As we wrap up this series on Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, I’ll have to say that I think he makes a pretty convincing case that sorting has happened. One of the questions I have is whether or not this sorting indicates a significant cultural shift or whether it is part of some cyclical process that we will cycle out of.
If you are familiar with the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, then you know that they see a recurring cycle of four cultural “seasons” replaying themselves over about an eighty year period. (See The Fourth Turning) First comes the High when there is great unity and conformity. Second comes the Awakening where people begin to shake off what has become a stale reality and explore their inner world. Third comes the Unraveling where people become more and more individually focused, institutions and traditions crumble, and rancor over competing visions escalates. Fourth comes the Crisis that climaxes in some great secular event like a war or economic collapse that (usually) brings people together and results in a High. Strauss and Howe would say the most recent High was 1946-1964 (post WW II), Awakening was 1964-1984, and Unraveling was 1984-2001(?). We are presently in a Crisis era that will continue into the next decade.
Bishop’s notion of bi-partisanship from 1948-1965, followed by a period of growing partisanship, dovetails perfectly with Strauss and Howe’s schema. I don’t know whether there is four cycle pattern but I do think there is a tendency for an emerging cultural pattern to spawn its antithesis. The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that there is, “A time to tear down and a time to build up,” so I suspect some of what we are witnessing is the natural ebb and flow of generational shifts.
That said, I think there is something unique happening as well. Over the past century or so, we’ve been witnessing the emergence of one post-materialist society after another; post-materialism being the circumstance where the great majority of the population has moved beyond the quest for basic material needs. These societies tend to exhibit similar patterns of decaying social institutions, hyper-individualism, and fertility rates well below replacement rate. There frequently seems to be cultural malaise and a quest for spirituality.
Conservative responses to post-materialism often blame government and various political forces for not conserving, if not intentionally destroying, social institutions and traditions. The answer is less government and more personal freedom. Liberal responses tend to appeal to a need for joint efforts (i.e., government action) to resolve problems, especially equitable distribution of society’s goods and amenities so individuals are free to become all they can be. The answer is more “joint action” so people can live with more freedom.
When we need food, shelter, and clothing for ourselves and our loved ones, we have a mission in life. Material need causes us to focus. But what about when are material needs are meet? What is the meaning of our possessions, our work, our very lives? Christian ethics and theology has been forged over two thousand years in societies where material survival has been the all consuming task of most people in society. Post-materialism presents a challenge and a spiritual crisis. Conservatives blaming big government for destroying institutions won’t answer these questions and neither will idealistic crusades against poverty or for the environment. In short, I do believe there is something more than a purely cyclical effect.
On the topic of consensus, one thing the book doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge is that bi-partisanship frequently doesn’t create the rosiest of worlds either. Let’s remember that the period of 1948-1965 was a time of tremendous peer pressure and conformity. Men and women were locked into artificial roles. Minorities were locked out of society’s major institutions and made invisible in the face of the great consensus. It was also this era of great consensus that gave us the likes of Joseph McCarthy and the persecution of the nonconformists. Dissent is needed to correct excesses. Consensus for consensus sake can be every bit as dangerous as partisanship.
Finally, I thought about the role the church plays in all of this as I read the book. I was particularly interested in the three elements Gordon Allport mentioned that needed to be present for opposing groups to constructively engage each other (see previous post):
Mutual regard as equals.
One the defining marks of the New Testament was that everyone was considered family – brothers and sisters with God as the father. Much to the concern of the Roman authorities, this resulted in slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and man and woman, all worshiping together.
Regular pursuit of shared goal.
Greg Ogden did a study of the Greek word koinonia in the New Testament. We usually translate this as “fellowship.“ Ogden learned that the New Testament never talks about fellowship or community for its own sake. Rather, in every instance, koinonia is something that comes from participation together toward a common end.
The early Christians had their problems but one of their most compelling testimonies to the Roman Empire was the way the loved and cared for one another.
The church has embedded in its very DNA the means to heal division and heal strife. It has done it in times past. The question is whether or not it can come to terms with the post-materialism it has become captive to and rediscover what it’s mission is.