Warning: This is a very heavy article, dealing with some extremely serious problems within Western Civilization. If you are someone who often feels overwhemed when reading bad news, you might want to skip this article.
Note: This is a draft of a work-in-progress. More work needs to be done to flesh this out.
Anyone who is paying attention knows that we are facing a great many serious problems in the West, and many of these problems appear to be getting worse and possibly irresolvable.
There are several ways in which we might characterize the over-arching issues. But the most obvious at the moment is the collision of political worldviews: one called liberal and the other conservative.
Public discourse has become nearly impossible. Most attempts to discuss problem digress immediately to accusations, name-calling, character assassination, using fabricated “facts”, and telling the opposition they have no right to speak at all.
Lies have become epidemic. It is hard to believe much of anything in the media. Many of the “fact checking” websites are actually highly biased organizations with political agendas, masquerading as unbiased researches, and they are quite willing to bend reality for their purposes.
Hyperbole and other forms of mis-characterization of opposing views is now considered an appropriate form of making one’s point.
Responsible journalism is a thing of the past. Virtually all writers and speakers who have a platform also have an agenda. Many no longer even pretend to be unbiased. While there is nothing wrong with presenting a given point of view, there is everything wrong with using “news” sources for propaganda.
Discernment is in danger of becoming extinct. Logic is often deemed irrelevant.
Every response seems to only escalate the conflicts.
Power and the misuse of power rules the day. Powerlessness has become a major motivator.
Every proposed solution to a problem is hailed by others to be worse than the original issue.
What is Going On?
So we need to ask some serious questions.
Where are we as a culture? How did we get here? Where is this going to take us?
While it is tempting to reduce these problems to opposing political ideologies, I believe the real issues go far deeper. We are living in the middle of a perfect storm. This storm has four major aspects. The first three factors created a huge vacuum in our culture which is now being filled by the fourth part of the storm. Any one of the four could potentially alter our way of life significantly. Combined, their potential is to alter Western Civilization beyond recognition. I would apologize for the drama, except that I believe it is real.
Factor #1. The Collapse of Community
At the beginning of the twentieth century, roughly 90% of the U.S. population lived on farms or small rural towns. By the end of the century, over 90% of the population lived in large towns or major cities. This has never happened before in history. No one planned it or noticed what was being lost. But old stories of extended families and interdependent communities now seem odd to us, like they belong to another species entirely. And when small groups of people come together for the common good, it makes the news, because it is so unusual.
What we fail to see, however, is that successful human development is almost entirely dependent upon continuous access to a wide range of mature adults and elders around us. And with the loss of interdependent communities, we now see most adults walking around at child-level or even infant-level maturity. They may be able to hold jobs and do difficult tasks. But emotionally and relationally they are incredibly disabled. The most obvious symptoms of this collapse can be seen in the high divorce rate and in the many issues surrounding the Millennial Generation and the inability of our university students to hear both sides of an issue.
Factor #2. The Loss of Kingdom Vision in the Church
By the end of World War I, most Christian denominations abandoned any hope of transforming human nature. Efforts to foster transformation and discipleship fell off precipitously, and the gains made by the Great Awakenings were lost. Instead, the focus shifted to a great divide between fundamentalism and modernism. Fundamentalists basically gave up on the world and committed themselves to seeing how many people they could get into heaven before the planet went to hell. Once converted, a person’s job was to hold on until Jesus came back and save as many others as they could in the mean time. At the other end of the spectrum, the modernists gave up worrying about either doctrine or the after-life, and turned their energy toward caring for the poor and disenfranchised. Within a short time, their “faith” was reduced to little more than a passion to do what many secular organizations were already taking over.
The one thing they both missed was the need for individual hearts to be transformed by learning how to build an authentic, interactive relationship with God. Transformation or sanctification, if considered at all, was considered to be a secondary matter, and supposedly accomplished by trying really hard to be a good person. Building a real relationship with God was lost.
Consequently, the Christian world extinguished its own light. With little to nothing transformative to offer the world, the church was totally taken by surprise during the cultural revolution of the 1960’s when Christianity was downgraded to the status of an irrelevant tradition. And when the culture stopped propping up the church, its emptiness became apparent, and it has been in decline ever since.
Factor #3. The Death of Moral Knowledge
This is the title of a yet-to-be-published book by Dallas Willard. The basic idea here is that at the highest levels of academia, morality and spirituality are no longer considered to be areas about which we can know anything. Philosophers and educators no longer treat these arenas as subjects of knowledge. We can all hold opinions about them, but nothing can be said about the validity of any of those opinions. Any person or group (especially Christian) claiming to have knowledge of these areas is foolish and superstitious at best, and possibly dangerous.
If morality is then outside the field of knowledge, what does that mean? It means that in regard to some of the most basic life issues such as morality, justice, and goodness, we can only “feel” what is right. Abraham Maslow declared that the only way we can tell if one thing is better than another is to rely on our subjective sense of it. This is the source of the new morality, “If it feels good, do it.”
So to summarize, what we have at this point is (1) an increasingly immature culture, (2) with little to no spiritual resources, and (3) only our feelings to go on. If that does not sound like a recipe for disaster, imagine an entire culture of toddlers all throwing tantrums because they cannot have what they want, as if they have any idea what is best for any of them. This is where we are going.
Factor #4. Post-Modernism
Into this vacuum steps an entire worldview we now refer to as post-modernism. Now to be fair, there were some early efforts to critique modernism and its over-dependence on science to solve the world’s problems. And we needed to see the limits of such an optimistic, simplistic point of view. But the post-modern world has gone far beyond the way of critique and has become a deviant force in its own right. There have been entire books written about the problems inherent in this worldview, so I will not attempt to list them all. But there is one item in particular that is relevant to our discussion here, and that is Socially Constructed Reality.
Most young people today believe that reality is whatever we decide it will be as a group. If I want to know what is right or good, all I have to do is see what most of my peers think is right and good, and that will do for me as well. We do not have to think about what is right and wrong. We have already decided, based on our feelings and group-think. After that, we simply hold all other points of view in contempt, and refuse to listen to them.
Of course this has terrible implications. Most obvious, is the ease with which people like this can be manipulated by the media. Whatever idea is presented as the most socially acceptable is immediately adopted by millions, without so much as a thought about what it really means. And history is filled with horror stories of cultures having been duped with lies.
There is much more that could be said here. Socially constructed reality is itself the result of other post-modern elements such as relativism, pluralism, and various pseudo-substitutions for community. Again, many volumes have been written on these problems.
The results of this perfect storm are so far-reaching it would be difficult to list them all. Here are a few:
- Loss of ability to solve problems. Attempts to reason with a person driven by feelings are pointless. All they see is another person whose “feelings” about an issue are unacceptable. At its worst, it comes out as, “If you disagree with me, you must hate me” because you are “dissing” my feelings. This is a total failure of any grasp of reality.
- Dumbing down of education. Much has been written about this, but the causes can be found in this storm.
- Loss of connection between cause and effect. A person driven by feelings will always want what feels good, but without any danger of an unpleasant consequence. In the real world, consequences follow poor choices, even if you feel like doing that.
- Deconstruction has become a virtue. Contempt of history, of anything traditional, of 2500 years of Western thought is now lauded as “independent thinking.” Nothing needs to be offered to replace it except what we want.
- Abortion and the entire culture of deceit that has grown around it to hide everything about it, from its racist beginnings, to calling an unborn human a blob of tissue, to “every child a wanted child”, to calling it a “women’s rights issue” when it has always been a civil rights issue of the unborn. The confusion and lies around this issue are truly the archetype of how post-modernism can distort reality.
- Political violence. Nietzsche had one thing right. If you remove God from your consciousness, then all you are left with is “the will to power.”
- Relationally incapacitated culture. It is not uncommon to see a video someone took of a group standing around watching a person get bullied or even beaten, as if it were a spectator sport. No social conscience visible at all. No remorse on the part of those who were being cruel.
The university system today is the greatest educator promoting the faulty worldviews that have emerged from the perfect storm, and they are entirely supported by the Hollywood culture. These are truly formidable forces.
How Does All This Impact the Political Problem?
How does this fit with our current divide between liberals and conservatives?
I am increasingly convinced that the current liberal-conservative divide is a false dichotomy. Neither one can lead us to the corrections we need.
First, because neither one is addressing the underlying issues that created the perfect storm. As long as we deal with issues on the surface, we will continue to be frustrated, by our inability to collaborate, by the unintended consequences of our “solutions”, and by the fallout from the “losing” sides reaction to the solutions. This is true whether talking about social problems, health care alternatives, poverty, war, international problems, or whatever.
Second, the foundations of both conservatives and liberals are faulty.
Conservatives want to move more slowly, in part because the cures are often worse than the problems, and partly because the changes begin driven by the perfect storm are terrifying. They want to return to reality as it was defined under modernism, where the end did not justify the means, and it was taken for granted that ultimate truth was knowable, even if it was not known at the time. The problem, of course, is that the issues surrounding the perfect storm cannot be solved by legislation or politics. Trying to defend the status quo without acknowledging the causes of the storm is like spitting into the wind. On the other hand, any attempt to call attention to the storm is no longer “politically correct” and will be misunderstood and attacked as either patriarchal, religious intolerance, or medieval.
Liberals have another problem entirely. While most of them probably intend well, without meaning to they are actually in agreement with many of the underlying presuppositions that have brought about the perfect storm, especially post-modernism. Much of their rhetoric is driven by what “feels right” which makes serious dialogue impossible. They also tend to reject any authority higher than their own socially constructed agenda. And they hope to finish what the academy alone has not yet accomplished, which is bring about a fully post-modern society. And they intend to do that through the use of political power.
What we see then is that neither conservatives or liberals are addressing the issues that have brought about the perfect storm. They do not have the tools or the necessary worldviews to address the problem if they wanted to.
Is Anything Possible?
After such a depressing presentation, it would be difficult to imagine anything good can come of all this. The truth is that we have no way of knowing what can happen. There was a time in Israel’s history when it was going down the tubes because the people had abandoned nearly every moral and spiritual foundation for life. Then Josiah became king, and the country underwent tremendous reforms. Had they stayed with that, the exile to Babylon would have never happened. Just read Jeremiah.
The problems we face are not just social. They are spiritual. And the problem begins in the churches, not in the larger society. Unless we recover both personal transformation and relational community, we will fail as a Light and as the only hope for Western Civilization. However, if we are willing to do what it takes to pursue both, perhaps we can find a way to shine bright enough for people to notice. It has happened several times since the time of Jesus. It could happen again.
Are we too late? I don’t know. But even if we are, even if the worst happens and history turns out badly for the West, pursuing transformation and relational community is the only thing that will grow us up enough to endure what is to come.