SYNERGEO: Challenging Spaces

I recently forayed into the strange satirical world of the television series South Park, and, to my surprise, found themes that helped me reflect on some of my experiences as a high-school counsellor. 

In the episode "Stunning and Beautiful," for example, the new principal of the local high-school, named "P. C. Principal," begins to aggressively implement policies of non-discrimination against minority groups. P. C. Principal and his new fraternity of "P. C. bros" police and violently confront anyone who implies that [transgender celebrity] Caitlyn Jenner might be anything less than “a brave, beautiful, and stunning woman.”[1] While the series is irreverent, it struck a chord with me. It connected with an unease which I experience when I bump into contemporary ideas which seem beyond the reach of being examined, weighed, evaluated, or deconstructed. In trying to make sense of this blockage, I have written the following reflection on what I’m learning through my students about their experience as a "generation," the contemporary shift in our concept of tolerance, and the possibilities I see counselling and the church as spaces of belonging, engagement and debate. For convenience, and, I hope, solidarity, I include myself in this generation and call us “we.”

In my opinion, we (post)millennials are a generation trained to be risk-averse. We have spent our youth in contained institutional settings and had our lives scheduled into set activities with measurable outcomes—piano at four, karate at six; perhaps a short break at the local playground on regulation equipment under the watchful gaze of an adult. Gone are the days of loitering in the street with only creativity and mischief at our disposal. We have been deprived of the opportunity for boredom and imaginative play. [2] We are accustomed to having access to a lot of information, but also at a loss as to how to bring about change in our complex world, or even whether significant change is really possible. As Slavoj Žižek notes, “We know too much while not knowing what to do with this mass of inconsistent knowledge.”[3] Having been taught to avoid risk while also living in a vast and chaotic world, we feverishly try to control what we can: our bodies, the image we portray of ourselves to others, and the hemming in of our discomfort. Meanwhile, we cultivate and leave unchallenged the assumptions underpinning our ideological and political landscape. Complicit in this limited vision for change is, I argue, social media.

Social media acts as an echo chamber where we are “increasingly sheltered from opposing viewpoints.”[4] Platforms like Facebook operate through complex algorithms which figure out what we like and feed us back more of the same, by default excluding large amounts of information that might challenge our beliefs.[5] Apart from the dubious journalistic integrity of Facebook,[6] through which the majority of people now get their news, what is worrying is the dampening of critical thinking, empathy, and dialogical engagement that this information bubble creates. Social media is informing us daily that, apart from the need to strive for wealth and success, the most important good in life is our right to happiness. As psychologist Guy Winch advises: “If you find yourself living with or around people with negative outlooks, consider balancing out your friend roster.”[7] His words are remarkably familiar—we are told to protect “our” happiness.

Our risk-averse upbringing, our lack of exposure to other ways of thinking, and our sense of a right to happiness and comfort is captured in a series of articles in The Atlantic addressing the “new intolerance of student activism.”[8] These articles point out that a new trend has been taking over universities in the USA wherein “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”[9] The writers explain: "Emotional reasoning dominates many campus debates and discussions. A claim that someone’s words are 'offensive' is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong. It is a demand that the speaker apologize or be punished by some authority for committing an offense."[10]

University professors now find themselves in a fragile position—“professors must ask themselves not just What is the best way to teach this material? but also Might the most sensitive student in the class take offense if I say this, and then post it online, and then ruin my career?”[11] The catastrophizing and unreasonable reactions of college students in US universities documented in these articles exemplifies a shift in our understanding of tolerance.

Tolerance, in its traditional sense, is the acceptance of human imperfectability combined with a high valuing of freedom. This conception of tolerance is out of fashion because it presupposes "vice" and therefore contains judgment. As John Gray puts it, “When we tolerate a practice, a belief or a character trait, we let something be that we judge to be undesirable, false or at least inferior; our toleration expresses the conviction that, despite its badness, the object of toleration should be left alone.”[12] By contrast, what is now stressed is not toleration but neutrality and equality. The idea is that it is wrong “to discriminate in favour of, or against, any form of life animated by a definite conception of the good.”[13] In our context, in other words, it is inadmissible to privilege certain ways of life over others as this is seen discrimination. Inevitably, however, “favoured minorities will obtain legal privileges for themselves while unfashionable minorities will be subject to policies of paternalism and moralistic intervention in their chosen styles of life.”[14]

Take religious belief, for example—it is accepted as a person’s idiosyncratic personal choice or opinion, but, as Žižek puts it, “the moment they present it publicly as what it is for them, say a matter of substantial belonging, they are accused of "fundamentalism."[15] Religion is therefore relegated to the private sphere. Like all surviving traditions, it is seen not so much as an authentic way of life, but only as freely chosen "life-style."[16] Religious practices are deemed acceptable as long as they contribute to the undisputed greater good of individual health and happiness. Prayer, for example, can reduce anxiety.[17] Meditation and mindfulness can “rebuild your gray matter.”[18] Giving brings about contentment and personal satisfaction.[19] The practices of religion are considered useful when they are seen to have psychological, health-giving benefits. The Dalai Lama himself defends Buddhism in terms of its helpfulness in the search for happiness.[20] Religions, I would suggest, have internalized Western secular standards and judge themselves by them.

Living in the twenty-first century as a millennial comes with a certain sense of impotence, in my experience. The world is large and complex, and it is difficult to find our place and purpose in it. In response to this, we tend to latch on to stories that are simple and reassuring while retreating into small familiar safe spaces with like-minded people. However, what we are creating in this retreat is a deeper anxiety, intolerance and inability for dialogue. Within this context, I see both counselling and churches as spaces which have the potential to invite us into the challenge of relational depth, the questioning of normality, and the clarifying our ideas and values through dialogue and deliberation.[21]

Counselling is “about a real meeting and connection with another human being”[22] and involves “encountering the client in an in-depth way and sustaining such a depth of relating.”[23] A key idea that motivates and focuses me in my work is a quotation from Buber that, “All real living is meeting.”[24] This is also a call for the twenty-first century church, I believe. Churches are in an incredible position to offer genuine community, that is: unity in diversity. In doing this, the church can practise a competing liturgy to the rest of society.[25] It can practise loving hospitality to a multitude of different peoples, cultures and worldviews, while rallying around hopes and a visions embedded in a clear story of redemption, centred in the person of Jesus Christ. As N. T. Wright put it, through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, “God’s new world has already broken in to the present.”[26] This means that we are to anticipate God’s kingdom in ways which attempt to participate in God’s setting the world right through His love, mercy, and justice. This requires a difficult task for my generation: the boldness to have judgement—“the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and to be condemned”[27]—and the discipline and humility to practice acceptance, love and hospitality to those whose ideas and values are at odds with our own.

Both these spaces, churches and counselling, give us permission for connection and challenge, exploration and imagination. My hope is that the opening of these spaces would have a socio-political impact in our time. As Norberto Bobbio wrote, in our democracies we are caught deliberating “within the rules rather than over the rules.”[28] I long that my generation would have the vision, engagement, and spaces to deliberate what these rules should be.

Sam Forde has an academic background in political studies, languages, and theology. After Teaching ESOL (English for Speakers of other Languages) for a few years, he retrained in Counselling at Laidlaw College. He currently provides pastoral care and counselling to students at EDENZ Colleges, a tertiary provider in Auckland. 

[1] South Park: Beautiful and Stunning, produced by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Anne Garefino (South Park Digital Studios, LLC., Comedy Central Productions, 2015).

[2] Rollo May, The Courage to Create (New York: Norton, 1975).

[3] Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010), 360.


[5] Adam Curtis, Hypernormalization (London: BBC, 2016).

[6] See for example:

[7] Guy Winch, ‘Depression and Loneliness Are More Contagious Than You Think’,, 9 August 2013.



[10] ibid.


[12] John Gray, Enlightenment’s Wake (New York: Routledge Classics, 2007), 27.

[13] ibid., 29.

[14] ibid., 30.

[15] Slavoj Žižek, Violence, (London: Profile Books, 2009), 124.

[16] Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, 283.

[17] Clay Routledge, "5 Scientifically Supported Benefits of Prayer: What science can tell us about the personal and social value of prayer," posted June 2014, Psychology Today,

[18] Britta K. Hölzel, “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.” Psychiatry research 191 (January 2011): 36–43.

[19] Jason Marsh and Jill Suttie, "5 Ways Giving Is Good for You," posted December 2010,

[20] Slavoj Zizek, Violence, 73.

[21] Of course, these spaces are just as open to being used to perpetuate our default response of retreating into closed myopic monocultural clubs.

[22] David Mearns and Mick Cooper, Working at relational depth in counselling and psychotherapy (London, UK: Sage), xi.

[23] ibid., xiii.

[24] Martin Buber, I and Thou (London: Continuum, 1958), 32.

[25] James K. A. Smith. Desiring the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, (Baker Publishing Group: Kindle Edition, 2009), 205.

[26] N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking, Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008),

[27] ibid., 178.

[28] Norberto Bobbio, Liberalism and Democracy, (London, Verso, 1988), 225.