Is ours a declining age? Have the days of great deeds and great virtues, of legends and villains passed us by? I don’t go in for those so sort of dramatics. It’s best to eye those sweeping gestures of historical condemnation with the same suspicion as we would the grand, triumphal celebrations of the “now”. Unbridled doomsday pessimism is the other side of the coin of chronological snobbery that Lewis warns of.1 One version of the disease (the overly optimistic) sees our current epoch as the key moment in history, the great turning point, the unprecedented era whose shadow dwarfs and disposes of the utility of the scores of centuries we stand upon.
The pessimist version of chronological snobbery makes the same error, but in the opposite direction. That vision believes our time is a time of unprecedented evil, dissolution, and civilizational ruin. We are, their prophets would tell us, on the brink of lapsing into a barbarism unknown and undreamt of by our most degenerate and ruthless forebearers. People in this camp believe the apocalypse is always right around the corner, in fact, it’s probably already started. There have always been people who get a twisted excitement about prophesying the end times, and always will be. It gives you a borrowed sense of significance from being born in a pivotal time. But people who speak along either one of these lines (stunning, transcendent progress, or climactic destruction) simply make it clear that they have no knowledge of history, whether on purpose or by accident.
So I will not pretend that the problems of our time, place, and culture are unparalleled, and thus should raise our fear to new heights. Our problem is a soil of apathy. Every person in America is now born into this soil, and plants his roots in it. By apathy I do not mean an emotionless shrug at everything that happens, but rather the lack of willpower to act in any sustained and meaningful way to bring about change. Certainly there are exceptions, but they are exceptions. Apathy is nothing new in history, but perhaps our circumstances, the composition of the soil comes from different ingredients.
There are four primary factors I want to examine, which contribute to and fertilize our soil of apathy which is so hard for current generations to rise above. They are: a spirit of censure and criticism, affluence, anxiety, and a distrust of metanarratives and heroics.
1) A spirit of censure and criticism
Maybe social media’s to blame. Maybe it’s because Twitter rewards the pithy put-down, not so much the sympathetic, balanced, respectful dialogue. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that while media is replete with censure, it takes a dedicated miner to dig out a grubby nugget of approval or commendation. To some extent, we shouldn’t marvel at this phenomenon. Media, and even conversations, have a much easier time exciting interest through sensationalism, gossip, and tragedy. How could you conceive of courting someone’s attention with a news story featuring faithful family support, when there’s the twisted, smoking wreck of a car accident down the street?
But we don’t merely confine our scope of criticism to daily mishaps and celebrity intrigue. The spirit of criticism infects the air we breathe. Every person, no matter their position, is one word, one quote, one college photograph away from being canceled, and finding themselves the subject of righteous indignation and outrage. Whereas we used to speak of the deceased with a level of respectful restraint, our zeal for unmasking faults today has brought low every one of our historical personages under the burden of their blindness to our retrospective light.
My point is not to debate the bounds and balance of historical criticism, but rather to illustrate the extent of this harsh spirit of censure, and its practical implications. Consider two examples. Both Winston Churchill and Mohandas Gandhi have fallen under recent condemnation for their racism and political failings.2 What do you suppose a hypothetical, fifteen-year-old Rory, slouching his way toward college, will make of this? If Churchill and Gandhi are demonized, what sort of life will Rory pursue? Will he strive to summit the pinnacles of human altruism? Will he devote himself to great, ambitious, brave, and daring acts of self-sacrifice, leadership, and innovation? Or will he keep his head down, his eyes on his Facebook feed, and occasionally like or criticize other posts depending on how many others have done so already? How can you not become apathetic, and drift towards safe, selfish nonengagement when all the bodies of history are unceremoniously shoveled into a bottomless pit of moral failure? We’ve moved into a landscape where there is no good to be seen, there is only the ability to discern fainter and fainter shades of evil.
That is not to say we should permit evil to parade without comment. Criticism has its place. Jesus denounced evil, and did so in glaring, offensive, and extreme terms. And yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy of criticizing an atmosphere of criticism. The truth is it’s much harder to build up. Those who lead have always needed be willing to brave the barrage of detractors. But we’ve got to offer positive models as well, the best of whom are still mixed bags. And these models should come not only from the ranks of those who have risen to fame on YouTube in the past three months, and who will vanish just as quickly.
James equates speaking ill of a brother to sitting in judgment on the law. (Js 4:11-12) What he’s saying is that when we condemn others, we are picking and choosing which parts of the law matter. We judge people on matters of God’s law where we don’t struggle, and let ourselves off the hook on those other places we fall short. That’s judging the law. That’s saying one part is more important or central to life than others. God judges differently. God tells us that if we’ve broken the law at even one place, then we’re guilty of the whole thing. We need to see other people the way God sees us, as those who, without exception, are dependent on God’s grace offered on the cross.
1C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966) ch. 13 pp.207-8