Not long ago, it would have been taken for granted that social order in our free society is a function of our capacity to restrain and govern our most intense longings. Human beings are moved by passionate desires for things like pleasure, status, wealth, and power. But these intense desires can deform our lives if we don’t subject them to some structure and moderation through marriage, schooling, work, religion, and other binding commitments. Disordered lives are a product of rushing in recklessly, so that sex or children come too soon while responsibility comes too late if at all.
But a lot of contemporary social science, like this important new report, has come to be quietly premised in a different understanding of disorder. Rather than seeing the drive to have children as a force to be channeled and domesticated by marriage, for instance, we have come to see both the desire for marriage and the desire for kids as endangered and in decline. And more broadly, the challenges to America’s social order now seem less like exorbitant human desires driving people’s lives out of control and more like an absence of energy and drive leaving people languishing and enervated. These are very different kinds of social problems that call for different sorts of responses. We can all perceive the shift from one toward the other in this century, but our cultural and political thinking has been slow to catch up.Yuval Levin, at The Dispatch, “The Changing Face of Social Disorder“
Human life is dynamic and fluid, always changing, and the challenge before the sages, intellectuals, and leaders of any age is to accurately diagnose the societal ills of a given moment and to propose and activate solutions that work.
What’s wrong with American society today? What’s wrong with the West? For that matter, what’s wrong with the world?
Yuval Levin argues that our problem is not an excess of societal energy and the failure to channel it, as it may have been in the recent past, but cultural lethargy.
And strangely enough, that lethargy yields results that are both good and bad, with the positive aspects being easiest to observe, and the drawbacks most elusive.
Teen pregnancy is down and divorce is down. Out-of-wedlock births are down. Abortion rates are down. Fewer teenagers are dying in car wrecks. But that’s because teens aren’t dating. Teens are staying home more. People aren’t connecting. Fewer teenagers are obtaining a driver’s license. Marriage and fertility rates are down, too, but that’s because marriage is delayed, and having children is delayed, and sometimes, marriage and having children is discouraged.
Levin writes, “If social dysfunction is essentially a breakdown of discipline—if the core social problem is unruliness—then American life is getting better. We should want fewer people suffering the consequences of disorder, and it’s a good thing that more people’s lives answer to their own choices and preferences.”
But that can’t be it. This definition is incomplete. Levin states, “that case is ultimately unpersuasive because the greatest virtues of a social order are not functions of its ability to restrain commotion or even to empower choice but of its capacity to enable human flourishing.”
A healthy social order doesn’t just counter what ails it. A healthy social order offers reasons for hope, worthwhile aspirations, and a vision of the good life.
The pathologies of passivity are more fundamental challenges to flourishing because they strike deeper and earlier than the dangers of unruliness. Habits and institutions of restraint can work like sculptors of the social order—selectively chipping away at our wild, boisterous pursuit of happiness to shape it into more beautiful forms of energetic human action. But what if we fail to act on our longings to begin with? What if there is nothing to restrain, and so no raw material for the sculptor to work with? The right to pursue happiness won’t do us much good if we don’t exercise it.
Levin’s article is lengthy and worth a read. In the end, his focus is on public policy prescriptions and political leadership. He concludes that rightly understanding our maladies is only a starting point, a way to grasp our moment in order to better argue about and identify productive avenues for moving forward, ways to lift us from our malaise.
Policy won’t be enough. We’ll need a story and a cause powerful enough to inspire, challenge, and invite us to rise to our moment, to work and to build.
I think the way forward will necessarily involve the religious sphere. Faith leaders will need to step forward and offer the wisdom of their traditions in the moral, intellectual, social, and ethical dimensions of life. To offer it, they’ll need to mine it, to understand it, possess it, and embody it. As a Christian leader and minister, I certainly see the role I have to play in my family, workplace, community, and local congregation.
I have a calling to teach, equip, and inspire leaders to become active, to be workers and builders, connectors and collaborators. The local church can be a powerful catalyst for transformation and change, not only in the lives of individuals, but in the broader social fabric of a community. An entire community need not be converted for a leavening effect to be felt, for an entire neighborhood, town, or city to experience uplift and positive change, all because a small group of dedicated individuals commit their lives to God, to serving and loving all people, and praying that the kingdom would come, not only for the sake of the faithful, but for the sake of the world, all to God’s glory.
It is now becoming my prayer that God would not only bring forth more workers, more dedicated Christian leaders, but specifically more pastors and preachers, people who will teach, shepherd, equip, and send the faithful into the world within the life of local congregations. We not only need pastors and preachers who will fill the pulpits in established churches, but also those who will plant new communities, who have been given evangelistic and apostolic gifts to break new ground and to gather in new believers, and to help those they serve do a new work in our time.
The previous age may have necessitated Christian leaders who would redirect disordered energies toward marriage, family formation, and the maintaining of a healthy communal life.
But the next generation of Christian leaders may need to dedicate themselves to the work of exhortation, urging us to get moving while painting a picture of what a flourishing life before God might look like. They may need to help us move toward a land of promise while walking through a wilderness, and to learn to trust God for our daily bread.