It’s hard to wrap our minds around how diametrically opposed Americans are politically and culturally. It often feels quite literally like we are living in different realities from each other, perceiving events so distinctly that it’s as if we’re on separate worlds. And this phenomenon isn’t limited to the U.S. – most Western democracies are experiencing similar situations among their citizens. Just what is going on?
As with any complex issue, there isn’t going to be a single answer, but I think there’s a way of understanding what’s happening that can help us all navigate these confusing times. I suspect we are living in the midst of the largest Western cultural revolution since the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago. Whereas that period was engulfed in turmoil over defining the nature of the Church and how each of us understands how we are to interact with it and God, the present controversy revolves around what it means to be human.
It’s difficult to recognize when one is living in the midst of a massive cultural change, let alone to pinpoint what the root variables are – typically that sort of work is done by historians in hindsight decades after events have happened. If my insight here regarding a crisis of human identity is close to accurate, I hope it can help guide us in understanding each other and communicating more effectively.
There is a lot of context to spell out to lay the groundwork for comprehending where we are and where we’re going as a culture. First, I should specify what I mean by “Western culture” – basically, it’s the various cultures in the world that owe the majority of their heritage to European civilization, so it would include the people in continental Europe as well as the nations that were formed around the world by – and continue to consist primarily of – European-descended peoples (i.e., the U.S., Canada, Australia).
The second thing to note is that, because Europe owes much of its formation to the political and cultural influence of the former Roman Empire, and because for hundreds of years before it fell Rome had been heavily influenced by Christianity, likewise the largest influence on Western culture’s philosophy, anthropology, and theology has been the Christian religion. The foundations of the West’s thought regarding God, what it means to be human, and how to go about thinking in general has been dominated by Christian influence.
The third thing is that for many hundreds of years, Western culture has seen the gradual rise in primacy of thought and power move from a locus of groups of people / tradition to individuals. What I mean is that from the dawn of human history until, roughly speaking, the last 300 – 400 years, the dominant authority for people has always resided in groups: at first tribes, later towns and small cities, eventually to religious and political regimes. We accepted and submitted to the authority of others for most of our history with very little exceptions – the idea of “thinking for yourself” or “being your own person” was alien until very recently.
But, starting perhaps with the rise of wealth and worldwide trade during the Renaissance, individual people outside of the ruling class began more frequently growing wealthy and becoming introduced to different cultures and modes of thought, and education through the rise of the first universities became an option for more people. This period fermented for a couple hundred years until it resulted in the Reformation, a drastic departure in the Christian world in which the absolute authority of the Church was questioned (and which used the rhetoric and justification of a nascent individualism – i.e., the need for all to be able to read the Bible for themselves) and eventually resulted in schism. Lastly, a couple hundred years after that saw the rise of the philosophical movement called the Enlightenment, in which reason and individualism became even larger points of emphasis.
That’s the incredibly short version of pertinent events as a background for understanding our present situation. The trajectory of this history is pretty clear when you look at it as a whole (with notable exceptions along the way – I’m thinking particularly of the group-think that often dominates us in the guise of individualism, or the rise of totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union in which the concept of the individual was virtually destroyed in service to the State). For hundreds of years, Western culture has continued to ascribe increasing powers of authority and freedom to individuals. It’s only natural that continuing in this direction has resulted in a culture that now empowers the individual to define for his or herself who they are as humans by sexuality, gender and telos.
That is one side of the Western culture in which we live, the side resulting from the stream of individualist thought flowing from the Renaissance to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to today. But there is another side in the West, and that is the traditional side – the one that represents the more ancient way of being human, of looking to the authority of others and holding a higher opinion of religious and cultural tradition. Whichever side you and I fall in, I suggest, ultimately is going to be determined by how we view authority in determining what is true and real.
The question of whether God is real is fundamental to understanding what it means to be human. It stands to reason that if there is a God who created us, that God may have done so with a purpose in mind. If that is true, then contrary to individualism, you and I aren’t in charge of determining who we are: God is (huge caveat, though – any attempt to understand whatever God might desire for humanity is, by necessity, interpreted by people, so our biases, prejudices and limited experiences will unfortunately color our perceptions no matter what we do, so humility is direly requisite).
That’s a really big deal, because the kind of individualism Western culture has come to believe in assumes one of two things: either God doesn’t care about what we do and who we are, or God doesn’t exist. Because if God is real and does care, then we have no grounds for acting as gods in defining who we are. So, really, what we believe about God ought to likewise determine what we believe about ourselves, if we are being consistent.
The tension therefore exists between one stream of the West that is following individualism to its natural ends and one that isn’t. Broadly speaking, that represents “liberals” and “conservatives,” when in any other point in history, to be a liberal or conservative didn’t carry so much existential weight.
In sum, those who typically align with conservatives are concerned that liberals are playing God with some really important and defining questions of human identity, while those who typically align with liberals are concerned that conservatives are only interested in denying people what they perceive to be their rights to choose who and what they want to be. From this foundational source flows many different streams that are full of nuance and a billion complicating factors, making our situation far more confusing and intricate than a simple “black and white” or “good and evil” dichotomy.
Let’s reframe our situation not as an academic analysis but in the mode in which we more commonly understand life: as stories. Because what is ultimately going on is the competition between two kinds of stories that are telling us in very different ways what it means to be human. One story claims to be the tale that’s always been told: that some kind of divine being created us with a purpose in mind, and it’s by trying to be what we were made to be that we understand what our identity is (and, as with other issues in human history [notably slavery], there is potentially room for our understanding to be reframed and broadened to encompass a way of viewing things not previously considered). The other story implicitly accepts that either there are no divine beings that created us or, if there is, we were created not to look to the being(s) for purpose but instead to make our purpose ourselves: that we are in essence in complete control and have the freedom and power to understand who we are in whatever ways we want to.
I think the best solution to our cultural crisis is simply one of education: of clearly understanding exactly what this post has set out to explain, that what is in reality going on causing our divisions is this competition between two metanarratives regarding our human identity. If we understand this is motivating much of our conflict, I think it will help us empathize better with one another and better grasp why the stakes feel so high for both supposed sides. Because when you feel like your entire way of living is under attack or threat, you are going to respond aggressively, which is what we see happening all around us.
One of the principal problems revolving around this is that both sides seek to delegitimize and destroy the other rather than learn to accept each other and coexist. Continuing to use the broad stereotypical labels of conservative and liberal to illustrate the point, conservative desperation to cancel the liberal view point is so extreme that it resulted in the embrace of the most undemocratic and unfit president in modern history in Donald Trump because he was viewed as a strong man who would protect the cause; i.e., desperate times call for desperate measures in the minds of many conservatives. Liberals, though, regularly try to cancel the conservative view point by blocking it in cultural venues and painting it as backward, regressive, bigoted, discriminatory, and phobic, often aggressively acting to delegitimize and obliterate its existence. Liberals fear the bigotry, hatred, and discrimination that has indeed tragically and horribly happened in our history at the hands of what was labeled as “traditional” society during the Civil War, Jim Crow, Suffrage and Civil Rights Eras, as well as in contemporary times with struggles regarding differing sexualities and understandings of gender. Conservatives likewise fear bigotry, hatred, and discrimination liberals have been demonstrating through cancel culture and attempts to eradicate a traditional point of view from our broader cultural landscape, as well as fearing the alteration of the culture conservatives have known and had the privilege to dominate for decades and decades, the temptation of children toward the more liberal way of viewing humanity, and possibly the judgment of God on our society (though I’ve written about that red herring before – see my post “Competing Christian visions of America“).
But if we clearly articulate where we are all coming from, peaceful coexistence is possible – there is a way for the non-discriminatory versions of both the liberal and conservative views of humanity to both have space to exist, where both views aren’t seeking to destroy the other but instead accept one another and work to live together. While both viewpoints may not be ultimately true, both do reflect legitimate philosophical progressions and do make sense: if God is real and has a purpose for us, it makes sense as conservatives believe that trying to act out God’s purposes is what it really means to be human; on the other hand, if either there is no God or if God has empowered us to have final say on our identity, it makes sense that the traditional ways we’ve had of understanding our sexuality and our genders don’t truly have any real hold on us other than what we choose to give them. In this way, we can see that what we are currently experiencing is really just another variation of a clash between different religious views like humanity has been experiencing throughout history. The difference is that, this time, we ought to be equipped to recognize the reality of our situation while there is still time to act, and we ought to be able to extend love, grace and space to those with whom we disagree.