In the aftermath of the recent national elections, trying to make sense of the American scene today is, well, downright scary. The fact we have one party so willing to risk constitutional crisis rather than work cooperatively on solutions to common problems strikes at the very heart of democracy. And that’s before we get to the divisions revealed geographically, demographically, and economically.
Several of the phrases floating around the campaigns continue to ring in my ears. Describing one party, we have an “echo chamber” of “misfits,” which begins to look far larger than would be healthy for any society. And for the other party, the race came down to a “technocrat” versus “activist,” in itself suggesting a division between an appeal to the brain versus the heart.
Much of this situation, I’ll contend, springs from a lingering state of denial involving the encounters of those of us who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s. Coming across a summary of William Clark Roof’s 1993 A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, I had to sit up and take notice when he noted that a low level of community involvement accompanied our search for personal meaning. It’s something that’s certainly happened across American society over recent decades, although I’d say increasing demands on our careers and suburban family lifestyles have taken their toll, too.
As Douglas Gwyn comments in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience:
Roof’s study confirms many impressions of baby boomers in the ’60s, but adds a new perspective. Many tried drugs, were sexually active, and went to rock concerts and political protests. But many did not. Half of those surveyed say they did not try drugs; a third never attended a rock concert; and 80% were not politically active in that period. On the whole, Roof finds boomers to be nearly evenly divided between traditionalist and countercultural affinities.
A conventional view might look at this split along the lines of the Vietnam war issue, with the traditionalists joining the military and the hippie side in full opposition. But Roof’s criteria turn the angle: more than a few servicemen experimented with pot and other drugs in ‘Nam, along with free love, and moved easily into hippie circles on their return. Meanwhile, I sense more than a few hippies never did drugs, out-of-wedlock sex, or political protests. For them, maybe it was all about the music?
As Gwyn continues his reflections on Roof’s study, he prophetically notes:
But in subsequent decades, with a tightening of the American economy, the assumption of abundance often turned from utopian to belligerent, as Americans vented their frustration over lowered or failed expectations. Given their expanded subjective and expressive registers, boomers are already more likely to consider themselves wounded by defects in their religious upbringing. When religious institutions or leaders fail their expectations today, boomers are all the more likely to feel cheated, wounded, or even victimized.
It’s not just religion, let’s be honest. This cuts across the entire society.
Gwyn makes one other argument that lingers, one that involves the kind of association each seeker is drawn to. One is process driven, and the ways we can become captive to the mechanics of a particular system. (He names capitalist democracy as an example.) Here, the procedures outweigh results. I love his observation, “If civility is too strongly identified with democratic processes, then true seeking and conversation to one’s neighbor will tend to be subverted. Caucus politics or the contest of interests may usurp the conversation.”
The alternative, goal driven identity, can override the process altogether, in which the ends justify any means of getting there.
The vital tension Gwyn encourages “requires a disciplined and sustained dialogue between seriously considered and passionately held positions,” a “drama of faith, which is played out upon a level civic stage of public concern.”
Quite simply, where is that dialogue today? And where is the open exchange in questioning and refining the factual essence of the positions? An “echo chamber,” on either side, simply cannot do the job.
More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.