The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, “Lost in Transition,” you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.
When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.
“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.
The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”
Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”
Many were quick to talk about their moral feelings but hesitant to link these feelings to any broader thinking about a shared moral framework or obligation. As one put it, “I mean, I guess what makes something right is how I feel about it. But different people feel different ways, so I couldn’t speak on behalf of anyone else as to what’s right and wrong.”
Smith and company found an atmosphere of extreme moral individualism — of relativism and nonjudgmentalism. Again, this doesn’t mean that America’s young people are immoral. Far from it. But, Smith and company emphasize, they have not been given the resources — by schools, institutions and families — to cultivate their moral intuitions, to think more broadly about moral obligations, to check behaviors that may be degrading. In this way, the study says more about adult America than youthful America.
Add to the problem of "extreme moral individualism" the reality that more Americans are tailoring religion to fit their needs, and the Church faces daunting challenges when it comes to the work of evangelism. For even when done in ways that avoid fire-and-brimstone guilt trips, proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ at least implicitly suggests that our moral individualism is not enough. We need authentic community. We need shared practices that move us beyond ourselves to serve a world in need. We need Someone beyond ourselves to whom we are called to be in accountable relationship. We need transformation.
I think many people sense how deeply they need this. How can the Church help them articulate that need? And how can we invite them into a place where God's grace can touch them in those places that need forgiveness, healing, direction, and purpose? Those aren't easy questions to answer when the culture makes it seem obvious that evading the call to embrace life-changing moral demands in favor of private judgment is the pathway to true fulfillment.
In his book In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in An Age of Diminished Christianity, R. R. Reno speaks to this problem by offering a descriptive and pejorative critique of the cultural landscape dominated by moral individualism and the spiritual-but-not-religious mindset. He writes:
We live in an age in which the narrow way of discipleship is a scandal. We decry dogmatic conformity and claim to celebrate diversity. We covet novelty and make a cult of creativity. We have readily at hand any number of evasions of the narrow way. We imagine that we must distance ourselves from the apostolic tradition in order to be "open to the Holy Spirit." We beat away the claim of psalm and canticle by pretending that these inherited forms of prayer are not God's praise given to us but are expressions of the religious imaginations of pious ancients. We raise a smokescreen of ambiguity by claiming that a properly "incarnational theology" is open to God in all things and therefore we should not limit ourselves to things that are labeled "Christian." These slogans and many more are as easy as they are ubiquitous.
We articulate the same evasions in our moral lives. ... And in an age of "sensitive moral judgment" we mix and match Christian teachings with our moral intuitions. We want to pirouette across the stage of world history, retaining our worldly roles while genuflecting to the altar. We hide behind shibboleths about the "Anglican way" of Scripture, tradition, and reason as if those who preceded us in the faith were engaged in a great balancing act.
The challenge of moral individualism's evasion of shared practices, beliefs, and commitments is hardly found outside the Church alone. The flight from authority and truth that make claims on our lives and loyalties is very much inside the Church as well. To one degree or another, we all participate. And so we who are ecclesial insiders do well to resist temptations to look down our noses at the unchurched and the partly churched as though we are immune to making moral choices and taking theological positions largely on the basis of individual preference. Even when we rightly grasp the problems and challenges, we are not nearly as counter-cultural as we may like to believe. And so our efforts to faithfully proclaim the Gospel in word and example should be chastened by the humble awareness that we, too, need the forgiveness, grace, and guidance that only Jesus Christ can give.