In a recent piece for Huffpost Religion, Christian Smith (professor of Sociology, Notre Dame University), suggested that the emerging generation (those in what he calls “adultolescence”) has rejected sectarian conflict over religious differences that dominated American life a few generations ago and turned to liberal whateverism.
“This outlook reacts against sectarian conflict by dramatically discounting the claims of religion. The more aggressive side of this view asserts that religion per se is pernicious and should be eliminated or radically privatized. The more accommodating side says religion is fine as a personal lifestyle commodity, but that religious inclinations are ultimately arbitrary and should not be taken too seriously.” (Smith)
In his recently published book, “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,” (along with his co-authors), Smith described the world context that allows liberal whateverism to make sense.
“Many emerging adults have few considered moral bearings, are devoted to mass consumerism, routinely become intoxicated and engage in casual sexual hook-ups, are civically and politically uninformed and alienated.”
When it comes to religious or moral opinions, this generation “opted for the more accommodating ‘whatever’ default. Anyone could take religion or leave it. It was an individual ‘opinion’ that didn’t matter much.” (Smith)
Belief in Karma?
“Most interesting was the belief of a significant minority in “karma.” This meant to them simply the idea that, in some mysterious way, good and bad people would get what they deserve in this life. Few emerging adults know anything about the religious traditions that seriously teach karma. ‘Karma’ is simply a reminder that they should try to do the right thing and a substitute for anger or revenge against bad people by believing they will soon get their comeuppance. Karma is a way to try to sustain justice in our moral universe without having to appeal to a personal God or a real judgment day.”
“As a sociologist, I view this belief in karma as socially functional and psychologically therapeutic. But I doubt it works over time.” (Smith)
A better way?
Smith raises an interesting question: “Is there not a better way for all of us to take religion more seriously without descending into sectarian conflict? That is one of the most important questions of our day.”
Authentic religious pluralism
Seeking a better way, Smith proposes rejection of both sectarian conflict and liberal whateverism. He then invites commitment to “an authentic pluralism.”
“Genuine pluralism fosters a culture that honors rather than isolates and disparages religious difference. It affirms the right of others to believe and practice their faith, not only in their private lives but also in the public square — while expecting them to allow still others to do the same. Authentic pluralism does not minimize religious differences by saying that ‘all religions are ultimately the same.’ That is false and insipid. Pluralism encourages good conversations and arguments across differences, taking them seriously precisely because they are understood to be about important truths, not merely private ‘opinions.'”
“It is possible, authentic pluralism insists, to profoundly disagree with others while at the same time respecting, honoring, and perhaps even loving them. Genuine pluralism suspects the multi-cultural regime’s too-easy blanket affirmations of “tolerance” of being patronizing and dismissive. Pluralism, however, also counts atheist Americans as deserving equal public respect, since their beliefs are based as much on a considered faith as are religious views and so should not be automatically denigrated.”
“We as a society and a culture have much to learn about ourselves from teenagers and emerging adults, both good and bad. One of those things, I believe, is the need to get beyond not only sectarian conflict but also liberal whateverism, to a more respectful and just world of authentic religious pluralism.” (Smith)
A culture of honor or law?
But is it possible (and what will it take) to have this “more respectful and just world of authentic religious pluralism”? Have we already moved too far away from a culture of honor? When people refuse to honor others and their property, the only apparent way to maintain civility seems to be the force of law and imposed forms of tolerance. Have we become a culture of law?
The virtue of honor once exerted far more influence for restraining inappropriate and disrespectful behaviors. As a valued social virtue, it was taught in the context of family, mentored through parental example, and reinforced through community expectations.
Honoring others means (among other things) treating them with a protective form of respect. It flourishes in humble hearts that place a high value on their fellow citizens. To harm another or to hurt his property is to dishonor him. Such actions devalue others. Honor shares the company of virtues like gratitude, courtesy and respect. The disappearance of these virtues is evident everywhere in the cultural life of 21st century America.
This is where things begin to break down and liberty is put at risk. Absent the virtue-forming influences of family and wider cultural expectations, social authority in the form of law and punishment must enforce honor and respect. A culture lacking a shared value of honor, leads to expansive social authority over individual conduct. A culture of law, however, is not a good substitute for one of honor. Law is more of a consequential force than a positive culture shaping reality. Obviously, human flourishing cannot exist apart from some degree of law and law enforcement, but expansive law rarely provides the best context for such flourishing.
But when everyone does what is right in his own eyes and looks out for himself at the expense of others, society suffers and law enforcement must increasingly regulate individual lives to protect civility. This cuts to the nerve of our national dilemma. The fact that America has put more of its citizens in prison than any other nation (1 out of every 100) is a (mostly unnoticed) revealing social indicator. Our prisons are carelessly overcrowded and unable to offer reform. Our judicial system is weighed down with political interests and economic pursuits. Our social programs are poorly run and our families are increasingly dysfunctional. Meanwhile our tax burdens only increase.
What is the answer?
Increased government is the default answer of most politicians. But where has this taken us? Many see t as a big part of our problem. Throwing more tax-payer money at government programs simply prolongs the agony on the way to our inevitable demise.
The American experiment has taught us that a free society is the best context for human flourishing. But freedom cannot flourish without deeper commitments to personal and civic responsibilities that promote healthy social order. We cannot afford, therefore, to be indifferent to the need for virtue-forming influences through families and Churches. Without widely shared virtues like honor, narrowly defined self-interests will threaten the common good. Liberalism without virtue and character ultimately destroys itself.
I believe that Churches must renew their roles in the lives of families and communities for the common good of society. As Churches become humble, redemptive and truth-telling communities of love, they will serve as surrogate families for redeemed people. Churches that believe the gospel are advantage because they minister holistically to humans. They see people as bodies and souls in communities connected with their Creator-Redeemer. The gospel goes beyond physical and development needs to address the ontological need of spiritual life as a gift from God (Titus 3:5-6).
As a transformed community, the Church is called to: “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10). In a pervasively dysfunctional society, regaining such a vision for the Church is not only a matter of obedience to the Lord, it may also be the best hope for our nation.
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA. 17551