Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Non-Judgmentalism and Its Discontents

In the course of the last decade, Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team of researchers conducted a study of 18-23 year old young adults in the United States, including in-depth interviews with some 230 of these “emerging adults.” One result is Smith’s well written – and rather challenging (to the adult world) – new book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford University Press, 2011).
The concept of “emerging adulthood” refers to a completely new stage in the life cycle in late 20th-century America. The book identifies six “macrosocial changes” in particular that have combined to produce this: growth in higher education, delay in the age of marriage, economic developments which have undermined previous patterns of stable, lifelong careers, increased parental financial and other support for their children well into their 20s, the widespread availability and use of birth control, and the widespread influence of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories resulting in “a simple-minded ideology presupposing the cultural construction of everything, individualistic subjectivism, soft ontological antirealism, and absolute moral relativism.”
The result is what the authors call the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. They look at five problematic areas of young adult life: “Morality Adrift,” “Captive to Consumerism,” Intoxication’s ‘Fake Feeling of Happiness’,” “the Shadow Side of Sexual Liberation,” and “Civic and Political Disengagement.”
The first chapter, “Morality Adrift,” really tells the essential story (amplified in the remaining chapters by specifics about the four specific dysfunctions related to consumerism, intoxication, sex, and civic disengagement. It will hardly surprise anyone who has observed the moral evolution of American society in recent decades that emerging adults overwhelming embrace a highly individualistic approach to morality, understood as essentially a matter of individual opinion and personal choice, precluding any moral judgments of others’ behavior. Even those with somewhat serious views about the moral wrongness of others’ actions tend to believe they should keep such views to themselves. Not all are total moral relativists, of course, but what emerges is the widespread weakness of moral reasoning about moral decision-making and what constitutes a morally coherent life, rooted presumably in poor moral education. Many simply “do not have a good handle on what makes something a moral issue or what the specifically moral dimensions of such situations are.” The blame for this, the authors argue, resides in the adult world, where those responsible for socializing today’s youth have failed to teach them.
The pernicious consequences of our non-judgmentalist culture’s de facto elimination of moral reasoning are everywhere in evidence – not least in emerging adults’ relationship with our consumer society (of which the particular problems related to alcohol, drugs, and sex may be, in effect, special examples). The authors conclude “that many emerging adult lives are complex, fraught with difficulty, and often beset with big problems, serious confusions, and misplaced values and devotions.” Besides “a lack of elementary reasoning abilities for sorting out basic moral questions,” some of the problems stem from “sexual involvements that do not turn out they way emerging adults had been led to expect” – an implicit reference, possibly, to the ideology that underlies so much modern sex-education. Other problems have to do with “the significant role of intoxication,” a role related to “stress, anxiety, boredom, and temporary relief,” and to emerging adults’ detachment from community life and politics, reflecting their “despair about the prospects for change and a grim outlook for the future.” The authors see “extremely shallow notions of what a good life could be, in which mass consumerism and material possessions define an extremely limited horizon of vision.” American individualism has successfully liberated emerging adults “from the formative influences and obligations of town, church, extended family, and conventional morality,” in the process exposing them “to the more powerful influences and manipulations of mass consumer capitalism.”
Inasmuch as the contemporary phenomenon of emerging adulthood is all about postponing the real adult world of obligations and accountability, some of this might not seem so surprising. Still the authors warn against the easy temptation to dismiss some of this as merely youthful behavior, as if the social situation of emerging adults today were the same as that of your people in the past – even the relatively recent baby-boomer past.
The authors conclude that “our own adult world is itself also failing in those same ways” and that what we adults are teaching our youth “too often fails to convey what any good society needs to pass on to its children.”
It seems to me to be an obvious follow-up question how churches and other religious institutions, in particular, have been complicit in this. The authors stress the desirability of emerging adults having “relational ties to mature adults outside of their age group,” in contrast to the widespread disconnect emerging adults experience from more mature adults. They specifically suggest that religious communities can play a part here. Indeed, many emerging adults were engaged in religious communities earlier in life; but, whereas many religious congregations devote significant resources to children and teens, they “seem to passively accept that their ties to youth will be lost after the high school years.” The plea for deep engagement with emerging adults on the part of churches is certainly well taken, despite the obvious difficulties and however much it may challenge business as usual.
I wonder, however, how well equipped religious communities and congregations actually are to do this - without in the process taking emerging adult culture as the frame of reference in the hope of keeping (or even just getting) emerging adults’ attention? It is one thing to recognize the historical novelty and perhaps even uniqueness of emerging adulthood. It's quite another thing - itself a fallacy in moral reasoning - to infer that the truth of what constitutes a good life has fundamentally changed. How well equipped are contemporary religious communities and congregations to offer a viable alternative to moral relativism, consumerism, and individualism – even at the risk of being perceived as challenging? How captive may many religious communities and congregations themselves appear to be to non-judgmentalist individualism? And may that have been all too much of what today’s emerging adults may themselves have picked up from their fleeting childhood experience of religion?

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