According to Britain daily mail, there is apparently a Third Great Awakening in Progress. Like the previous two, it has a certain popular appeal. Unlike them, however, he replaced the idiom of old-time religion and the tent-preaching of revivalists with those of self-help and Internet postings with self-help gurus. As the Mail uses the term, the Third Great Awakening refers to the phenomenon of people in the time of COVID making the seemingly new and shocking discovery that life is over and rather short, then embarking on a quest to find deeper meaning in life. ‘here and now. And since that’s the way of the modern world, that means looking after number one and assuming everyone will adapt accordingly. As examples, the Mail uses several women who have abandoned husbands and partners and broken up families in search of this deeper meaning.
Years ago, Anthony Esolen underline that pedophilia and free and easy attitudes towards sex in contemporary society share a common moral structure: both prioritize the sexual desires of adults over the well-being of children. The difference, of course, is that the former is (at the time of this writing) both illegal and viewed with horror by the wider culture. Examples of the latter, such as adultery, promiscuity, no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, etc., pass without comment and are even celebrated as basic human rights. But as with paedophilia, adult sexual desire makes passive victims of the youngest and most vulnerable members of society.
What is the Mail the article shows so clearly that this logic of desire is not simply or perhaps mainly linked to sex. It relates to society’s general understanding of what it means to be a fulfilled and happy human being today. All others must accommodate the individual decision – a decision made before any consideration of obligation to others. In short, children are only the collateral damage of the selfish desire of adults, whether sexual, professional or simply (as it would seem in these cases) therapeutic.
The language in which these women excuse their irresponsibility, as described in the article, is perfectly in tune with the moral discourse of our time. It is the language of self-discovery, of spirituality, of authenticity, of personal freedom. Such terminology is notable for combining what sounds to modern ears like compelling moral rhetoric with a complete lack of real moral content. It lacks moral content because it is purely subjective, speaking only of women’s responsibility to themselves and no one else. It is compelling because it captures the spirit – or, perhaps better, the anthropology – of our times so well. Men and women are free, responsible only for themselves and their personal happiness, and all others must either serve this end or be pushed aside. Whether it is the baby in the womb, the teenager, the spouse for many years or the elderly parent, all must be sacrificed on the altar of immediate fulfillment. And rather than being excoriated or dismissed for treating others as merely a means to a tailor-made personal end, these free agents are presented as genuine.
Fortunately, society still refuses to recognize certain groups as authentic. Pedophiles and serial killers are still considered immoral and unacceptable and rightly…necessarily so. But it is instructive to ask why this should be the case. In the modern West, individual desire is king, and acting on desire is what constitutes authenticity. No doubt liberal philosophers and libertarian pundits would argue that this is perfectly acceptable and consistent as long as such action does not harm anyone else. The problem is that, from abortion to adultery to leaving your spouse to “find yourself”, real people are hurt by these actions – people who depend on their partners and parents to subordinate their own desires to assume their responsibilities towards them. Yes, murder and sexual assault are obvious examples of abuse, but they are by no means the only ones. Failure to love and protect our spouses and children also causes harm, often severe and lifelong. Yet these are now valued in our culture. And it reveals that the limits of what constitutes moral and immoral activity in our contemporary world are somewhat arbitrary and guided by the ethics of authenticity, not the ethics of moral responsibility.
The first two Great Awakenings were a mixture of religious fervor and doctrine, especially the Second, with its rather dubious theology. But they had this in their favour: they were at least nudging people toward a Christian ethic that took social responsibility seriously. The Third Great Awakening is clearly pushing people toward social irresponsibility. It remains to be seen whether society can maintain this kind of pervasive emphasis on individual authenticity. If the trail of shattered families and marriages he leaves in his wake is anything to go by, the signs are, to put it mildly enough, not so promising.