Thinking My Way Through


The ISIS Adventure 2: Hardship and Encounter

Posted on December 14, 2015

Leaving the Shire

Justin Duckworth, Anglican bishop and a good friend of Praxis (who I work for), loves to speak to young adults of the adventure of following Jesus. The first requirement for the adventure, drawing on Lord of the Rings, is that ‘you have to leave the Shire’. The hobbits must encounter danger, risk and the unknown to have an adventure. I think this is true of all people, and is germane to young people who are attracted to groups like ISIS.

When young adults join ISIS or extreme nationalist groups like the United Patriots Front (UPF), political and security leaders call this ‘radicalisation’, pejoratively. But let’s reclaim this word. The tradition of Christianity that inspired me in young adulthood is ‘radical discipleship’. In other words, the following of Jesus (discipleship) which draws on the etymology of ‘radical’ (Latin radix); the ‘roots’, the ‘heart’, what lies beneath all the dross of the constant diet of job, house and material security that is served up to young people.

In my last blog, I suggested that two drivers for Western-raised Muslims who join groups like ISIS are ‘poverty as exclusion’ and ‘ennui’. This pushes them to search for belonging and adventure in extreme places.

I think these twin factors (adventure and belonging) are necessary for all young people’s development, whether they are Muslim, Christian or whatever. How do young people find belonging and adventure?

Hardship and Encounter

Young people whose horizons have been short-circuited by the anxieties and desires of their schools, families or society have been ripped off. However, there are young people whose horizons get big and broad. To lift their eyes above the valuable but socially prescribed goals of work, study and family, young people need one or more of the following hardships:

  • an experience of injustice, either against themselves or someone they love;
  • an experience of personal stress, like financial poverty, sickness, moving school, or family breakdown;
  • an experience of being a minority, for example, belonging to a religious community in a secularist nation, having a different ethnicity to the majority, having a disability…you get the picture;
  • a temporary experience of dislocation, like a school trip to a different place, moving state etc, where their eyes see things anew.

So, first, some experience of hardship is necessary. Then, an encounter. At this opportune time, they encounter a political, social or religious movement, in the form of a respected peer or mentor, and the spark is lit: we join up, we take the risk, we leave the Shire. Through this process of hardship and encounter we find a group that shares our passions (belonging), and find a path to do something about our passions (adventure).

To say this is not to strap the explosive belt to our waist. It is to recognise what psychologist Erik Erikson named over 60 years ago; that adolescents yearn for fidelity – to be utterly loyal to a cause, a group, an ideal. I must say here that I am not trying to de-politicise the issues. I am not saying that if we just give Muslim young people a nonviolent adventure that the injustices they observe in the Middle East will disappear, or that the exclusion they experience in Australia is imaginary. And I am not saying that this is only applicable to Muslim young people – far from it. Simply that belonging and adventure are necessary parts of growing up for most, if not all, young people. For some it is dramatic, for some it is gradual and subterranean. For some it never happens, and they struggle to grow up.

The spark of encounter could be lit by a violent movement as much as nonviolent one. So, how can youth workers work to support this process of hardship and encounter, and guide young people towards nonviolent adventure? Next blog when it’s written…


Poverty and the image of God

Posted on October 14, 2016

The people of this neighbourhood are often referred to by terms such as ‘battlers’ or ‘the marginalised’, or ‘those experiencing disadvantage’; but in the biblical lexicon they are ‘the poor’. How do we make sense of the Bible’s teaching about ‘the poor’ in relation to the real people and the real places we encounter? Who are the poor? What defines the experience of poverty? Who are we in relation to the poor and who are we together?

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The ISIS Adventure 1: Exclusion and Ennui

Posted on December 9, 2015

As a high school teacher, I accompanied a group of young men from my school to John Marsden’s writing camp in rural Victoria. Marsden is a famous Australian writer, best known for his Tomorrow… series in which young adults, with their high school certificates still hot off the press, wage guerrilla warfare against invaders of Australia. At first glance, John Marsden is avuncular and to the adolescent eye, decrepit. But he had these young guys, from a rough part of town, writing enthusiastically. I could only envy his ability to connect young people with their artful hearts, and I frantically recorded his methods so to copy in my own classroom.

In short, I gained much respect for his understanding of young people’s motivations. In his book for adolescent males, “Secret Men’s Business”, he was pilloried for giving instructions on how to use a brothel. In comparison, his prescription for manhood was less controversial: that attaining manhood needs the thrilling experiences of killing an animal, having sex and defeating your father.

I want to suggest that this points to reasons that some Muslim young people, raised in Western countries, are sympathetic to ISIS. And, in some ways, what I write here could be applied to young people who join extremist nationalist groups such as the United Patriots Front.

Exclusion and Ennui

Most explanations for radicalisation include some proposal that it takes root in poverty, and/or because of anger about unjust occupation of Muslim lands by Western nations, and/or because of Sunni/Shia conflict. Of course, another explanation is that Islamic theology is to blame: a massive area of debate which I don’t intend to address here. These may all have validity. But for young Muslims raised in the West, I think the explanation has to include a couple of extra 2 factors. These are ‘push’ factors:

  1. First, poverty is a factor, but ‘poverty as exclusion’, rather than ‘poverty as deprivation’. When a young person seeks belonging, and the avenues that Australian society honours seem closed to them, where do they look? They look to those whose heroic paths are available to all – the violent, the law-breaker, the feared.
  2. The second factor is the paucity of adventure in Australian society, sometimes called ennui by sociologists – a deep feeling of boredom and dissatisfaction with life. I was watching an ABC documentary in which young people were asked about their dreams for the future. One 15 year gave a depressing answer: his dreams were to get a good job, and earn enough money to provide for this family if he had one. At 15 years old, his horizon was limited to success circumscribed by his culture: this is no adventure.

If you doubt this explanation, don’t listen to me, listen to Scott Atran, a counter-terrorism expert. This is a summary of his message to the United Nations:

Atran argued that there are powerful cultural forces behind ISIS. Many young people feel a deep dissatisfaction with society and find in ISIS adventure, comaraderie (sic) and a sense of belonging. Most attempts to dissuade young people from joining ISIS focus on the negative – the violence, savagery, and repression. For Atran this will not work. Stopping the growth of ISIS means offering an alternative – appealing to the idealism of youth and presenting a positive counter-narrative.

For an Australian perspective, Anne Aly from Curtin University has this to say:

Factors such as anger at injustice, moral superiority, a sense of identity and purpose, the promise of adventure, and becoming a hero have all been implicated in case studies of radicalisation.

What’s the solution?

Can Australia provide the sense of belonging and adventure that is needed to counter the forces of exclusion and ennui? What ideals are we holding up as worthy of danger and risk? Though nice enough, educational achievement, job readiness and entry into the housing market are not ideals that I would risk much for. As a young person, the role models I gravitated towards were not the ‘moderates’. They were the extremists, the radicals, those who took their beliefs seriously and did something about them, even if it cost them. The last thing I wanted to be was ‘moderate. I still don’t. Most of us don’t. And I suspect contemporary young people with ideals don’t either.

We need a vision of life for young people in Australia, whether they are Muslim or not, that inspires nonviolent sacrifice and adventure. How might this happen, and how can youth workers play their part? Next blog post.

Religion, Spirituality and the Sacred

Posted on November 5, 2015

Hi all, I am currently writing a chapter for a book on spirituality and youth work. Here is a section of my chapter on how to understand religion, spirituality and the sacred, and what a definition of these realities might be when discussing them in relation to youth work. The academically minded may be frustrated that I haven’t provided full references – there are some suggestions for further reading at the end.


Secularism constructs ‘religion’ as a private endeavour:

In the West ‘we see “religion” as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions and rituals, centring on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all “secular” activities’. In other cultures and through the ages the idea of religion has never been reduced to beliefs and practices separated off from the rest of life. (Pickard)

A definition of religion

Seeking to avoid privatized definitions of ‘religion’, I follow Schneiders, who distinguishes three interrelated elements. One, religion is the “fundamental life stance of the person who believes in transcendent reality, however designated”. Two, “a spiritual tradition” which is a “characteristic way of understanding and living in the presence of the numinous”. Examples would be Buddhism, Christianity, or Zoroastrianism. Three, religion refers to “a religion or institutionalized formulation of a particular spiritual tradition”. We think of Roman Catholicism or Sunni Islam. These particular forms are incredibly complex, requiring particular beliefs, rules, debates, cultural systems and rituals for their maintenance. Schneider argues that this last element is what most casual observers mean when they say ‘religion’.

A definition of spirituality

While many reject ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’ seems attractive. The term originates in the Greek pneumatikos (‘spiritual’) from pneuma (‘spirit’). Sheldrake writes that the apostle Paul uses pneumatikos in one of his letters to the church in Corinth (eg. 1 Corinthians 3:1 NRSV), not as a opposite of ‘the body’ (Gk. soma) but to ‘the flesh’ (Gk. sarx), which for Paul was any ‘way of life’ contrary to the Spirit of God. In Sheldrake’s discussion, ‘way of life’ appears in his first element of spirituality, “a fully integrated approach to life”. The other elements are a “quest for meaning”, a “quest for the sacred” and a “quest for ultimate values in contrast to an instrumentalized or purely materialistic approach to life”. Schneiders puts the emphasis on the personal appropriation of this quest when she defines spirituality as “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives” (emphasis added).

Moving to literature relating to youth spirituality, Engebretson defines four areas which constitute spirituality, and which have been echoed by others in the field (Green, Daughtry): (1) “experience of the sacred other which is accompanied by feelings of wonder, joy, love, trust and hope”; (2) “connectedness with and responsibility for the self, other people and the non-human world”; (3) “the illumination of lived experience with meaning and value” and; (4) “the need for naming and expression in either traditional or non-traditional ways”.

Mason et al define spirituality as “a conscious way of life based on a transcendent referent” where ‘transcendent referent’ stands “a reality beyond the individual”. In a ‘minority report’ on the same research, Hughes doubts both the “conscious” and “transcendent” elements of Mason et al’s formulation on the basis that these were not helpful terms for illuminating the experience of the research participants. Hughes opts for a definition that echoes Schneiders “self-transcendence”:

This ‘spiritual’ level of relationship in each domain is reached when that relationship reaches a point when it points beyond itself or when something that transcends ordinary human life is experienced within it. It is attained in a commitment or love that surpasses the ethical demands of care.

Contribution of Australian Aboriginal Spirituality

Australian indigenous spiritualities are crucial for us to consider as their importance for health, wellbeing and community development amongst Aboriginal young people becomes clearer:

“…the spiritual is not compartmentalised into one section of life or a time for observance as it is in other societies. The concept of Spirituality pervades everything; it is ever-present in the physical, material world” (Grieves, emphasis retained, capitalisation retained).

Grieves names several elements of this Spirituality. First, Creation is the very basis of Aboriginal Spirituality, a time which is not only past but ‘everywhen’ (Stanner, in Grieves) and from which comes all order, as well as the ethics, practices and traditions necessary to maintain the interdependence of all life (Grieves). Second, connections to land, sea and the natural world, which are is tied back to Spirituality, providing “…tangible links between living humans and all that is unseen and eternal”. Third, to maintain interdependence between all life, the Law (sometimes called the Dreaming) contains the “…rules of behaviour and how to co-exist and sustain the natural world…”.

Ways of the Sacred

In concrete people and communities, generic spirituality and religion do not exist (Schneiders). Instead, there are particular spiritualities and religions which provide a specific perspective on the ‘sacred’. Therefore, it is impossible to define ‘the sacred’ without excluding some spiritualities and religions from what needs to be a discussion that engages the breadth of the youth work craft. To side-step such exclusion, I am using ‘the sacred’ to denote the field in which spirituality and religion play.

If a generic definition of spirituality is needed, I am using ‘a Way of life that quests after integration in the ever-presence of the Sacred’, with capitalised words referring to a particular form and understanding of ‘way’ and ‘sacred’. Thus, ‘sacred-shaped youth work’ integrates a particular Way of the Sacred with youth work in our historical moment.

Further Reading

Vicki Grieves: Aboriginal Spirituality

Philip Hughes: Putting Life Together

Michael Mason, Andrew Singleton, Ruth Webber: The Spirit of Gen Y

Philip Sheldrake: Spirituality – A brief history

Sandra M Schneiders: Religion and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners


Why Write?

Posted on October 24, 2015

Why write at all? Why not just take the best thoughts of others (and they are better than mine), and put them to work in the world of practice with young people? Is it not hubris to think that my particular arrangement of words has anything to add? Especially when the world is drowning in words that add nothing except more confusion, more surface thinking, more self-satisfied thinking.

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