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Through Dispossession, Practical Theologian Transposes 21st Century Christianity


Thomas Beaudoin, Ph.D., Generation X theologian, studies how young Catholics are coming to the church on their own terms.
Photo by Michael Dames

Thomas Beaudoin, Ph.D., associate professor of practical theology, used to reach into the closet and pull out shoes, a belt and other workaday attire almost without thinking. Likewise, he regularly plunked down $4 for a daily latte at a popular coffee chain.

All that changed a few years ago, when Beaudoin grew curious about the day-to-day items in his life while researching a book on young people and faith.

“I wanted to know whose hands had touched [the objects]along the way,” Beaudoin recalled. “I realized that in everyday life and practice, I am indebted to mostly young workers around the world that I don’t know—in China, in El Salvador. They depend on me and I depend on them.

“I like my shoes. I like the coffee. These workers have done their job,” Beaudoin continued. “But I (and the companies I support) haven’t done my job for them. I am in a relationship in which I am at least the slacker, if not the abuser.”

For Beaudoin, acknowledging his relationship to people of lesser means raised the issue of what it means to be a Christian in a nation dominated by branding. He grappled with this issue in Consuming Faith (Sheed & Ward, 2003), a book that examines corporate branding while tracing the roots of the products in Beaudoin’s closet.

According to Beaudoin, some popular brands of shirts, sneakers and even coffees enjoy a near-spiritual allure among young people. Yet these brands, often manufactured overseas, depend on an exploitation of labor that might lead to a “test of faith” for Christian consumers. In the end, the practical theologian in Beaudoin decided to integrate who he is with what he buys.

“If you [as a Christian]believe the basic argument that you should live one whole life . . . at peace with God, then one thing to do is to examine your personal practices,” Beaudoin said. “How do those everyday practices bear witness to our theology?”

Self-examination resonates with Beaudoin, who lately has chosen to evaluate his Roman Catholic post-Vatican II values in the context of today’s global religiosity. He sees a slippage between the boundaries of faiths and religions that makes him wonder where Catholicism in particular, and religious identity in general, will be in 50 years.

He also sees some new directions among young Catholics. In his first book, Virtual Faith (Jossey-Bass, 1998), Beaudoin acknowledged the irreverent spirituality of his own Generation X. The merger of pop culture and religious reverence led youth to embellish themselves with tattoos of Jesus and uncommon sacramentals—piercings and jewelry. Yet, in Beaudoin’s view, these things were less a statement against religion than a new exploration of the sacred among a generation hungry for spiritual discipline.

“There is a fairly widespread move in Catholicism among younger generations toward a greater reliance on individual conscience, a greater skepticism about church authority, and a greater openness to the value and truth of all religions,” Beaudoin said. “There is also a push back by an influential and significant minority against what they perceive to be the dangers of relativism implied in these shifts.”

According to Beaudoin, some sociological studies have argued that generational differences among Catholics are even more dramatic than ethnic and racial differences.

“It seems that you are at least as likely to pinpoint someone’s belief system as a Catholic if you know when he or she was born, as if you know where he or she came from,” he said.

But is the Catholic Church in dialogue with its younger members?

At the recent Catholic World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to the gathering of 250,000 youths about the negative effects of a culture driven by consumption, referencing everything from financial squandering to the media’s exposure of sex and violence. While Beaudoin was impressed by the message, he was more encouraged by the Pope’s examination of the church’s own sex scandal, calling the Pope’s candidness particularly inspiring.

“For me, the critique of [youth]culture has more force if the Pope, and all of us who share the Catholic tradition, are willing to be self-critical about what is going on in our own house,” Beaudoin said. “Because the Roman Catholic Church has become a tradition that has trouble telling the truth about itself.”

The time is ripe, he suggests, for the Catholic Church to engage in a more forward-thinking approach in its relationship with young people, while easing up on its traditional “club or clan mentality.”

Beaudoin’s latest book, Witness to Dispossession: The Vocation of a Postmodern Theologian (Orbis, 2008), speaks to the church’s need for self-examination, and a “letting go” of some rigidly drawn boundaries around Catholic identity to make room for the generational shift and new cultural questions for faith.

Drawing on postmodern philosophy to inspire a new way of practicing Christianity and Catholicism, Beaudoin’s book addresses the role of younger theologians in bringing the church into the 21st century.

“The question of power probably needs to be foregrounded theologically today as much as ever,” Beaudoin continued. “Christians can learn to see their practice of faith as acts of dispossession if they begin to acknowledge how power has functioned in Christianity, Catholicism and through their own lives.”

One outcome might be to rediscover Catholicism as “something that is historical and shifting in its orientation, that is not a guaranteed sale from one cohort to the next.”

Having come to Fordham from Santa Clara University, it is no surprise that Beaudoin is at home with the Jesuits.

“My whole theology is oriented to the question of spiritual exercises, whether ‘secular’ or ‘sacred,’ in contemporary culture,” he said. “Spiritual exercises, of course, are not just imaginations that take place in the mind, but are ways of being with your body differently.”

Music is one such exercise. Beaudoin views his playing bass guitar in rock bands as a spiritual practice. He and Brian Robinette, Ph.D., a drummer and assistant professor of theology at St. Louis University, are working on a project for theologians who are also rock musicians, nurturing the spirit through academic theology and secular music.

Extracting spiritual nourishment from a music scene rife with anti-religious types, Beaudoin said, becomes possible by embracing “what is beautiful about strangeness.”

It may be serendipitous, therefore, that the native of Kansas City has landed in one of the strangest cities on the planet.

“New York City is a tremendous gulp of reality,” Beaudoin said. “I feel a deep geographic consolation here, and hope my work at Fordham will be nourished by, and respond to, what the city gives.”

Staff Intern Brendan Gibbons contributed to this story.

– Janet Sassi


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