The beauty of a democratic society was on display the last two weeks as we contemplated ideas promoted by Billy Graham in contrast to the actions of Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old Florida school shooter. At the core of the differences between men like Billy Graham and Nikolas Cruz are the ideas and emotions that guide them.
Obviously, no person or institution, including the therapist, the school system, the police department, the FBI, the NSA, the Florida Department of Children and Families, nor any of the other students who knew him could intercept the bitterness brewing in Nikolas. I think a good youth pastor would have had the best opportunity to help shape his thoughts and ideas, and the text I quote below explains why I believe this. It also may explain why good youth pastors are often thwarted and frowned upon by therapists, schools, and social workers. Interestingly, good youth pastors typically contribute to making kids good kids. Granted, some will find that concept confusing.
While so many were screaming their solutions to our current societal problems, I went on vacation and read a good book, 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson. My good friend, Randy Welsch, had recommended it to me while we were watching the Super Bowl with our wives. Peterson’s book describes the chaos that is being created in our society because we seem determined to remove social norms that create order and then are confused by the resulting chaos. It’s an excellent read.
The foreward was written by Dr. Norman Doidge. (I was familiar with him because I read his book, The Brain that Changes Itself, which I used as a resource for a class I taught on renewing the mind at St. James Church.) Reading Doidge’s foreword to Peterson’s book gave me a new perspective on the differing ideas that impacted Billy Graham’s generation and Nikolas Cruz’s. I also think it explains why the influence of a good youth pastor has been left out of our national debate—influence that might help constrain and redirect people like Nikolas Cruz. Here I quote extensively from Doidge’s foreword. I underlined certain portions for emphasis.
Dr. Doidge wrote,
“The hunger among many younger people for rules, or at least guidelines, is greater today for good reason. In the West at least, millennials are living through a unique historical situation. They are, I believe, the first generation to have been so thoroughly taught two seemingly contradictory ideas about morality, simultaneously – at their schools, colleges and universities, by many in my own generation. This contradiction has left them at times disoriented and uncertain, without guidance and, more tragically, deprived of riches they don’t even know exist.
“The first idea or teaching is that morality is relative, at best a personal “value judgment.” Relative means that there is no absolute right or wrong in anything; instead, morality and the rules associated with it are just a matter of personal opinion or happenstance, “relative to” or “related to “ a particular framework, such as one’s ethnicity, one’s upbringing, or the culture or historical monument one is born into. It’s nothing but an accident of birth. According to this argument (now a creed), history teaches that religions, tribes, nations and ethnic groups tend to disagree about fundamental maters, and always have. Today, the postmodernist left makes the additional claim that one group’s morality is nothing but its attempt to exercise power over another group. So, the decent thing to do – once it becomes apparent how arbitrary your, and your society’s, “moral values” are—is to show tolerance for people who think differently, and who come from different (diverse) backgrounds. That emphasis on tolerance is so paramount that for many people one of the worst character flaws a person can have is to be “judgmental.” And since we don’t know right from wrong, or what is good, just about the most inappropriate thing an adult can do is give a young person advice about how to live.
“And so a generation has been raised untutored in what was once called, aptly, “practical wisdom,” which guided previous generations. Millennials, often told they have received the finest education available anywhere, have actually suffered a form of serious intellectual and moral neglect. The relativists of my generation and Jordan’s [the author of the book], many of whom became their professors, chose to devalue thousands of years of human knowledge about how to acquire virtue, dismissing it as passé, “not relevant” or even “oppressive.” They were so successful at it that the very word “virtue” sounds out of date, and someone using it appears anachronistically moralistic and self-righteous.
“The study of virtue is not quite the same as the study of morals (right and wrong, good and evil). Aristotle defined the virtues simply as the ways of behaving that are most conducive to happiness in life. Vice was defined as the ways of behaving least conducive to happiness. He observed that the virtues always aim for balance and avoid the extremes of the vices. Aristotle studied the virtues and the vices in his Nicomachean Ethics. It was a book based on experience and observation, not conjecture, about the kind of happiness that was possible for human beings. Cultivating judgment about the difference between virtue and vice is the beginning of wisdom, something that can never be out of date.
“By contrast, our modern relativism begins by asserting that making judgments about how to live is impossible, because there is no real good, and no true virtue (as those too are relative). Thus relativism’s closest approximation to “virtue” is “tolerance.” Only tolerance will provide social cohesion between different groups, and save us from harming each other. On Facebook and other forms of social media, therefore, you signal your so-called virtue, telling everyone how tolerant, open and compassionate you are, and wait for likes to accumulate. (Leave aside that telling people you’re virtuous isn’t a virtue, it’s self-promotion. Virtue signaling is not virtue. Virtue signaling is, quite possibly, our commonest vice.)
“Intolerance of other’s views (no matter how ignorant or incoherent they may be) is not simply wrong; in a world where there is no right or wrong, it is worse: it is a sign you are embarrassingly unsophisticated or, possibly, dangerous.
“But it turns out that many people cannot tolerate the vacuum – the chaos – which is inherent in life, but made worse by this moral relativism; they cannot live without a moral compass, without an ideal at which to aim their lives. (For relativists, ideals are values too, and like all values, they are merely “relative” and hardly worth sacrificing for.) So, right alongside relativism, we find the spread of nihilism and despair, and also the opposite of moral relativism; the blind certainty offered by ideologies that claim to have an answer for everything.
“And so we arrive at the second teaching that millennials have been bombarded with. They sign up for a humanities course, to study greatest books ever written. But they’re not assigned the books; instead they are given ideological attacks on them, based on some appalling simplification. Where the relativist is filled with uncertainty, the ideologue is the very opposite. He or she is hyper-judgmental and censorious, always knows what’s wrong about others, and what to do about it. Sometimes it seems the only people willing to give advice in a relativistic society are those with the least to offer.
“Modern moral relativism has many sources. As we in the West learned more history, we understood that different epochs had different moral codes. As we travelled the seas and explored the globe, we learned of far-flung tribes on different continents whose different moral codes made sense relative to, or within the framework of, their societies. Science played a role, too, by attacking the religious view of the world, and thus undermining the religious grounds for ethics and rules. Materialist social science implied that we could divide the world into facts (which all could observe, and were objective and “real”) and values (which were subjective and personal). Then we could first agree on the facts, and, maybe, one day, develop a scientific code of ethics (which has yet to arrive). Moreover, by implying that values had a lesser reality than facts, science contributed in yet another way to moral relativism, for it treated “value” as secondary. (But the idea that we can easily separate facts and values was and remains naïve; to some extent, one’s values determine what one will pay attention to, and what will count as a fact.)
“The idea that different societies had different rules and morals was known to the ancient world too, and it is interesting to compare its response to this realization with the modern response (relativism, nihilism and ideology). When the ancient Greeks sailed to India and elsewhere, they too discovered that rules, morals and customs differed from place to place, and saw that the explanation for what was right and wrong was often rooted in some ancestral authority. The Greek response was not despair, but a new invention: philosophy.
“Socrates, reacting to the uncertainty bred by awareness of these conflicting moral codes, decided that instead of becoming a nihilist, a relativist or an ideologue, he would devote his life to the search for wisdom that could reason about these differences, i.e., he helped invent philosophy. He spent his life asking perplexing, foundational questions, such as “What is virtue?” and “How can one live the good life?” and “What is justice?” and he looked at different approaches, asking which seemed most coherent and most in accord with human nature. These are the kinds of questions that I believe animate this book.
“For the ancients, the discovery that different people have different ideas about how, practically, to live, did not paralyze them; it deepened their understanding of humanity and led to some of the most satisfying conversations human being have ever had, about how life might be lived.
“Likewise, Aristotle. Instead of despairing about these differences in moral codes, Aristotle argued that though specific rules, laws and customs differed from place to place, what does not differ is that in all places human beings, by their nature, have a proclivity to make rules, laws and customs. To put this in modern terms, it seems that all human beings are, by some kind of biological endowment, so ineradicably concerned with morality that we create a structure of laws and rules wherever we are. The idea that human life can be free of moral concerns is a fantasy.
“We are rule generators. And given that we are moral animals, what must be the effect of our simplistic modern relativism upon us? It means we are hobbling ourselves by pretending to be something we are not. It is a mask, but a strange one, for it mostly deceives the one who wears it. Scccccratccch the most clever postmodern-relativist professor’s Mercedes with a key, and you will see how fast the mask of relativism (with its pretense that there can be neither right nor wrong) and the cloak of radical tolerance come off.
“Because we do not yet have an ethics based on modern science, Jordan is not trying to develop his rules by wiping the slate clean – by dismissing thousands of years of wisdom as mere superstition and ignoring our greatest moral achievements. Far better to integrate the best of what we are now learning with the books human beings saw it to preserve over millennia, and with the stories that have survived, against all odds, time’s tendency to obliterate.
“He is doing what reasonable guides have always done: he makes no claim that human wisdom begins with himself, but, rather, turns first to his own guides. And although the topics in this book are serious, Jordan often has great fun addressing them with a light touch, as the chapter heading convey. He makes no claim to be exhaustive, and sometimes the chapters consist of wide-ranging discussions of our psychology as he understand it.
“So why not call this book of “guidelines,” a far more relaxed, user-friendly and less rigid sounding term than “rules”?
“Because these really are rules. And the foremost rule is that you must take responsibility for your own life. Period.
“One might think that a generation that has heard endlessly, from their more ideological teachers, about the rights, rights, rights that belong to them, would object to being told that they would do better to focus instead on taking responsibility. Yet this generation, many of whom were raised in small families by hyper-protective parents, on soft-surface playgrounds, and then taught in universities with “safe spaces” where they don’t have to hear things they don’t want to – schooled to be risk-averse – has among it, now, millions who feel stultified by this underestimation of their potential resilience and who have embraced Jordan’s message that each individual has ultimate responsibility to bear; that if one wants to life a full life, one first sets one’s own house in order; and only then can one sensibly aim to take on bigger responsibilities.”
To me, Doidge’s foreword to Peterson’s book, as well as the book itself, thoughtfully explains some of what has gone awry in our society, as well as the perpetual rage in so many of our students. It also helps all of us understand the philosophy behind the political conflict between those who promote personal responsibility versus those who don’t. In addition, it explains the philosophical foundation in our schools that results in a disregard for youth pastors, who are probably the most undervalued workers in America who train young men and women to be productive citizens and contribute positively to the lives of others. Instead, most youth pastors are underpaid, neglected, and not part of the conversation when kids shoot kids in government schools.
Every Christian student (and Christian, for that matter) would be well served to understand these ideas, so they will understand why they are mocked, threatened, and enticed to conform.
It does make sense.