We're starved for meaning
Relativism has brought us to the brink of despair
I have immutability on my mind this morning.
I daresay that most folks don’t set much store by it anymore.
An April 5 piece by Daniel Cox substantiates this.
Cox is a public opinion researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in societal attitudes toward religion. His work is not the kind that’s going to lend itself to hard and fast positions. He tends to conclude his pieces with sort of a how-can-people-bridge-the-divide tone. But, as exemplified by the specifics he brings up in this piece, he nearly begs for readers to take positions. Are we to ignore the monumental shifts in societal assumptions he presents, as if the only point were to get diverse types of people talking? For crying out loud, he’s making clear that unprecedented fundamental shifts are underway:
In an interview with the Arizona Republic, Manvi Harde, a member of Gen Z whose family identifies with Jainism, says that her appreciation for her faith did not come about until she became involved with an interfaith community. She reflects that Gen Z’s problem with organized religion is that it is something prescribed to them, as opposed to something they can help shape. “[It’s] never something that we get to build for ourselves,” she said.
This is a crucial point. For many young people, organized religion exists as a set of rules to be followed and restrictions to abide by. The lack of confidence young people have in organized religion may well be due to the feeling that there are few opportunities to have open and honest conversations about what their faith means and how it should be lived. A 2020 survey found that six in ten (60%) young adults ages 18 to 29 said their church or denomination should either adjust traditional beliefs in light of changing social circumstances or adopt entirely new practices and beliefs. It’s unclear how many religious congregations and denominations are ready to make these kinds of commitments.
What’s clear, however, is that a growing number of Gen Zers are looking for opportunities to join conversations and be part of communities that affirm their ideals and aspirations. An increasing number of young adults will not only be negotiating between different religious ideas and values but between a spiritual and secular worldview as well. And they are most likely to turn to people and organizations that can help them do it. For a generation experiencing unprecedented feelings of social isolation and disconnection a community founded on the ideals of openness, inclusivity, and religious pluralism is sure to be appealing.
Well, um, yes, until relatively recently, it was commonly assumed that by embracing faith (“religion,” if you’d like), one was signing up for a set of rules.
This process of seeing a well-lived life as something one determines for him- or herself actually has roots going back a few centuries.
The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism and the Road to Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman examines the process over the last few centuries by which sexuality became the overriding factor in summing up an individual human being’s identity. Throughout the work, he reminds the reader that this has not always been the case.
The first major figure in his lineage of thinkers who brought us to our present juncture is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose essential contribution was the focus on the inward psychological life, as opposed to presumptions, norms and institutions developed over the course of a society’s evolution. From Rousseau we get the notion that the individual can decide for himself or herself what will best enhance well-being.
He puts together three figures from the Romantic period of English literature - Wordsworth, Shelley and Blake - as having given us the view of “feelings and instinct as lying at the heart of moral action and what it means to be truly free and truly human.” Shelley, in particular, was pretty radical in embracing this position, asserting that monogamous man-woman relations was harmful to expressions of the way people naturally are.
He puts together in one chapter another trio, this one from a few decades later. There are important distinctions to be made between Nietzsche, Marx and Darwin, but together they did much to point Western civilization in a materialistic direction. Their common basis was viewing the world as having no significance or meaning beyond that imparted by human action.
Next up, Trueman discusses Freud, with particular interest in Freud’s concept of happiness as being rooted in genital pleasure, and what that has meant for the whole field of psychoanalysis.
He then looks at the roles played by Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse in bringing together the lineage of thinkers, in particular Marx and Engels, who put the power dynamics between society’s classes front and center, and the primacy of sexuality in the search for a stable society that Freud brought to the table.
Trueman does a great job of presenting the case that the surrealist movement in art moved the entire impetus along. Ditto his look at how Hugh Hefner’s putting the sheen of sophistication over the commercialization of erotic arousal has had ramifications up to the present day.
Trueman’s meticulous. You may find yourself going back to previous chapters to reread something that seemed arcane at the time, but that you now see as having planted the seeds of future developments. By the time you get to the chapters on how eroticism and a therapeutic framework triumphed in our culture, and, finally, how transgenderism came to be mainstreamed in an alarmingly short time, you can see the thread tying it all together with unsettling clarity.
Along the way, I was introduced to some minds I had at best only a glancing acquaintance with who have informed Trueman’s thinking. Now I’m inspired to further investigate Philip Reiff, Augusto Del Noce, Alasdair McIntyre and Charles Taylor.
There have been thinkers chipping away at the foundations of our civilization for some time. The notion that we’d have to look outside ourselves for a standard for a worthwhile existence, a notion present both in Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian teaching, was being systematically jettisoned.
Of course, there is still a sizable portion of the population that still adheres to the conviction that sound-doctrine Christianity provides answers to life’s basic questions. It’s smaller than it has ever been in Western civilization’s history, but it’s not insignificant.
Not insignificant, but marginalized. People involved in church-related activities - certainly church attendance and Bible study, but also jail ministry, Thanksgiving dinners for the poor, the praise-music industry - look foreign to an increasingly large segment of our overall society.
I recently recounted, in a piece for Ordinary Times entitled “Church Shopping, Again,” the lifetime of head trips I’ve had to unwind to find my place within institutional Christianity. Here’s the part of that unwinding process that’s relevant here:
I am skittish about getting involved anywhere at this point. The pitfalls are myriad and various. There’s the progressive temptation to which many churches have succumbed. Since 2015, however, there’s arisen the equally secular Trumpist infection that poisoned even such respected figures as Franklin Graham. There is also the never-ending cascade of revelations about sexual corruption in various ministries. I sometimes wonder if there’s not a touch of snobbery in my reluctance to just land somewhere. I’ll be honest: I can’t stand modern praise music and I’m uncomfortable about not joining in with the demonstrative behavior I see at most services anymore. I guess the days of organs, robes and old-school hymns are fading fast.
Then came my concluding paragraph, which brought on accusations of being anti-gay and anti-trans:
But I do feel the need to land somewhere. For one thing, I’m utterly horrified at the complete obliteration of the architecture of creation our society has undertaken in the last ten years. We’ve jettisoned the basic sexual dichotomy of the human species – indeed, the entire animal kingdom – and the institutions – think marriage – that enshrine that. So I’m church-shopping again. And I am humbly and sincerely interested in tips from anyone that I’m instinctually inclined to respect on how to select one.Your insights and recommendations are most welcome.
Which leads me to another Ordinary Times piece, this one by Jennifer Worrell, entitled “Woman, Controversial Woman.” She gets into some interesting considerations, such as why Rachel Dolezal came in for such castigating as a phony black, while trans people, no matter how much or how little physical transforming to the other gender they have done, are lauded for their authenticity. But her overall premise is well summed up by a money line in the second to last paragraph:
. . . both the act of defining woman, and the act of not defining woman are each controversial.
The comment thread under that one has exploded, and while a lot of it has gone into the weeds about trans athletes, bone density and hormones and such, a certain assumption does recur. It’s that the whole notion of a person’s trans status being core to his or her personhood is here to stay, regardless of the fact that it only appeared on the scene a few short years ago.
It’s no secret that we’re not very happy and we’re extremely polarized. Schools now routinely employ mental health counselors. (They also routinely have armed law enforcement personnel - “school resource officers” - on hand.) Divorce rates have stabilized, but that’s because the marriage rate has declined.
So here’s the exit question: What kind of right-between-the-eyes, road-to-Damascus experience would be needed to convince us that we’re starved for an unchanging bedrock?
We’ve been trying for some time to invent ourselves, and it’s caused meaning to dry up for us individually and collectively.