-Nearly a generation ago Mortimer Adler suggested that the great tragedy of the 20th century was that youth do not take any moral standing on anything, “their only principle is that there are no moral principles at all” he says, and for Adler, this is the root cause of much of the upheaval that plagues Western Culture in our day and age;
Subjectivism = we each have different morals
Relativism = truth is different based on time, place, etc.
In previous generations it was enough for newly married couples to be taught that divorce was wrong; even if the marriage was ‘bad’ by modern standards, husbands and wives would generally stick it out together till the end since they truly believed in the mantra, ’till death do us part’. This is not to suggest that people should stay in ‘bad’ marriages, but merely to point out that the principles which previous generations adhered to, are no longer principles that the new generations believe. As truth became more subjective over the 20th century, not only did we observe a steep increase in the divorce rate, we also saw a rise in differing worldviews in many social constructs. For instance, In the context of relationships, young adults began questioning the very fabric of the nuclear family. Questions such as; “why should I get married?”, “why should I only have one sexual partner?” and, “why, should I bother to get married at all” became more commonplace in our society until we arrived at our current place in history where things such as polygamy, polyamory, bisexuality, and extra-marrital sexual relationships have become more frequent and in some parts more accepted as a lifestyle.
As we see in our day and age, a great number of young adults now believe in the idea that two people can have different ‘truths’ because truth is relative. No longer does the law of non-contradiction apply in modern society; truth has been entirely relegated to personal opinion, feeling, or any number of individual experiences. In past societies, the belief in God was connected to the community; religion was a communal experience which bound the individual to an important story, a story that gave the individual’s life meaning and purpose. As religion and truth eroded into the fragmentation of subjectivism, being connected to a historical story of humanity became less important to the individual. “Where I came from” and “who were my grandparents” became less important questions than, “what do I feel in this moment” and “what will make me happy”.
All of the great religions throughout history, whether we ‘agree’ with their particular tenants or not, are based in historical stories that weave men, women, and families together in the fabric of time. For the Jew, Muslim, and Christian, “Father Abraham” is as much an important figure as their own mother and father. Being heirs to promises God made to Abraham gives a sense of destiny and meaning to the individual in the 15th, 19th, or 20th century. However, in the 21st century world, where subjectivity is the new religion, since there is no way to affirm whether Abraham was a ‘real’ person, and no way to determine whether or not the stories of Genesis are fact or fable, Abraham’s life is deemed meaningless and unimportant to one’s daily life. It is not as though previous generations ignored the issue of biblical authenticity and reliability, quite the opposite; there are 2000 years of commentaries and theological treatise which grapple with the authenticity issues. The main difference with the modern era and the previous is that past cultures were less concerned with the truths ‘around’ the biblical stories and more concerned with the truths ‘in’ the stories that are being conveyed. For instance, Jewish scholars for hundreds of years were less concerned with whether or not an actual fish swallowed up Jonah, but rather, were more concerned with the eternal truths the story of Jonah contained for the families within the community. So instead of being entirely distracted with the type of wood Noah used to build the ark, Jewish and Christian theologians were more concerned with the eternal truths surround the ark story; the problem of the human condition, Gods promises, not polluting the earth environmentally and spiritually. The bible was not written to be a science textbook to explain ‘how’ God created everything, but rather it was written to explain ‘that’ God created everything. The stories in the bible are at times narratives, and at times didactic, all meant to convey eternal truths about the human condition. The stories bound the community together in a positive manner.
Stories are a tool of sorts that humans use to weave a thread of connection between themselves. Take for instance the person who travels back to their hometown for a high school graduation. Although they may not have seen or talked with any of those old friends from school in twenty years, they are able to sit together and tell stories from their youth; because it is those stories which have become their only connection to the past. Religion is at its core, a collection of stories which creates a bond between people. This is why the bible uses the stories of Abraham, Isaac, King David, or Jesus of Nazareth as a way of expressing eternal truths. The narratives are a way to connect humans together, just as the narratives of our high school years connect us to our old classmates.
The great dilemma we now face in our post-Industrial world is, if all truth is subjective, and all morality relative; how can we be sure of anything, and how can we find a meaningful way to connect to other humans? In a religious context; if the atheist ideology is that all truth is subjective and all truth is experiential, then how can the atheist be sure ‘their’ truth is a universal truth, and not merely something they arrived at via their own subjective, albeit faulty, relativistic experience? Likewise for the Christian, how can the Christian know whether their belief has been borne of an objective framework, or whether their belief in God is merely a result of a external forces (like their parents, tragedy, or any number of instances that may have contributed to their believing in God). However, before we consider in more depth the manner in which we arrive knowing ‘real’ truth, we must first consider the reality which the young people in the modern world face; the hypocrisy of their parents and the hypocrisy of society which immediately impacts their worldview in a divisive manner.
One of the barriers that each young adult faces in Western Culture, whether they were raised in a religious home, or whether they were raised in an agnostic or atheist home, is the massive dose of hypocrisy and subjectivism that permeates the ‘truths’ they are taught by their parents, teachers, political leaders, and other community leaders.In the 1960’s young adults everywhere were asking their parents why they should go to college, to which their parents would say, “because studies show that adults with a college education will earn more income”. This materialistic answer was satisfying enough for the parents to give, most of them still bearing memories of the havoc wrought during the Great Depression of the 1930’s; earning more money was important for the post-war generation because you never knew when the bottom would fall out. However, an end goal focused on money caused great consternation within the next generation of young adults who didn’t experience what life was like waiting in line for bread. For the young adult; “earning more money” was not a fulfilling end goal of life. During the tumultuous decade of the sixties a fissure was created between the generations, and with a few minor exceptions, this fissure has yet to be bridged in the forty-plus years since the sixties. The 21st century has seen the exact same problems which came up in the 1920’s and 1960’s; a generation of youth who see no sense in pursuing wealth as an end goal, who grapple with sexual experimentation as a method of finding purpose, and who lack a single guiding moral principle other than the one Adler discusses; that there are no moral principles at all.
Further bolstering the youth movement’s frustration in the 21st century is the growing number of college educated young adults who are out of work, under-employed, and who are sinking under a mountain of student debt. For these students, even if they were to buy into their parent’s ‘money is the end goal’ philosophy, they feel cheated out entirely since they obtained the degrees they were told to pursue, and life didn’t turn out the way their teachers and parents promised.
Just as the long hair and blue jean movement of youth during the sixties metaphorically represented their rebellion against their parents empty minded philosophy of pursuing money as an end goal, so did the punk scene of the eighties, the grunge movement of the nineties and the hipster movement of the 2000’s. The further away we get from the sixties, the more we see history repeating itself over and over as the youth revolt against the materialism espoused by their parents. However, without a firm moral center as an epistemological basis we see that in their rebellion, the youth are never able to find a lasting peace, because, to put it quite simply; subjectivism never brings peace.
Subjectivism, the idea that we each have different morals, reins supreme in the thinking of young adults throughout the Western World. It is with this epistemological basis that young adults are able to say to a Muslim, “Your religion is truth for you” and to an atheist, “Your ideology is truth for you”, even though being a Muslim and being an atheist are contradictory philosophies that violate the law of non contradiction. In logic, the law of non contradiction states that two idioms which contradict each other in substance cannot both be correct; they are either both false, or at the very least one must be false. Thus, if one person is a Muslim who believes Allah literally exists, and another is an atheist who literally believes no God exists, than either they are both wrong, or one of them must be wrong, but they cannot both be correct.
Subjectivism is the mantra of young adults in the modern era because they found their parents ideology to be lacking in substance and depth. When the young adult sees the emptiness in the materialistic philosophy of their parents whose every impulse is guided by the object of earning more money, the young adult realizes that they do not want to share in their parent’s ‘truth’; what was good for the goose is not good for the gander, and in our 21st century world we see droves of young adults rebelling against the idea of working as an end goal in itself. Perhaps for the post war generations following WWII and Vietnam, working to save money was enough of an end goal, since earning more money to save was an important component in hedging against another downturn in the economy or another war that brings calamity to the nation. But the young adult of the 21st century has only ever known war. Those born in the 1980’s onward have only ever known a world in which the Middle East has been in a constant state of warfare. Those born at the end of the 20th century have only ever experienced a Western World which reports on genocide in Africa, rebellions in the Soviet Union, and religious hostility in the Middle East in every single newscast of every single Newsday.
The young adult of the 21st century has become numb to war; images of slain children in Bosnia, or raped women in Africa are commonplace on the evening News. Times of peace are something the Western World has not experienced and therefore, young adults no longer see work and vocation as a meaningful purpose in life, since ‘war is always with us’. The problems which the evening News blasts across our television screens each day are too big for anyone to comprehend or change. As Neil Postman said, television News has not only made us numb and desensitized, it has not given us a reasonable explanation as to how these graphic images relate to our everyday lives. Thus, the young adult never gives much attention to these global issues of constant war, and instead throws up their hands saying, “let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we might die”. Why think about the wars that never end? Why think about wars that the young adult is powerless to do anything about? It has mattered not what political party is in office, the wars simply keep occurring and the young adult feels a constant sense of powerlessness in the face of them; thus, eating, drinking, and being merry is much more to be preferred than living in a constant state of feeling powerless.
The Jesus of the bible lived during a time of constant war and occupation. The Roman Empire, in order to keep their economy thriving, was always waging war with a new country or territory. The Romans had invaded and conquered ancient Israel and it was during this occupation that the son of the carpenter grew up. Unlike his followers 200 years later in the 21st century, Jesus lived a life of sacrificial service unto the poor and the least of these. Instead of buying a house in the suburbs and leading weekly bible studies every other Friday night, and hosting men’s group accountability classes on Tuesdays, Jesus walked and lived among the very poor and despised of his society. His opening sermon announced his intentions as he read from the prophet Isaiah, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to comfort the brokenhearted, to bring liberty to the captives, and freedom to the prisoners”. Nowhere in his ideology do we find anything about him reaching out to the people living in the suburbs or the upper middle classes. Instead, the biblical Jesus was a revolutionary character in religious history, his sole purpose was to hang out with young adults and the poor. It is no coincidence then that young adults in the 21st century do not find the stain glass windows of the theologically astute churches all that appealing. 21st century Christianity simply doesn’t have the grittiness and realness which the son of God embodied in war torn Israel of old. The Jesus of the bible lived in such stark contrast with Christian pastors and priests of our day and age, that many young adults now question whether or not such a Jesus even existed. After all, how could Jesus have truly looked and acted as he did, yet his followers for two thousand years move in such a radically different direction with their focus on being lofty theologically persuasive preachers? Working with young adults in various capacities over the past decade, it was quickly apparent to me that my biggest hurdle was not ‘proving’ to them that Jesus of Nazareth lived and died, but rather proving to them this biblical Jesus was indeed the person that modern day priests and pastors represented. After all, looking in scripture at the biblical Jesus we see a man living in relative squalor with a bunch of poor uneducated fisherman, but looking at Jesus’s representatives in the 21st century we see men (and women) who have office hours at the church, are busy traveling to conferences, and who spend most of their week going to various types of meetings; they look more like CEO’s than like modern day Jesus followers.
Moral subjectivity occurs in its earliest form when an individual realizes they are powerless in the face of tragedy. When we see images on our television of violence, death, and destruction occurring on the other side of the globe, we are immediately aware of our total inability to do anything of substance to stop this evil. What then do we do with the information that the television has given us? Do we get on our knees and pray to a silent God, impleading upon God to stop the violence on the other side of the earth? Of course, we know that regardless of our prayers and petitions, the violence will continue; women will keep getting raped, innocent children will be slaughtered, war will rage on. The more we are aware of violence and war, the more we become aware of how small we are on this earth and how there is little to nothing we can do to change things.
Evil outrages our sense of morality, but our powerlessness in the face of evil weakens our moral center. Our first unconscious choice is to get on with our day, and not think about the evil that is occurring across the globe; since we can’t change anything, why let it affect our school day or time at work? Images and sounds of evil are thrown at us via the television and radio, but we learn to let them bounce off our exterior, we do not let the accounts of war and evil take root within us, or else we become focused on things we are powerless to change. It is in this strange dichotomy that young adults are raised; forced to view and hear the violent acts of humans around the earth, and then taught to forget them in the next instant and focus on the funny video of a kitten or puppy in the next moment. Morality has become subjective; what outrages you, may not outrage the next person. What one person believes to be true for her, may not be true for the next person. It is due to these reasons that some people express more moral outrage over a box of abandoned kittens, then they do at the slaughter of innocent babies or a religious holocaust in another nation. There is no absolute moral truth in a world where all truth and stories have been fragmented into pieces of irrelevancy; each individual must choose for themselves what matters most to them, regardless of how illogical their ideology appears.
When young adults see the lifestyles of their priests and pastors and compare them to the lifestyle of Jesus of Nazareth, moral subjectivity is entirely confirmed in their minds by the religious community. After all, if the priest and pastors live in a manner that is more akin to the scribes and Pharisees of the first century, rather than the life of Jesus, then the young adult continues on in their belief that all truth is relative, and all morality subjective. The professional minister who has made their religious life into a career, has done more harm and more to encourage the young adult in their moral subjectivity than anyone else in the Western World, since it is the priest and pastor who is claiming the ‘right’ to knowing what is absolutely true in an eternal sense.
*Stock image Gianna Trewavas