those who inherit the tradition of the country are also young people. This was true in the past, and it is true today as well, that those who inherit tradition are young people.  … It is God’s earnest desire that young people should assume responsibility for the world. They should take responsibility to establish the tradition of God for the new world.

A true religious tradition is the “religious tradition of faith” (how a person can establish a relationship with the ultimate reality that is God), and the “religious tradition of substance” (establishing harmonious relationships with others) that advises a conscientious way of life. Hence, to pass on one’s religious tradition to the next generation is to educate the next generation to develop a conscientious way of life, a life of character; a life of respect vis-à-vis God and other people. All major religious traditions provide this type of guidance; they exist for the sake of guiding humankind to re-establish a close relationship with God.

Until relatively recently, the religions of the world were divided and distant. Today, however, all the religions of the world have close contact. As Andrew Wilson notes in World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts:

We live in an ecumenical age. The progress in transportation and communication that has brought all the peoples of the world into one global village has also brought the religions of the world into close contact … A movement for a “wider ecumenism” has begun, bringing together for dialogue leaders and scholars from all the world’s religions. Theologians of all faiths are affirming the positive worth of other religions and seeking to overcome the prejudices of an earlier time. It is now widely recognized that humanity’s search for God, or for the Ultimate Reality, called by whatever name, is at the root of all religions.

Hence, it is possible to draw or define a set of values accepted by all. Those are universal values. Universal values are what we need to hand on to the next generation.

The goal of the faith tradition must be clear to the next generation. This means the next generation should know what is expected of them in relation to the tradition. They need to know their parents’ expectations as well that of their church and community. Accordingly, the family and the church must have a common goal and work harmoniously to achieve it. If there is not a common goal so that the message of the church is consistent with that of the family, the next generation will be confused.

For many religious traditions, the quest to pass on that tradition to the next generation is considered successful if the youth accept the doctrines and practices of their parents’ faith. However, even within that acceptance there are levels of commitment. Has the young person accepted these tenets of faith out of duty, just to conform to the authority of their parents and church? Or did this young adult truly make that faith their own, critically examining their beliefs and practices and taking personal responsibility for them? In Dr. James W. Fowler’s model of faith development, discussed in Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, these two possibilities are characteristic of stages 3 and 4 respectively.

While the family, church and community may be satisfied with either of these levels of faith, some members of the next generation may not be. They may question more deeply, and through their life experiences come to respect and even embrace a different religious tradition. In such cases, the family and church face the prospect of alienating the next generation if they themselves cannot reach that level of faith where they respect and embrace other faiths, recognizing that their young people have matured in faith beyond their own teachings. The challenge is for the family and church leaders to raise their own standard of faith to that of Fowler’s stage 5, where the inherent mystery of transcendent reality allows for multidimensional truth and faith, and where interfaith dialogue is beneficial to all. Here, the recognition of one Creator, called by many names throughout human history, is paramount.

Again, though, there may be some who find this less than ideal. Not all faiths are tolerant of others. In fact, intolerance has been a hallmark of organized religion throughout the ages. Exclusivity, believing my faith is the one true faith, has dogged human efforts to bring about a world of peace and harmony, the original ideal of creation. Each religious tradition has its own culture and expression of truth.

For true accord among the religions there need to be universally shared values. It is those rare spiritually mature people who, having reached Fowler’s stage 6 in their faith development, can discern which are the true values in all paths of faith. With their true parental guidance, we can become one family under God, even if, like all siblings, we express ourselves and our relationship to the Almighty, our Creator, our Heavenly Parent, in our own unique ways.

Are parents and church and community elders willing to embrace the next generation on their paths, to guide them with a loving parental heart, not to a strict and narrow set of rules but to nurture their spirits to reach maturity in their relationship with God and humankind? If they can do that, the next generation will inherit the truth and goodness of their parents’ tradition.

The success of this quest will be the emergence of the ideal world of peace and happiness without immorality or decadence, where we welcome God to dwell in our families, in our daily lives; the fulfillment of the original purpose of creation, which is the ultimate goal of all religious traditions.♦

The Quest to Pass on our Religious Tradition to the Next Generation is available for purchase in paperback or as an eBook. Co-author Dr. Rollain Nsemi Muanda (M.Div., 1999; D.Min., 2015; both from UTS) is currently pastor of the Kingston Family Church, a board member of the African Diaspora Leadership Conference (ADLC), and teaches middle school mathematics in Newburgh, NY.

Dr. Jennifer P. Tanabe was born in Scotland and earned both her bachelors and doctoral degrees in psychology from the University of Edinburgh. She moved to the United States as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. She has served on the faculty and in various administrative and consulting capacities at UTS, and currently teaches a Research Methods course in its D.Min. program.

6 thoughts on “Passing on Our Religious Tradition to the Next Generation

  1. This is a very important and relevant topic to all of us. It probably comes down to the relationship between parents and children. When parents love their children they want to keep a relationship with them despite their choices. The children even as adults don’t want to lose their relationship with their parents as well. It is complicated and there are complicated feelings in all of these situations. As the author expresses in this article, the next generation cannot be raised in a vacuum. There needs to be all kinds of reinforcing messages from society, schools, universities that uphold true family values, etc. That is sorely lacking in modern Western societies.

  2. Jennifer,

    Thanks for your effort here.

    I grew up in the Catholic faith. By seventh grade, I was no longer interested in going to church, or being intimately involved with local parish church work. I suspect this phenomenon has been occurring for hundreds of years; not just over the last several decades. Methods of doing research, analyzing data, and making results known via the Internet, account for a perceived uptick in “young people not inheriting” their parent’s faith, I believe.

    I do see some institutional religions promoting a kind of “universal values.” However, the idea any current organized religion is capable of actualizing “world peace” is delusional, I think. Speaking apologetically, FFWPU is a step up in this effort, yet, contains elements undermining the fulfillment of its claims, as do all organized religions.

    I think young people in general intuitively sense the darker elements of organized religion, and make a conscious or unconscious decision to stay clear.

    A more nuanced look at UC worldview and theology could indicate such elements and how they operate, collectively and on the individual level. Perhaps one of our UTS scholars can address this theme, both within religions in general, and specifically within the UC.

    Making substantial efforts and progress in this realm of inquiry, offers expectant hope for “passing in” one’s religious tradition, I believe.

  3. As the author mentioned, “Becoming a parent is such a deep and profound experience that changes our lives forever.” As such, from the first breaths of life, we were nurtured by parents. The quality and ability of those parents are not in question, but the environment in which that infant is raised is key when watching a child grow to maturity. We hope that our children, through our loving care, rich life experience, and deep faith conviction can grow in fertile soil to become healthy, happy and strong.

    The conversations, lectures, and camps that have educated our children regarding our faith are only one component of that soil. Our attitude, relationships and behavior both within and beyond the family deeply impact growing children. How we respond when they defy us is enormously important. Whether it is safety, behavior, or religious rules they challenge, they closely observe to discern whether we, their parents, are following the rules ourselves. Whether or not we “walk the walk” is vital, since children initially learn through imitation.

    I propose that each of our children has the elements of the DP in their cells. Whether they follow our faith or reject it, they are part of the intrinsically creative tapestry of God. We don’t know what the future holds but our children are being called to a multitude of roles. Their profession, passion, and altruism, as well as running the gamut of faith from the atheist and agnostic, to a passive follower and religious zealot, indicate that their parents gave them healthy soil to grow in.

    Growing a relationship with our Heavenly Parent in the male and female expression is not easy. In general, we were not and have not taught to listen to God speaking in the quiet of our hearts, even though many of our children are hearing guidance in different ways. Through music, art, blogs, philosophy, movies, theatre, dance, and the constant bombardment coming through social media, our children are weighing what they believe. Maybe, the soil of their religious upbringing is pushing them toward Fowler’s stage 6 of faith development, helping them discern which are the true values in all faiths, philosophies and paths that are vital to their maturation. From what I see, our God has an awesome force of passionate people growing out of our True Parents, the Divine Principle, and their parents, and that is a very good thing.

  4. The challenge is for a comprehensive integration of Unification thought/Principle to every aspect of civic, public and personal lifestyle (absolute constitutional values prerequisite/laws of creation). Everything is done for a Principle reason; to form a more perfect union, establish justice, provide for the common defense, ensure domestic tranquility, interdependence, mutual prosperity…to secure the blessing for ourselves and posterity.

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