Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Lapsing into Chaos

     German social philosopher Arnold Gehlen talked about two parts of society: the foreground and the background. The foreground is the area of life in which people willingly and freely make choices.  The background is the area in which people automatically fulfill certain societal or communal expectations.
  • When Kobe Bryant shoots, his form is background – he’s practiced that shot release ten thousand times, so he doesn’t have to figure out each time where his elbow should be.  His decision when to shoot, however, is foreground.
  • When I leave my house, I wear clothes (background), but I choose to wear Ohio State colors (foreground).
  • I buy presents at Christmas (background), but choose gifts to match the recipients (foreground).
  • At a blinking red light, I stop (background), and I choose to go when there is an appropriate break in traffic (foreground).  

Modernity moves the background to the foreground.  In other words, it takes what we accept as normative and makes it subjective. Before, people went about their daily routine without too much reflection (self-aware choice) on particular issues, as the background institutions in society brought predictability and normalized structure to their lives. Not any more.

Modernity has given the power and heightened the desire of choice.  People have increasingly rejected the power of tradition and institutions and have begun to find their own way through life.

Since modernity has brought about an increasing amount of foreground reflection, we increasingly reject the power of institutions and embrace what Gehlen called secondary institutions, which “offer entire packages of beliefs, norms, and identities to individuals.”

If this is true, it would explain the rise of radical environmentalist and animal rights movements, the increasing polarization in politics, the increased belief in the sacredness of artistic expression, and the monomaniacal fixation on sports among middle and high school families (ever spent a weekend at a travel league soccer tournament?).

All of these things have their place, of course, but not as replacement background institutions which guide and shape every area of life. Based on my past 15 years of working with youth as a pastor and teacher, I believe there are three huge background shifts effecting American culture.
1) View of Authority. 

For most of American history, people were taught a background respect for authority accompanied by a willingness to listen and learn even if the authority figure was wrong.  No one is perfect, of course.  Some parents and authority figures were bad people, and some authoritative institutions were wrong (I'm talking to you, Salem, slavery, and Nixon). But the background expectation was one of respect even if one disagreed.  

Not any more.  Attitudes and response to authority have moved to the foreground.  Today people freely choose who deserves their respect, and it shows in their language, attitude, and posts on Facebook. Perhaps we have a keener sense of justice and truth.  I doubt it. We do, however, have a keener sense of entitlement and flourishing self-esteem.

The best authority is now the self.  That's the new background.

2) View of marriage and sex.
Not so long ago, the background of sex was abstinence, then faithfulness in a marriage that lasted for life.  Once again, this did not occur in a perfect world.  Plenty of people were judgmental when a young lady got pregnant outside of marriage; many more were mean.  Too many people endured marriages that robbed them of dignity and hope. This background stability did, however, bring social stability. People made a particular set of choices within the framework of these expectation.
Obviously, this has changed. Sex of almost any kind is a right; abstinence is repression, marriage is freely chosen institution that can be freely dissolved. A bacchanalian foreground has become the new background, and with it has come a ripple effect as committed marriage relationships have been ignored, dismissed or vilified.
The best sex is now free of commitment, and the best family is expected to fail. That's the new background.
3) View of Religion.
In the early 1700's, approximately 80% of Americans attended church. There  was a background of faith, social connection, and accompanying social norms that almost all of society experienced.  Now, attendance is at about 40%. For teens, the average today is 38%.  After college, 65% of them will stop attending.  Attendance at church - and the faith that fuels it - is foreground now.
Religion and its accompanying institutions are now unnecessary. That's the new background.  

I've been catching up on a lot of teen literature and entertainment lately, and while all three elements are often present, the most consistent of these three shifts involves religion.  In looking at Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, the Graceling Realm, The Wolves of Mercy Falls,  Divergent, and the Avengers movie, I see no presence of religious rituals except in Divergent.  In fact, the only mention of God is to swear by him in The Wolves of Mercy Falls and give him a passing line in the Avengers (which also notes that earth will never bow to any god). It's not as if YA literature and film is unusual. Even some of the most popular adult shows (such as Men of A Certain Age or Lee Child's series of books starring Jack Reacher) tend to confirm the shift on all three points.
Gehlen noted at one point: "A society consisting of foreground only, with every issue a matter of individual choice, couldn’t sustain itself for any length of time; it would lapse into chaos….” I hope that he was not prescient.  I fear that he was.


  1. But there is always a background behind the foreground. And, of course, we can't see it when we are embedded in it. The collapse of aspects of the post WWII culture, which, itself, changed much from the pre WWI culture led to a cancer of anti-communism and civil repression which infected the church. That the sixties would erode religious values as well as social morays should, then, be no surprise. The church was identified with the establishment and the two stood hand in hand against change. When the church detaches itself from the prevailing culture (and gets out of politics), Jesus may again come to the foreground as more than a Deified mask on the face of the Conservative Established powers, but, rather as the face of God, then the Church might return to its grounding (background) as it had been in the early years.

    In those years it was highly diverse. But one thing all Christian brands shared in the several hundred years after Jesus life on earth was that they were not identified with political parties or ruling elites. And at that time it was the Christians who were undermining ancient assumptions, many of them of the sorts of evils that currently make the front page (remember Ruden's book on Paul?).

    I do not disagree with your pessimism about this culture's future. I do disagree with what seems like an idealization of it's past. As someone who works with seniors, I can tell you that the Church attendance you speak of was often not a reflection of a deep devotion to Christ. The marital commitments were not as often a reflection of fidelity as it seemed on the surface.

    Our civil religion is a poison that continues to flow in the veins of the established churches of all denominations. How civil religion has infected the three things you mention above is a discussion that is too long to mention at this point, but, rest assured, dissolving convention is not a threat to the sovereign rule of Christ.

    1. "One thing all Christian brands shared in the several hundred years after Jesus life on earth was that they were not identified with political parties or ruling elites. And at that time it was the Christians who were undermining ancient assumptions, many of them of the sorts of evils that currently make the front page." Well said.
      Just to clarify: I did not mean to idealize the past. People are people, no matter what the culture or time in human history. The point I was attempting to make (perhaps unclearly) was that certain background ideals bring a general stabilization to the culture. This does not mean it makes the people awesome people, but if the ideal is a good one, it provides boundaries within which universal human behaviors are either curbed (if they are bad) or encouraged (if they are good).
      Did that clarify my point, or did that just make it worse? :)