how did we get here?

On a recent Sunday morning I was missing church both physically and existentially. Rather than worship, I was sitting in a poorly lit, underground hotel conference room listening to a plenary session at the annual meeting of one of the major regional accrediting bodies for higher education in the United States. It was titillating, as I’m sure you can imagine. The speaker this morning was an expert in “positive psychology.” Specifically, she was sharing with us her research on how we could all be happier at work. Apparently someone at the Higher Learning Commission believed that academic officers at institutions of higher education weren’t already a group bubbling over with joy. I found it mildly amusing to receive a pep talk on happiness at a conference generally designed to inspire anything but happiness. Some of her findings were obvious but still good. (Being friendly with your coworkers actually contributes to your happiness at work!) It was her final point, however, that captured my attention away from scrolling aimlessly on my phone. It’s possible that in that moment I was just missing being in church, but something of what she said sounded vaguely sermonic. Addressing her congregation of weary academics, she told us happiness required that we live out our purpose, “whatever that purpose might be.” Happiness, she continued, consisted in living out your values, “whatever they might be.” There was a “thank you.” Followed by applause. Find your purpose. Find your values. Do your best to live them out. Be happy. To most people in the room, there was probably nothing remotely controversial or even interesting about that advice. It just kind of makes sense in the same way that being friendly to colleagues contributes to happiness at work.

But I couldn’t help but wonder, how did we get here? How did we get to the point where the notion that “finding your own purpose and values is the path to happiness” has become conventional wisdom? I don’t want to be unfair. If given the choice between “living out your values” and “not living out your values,” it just makes sense that we would choose the former. But does it matter what values you choose to live out? Are all purposes created equal? I assume the answer is “no,” but how do we decide? Shouldn’t that also be a function of a higher education?

I’ve been going to this conference for several years in my role at Ozark, and it is routine to hear academic officers talk about their plans and processes for creating “upright global citizens.” You can scarcely call yourself a college or university today without articulating such an institutional goal. The problem is that no one can seem to agree what it actually means to be an “upright global citizen.” There is ongoing chatter about upright values like critical thinking, diversity, and lifelong learning, but there is something missing at the center of all our institutional outcomes, goals, and assessments. There appears to be this unspoken agreement that we can’t really talk about what is really real and really upright and really virtuous. Instead, we get bland, platitudinous talk about encouraging students (and faculty and staff) to find their own path and walk in it.

Trends in higher education merely reflect trends in the wider culture.  I’m taking it as a given that all people everywhere find themselves on this quest to have a meaningful and good life. To paraphrase Pascal and our plenary speaker that morning, we all pursue happiness. There are no exceptions. Every step that we take is in this direction. The critical question is what constitutes “happiness?” What is the good life? What is the meaningful life? It has become conventional wisdom that the only trustworthy way to find answers to these critical questions is by looking within. So again, I find myself asking the question, “How did we get here?”

I believe that we have gotten here in six steps or movements.

  1. The Self in Transcendence – The Self in Transcendence derives a sense of identity and meaning from that which is beyond the self. The Self in Transcendence is a bit like a puzzle piece. The individual puzzle piece only really makes sense as it fits into the larger picture. The piece has significance and importance – each piece plays its part – but the piece is not bigger than the whole picture. Similarly, the self in transcendence doesn’t create her own meaning. She certainly doesn’t choose her values and then live them out. Instead, she understands what is good in light of the Good. She understands what is true in light of the Truth. She understands her purpose in the context of a greater purpose that exists for all things. She understands her place in the context of a greater community. In short, the Self in Transcendence is not primarily focused on the self at all. The Self in Transcendence is far from secular. The Self in Transcendence lives in a still enchanted world full of the presence of God. God is not an afterthought. He is the first thought and the only ultimate source of identity and meaning. There is nothing awkward or alien-feeling about this.
  2. The Institutional Self – The Self in Transcendence needs institutions to mediate meaning, to connect her to transcendence. So the Institutional Self is deeply invested and submitted to cultural institutions like churches, local civic organizations, businesses, and schools. The most important cultural institution for mediating meaning is the family. The Institutional Self sees participation and membership not as a burden but as an honor and privilege because she is shaped by those very institutions. She looks to them – trusts them – to provide a sense of identity and purpose. The good life is the institutional life. There is a reason why the school you graduate from is called your alma mater. There was a time when students looked to institutions – particularly institutions of higher education – to be their “fostering mother.” This is the spirit of the Institutional Self.
  3. The Performative Self – Unfortunately, many institutions did not live up to their original purpose. Rather than existing to give individuals a place to connect to something greater than themselves many institutions decided it was in their best interest to engage in “customer service.” Many churches reoriented their ministries around meeting the immediate needs of people rather than calling people to God. A sense of entitlement came to replace submission and service. Gone are the days of “membership.” That’s institutional talk. Now we’re just happy if they show up. Schools exchanged transcendence for a “customer is always right” approach to education. Local communities and businesses within those communities have eroded or disappeared altogether under the pressures of changing demographics and market trends. Civic pride has been replaced with neighborhoods full of individuals each pursuing the good life quite unaware that they even live in a neighborhood. Even the traditional institution of the family has never been weaker in our society.  All of this has led to the birth of the Performative Self. The Performative Self sees institutions not as transformative sources of meaning but as mere platforms for her own personal brand. I’ve written about this previously. An institution exists to provide the Performative Self a platform for personal advancement. Once that advancement is achieved, the institution is no longer necessary. The Performative Self may be more likely to ground her identity in her Instagram following than she is in her church, her school, or even her family.
  4. The “Free” Self – Eventually, institutions become more of a burden than a blessing. The better course for the good life is to be free. The only way to really find meaning is to be unencumbered by anything or anyone external to the self. Philosopher Charles Taylor talked about what he called the “immanent frame” that has come to characterize our secular world. Essentially what he meant is that secular man now lives in a disenchanted world. Transcendence has been lopped off. Belief in God, belief in the supernatural, and belief in higher ideals, values, and purposes now seem nearly impossible, alien, or maybe even evil in a secular world. Even religious people find it difficult to talk and think about such things. In the immanent frame, all we are left with is the individual, free in the world to discover her own way and her own meaning. What is ironic is that the Free Self is a bit like living in a locked house. The only materials available to you for constructing the good life must be found within the house. It is the Free Self that traditional institutions like churches, universities, and even governments are now trying to make sense of. How is it possible for a church to disciple a person to whom the concept of submission is abusive or bigoted? How it is possible to educate a student in “citizenship” when no one can define what the word even means?  How is it possible to govern a collective of individuals without ties binding them to much of anything beyond themselves?
  5. The Buffeted Self – Taylor identified a “malaise of immanence” to describe the anxieties produced by secularism. Alan Noble quotes him in his book Disruptive Witness, “A crucial feature of the malaise of immanence is the sense that all these answers are fragile, or uncertain; that a moment may come, where we no longer feel that our chosen path is compelling, or cannot justify it to ourselves or others. There is a fragility of meaning.” Secularism is a breeding ground for anxiety. Being set adrift on an open sea is not exhilarating. It is terrifying. Taylor says that this fragility of meaning creates the “buffered self.” Our individual identity and meaning is buffered, protected behind a wall of choice and freedom. Among other things, the buffered self leaves us more and more isolated, shallow, and defensive. I don’t think that the buffered self tells the whole story however. Noble continues, “[I]n individualism, the image of the individual is either chosen, discovered, or created through an inward process. The terminus of the search for identity is always inside the individual, although it may be influenced by external sources.” That last phrase is important. The buffered self is really the Buffeted Self. No individual is really a free thinker. No individual ever creates values and purposes on their own. Absent the guiding influence of institutions, the Free Self finds himself adrift and constantly buffeted with the waves of powerful voices of influence within our culture. Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and Washington D.C. are creating a cacophony of distracting noises attempting to shape the way that individuals think and act. Think of the 21st Century as the new gold rush. Individuals are now free agents creating their own identity and purpose separate from traditional institutions. There are billions to be made in this era of identity formation, and the technocrat harvesting your personal data online is the new prospector panning for gold.
  6. The Tribal Self – The final movement is to the Tribal Self. The Free Self is set adrift. The Buffeted Self is battered by barrage of competing and contradictory messages. The Tribal Self is an attempt to reclaim the security of an institution. Think of it like multiple life rafts joining together. The new tribalism is different from institutionalism in several key ways. The new tribes are not based on the bonds of shared geography or even shared history. Some of the new tribes turn accidents of birth like race and gender into new monolithic institutions. Others of the new tribes turn shared affinities and trivialities into new institutions. Literally anything from your love for Civil War reenactment to your stubborn belief in a flat earth is eligible to become a new tribe. The Internet, particularly social media, has provided the meeting space for these new institutions. Institutions are no longer present in brick and mortar. They are virtual. These new tribes offer some security in numbers, but no freedom from the anxiety of immanence. A group adrift in an endless ocean is not substantially less anxious than an individual adrift. The connection to transcendence has been severed and merely uniting with others who have severed that connection will not heal the rift. Tribes have their own buffered identity. This is why tribalism has resulted in more hostility, feuding, and insecurity not less. Tribes will do what tribes will do. They will war with each other not for the sake of reconciliation but for the purpose of dominance. When no transcendent meaning is to be found, power and dominance serve as eager substitutes.

I suppose the only way to close this too long post on “how did we get here” is to comment on how we might find our way back. That is another discussion altogether, and at this point I’m not sure that I have an answer. What would it even look like to find our way back? Sometimes you can’t find your way back home because home has ceased to exist. I suppose like most things meaningful change has to start with me, my family, and my immediate sphere of influence. The question that I’m forced to ask myself and those closest to me is to what extent have we succumbed to this loss of transcendence. What are the habits of the mind, body, and soul that might help us find our way back? There have been many books written on this question. (Pretty much all of them are footnotes on Charles Taylor.) I recommend you check out Alan Noble’s book on this question. He thoughtfully offers some extremely helpful and practical guidance.

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