Young People Seek Meaning in Material World

1,700 students gather in Boston to talk about how they are using spirituality today.

During the recent antigovernment riots in the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, Reynolds Darmadi stood on the front lines facing armed police with thousands of fellow students. When the shooting started the crowd exploded in confusion.

"I prayed that God wouldn't let me fall," he said.

Behind him, a good friend was shot and killed. Saddened by the incident, he admits to some spiritual confusion about his escape and his friend's death. But without hesitation, Darmadi says he would return to the streets if necessary. "I also am convinced that God is always with me," he says, "and that my friend and I were helping our country."

This spiritual conviction resonates with many of the 1,700 students and faculty members who gathered from around the world at a conference on spirituality in Boston this week.

At the four-day conference, called "Pioneers of the Spiritual Millennium," participants are talking about how they use ideas taught by Jesus 2,000 years ago to deal with today's problems - from drug addiction to the desire to buy that new car. And the international flavor of the event - people from 40 countries are attending - has given many attendees a chance to see how others around the world handle these same challenges.

Topics of conversation

One of the topics heard in dozens of conversations in hallway and meeting rooms here at The First Church of Christ, Scientist, is an interest in finding God-derived spirituality in a materialistic world. Beyond cultural and political differences, students here say the search for spiritual meaning is increasingly important in their lives.

"This is youth's century," pollster George Gallup told the conference, citing the failure of authoritarianism in this century in its many forms including communism and fascism.

"The older generation, in some respects, has made a mess of things," he said. "Materialism has not brought happiness and it is one of the reasons people are searching for new relationships and for spiritual meaning in life."

Maylis Rath, a graduate student at Carl Von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, Germany, summed up two attitudes among youths here in the search for spiritual meaning.

"A lot of students say, 'I am interested in spiritual things, but don't try to pull me into a church,' " she says. "But to me, church is important because you can be too independent, and serving others through a church means you have to work together."

For Arianne Mayer, a junior at Scripps College in Pomona, Calif., the number of religions or belief systems - far greater today than in previous generations - has made it too much of a multiple-choice world when it comes to religion.

"My generation has access to many more religions and perspectives," she says. "It's harder for us to know which is the right one and how do you know? So I think sometimes it's easier to believe in an overall power than it is to connect with one particular group."

Attending an art school in Bath, England, Rachel Johnstone thinks materialism can seem like a logical trap if you don't have a sense of spiritual power to guide your "inner" decisions. "It's the big temptation for people my age who decide to get a job just to get money," she says. "They end up working just for the money. If you don't have a sense of God and spirituality, there doesn't seem to be much purpose in life."

Suggesting that many of the addictions of today - drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, etc. - still persist in societies but often prove to be healed by spiritual means, Mr. Gallup says the "inner life" will be more of a focal point in the next century for healing addictions.

"Our attention was on outer space for so long," he says. "But in the next century I think it will be on inner space, on the effort that takes life to a new level of spirituality."

Perhaps a danger in this, some students suggest, is that spirituality could become merely fashionable. It might attract broad appeal but not deep engagement or an appreciation for religious traditions.

"In a way it's almost fashionable now," says Lionel Swanson, a student at the Waterfront College of Performing Arts in Capetown, South Africa, "but then a friend of mine said, how could it be a bad thing for spirituality to be fashionable when of course it is always fashionable."

Life lessons

What attracts Ms. Rath to spirituality is a lesson learned through the arts.

"A friend told me that art is necessary so we can see that life is not about sleeping and eating," she says. "There is music and dancing and painting, but there is more. There is a divine law that gives energy and joy and everything you need."

A "fashionable" tradition for Timothy Adeoyo Olakojo, a school teacher and university lecturer in Lagos, Nigeria, is to start the morning at school with prayers. "We gather together for prayer before the lessons begin," he says, "This is a very important aspect of learning in the school because the prayer touches their lives academically and how they behave."

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