A Solid Footing in Subjectivity

Posted: May 10, 2010 in A Solid Footing in Subjectivity, Category - Declaration, Category - Natural Law

Natural Law: The Hope for Solid Footing in a Sea of Subjectivity

James Tonkowich
E-mail
Print

tonkowichIn his new book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults,Christian Smith writes:

“[W]hen we interviewers tried to get respondents to talk about whether what they take to be substantive moral beliefs reflect some objective or universal quality or standard [or] are simply relative human inventions, many—if not most—could not understand what we interviewers were trying to get at.”

That is, not only are they moral relativists, they can’t conceive of a moral system that does not depend entirely on individual judgments. The implications of this level of subjectivism for American religion and the American republic are significant and disturbing since this makes meaningful consensus nearly impossible. At the same time, Smith’s research provides critical insights to equip us to bring about change.

“Respondents came from a wide variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds yet common traits quickly emerged particularly their extreme subjective individualism.”

In researching the book, Smith, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, and his team conducted thousands of surveys and hundreds of one-on-one interviews with “emerging adults,” ages eighteen to twenty-four.

Respondents came from a wide variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds yet common traits quickly emerged particularly their extreme subjective individualism. Smith notes that most emerging adults find it “hard to see an objective reality beyond the self.”

Almost every other discovery Smith and his colleagues made about the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults follows from that starting point.

  • When asked for the basis of his religious and moral beliefs, one respondent, expressing a common theme, said, “Myself—it really comes down to that. I mean how could there be authority to what you believe?” If nothing is objectively true and you pick and choose what “works for you” from the religious and moral smorgasbord.
  • “In the middle of explaining that for religious reasons she does not believe in cohabitation before marriage, a young evangelical woman, who is devoted to gospel missionary work overseas, interrupted herself with this observation, ‘I don’t know. I think everyone is different so I don’t think [cohabitation before marriage] would work for me, but it could work for someone else.’”
  • “The majority of those interviewed stated… that nobody has any natural or general responsibility or obligation to help other people…. Taking care of other people in need is an individual choice….. Nobody can blame people who won’t help others. They are innocent of any guilt, respondents said, if they ignore other people in need.”
“While there is something to be said for consistency, healthy political engagement requires a commitment to a coherent set of ideas and values coupled with a conviction that those ideas are true”

While there is something to be said for consistency, healthy political engagement requires a commitment to a coherent set of ideas and values coupled with a conviction that those ideas are true. If emerging adults lack basic convictions about right and wrong, good and bad, virtue and vice, they are ill equipped to engage in public discourse regardless of their age.

In addition, while a healthy republic thrives on a politically engaged citizenry, most emerging adults have no interest in politics at all. As Christian Smith told Mars Hill Audio’s Ken Myers:

Most of them—almost all of them actually were politically completely disengaged. And so when the media talks about how many were mobilized by the Obama campaign and so on, I think it’s fundamentally off base.

The good news in all this is that many emerging adults are unhappy about their lack of convictions. Smith writes:

Many know there must be something more, and they want it. Many are uncomfortable with their inability to make truth statements and moral claims without killing them with the death of a thousand qualifications. But they do not know what to do about that, given the crisis of truth and values that has destabilized their culture.

At this point of discomfort the lever of the natural law must be applied in order to break the logjam of subjectivity and indecision, to stabilize their culture, and to draw them into the public square.

While emerging adults have been thoroughly indoctrinated in postmodernism, multiculturalism, and moral relativism, there are truths about life they cannot avoid. And if they cannot see these truths on their own, there is a moral obligation to help them.

J. Budziszewski, University of Texas at Austin professor of government and philosophy, writes:

What the Christian natural law tradition teaches us is that [all people], in fragmentary fashion, already know—whether or not they know that they know it, whether or not they think that they know it, and even if they would rather not know it. Viewed that way, the art of cultural apologetics is less a matter of laying foundations than of digging up and repairing them, less a matter of talking people into truths they do not yet know than of dredging up what they do know but have not acknowledged.

There are things that, as Budziszewski puts it, “we can’t not know,” self-evident truths about life, morality, and relationships by which even skeptics live most of the time despite their protestations to the contrary.

As UCLA philosopher Dallas Willard has noted, talk about “my truth and your truth” is rarely heard in conversations with employers over salary and benefits. You either paid me the agreed upon salary or you didn’t and the law of non-contradiction—the most basic self-evident truth—makes itself clear.

No one grants unlimited freedom of expression and choice to airline pilots, brain surgeons, or auto mechanics. We expect them to know objective truth and morality and to perform based on those truths.

And I suspect that nearly every moral relativist believes that if his or her mother, father, spouse, or best friend was in need, he or she would have some kind of obligation to help. The relativist’s “as long as you don’t hurt others” is an objective starting point for an education in what we instinctively know about morality regardless of whether we want to admit it.

“Politicians, teachers, ministers, and parents bear a primary responsibility for communicating these truths.”

Politicians, teachers, ministers, and parents bear a primary responsibility for communicating these truths. Timid advice to the young about “believing and doing whatever you feel is best” is the last resort for those whose own skepticism has led them to believe that their experience in life has taught them nothing. Surely we know better than that.

Leading a renewal in principled thinking, political engagement, and public spiritedness must begin here, pointing out the simple, obvious, and permanent truths that everyone already knows, but have been obscured and covered over by extreme individualism and skepticism.

Smith’s research offers us a clear snapshot of emerging adults and the hope that the picture can change. Emerging adults’ intense subjectivism, lack of coherent thinking about the good, and constant self-focus can be changed one small self-evident truth at a time forming a new consensus about truth and morality for the health of religion and the American republic.

Dr. James Tonkowich is a Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and a Scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy. More of his writing can be found at JimTonkowich.com.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s