Turmoil, pt. 2

Spiritual turmoil, by its nature, is messy and chaotic. When you’re in the middle of it, you may not be entirely aware of what is causing your turmoil. I’ve been trying to identify what is causing my turmoil; I can’t say that I’m entirely sure, but I have come to some preliminary conclusions. Most of all, I think I’ve been bothered by theological anthropology — by the great religious question, “What is the nature of humanity?”

It started out, I think, a couple of months ago as I grew increasingly bothered by the way we treat teenagers these days. I was teaching a group of seventh and eighth graders, and one of them observed — with a voice tinged with anguish — that adults view teenagers as sick, as insane. It’s true, I thought to myself. There’s even a book out now titled Yes Your Teenager Is Crazy — a title that reduces young people to pathology. Our society understands adolescence as a pathological state; by definition, when a young person reaches puberty, adults assume that young person is consumed by a pathology — is not quite fully human — until the end of adolescence, which comes when the young person gets a full time job and moves out of their parents’ house.

But we don’t just see teenagers as pathological. There is a pervasive lack of trust throughout our society. Here in the United States, surveillance cameras are everywhere, because no one trusts you; and we Americans are increasingly likely to feel the need to carry a handgun, because we don’t trust the police, we don’t trust the government, and we don’t trust our neighbors. Churches and other voluntary associations are facing dwindling membership because we find it harder to be with other people, and to trust other people to make decisions with us.

And I think this lack of trust is tied to two other things. First, we are more likely to think of other persons as bundles of information that can be manipulated, just as information in a computer is manipulated. We are told that we are little more than biological computers — wetware — responding to the world based on our internal programming. Honor, duty, respect — these are not virtues, we are told, rather these are subroutines in our overall programming.

Second, we are more likely to view ourselves and other persons as cogs in an economic machine. We no longer live in a market economy, as Michael Sandel has pointed out, we live in a market society. Everything we do involves a commercial transaction or contract; everything and everyone can be bought and sold.

What is the nature of humanity? Well, to begin with, young people are pathologically crazy, at least until they get a full-time job. Then they become adults who are programmable biological computers. And what is the end of human existence? — to buy and to sell, trusting no one.

This is as far as I’ve gotten in analyzing what’s causing my spiritual turmoil. There is more to it than this. I know I am bothered by the way Unitarian Universalists mostly are not engaging in serious and careful theological reflection about the nature of humanity; two of the dominant theological positions within Unitarian Universalism, old-school religious humanism and angry liberal Christianity, spend their energy in facile and shallow arguments about the existence of “God,” and cede the realm of theological anthropology to pop psychology or consumer capitalism. I know I am increasingly drawn back to existentialism; I’ve been reading Dante’s Purgatorio for the first time; I’ve been reconsidering many of my assumptions about education. But that’s as far as I’ve gotten — mostly, it’s still just turmoil.

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