On Tuesday David Brooks had an excellent op-ed piece in the New York Times. I wanted to share it here for us to ponder, especially concerning what Mr. Brooks leaves out of his otherwise penetrating observations about the current state of our society.
He opens the article by reviewing the findings of a new book which surveys the differences children face when raised by college-educated verses high-school-educated parents. He highlights some statistics, but the more interesting notes are the case-studies he relays from the book. They read, tragically, like many of the situations we encounter here in our work as pastors at Calvary. I’ve heard these stories so many times before. In addition, I know many people in the nursing and social work fields who daily work with situations very much like those Brooks shares. Often when I encounter stories like these, I reflect on what it seems to indicate to me–the disintegration of the very fabric of our society. It is hard not to escape the feeling that we are witnessing real societal breakdown, at the personal level. And Brooks seems to agree with this assessment:
The first response to these stats and to these profiles should be intense sympathy. We now have multiple generations of people caught in recurring feedback loops of economic stress and family breakdown, often leading to something approaching an anarchy of the intimate life.
That sentence I italicized perfectly describes the tragedies so many people live with right now: anarchy of the intimate life. Brooks then goes on to make helpful extrapolations from these personal stories to a more societal level:
But it’s increasingly clear that sympathy is not enough. It’s not only money and better policy that are missing in these circles; it’s norms. The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.
Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.
Next it will require holding people responsible. People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?
Next it will require holding everybody responsible. America is obviously not a country in which the less educated are behaving irresponsibly and the more educated are beacons of virtue. America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.
People sometimes wonder why I’ve taken this column in a spiritual and moral direction of late. It’s in part because we won’t have social repair unless we are more morally articulate, unless we have clearer definitions of how we should be behaving at all levels.
History is full of examples of moral revival, when social chaos was reversed, when behavior was tightened and norms reasserted. It happened in England in the 1830s and in the U.S. amid economic stress in the 1930s. It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t.
Every parent loves his or her children. Everybody struggles. But we need ideals and standards to guide the way.
I don’t know about you, but I find his analysis spot-on. After so many years of hearing that things like values, ideals and morals don’t exist in any real way–and by this I mean on a level larger than individual preference, in a way that we can apply them to all different people, even those who disagree–it’s refreshing to hear some voices starting to say the opposite. As Christians we can applaud this heightened consciousness both of the true plight of our people and of the nature of a solution.
Every time I read something like this I feel an example spring to mind. It’s like we’ve lived in a world where we’ve denied the existence of medicine for several generations. We’ve said it’s offensive and oppressive, and we should acknowledge that everyone has different ideas of “health” and we shouldn’t impose our standards on them. These things are all a matter of opinion, and no one can say what’s poison for one and medicine for another. Then, in the midst of an out-of-control health crisis, with sickness and disease ravaging every sector of society, we start to have columns written saying, “It’s time we believed in health. People used to believe in health. We need to increase public health. We need more accountability. People need to be held to higher standards of health. We need to teach health in the schools. People–be more healthy!”
What’s the obvious thing missing? We’ve removed the very thing we need for health. Until we admit it back in the equation, we’re going to keep talking and never see change.
It’s just incredible to read Brook’s column and see what he’s calling for but watch him avoid stating the obvious. These “minimally agreed upon standards,” where are they to come from? How can we deny absolute truth and find standards that apply absolutely? This “moral vocabulary” we used to have–did it come from the Christian Bible? Where else might we turn for such a vocabulary? These standards and norms and ideals–if they’re not based on the Scriptures, as they used to be, on what could we possibly base them? Karma? Natural selection? Sharia law? Those “moral revivals” he speaks of–did they have anything to do with mass acceptance of the gospel we Christians preach?
This column is so right, and so incomplete, that it’s screaming out for the obvious–only King Jesus can bring this law, this authority, and this accountability to any people. Only trusting him unleashes the power of love into a society such that fathers start taking care of their children, businessmen start keeping their contracts, and people start using their time and money to build each other up instead of tearing society down. Only our God can fix broken things.
And so I ask Mr. Brooks–please finish your column. Please state one thing we all need.