Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Emergent Adulthood" and the Orders of Creation.

I saw this interesting David Brooks piece in the NYT:

It's a good piece. Brooks' main point is that when people give college students graduations speeches they communicate the wrong message: "The sky is the limit" "be yourself" "express yourself." All of this is what Brooks refers to as "Boomer theology." It presupposes what Charles Taylor (the Roman Catholic Canadian philosopher- not the African dictator!) the "punctuated self." In this vision, the "self" wills spontaneously. We are the authors of our own desires (somehow). The self is unlimited.

In large part, notes Brooks, this is counter-productive. We find meaning precisely by limiting ourselves, by suppressing our desires, etc. For example, being a research scientist means limiting yourself to years of slaving in labs, not doing what you want, having to work under others you might not like, etc.. Nevertheless, you learn valuable skill, and you forge you identity by your work.

What Brooks is hitting on here is something that Lutheran theology has always claimed in the doctrine of the orders of creation. In this vision, the self is a determined and limited self. God has situated it within the orders of creation. Hence we lose ourselves and let us say, become less "real" when we withdraw from those orders. This what happened with the entry of sin. Sin was the attractive suggestions that we could withdraw from the situated-ness of creation and become divine and unlimited.

This is precisely the problem in our society and it is presently manifesting itself in a phenomenon known as "emergent adulthood." Since Gen-Yers believe that the self is more real when it is less encumbered by the orders of creation, the less likely they are to settle down into them. In other words, this scheme is the opposite of historic Lutheran ethics. It claims that the more our decisions are limited and more ensconced in our creaturely situated-ness the less real we are. This means later and later marriage or no marriage at all- statistics are bearing this out! It also means being 30 and still not really being certain about what you want to do for a living.

Of course, in my view this is the Boomer generation's chickens coming home to roust. The "me-generation" simply gave rise to a generation even less responsible then themselves (if that was possible!). The unlimited self has not done American society well. In the political system we are up to our necks in debt because our both left-wing and right-wing messianic projects. There is no sense that the government and the nation are limited in what they can accomplish or that we should be responsible with our resources. A 4th of the housing market is under water because people thought they could buy our house than they could afford.

Perhaps at this point, Americans will begin to see the advantages in the vision of the limited self. But I doubt it.


  1. I think it's important to remind young people that not many of them will fulfill their "dreams," most of which are self-indulgent fantasies, to be frank. However, if they could understand that "success" in this world is not primarily a function of money, influence, numbers of friends, or even the number of whales saved from evil whalers then they could understand that their life's success is defined instead by living a life of love through Christ. I say this not to suggest that people should not aspire to love many people through a life of wide influence (or whatever) but to help them realize that the world's definition of success is self-aggrandizing even when it purports to encourage helping others.

    Ultimately, of course, the example of Christ and the countless saints who followed Him helps us understand our lives much more than Disney movies and wealthy/influential people suggesting that to be successful means to be like they are.

  2. Would it not be proper to given attribution to the venerable Master Erasmus of Rotterdam for the origin of this "chicken soup" theology?