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The Third Great Awakening?

This time it’s all about the self, not a revived Christianity

Author Glennon Doyle, one of the self-help gurus of the so-called “Third Great Awakening” Getty Images/Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Together Live

The Third Great Awakening?

According to Britain’s Daily Mail, there is apparently a Third Great Awakening underway. Like the previous two, it has a certain popular appeal. Unlike them, however, it has replaced the idiom of old-time religion and the tent preaching of revivalists with those of self-fulfillment and internet postings by self-help gurus. As the Mail uses the term, the Third Great Awakening refers to the phenomenon of people during the time of COVID making the apparently novel and shocking discovery that life is finite and rather short and then embarking on a quest to find deeper meaning in the here and now. And as is the way of the modern world, that means looking after Number One and assuming everybody else will adapt accordingly. As examples, the Mail uses several women who have abandoned husbands and partners and broken up their families in pursuit of this deeper meaning.

Years ago, Anthony Esolen pointed out that pedophilia and the free and easy attitudes toward sex in contemporary society share a common moral structure: both prioritize the sexual desires of adults over the welfare of children. The difference, of course, is that the former is (as of this writing) both illegal and regarded 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 pedophilia, adult sexual desire makes passive victims of the youngest and most vulnerable members of society.

What the Mail article makes so clear is that this logic of desire is not merely or perhaps primarily connected to sex. It is connected to society’s general understanding of what it means to be a fulfilled and happy human being today. Everyone else must accommodate to the individual decision—a decision made before any consideration of obligation toward others. In short, children are just the collateral damage stemming from adults’ selfish desire, whether sexual, professional, or merely (as apparently in these cases) therapeutic.

The language in which these women excuse their irresponsibility, as described in the article, is perfectly attuned to the moral discourse of our day. It is the language of self-discovery, of spirituality, of authenticity, of personal freedom. Such terminology is remarkable for combining what sounds to modern ears like compelling moral rhetoric to a complete lack of actual moral content. It lacks moral content because it is purely subjective, speaking only of the women’s responsibility to themselves and nobody else. It is compelling because it captures so beautifully the spirit—or, perhaps better, the anthropology—of our age. Men and women are free, answerable only to themselves and their personal happiness, and everybody else must either serve that end or be moved out of the way. Whether it is the baby in the womb, the teenage child, the spouse of many years, or the elderly parent, all are to be sacrificed on the altar of immediate self-fulfillment. And rather than being excoriated or shunned for treating others as merely a means to a bespoke personal end, these free agents are presented as authentic.

Whether it is the baby in the womb, the teenage child, the spouse of many years, or the elderly parent, all are to be sacrificed on the altar of immediate self-fulfillment.

Thankfully, society still refuses to acknowledge some groups as authentic. Pedophiles and serial killers are still deemed immoral and unacceptable and rightly so—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 coherent as long as such action does not harm anybody else. The problem is that, from abortion to adultery to leaving one’s spouse to “find oneself,” real people are hurt by these actions—the people who depend upon partners and parents to subordinate their own desires to fulfill their responsibilities toward them. Yes, murder and sexual assault are obvious examples of harming others, but they are by no means the only ones. Failure to love and protect our spouses and our children also causes harm—often serious, lifelong harm. Yet these are now valorized in our culture. And that reveals that the limits of what constitutes moral and immoral activity in our contemporary world are somewhat arbitrary and driven by the ethics of authenticity, not the ethics of moral responsibility.

The first two Great Awakenings were a mix of religious fervor and doctrine—particularly the Second, with its rather dubious theology. But they had this in their favor: They did at least press people toward a Christian ethic that took social responsibility seriously. The Third Great Awakening is clearly pushing people toward social irresponsibility. Whether society can sustain this kind of pervasive emphasis on individual authenticity remains to be seen. If the trail of wrecked families and marriages it is leaving in its wake are anything to go by, the signs are, to put it rather delicately, not that hopeful.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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