Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Cut Flower Society

One of the most memorable analogies used to describe modern Western culture is the description, "the cut flower society." I'm not sure who first used the metaphor, but it is a brilliantly accurate description of our civilization. The West took mankind down a path toward freedom of opportunity, racial and gender equality, and economic prosperity that is unprecedented in human history. It shouldn't be overstated, our societies were not perfect, but our core values and our record of moral and social progress was very impressive when compared to previous civilizations.

The strength and vitality of our society was connected to the values and worldview of its people and its worldview and values were shaped by the Judeo-Christian faiths. As we passed through the Enlightenment we rejected the rationale of the Judeo-Christian faith and we cut off the the strength and vitality of those core values. The result has been the fading of the glory of our civilization.

For example, we blame the high dropout rate and poor performance of students in our public education system on either inadequate funding (Liberal) or poor performing teachers protected by the teacher's unions (conservative). To be honest, the problem is way more complicated than either of those political slogans. The decay of our educational system is part of the moral and personal degeneration afflicting our popular culture, which can be directly attributed to our rejection of many of the Judeo-Christian values that shaped our civilization. Moral relativism doesn't go very far in encouraging our children to pay attention to their teachers and work hard on their studies. What we see in much of the youth culture of today is a rejection of any serious pursuit in life and thought. We are instead immersed in the world of "Jackass the Movie," Brittany Spears, and Lady Gaga. We can trace the decreasing vitality of our culture by the steady decline in SAT scores in the past 50 years.

We can trace a similar degeneration in the percentage of marriages that end in divorce or in the percentage of children born to unwed mothers. We are quite simply, as a society, moving in the wrong direction.

One of the central principles of the Enlightenment was the belief in progress. This belief was based on the marked improvement in social conditions that had taken place in the past 200 years in Europe. These improvements included the outlawing of slavery, prison reform, universal education, and the beginnings of women's sufferage. The process was appropriately described as "moral progress." What the people of the Enlightenment didn't understand is that all of those advances were the result of Christian influence and leadership. William Wilberforce and other English Evangelicals were the driving force behind the outlawing of slavery in Great Britain, as Charles Finney was a leader in the abolitionist movement in America. Prison reform in England was a direct consequence of the Wesleyan Revival, and Women's Sufferage in America was led by Evangelical women.

After the devastation of the two world wars and the rejection of Enlightenment optimism by most modern philosophers, the idea of moral progess was largely abandoned. This abandonment is part of the cut flower phenomenon, and today we see a steady decline in moral values and behavior.

Which brings me to the issue that inspired this post. The New Yorker magazine had an article some weeks ago now, on delayed adulthood. They cited studies that reveal that young adults today are having a hard time making the shift from adolescence to full adult responsibility. They have toyed with creating a new "life-stage." (Just as "adolescence" was added to our vocabulary in the late twentieth century.) This article wanted to call it "emerging adulthood," and implied it could consume much of a person's 20's.

But what is it, really, I see it as the prolonging of adolescence (which was a prolonging of childhood), both were part of the moral decline that is part of the "cut flower" phenomenon. In other words, our society has become increasingly bad at preparing our children for adult responsibility. We are prolonging childhood (Bar Mitzvah is at 13, that is when a Jewish boy was considered a man.), first from the early teens to the early 20's and now all the way out to the early 30's. This reality is most pronounced in men and it does not bode well for the future of our society.

While this makes another case for the need for a spiritual awakening in America and the West, it also calls us to "Seek the Lord while He may be found." We need to re-connect our own lives into the Vine so that He can work out His grace in our lives. Society may be a dying flower, but we can be new and fresh and blooming as we discover the life and joy that are found in living close to Jesus.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Relativism and the Law

In the past several decades we have both legislatively and through judicial decisions made many of the principles that emerged from moral relativism into enforceable laws. To be honest, this is the codification of immorality and we will pay a terrible price for this as a society. Relativism was an attempt to justify behavior that previous generations considered unacceptable. Relativism was central to what was called the sexual revolution and it has produced any number of serious social problems. The sexual revolution targeted the traditional values related to sexuality, marriage, and the family. The consequences of this revolution are that over half of all marriages end in divorce and over half of all births among some communities in our society are to unwed mothers. This must be coupled with the fact that living in a single parent household is the single greatest contributor to deliquincy, drug use, and trouble in school among children.

We are paying this terrible price because of Natural Law. Morals are not just the opinions of a culture or a society, nor are they the invention of the ruling classes to maintain their power. Morals are not the imposed restrictions of a religious majority. Morals are built into the structure of the human condition.

We are not alone in this view. The ancient Chinese expessed the principes of Natural Law through the Tao and the Egyptians called it Ma'at. Mankind has always recognized that certain behaviors are beneficial and others are dangerous, particularly in the long term. The Bible describes it with the words of the Apostle Paul,

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit, will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Gal. 6:7 NAS)

Behavior and the consequences connected to them have been apparent to human beings for centuries. Cultures, both ancient and modern, have some significant expression of Natural Law. The arrogance of our age is to think that we can re-define human nature and the moral principles of human civilization. We have already paid dearly in social and personal dysfunction for our hubris in ignoring the wisdom of the ages. And yet, we continue to assume that because these behaviors have been made politically correct we can impose them upon this and future generations by law and by judicial fiat. We will rue the day. Remember, God is not mocked.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Our Globalized Economy

With the terrible recession we are currently suffering through, the focus has been on our national economy. We must remember, however, that we are part of a global economy that has dramatically effected our own.

We speak to this issue whenever we discuss trade, jobs going "overseas," the value of the dollar, and in the case of the recent oil spill; multi-national corporations such as BP. In nearly every case, these elements of globalization are portrayed as gigantic negatives. They are believed to be the reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs, for our "shrinking" middle class, and the threat of "structural" unemployment (permanently high unemployment because many jobs are gone forever).

Our friends on the Left and those in the labor movement believe we should push back the hands of time and undo these forces of globalization. We need to "re-negotiate" our major trade agreements, which in their interpretation means they are effectively recinded, and replaced by tariffs and trade restrictions. They would also like to see laws passed that would prevent American corporations from moving jobs overseas. How they might do that in a free country they never really explain.

So, let's talk about the forces of globalization. First, this has been going on for a very long time. When I was working for a snowmobile company in the 70's we were purchasing significant parts of our snowmobiles and clothing line from Japan and Korea. We were also looking for more ways to automate our welding, painting, and plating of parts. We even started looking at robot welding, which now dominates automotive assembly. We were forced to do this in order to remain competitive within the industry. The loss of manufacturing jobs is not just due to off shoring, it is also the result of greater levels of automation.

Everyone should read Thomas Friedman's description of the forces of globalization, The World is Flat. He is certainly correct to say that no significant corporation can survive today without being plugged into the global economy. And that includes all of the amazing technological innovations of our time that enable us to network and communicate from anywhere in the world. Demanding a provincial or national economy is like trying to keep the horse and buggy as a major source of transportation in the face of automobile industry.

The cat is long gone from the proverbial bag when it comes to a global economy. We must do everything we can to increase our capacity for innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Continuing education and life-long learning will be a must, as we adapt to the technological changes in our industries and workplaces. As an example, at age 62, I have been learning how to prepare courses and teach online. It is a necessary change that fits our mandate to train and support missionaries. It has actually been a bit of an adventure, as I've learned new methods and developed new materials, as well as tackling subjects I've never taught before. The reward has been that I get to help missions professionals, many located on the field while taking the classes, gain insights and ideas that will increase the effectiveness of their ministries.

There is another aspect to this globalization thing; it has the potential to improve the lives of the poorest people of the world. As followers of Jesus, this possibility should make us big fans of viewing the world economy as an integrated whole. People like Ingrid Munro in Kenya, are helping former beggars and thieves escape crippling poverty. She is very clear, she is not giving people "charity." She is teaching them the skills and self-discipline necessary to earn an income and care for their families. Ingrid Munro is part of the global microfinance revolution that is improving countless lives.

C.K. Prahalad of the University of Michigan has done significant research into the aleviation of global poverty. His research is documented in the book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. His premise is that the 4 billion people (2/3rds of the world's population) that live in poverty (less than $1500 per year) are people with all the capacities of any other human being. They are, in fact, 4 billion potential customers and entrepreneurs. Dr. Prahalad's goal is to create a gigantic global middle class and change the economic pattern of the global economy from a pyramid to a diamond, with a small minority of the wealthy at the top and small minority of poor at the bottom. As we help the poor improve their lives, we dramatically improve the state of the global economy. But like Ingrid Munro, Dr. Prahalad makes the point that improving their lives involves improving their character by eliminating the wasteful habits in their lives (drinking, gambling, etc.) and helping them acquire the self-disciplines of a work ethic, regular saving, and care for the needs of their family. (It is a perfect fit for the Gospel, discipleship, and church planting.) In other words, this globalization thing is a pretty cool deal.