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Home/Rod Dreher/Generation Greta: Too Afraid To Live

Generation Greta: Too Afraid To Live

Generation Greta

The Lancet recently released a study involving ten countries around the world, of young people’s (aged 16 to 25) stance towards the future in light of climate change. It was pretty distressing. For example, 39 percent say that they are not sure about having children. Huge numbers — almost half of young Americans surveyed — agree with the statement “humanity is doomed.”

Ben Sixsmith, writing on his excellent Substack (this entry is for subscribers only, but you should become one), says that some degree of existential pessimism is inevitable:

Once mankind developed the capacity for self-destruction, the sense that our luck could not endure forever was baked into our consciousness. How can our tools grow more powerful, and more accessible, without being misused? “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall,” said Anton Chekov as a rule for writing, “In the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” The same logic of grim inevitability leads many of us to wonder about our final page.

I remember the winter day — probably it was 1979, when I was twelve — when I was sitting in my father’s Bronco, driving across a wet field on our way back from a morning of deer hunting. I had worked out somehow that it would take a Soviet nuclear-armed missile 19 minutes to reach us from its launch pad. We were always 19 minutes away at any moment from certain doom. I told that to my father, whose answer was something like, “Don’t worry about it.” I knew instantly that he had no answer for me, because there was no reassuring response. It was such an electric moment because it was the first time I knew that there were some things in the world outside of the control of grown-ups.

My father told me years later that he had been in the US Coast Guard during the Cuban missile crisis, and that his crew had been prepared by their commanders for nuclear war. They really did think this was going to happen. Can you imagine what that felt like? Well, I can to some extent, because I spent the early 1980s very scared about a nuclear holocaust. But my dad and his crew really did think it was going to happen right then. What a gift it has been to those born after the end of the Cold War, that they could grow up without this fear. Of course a nuclear war could still happen. Russia still has its weapons, as do we … and as does China, and a handful of other nations. But the palpable fear disappeared with the Cold War.

This is to say, in part, that this kind of existential doom felt by the young today feels familiar. One difference, though, is that there was no certitude that a nuclear war would happen. As more and more data come in, the certitude grows that the climate is shifting in ways that will make life on this planet more difficult. On the other hand, a nuclear war is all but unsurvivable (and those who did survive would envy the dead). We have the capacity to use our intelligence to adapt to whatever climate change throws at us. It’s not going to be easy or pleasant, but life can go on, if we want it to. What is interesting to me is the seeming unwillingness of so many young people (in the survey) to fight for the continuation of life.

Think about it: my father’s generation was born into a catastrophic economic crisis, the Great Depression. What brought that crisis to an end was a terrible war, World War II. What brought that war to an end was the use of the atomic bomb. Four years later, the Soviets had the bomb too, and my father graduated high school and entered a world in which the possibility of nuclear annihilation was a fact of life.

And yet he, like everyone else of his generation, carried on. The Baby Boom was underway. People had lots of children, despite it all. Nuclear apocalypse is a much worse thing than climate change, and yet people back then had hope, and expressed that hope in the willingness to create the next generation.

What has happened to us? What have we lost that the people of my father’s generation, and older generations, had, that gave them resilience?

People of my father’s generation were the last ones to be formed by the Before Times — that is, by the remnants of a Christian culture. The Sixties marked what Philip Rieff called the “triumph of the therapeutic” — a mode of being that had arisen in the early 20th century, but which conquered the culture in the Sixties. In 1966, Rieff published his great book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, which was absolutely prophetic. Here are two relevant excerpts; emphases are mine:

I, too, aspire to see clearly, like a rifleman, with one eye shut; I, too, aspire to think without assent. This is the ultimate violence to which the modern intellectual is committed. Since things have become as they are, I, too, share the modern desire not to be deceived. The culture to which I was first habituated grows progressively different in its symbolic nature and in its human product; that double difference and how ordained augments our ambivalence as professional mourners. There seems little likelihood of a great rebirth of the old corporate ideals. The “proletariat” was the most recent notable corporate identity, the latest failed god. By this time men may have gone too far, beyond the old deception of good and evil, to specialize at last, wittingly, in techniques that are to be called, in the present volume, “therapeutic,” with nothing at stake beyond a manipulatable sense of well-being. This is the unreligion of the age, and its master science. What the ignorant have always felt, the knowing now know, after millennial distractions by stratagems that did not heighten the more immediate pleasures. The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized, now not in the West only but, more slowly, in the non-West. The Orient and Africa are thus being acculturated in a dynamism that has already grown substantial enough to torment its progenitors with nightmares of revenge for having so unsettled the world. It is a terrible error to see the West as conservative and the East as revolutionary. We are the true revolutionaries. The East is swiftly learning to act as we do, which is anti-conservative in a way non-Western peoples have only recently begun fully to realize for themselves.

And:

As cultures change, so do the modal types of personality that are their bearers. The kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called “spiritual”—because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet a culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood—with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg. Spiritualizers of religion (and precisians of science) failed to take into account the degree of intimacy with which this comprehensive interior understanding was cognate with historic institutions, binding even the ignorants of a culture to a great chain of meaning. These institutions are responsible for conveying the social conditions of their acceptance by men thus saved from destructive illusions of uniqueness and separateness. Having broken the outward forms, so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order.
Undeceived, as they think, about the sources of all morally binding address, the psychologizers, now fully established as the pacesetters of cultural change, propose to help men avoid doing further damage to themselves by preventing live deceptions from succeeding the dead ones. But, in order to save themselves from falling apart with their culture, men must engender another, different and yet powerful enough in its reorganization of experience to make themselves capable again of controlling the infinite variety of panic and emptiness to which they are disposed. It is to control their dis-ease as individuals that men have always acted culturally, in good faith. Books and parading, prayers and the sciences, music and piety toward parents: these are a few of the many instruments by which a culture may produce the saving larger self, for the control of panic and the filling up of emptiness. Superior to and encompassing the different modes in which it appears, a culture must communicate ideals, setting as internalities those distinctions between right actions and wrong that unite men and permit them the fundamental pleasure of agreement. Culture is another name for a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied.
Rieff is not an easy writer to read. What he’s saying here, and what he says in his book, is that we of the modern West are a truly revolutionary culture. We have arrived at the conclusion that there are no higher ideals to organize ourselves around, so the only thing left for us to do is pursue the well being of the Self. This is what he means by a “therapeutic” culture: one whose purpose is to help humankind cope with anxiety. Rieff said that religious man is born to be saved, but psychological man is born to be pleased. This is us. And now, with our young people faced with panic and emptiness, we have given them nothing that allows them to control it. The best we can do is distract them.
I think wokeness — or, I guess we should use the new term, wokism — is a pseudo-religious attempt to control the panic and emptiness of the post-Christian therapeutic order. I have written in Live Not By Lies that the best way to understand wokism is not as a political movement, but as a false religion. This graf from an old Gregory Wolfe essay nails the problem with ideological substitutes for religion:

Marxism does appeal to the alienated, but in precisely the opposite way to the higher religions. The religious sensibility requires faith, an openness to being. The order of being precedes man; man must therefore attune himself to the transcendent, which he experiences as placing him under moral obligations. The tension of faith, in which man struggles between the love of God and the love of self, is what ideology seeks to collapse. The ideologue sees the world as fundamentally evil, and believes that he bears within himself the truth (that is, a secularized divine will) which he must impose on the world. Marxism, as an ideology, arises out of an alienation from being. It is not a longing for the mysterious Giver of being, but a program for asserting power over being. Ideology does not relieve man of his alienation, but heightens estrangement and drives him toward revolutionary action.

Switch “wokism” for “Marxism,” and you will understand. Nevertheless, it is useful to think of wokism in religious terms, because it is meant to play the psychological role that religion once did. It is supposed to restore order to the chaos by imposing humankind’s will on it. Many people who are desperate for a sense of meaning in the current chaos are clinging to wokism because it promises them a sense of meaning, purpose, and solidarity. Older people may not really believe in it, but they submit to it because it’s the way of the world today, and if they want to maintain their position in the system, they convert outwardly, preferring to live by lies than to risk a loss of comfort and status.
I don’t want to say that sense of doom that the young have (re: the Lancet survey) is inappropriate. There can be no doubt that they face tremendous challenges trying to build a life today. We have deprived them of the only real source of hope: the conviction that there is God who orders the universe, and who loves them, and who guarantees that their suffering is not meaningless. To refuse to have children on the principle that it would be wrong to bring them into this world is to surrender hope in the future. It’s an extraordinary thing, given the dismal prospects that most people who have ever lived faced — and yet, they carried on. Not us. We face this global crisis at precisely the time when we in the West, with our global communications reach, have denied ourselves and the world what we all need to endure, even triumph over, adversity.
Hear me clearly: the therapeutic gospel — whether in its left-wing forms (woke Christianity) or right-wing forms (prosperity gospel) is false teaching. If you are in a therapeutic church, now is the time to make plans to leave. If you are not in a church that is teaching you why and how to endure suffering for the truth, then you are not in a church that is preparing you for the world as it is today, and the world very shortly to come.

Here is an instructive clip. It’s about a megachurch pastor whose congregation became “affirming” in 2015. It’s now falling apart. Watch this:

Here’s a link to the longer unedited video, from the pastor, Ryan Meeks. He is no longer a Christian. He calls EastLake “a laboratory for unorthodox and heretical ideas, which was really fun for me.” The mind boggles. This guy is the epitome of West Coast blissed-out egomania. He talks about the decline of his church — the decline he presided over — as a fun thing. He says, “The slippery slope is real,” and explains that he doesn’t mean it in a bad way. If he writes a book one day, he said, he will have a chapter titled, “My Fantastic Ride Down The Slippery Slope.”

As he writes on his website:

My wife and I founded EastLake Church in 2005, just east of Seattle, Washington. I’m so thankful for the container EastLake was for my ongoing transformation. It’s ironic that I started it so regular people could find a place to pursue an authentic spirituality and to explore truth no matter what it cost them or where it led. I had no idea I would end up needing exactly that, myself.

Wait … the church, this community, was a “container” for Ryan Meeks’s “ongoing transformation”?! My God, the ego! He says in the video that he has learned that “there’s a whole Universe of Ryan behind Pastor Ryan.” Golly. The Universe of Ryan. More:

In 2010, following some significant grief and loss, ever deepening relationships with people outside my faith tradition, participation in international relief work, and way too many books, my worldview deconstructed. It was a painful, lonely process. But it ultimately led me to make some significant changes in the structure and teaching at the church. Over time, EastLake evolved into more of a quirky interfaith (and non-faith) spiritual community with a deep appreciation for all great teachers of Love and Self-Actualization. In short, we began a slow, five year exit from Christianity which included a TIME magazine feature of our apology and then public affirmation, celebration and inclusion of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I spent considerable time in therapy and other healing modalities to cope with all the turbulence, betrayals, and angry people we dealt with as a result. In late 2015, I was so beat up and exhausted that I enrolled for a week long deep dive into my heart called The Hoffman Process. This was life changing for me and in many ways was the hinge that swung the second half of life into gear.

Since that moment, I have been deeply committed to my ongoing awakening and inner work. I have found that without much effort from me, I seem to be contacted often by people whose worldviews have crumbled and who (much like me years before) are seeking a way to rebuild their lives after the loss of their old way of organizing reality.

In early 2017 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and after spending the year in chemotherapy and taking time off to rest, I was officially cleared in October. At the risk of sounding too cliche, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Cancer was a huge gift that forced me to let go of the few things I was still clinging to after my experience at Hoffman and the ego-death of losing my old faith structure. I finished my cancer treatment with a renewed sense of purpose and direction while at the same time having less answers than ever before. The only thing I knew for sure was that life is precious and I had distilled my personal life philosophy and all my beliefs into the phrase; ‘Life is a Gift. Love is the Point’.

These days I’m living and moving in an entirely new world. Exploring consciousness theory, somatic healing, energy medicine, mindfulness, conscious sexuality, nature-based wholeness practices, as well as therapeutic psychedelic journeys have continued to unravel my perspectives while opening me up to entirely new modes of being and knowing. I have come to a place in my journey where my beliefs have been eclipsed by my experiences and where my windows of revelation are as personal as my breath and as collective as the cosmos.

All of this translates into my work as a values-centric, interfaith spiritual director, wilderness guide and psychedelic integration coach. My metaphysical paradigm is simple; I am convinced that LOVE is real …and that to live in it, through it, because of it, and AS it, is the purpose of existence.

Oh boy. In his book The Myth Of The Dying Church, Glenn Stanton uses EastLake as an example of the kind of church that really is dying:

EastLake Church began as your average hipster evangelical church appealing to and connecting with young people. The founding pastor Ryan Meeks watched his church explode in the early years, seeing more that one hundred new people come week after week. The church continued to grow in terms of people in the seats, volunteers, services, staff, finances and additional campuses throughout Seattle.

But a few years ago, Meeks made a major theological shift. With great fanfare, he announced one weekend that EastLake would become fully supportive of homosexuality. No, they would not just be kind and gracious to people who identify as same-sex attracted who come through their doors. They were already doing that. All churches should do that. He decided that his church would now affirm, even embrace, homosexuality itself. In the course of one weekend, they became a pro-LGBT church, with Meeks making stunning statements like, ‘I don’t care if the Bible says, “Gay people suck. I have lots of things I disagree with about the Bible.” He disparaged the Scriptures in other ways, telling his congregation, “If we need to consult an ancient book to know what to do when a human is standing in front of us, I think we are screwed already.” That from a pastor trying to make his church more relevant and welcoming to the people in his city. They changed nothing else but this position and had their pastor’s radical statements on the record.

So, what happened at EastLake Church after this shift? The church imploded. They lost members by the hundreds. Their budget tanked by millions of dollars. They had to lay off much of their staff and close campuses. All because their pastor said, “I don’t care what the Bible says!” and began making theological decisions that proved it. And it should be noted that these were not a bunch of reactionary traditionalists. It’s why they were drawn to EastLake.

Ideas and beliefs have consequences. EastLake Church is not a one-off. Not even close. It is only one of thousands of such churches making major theological compromises over the last few decades. Is Christianity shrinking? Some parts of it, you bet. Churches that throw biblical truth overboard find their members jumping overboard after it. The research reveals this, likely as do your observations as you look around your own city.

Understand that this is not strictly about LGBT. The kind of rationalizations that Ryan Meeks had to make in order to affirm homosexuality within a Christian church ended up knocking all the supports out from under the faith. The slippery slope really is real. 

If you want to find a reason to live in the face of all these doom-and-gloom crises — and climate change might not even be the worst one — then you are going to have to find a community of true believers. Of people who are, to use Wolfe’s phrase, “open to Being” — a deceptively calm formulation that essentially means recognizing that you and your Self are not the most important things in the universe, and that there is a realm beyond you that grounds our being and provides order and meaning. We can’t make this stuff up as we go along; we can only receive it, and build our lives around it.

You can go with trendy New Age or progressive Christian pastors, but you will ultimately end up either in a traditional church, in La-La Land, vibing with Ryan Meeks, or in atheism. That way is spiritual death. But if the “traditional church” you end up in is one that focuses heavily on politics, or prosperity, or puts the well being of the sacred Self above it all — then stay away. Only a church that can give you the spiritual resources to endure suffering for the sake of the Gospel matters. That’s it. Everything else is going to burn away in what is here, and what is to come. If you are in a good church, but the leadership prefers to avoid talking about these crises, then find others within your church who care about it, and start talking about it among yourselves, and figuring out what you can do to get ready.

I never proselytize on this blog. It would be inappropriate. But when I read stories like the report of the deep despair of the young, and when I read about false teachers like Ryan Meeks leading people into the pit, I want to shout: THERE IS HOPE! There are many reasons why I love being an Orthodox Christian, but the fact that this is an ancient church that has stood the test of time, and that it explains suffering and teaches us how to bear it and transform it into holiness — this is why I have no doubt that Orthodoxy is trustworthy as a Way. I’m not talking about the institutional church, which has its own problems, like every other church in the world. I’m talking about Orthodox Christianity as a way of life, as a means of living in the presence of God, as a pathway to unity with him. Here is a church that tells you, frankly, yes, life is a struggle, but you are not struggling alone, and your struggle is the normal way to purify ourselves on the pilgrim’s path to God. It’s a church of saints, martyrs and confessors, not West Coast New Age hipsters and Southern prosperity preachers. Whatever Ryan Meeks is proclaiming, Orthodoxy is the opposite. Know this, and know hope.

I’m serious. We know that every generation in the past has faced tremendous adversity, yet found life ultimately to be worth living — which is why they had children. If our own ancestors had surrendered in the face of suffering and chaos, we wouldn’t be here. They knew things that we have forgotten, or never learned in the first place. Those who survive this crisis — these crises — will be those who live in God, facing the dangers with confidence. You read my blog every day, and you know that I’m thinking about the collapse of our civilization all the time. But look, the early Benedictines lived through something similar, but they did not give up hope. They built amid the ruins, because they lived in sacred time. It has to be that way with us too. It has to. 

Somebody needs to preach to these young people that the future is going to be very hard, that there’s no escaping it, and that it is going to require them to defy their own culture if they want to survive. But it is worth it! To hell with conformity! Accept the calling! Be a hero!

Who can do that with authority? Tell me. I’m interested to read in the comments section what you are experiencing in your spiritual lives.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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