Purpose, Personal, and Collective
The field of positive psychology consists of the study of the “conditions and processes that contribute to the flourishing” of persons. Under its umbrella is a small subfield that focuses on how the presence or absence of one particular factor, purpose, affects happiness and health.
This psychology of purpose is built off the foundational work of thinkers like Victor Frankl and Aaron Antonovsky. And one of the fruits of the progress in this subfield is that researchers have been able to show that having a strong sense of purpose is relevant for health outcomes across ages. Their research shows that purpose helps to resolve identity crises, is correlated with greater civic engagement, and aids in coping with mental distress. In studies focusing on young adults in particular, it has been shown not only that a lack of purpose is connected to substance abuse and suicidal ideations, but that an increased sense of purpose predicts both “well-being during emerging adulthood” and “developmentally important outcomes such as a positive self-image.” Clearly the provision of purpose in life, of an end or a telos, positively impacts mental health in young people. But a question follows close on the heels of this encouraging news: if the provision of purpose, of a telos, makes such a positive difference in the mental health of the young, might it not be precisely because it is this they are missing?
A responsible answer to this question can only be given in the particular. But, taken in the aggregate, the fact that the provision of purpose is making an impact in the lives of young people at this moment in history is striking, albeit not surprising. Not surprising because, as Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have shown, many teens inhabit what they have termed a “morally insignificant universe.”
Smith and Denton describe such a universe as one in which “moral commitments, decisions, obligations and actions have little if any larger meaning, purpose, significance or consequence; that universe is, in short, a morally empty reality.” Their research showed that the moral stage on which young imagined their lives playing out was lacking in meaning. There was no point to the play and because of this their lives exhibited little meaningful drama. But we must take note of the fact that the type of purpose missing from such a moral universe are not the micro-purposes of every day (surely these young people are familiar with making choices that seek to fulfill their desires), but those purposes located on a macro-level. It is social, or cosmic, purpose that is missing in a morally insignificant universe.
This recognition ought to lead us to take note of two things about such a morally insignificant universe: first, that it is punctual—it is focused on the present to the point of severing connections to both the past and the future. And, in part because of this punctuality, such a universe lacks a shared narrative. Second, a morally insignificant world tends to lack commonly shared practices. There is a decreased sense of how to act together toward the same purpose at the same time. These two factors readily weave together to produce a sense of reality in which there is little sense of any lived tradition of excellence, of an embodied knowledge of that to which one ought to live up and toward which one can aspire. Instead of such grand visions of the good life, in their analysis of the discourse of many of these young people, Smith and Denton found mainly the self. Instead of a conception of having emerged from a past and being propelled toward a future, such a punctual self attends mainly to the choices it can make and the rewards that can be obtained in the present tense. Little wonder that a positive psychology of purpose might help mitigate some of the more harmful effects of life in such a universe.
But, even in the positive light of such provisions of purpose, the question of the category error remains. We might frame it this way: is it possible for people to provide their own purposes? Can human beings provide themselves with their own teloi?
To some extent the answer is certainly yes. After all, people of all ages establish goals for themselves and set about cultivating the means to accomplish them. But there is a certain type of telos that, regardless of individual capacity, persons cannot establish for themselves: those of collective moral significance. It is not that individual persons are unable to judge for themselves what constitutes, say, a successful life. They are. Even more, after the successive liberations of modernity this capacity to “sapere aude” is often experienced as an unshackling, a consoling revelation of a personal identity that takes place through the rejection of false or stultifying standards. We now, and thankfully, live in a world in which women can vote, persons may no longer be property, and a serf owes the fruit of his labor to no Lord. Ours is a world in which we may set our own ends. Yet despite such rightly celebrated freedoms, there is one capacity that remains beyond the purview of individual persons: the capacity to construct a morally significant world. Which means, to the extent that it takes the individual as the object of its ministrations, purposive psychology cannot aid young people in providing for themselves what no individual can provide for her or himself: a morally significant world; a cosmos rather than a universe.
The difference, as Seth Benardete has written, between a universe and a cosmos is that the latter is a meaningful whole while the former is an aggregation: “We see heaven and earth, but we do not see their unity, which we call cosmos. ‘Cosmos’ puts a label on an insight about the structure of the whole.” And the construction of a cosmos is a supra-individual project, one that requires being able to tell not just a personal story about the purpose of my own life, but a collective narrative within which my story finds its place, origin, and vector. A cosmos requires a collective story within which personal stories can be emplotted and so find their moral valence. This is because, as Alasdair MacIntyre has famously argued, identity is narrative. It is because “the story of my life is always embedded in the story of those communities” from which my identity is drawn. We have a limited autonomy with regard to the kind of ends that we can set for ourselves not because we are not yet free enough, but because such a capacity lies perennially beyond our powers. We are, to again use MacIntyre’s words, “never more (and sometimes less) than co-authors of our own narratives.”
It is to be hoped that what this means for the present argument is readily visible. There is indeed an epidemic of anxiety; mental health problems are increasing among the young. And, praiseworthy as they are, current efforts to respond to the crisis by mental health professionals are normally aimed at personal capacitation. And this remains true even for the most effective types of treatment such as purposive psychology. Even more, this insufficiency arises not because the provision of purpose is somehow a mistaken need, but because the kind of purpose needed no individual, regardless of capacity, can provide for her or himself. For a church seeking to hear the cry of the poor, to be something even marginally akin to the field hospital about which Pope Francis has dreamed, this amounts to quite a quandary.
But the construction of adequate responses will be helped little by haste. Instead of rushing ahead, presuming that we understand the problem, we will be aided by an understanding of how we arrived in such a position. It is history that can teach us how to avoid the trap of responsibilization into which many of our best efforts seem to fall. Perhaps it can also teach us something of how we might respond.
The Shape of Traditional Society
Since the birth of the social sciences as disciplines, any number of important books have been written with the express aim of grasping the social transformations that have occurred since the collapse of the medieval synthesis. In the light of such a vast corpus all this section can attempt is a highly focused synthesis of some of its most essential insights. In particular, it will focus on the way three ideal-typical social forms—here described as “traditional,” “solid modernity,” and “liquid modernity”—have structured collective action, shared narratives, and social identity. It is to traditional society that we turn first.
Human culture, in all its different shapes and hues, is at its origin a hard-won thing, an island of meaning pulled from the chaotic waters of illness, violence, and scarcity. It is because of this fragility that the aim of social life in traditional societies is not change but continuity; the collective preservation of what the passage of time might otherwise obliterate. Within such social groups, continuity is accomplished in two ways: the provision of common action and the common narration of a shared story.
Common action and common narratives were the tactics used to preserve a small space of culture, a sacred canopy as Peter Berger called it, that could cover the community from the surrounding chaos. This was what produced the shared life of such societies, the corporate “stock of knowledge” more or less evenly distributed to all members. Yes, the midwife, or the master of the hunt, or the priest had some special knowledge, but generally all the members of traditional societies knew the same things. And it was this shared knowledge that provided the members of such societies a corporate sense of purpose, a joint understanding of that in which the good life consisted, a shared appreciation of what actions made sense within this cosmos; of how they could earn glory in the eyes of the community and what would bring them shame. Although I might struggle to live up to such lofty expectations, in such a society there could be no conceptual trouble about what would emplot my personal narrative into the narrative of the tribe. Nor was it a difficult task to emplot the tribe’s narrative into that of the cosmos. These three stories were, in a sense and to an extent, the same story. And it was that story that was told aloud and enacted in rituals.
The contrast between such societies and our own is self-evident. Our present capacities both for telling a common story and engaging in common action in pursuit of a shared telos is much diminished. The three stories have come apart. Our shared stock of knowledge is much thinner. And this lack of shared understanding prevents us knowing what it means to succeed and from having a lived sense that collective action might be required to secure collective goods. We no longer live in a cosmos. And this is indeed a loss.
Modernities, Solid and Liquid
In his book, Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman argues that modernity ought to be understood not as a time period but a process. Modernity simply is, he contends, modernization. This process consists of the deconstruction of social forms, the melting down of common practices and narratives that have grown dusty and constraining. One of the consequences of taking such a processual perspective is that “modernity” can be conceptualized as taking place in various ways at various places and in various times. That is, in addition to the forms of life it makes possible, modernity ought to be understood in the light of the social form it is dissolving.
According to Bauman, however, while the processes of dissolution have continued across the modern period, two things have changed in more recent times. First, contemporary society seems to have lost belief in the dreams that originally drove modernity. We have grown cynical, finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the dissolving of corrupt and constraining social forms will pave the way for truly just ones. In his words, we are no longer convinced there is “an attainable telos of historical change.” While solid modernity had a purpose (it disembedded French peasants to re-embed them as citizens of the Republic, for example), under the terms of liquid modernity society provides no beds for re-embedding.
Additionally, and this is the second point, because differentiation continues apace and new, smaller, more personalized, spheres of value are continually being produced, our public institutions have become increasingly fragile. And as they have these carriers of our capacity for common action have become less and less capable of sustaining even the provisional, constricted, sub-cosmic narratives found in solid modernity. Which is why it may strike one as naïve, for example, to rely on a church, or the Girl Scouts, or a union hall to provide the kind of shared narratives in which our lives can be emplotted. Instead, it is up to us, as individuals, to “to find out what she or he is capable of doing, to stretch that capacity to the utmost, and to pick the ends to which that capacity [can] be applied best.” In theory, anything is possible, the barriers to virtually any form of social identity have been thoroughly deconstructed. But this permanent freedom, this perpetual state of “unfinishedness, incompleteness and underdetermination. . . is full of risk and anxiety.”
Let us dwell on this point for a moment. Liquid modernity is the term Bauman coins to describe a shared state, one in which each of us is individually free to choose any identity for ourselves—as long as we have the personal capacity to carry it off. And we can choose any purpose for our lives—any purpose, that is, that we can provide for ourselves. But no individual, regardless of capacity, can alone construct a collective good. For this a community is required. And it is the common action and common narration necessary for the construction of a cosmos that liquid modernity disempowers; seeks to deny us. Again, while solid modernity succeeded in delinking cosmic and social imaginaries, it is only in liquid modernity that the social imaginary has been severed from the personal.
It is in the light of this historical frame that, I argue, we ought to understand the epidemic of anxiety sweeping our country and the psychological responsibilization of young people today. And it is likewise in this light that the Church ought to construct responses—responses that take seriously two facts: first, that a cosmos cannot be constructed alone; that it must be done collaboratively. And, second, that the goods accomplished in the long work of these modernization processes cannot and must not be vitiated. The ailment diagnosed by the schematic history here traced will not be cured by a nostalgic return to the roles, objects, or social forms of the past.
It is true that the argument given here has traced our declining capacity for common action and common narration. These are real losses. And yet “for freedom Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1). This “us” is not just societies but persons; we ourselves. In none of the responses to which we now turn can we allow ourselves to lose sight of what has been gained.
The Liturgies of Liquid Modernity
Our social imaginary, for better and for worse, has long been disembedded from the cosmic. And now our autobiographical imaginary has become portable, detachable from the social.
Attentive readers can no doubt see already, from the framing of this argument, the kind of responses that will be here proposed: re-creation of common practices that have the capacity to carry a common narrative; attempts at re-suturing the personal, social, and cosmic imaginary; the construction of shared spaces in which young people can find a purpose broader and deeper than they are capable of providing themselves. In other words, the long corporate process of relearning the habits of belonging. All of this is true. It is what I will argue below. But there is one further consequence of the segmentation of our imaginaries that must be taken into account beforehand, a consequence that alters the character of these anticipated suggestions. It is this: the long process of disembedding has produced not a desert but an ocean of meanings.
Young people today are awash in possible narratives, immersed in available practices. Loosed from their moorings, thousands of disembedded meaning fragments—in the form of advertisements, denominations, brands, self-help practices, workout regimes, Instagram influencers; the list could continue—fill the sea of our liquid modernity. These waters are bursting with stories, each of them a mobile raft of meaning, islands upon which, we are told, we can for a few moments catch our breath. But, as a number of post-liberal thinkers have argued in recent years, these islands do much more that passively float. Siren-like, they call to us to step onto their shores, promising fulfillment in exchange for our participation in the practices of attention control that interweave their narrative and ours: scrolling, shopping, and scrolling again. Never before has the story of our lives been so mobile, so available. Never before has it been so actively courted.
In part, we are courted through the offer of a shared narrative and the potential identity to be found therein. The power brands of our liquid age—Amazon, Apple, Nike, Disney—have built economic empires on the narrative identities embedded in slogans like “Think Different,” “Just Do It,” or “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Any of us, for as long as the money lasts at least, can purchase autobiographical embeddedness is these social narratives. It is in this way that the desire to belong drives action—we visit Disneyland because of the story in which we are included. At such times it is the available narrative fragments which shape our practices.
But we are also courted through shared practices. Part of the deep affective power of being a fan of Liverpool Football Club, for example, is joining a hundred thousand others in singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” We are linked to the purple and gold, carnival history of Louisiana by standing on a rickety latter on St. Charles street as the Mardi Gras floats roll by. In this way, it is by taking part in the practice—in the singing, in the parade—that we emplot ourselves in the story the practice holds. At such times it is the practice that makes available the ephemeral narrative.
Liquid modernity, in other words, has its own cultural liturgies that seek to form the desires of those who swim in it. What this means for our consideration of how the Church might respond to these signs of the times is that we must begin to take seriously that our own liturgies, our bundles of practices and narratives, are in competition with other, rivalrous packages. This is all the more true if, as Talal Asad has argued, one of the results of our liquid modernity is the intentional production of “the continual feeling of disruption, of uncertainty” that seeks to disrupt our sense of “fullness.” In other words, the prize of the competition in which, like it or not, we are always already engaged is not the minds of the young but their anxious hearts.
There is a consequence to the preceding. It is that, in such a set of circumstances, amidst such unchosen constraints, our task is not just to calm personal anxieties. It is to cobble together stable narrative-action packages, to help build local counter-liturgies both persuasive and strong enough to resist the liquid liturgies that treat persons as products, produce constitutive disruption and uncertainty, and profit from that production. It is to take, from the storehouse of our tradition, good things both new and old. It is nothing less than the task of capacitating a living Christianity.
The Church as Holding Environment
There are two temptations to which we may fall prey in such an effort. I name them here because they provide buffers to the proposals that follow.
The first can be seen by noting, with Ann Swidler, that liquid times tend to provoke personal and institutional rigidity. In times such as ours a tradition’s plural narratives and practices—bundles that in more stable times were malleable and capacious, in which there was room to maneuver, explore, and imagine—tend to turn rigid and brittle. There is good reason for this. It is because, having forgotten how to act together, we are inclined to relearn this capacity not by heart but by mind. “When people are learning new ways of organizing individual action, practicing unfamiliar habits until they become familiar,” Swidler maintains, “a highly articulated, self-conscious belief and ritual system” tends to arise. This means that the Church is uniquely vulnerable to taking the capacitation of Christianity to be an intellectual exercise. But this, as Pope Francis has already helped us to see, amounts to Gnosticism. It is ironic that the very necessity of reteaching the practice of faith produces the inclination to “absolutize” theories of the faith capable of “forc[ing] others to submit.” This is clearly in contradiction with the type of evangelization modeled on the cross.
Instead, then, of turning up the volume on public assertions of the truths of the faith, we ought to consider prioritizing not constraining ideologies but inclusive practices. This means that we ought to teach not primarily through the mind but in the body. Examples of this kind of response can be found anywhere the people of God are coming into contact with the soft flesh of Christ in the persons of the poor, vulnerable, and excluded. We see this, for example, in the regular, undramatic befriending of the elderly performed all over the globe by the community of Sant’Egidio. We see this in the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and the Catholic Workers of New York City who, every day, again and again, feed themselves with the same food they prepare for the homeless. We see this in the slow, painful, freeing practice of tattoo removal performed by and on former gang members at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. And we see this in the unhurried washing of the bodies of the sick and dying by the Sisters of Charity on the streets of Calcutta.
This is not to say that the common practices to which the Church must recommit itself do not include practices of prayer as well—most particularly the Mass, of course, but also the Liturgy of the Hours, common rosaries, and processions. (We do well to remember that Sant’Egidio commits itself to praying together every night in Trastevere, and that the Sisters of Charity each day make space for multiple hours of silent prayer that, they themselves say, sustains their service.) Practices of prayer can also be made common. It is to say that the practices recommended here, in order to resist the segmenting pressures of liquid modernity and the temptation to become brittle ideology, ought to begin with bodily repetitions. It is collective, embodied action that has the capacity to become what Connerton has called habitmemory: “a knowledge and a remembering in the hands [in which it is] our body which ‘understands.’”
Which brings us to the second temptation. Given the magnitude of the challenges arrayed before us we may, quite rationally, be tempted to withdraw into protective enclaves where the faith can be both practiced and narrated. Because we do indeed need to construct semi-protected spaces where the practices of the faith can be embodied such that they, of their own accord and in plural ways, give rise to narratives new and old. And it is indeed the case that “religious narratives. . . are activated by settings.” Indeed, given how much the preceding analysis seems to lend itself to precisely this response we ought not be surprised that such a response has been provided or that it is in some circles quite popular. But the temptation here does not lie in the recognition that is now necessary to reinstitute spaces that can sustain bundles of narrative-action. It lies in thinking that doing so will prove a panacea. It is here, in the attribution to common action and narration of a power it does not possess, that a Pelagian temptation lies.
Again it is Pope Francis who has diagnosed this tendency for us, clarifying that the error of Pelagianism lies in attributing the “same power the Gnostics attributed to the intellect. . . to the human will, to personal effort.” While it is certainly true that such a temptation can (and, I can personally attest, does) affect individuals, it can also be present in communities, particularly in the effort to reconstruct in nostalgic miniature a past that never was through the over-exertion of control over persons and the inhibition of their freedom. The “subtle form” of this collective Pelagianism amounts to the attempt to “subject the life of grace to certain human structures.”
In contradistinction to such efforts, I suggest that the Church’s proposed narratives ought to imitate the teachings of its founder, taking on the form of parables or metaphors rather than treatises or monologues. This is because parables do not coerce rational assent but invite the participation of the hearer. They leave space for the action of the free human precisely because of their ambiguity. As C. H. Dodd put it in his famous study, parables leave “the mind in sufficient doubt. . . to tease it into active thought.” Further, it is this form and style of common narration that allows personal religious identity to remain an ongoingly accomplished phenomenon rather than to be taken as a univocal, unchangeable core. This style of speech, in other words, allows common narratives to be accessed rather than mandated.
But, in our liquid modernity, leaving such access solely to individuals amounts to an abdication of responsibility. It remains true that young people need to be helped in the process of learning how to embed their autobiographical narratives within the social and cosmic narratives of the Church. This learning process is, in part, what new research in Catholic educational theory has begun to uncover and systematize. One example of such is given by Pat Manning in his recent volume Converting the Imagination. There he approaches education not as information-provision but as the cultivation of “pedagogical habits.” In addition to treating students more like apprentices than empty vaults for the storage of information, this approach to education as habit-capacitation includes the kind of stimulation and expansion of student’s imaginations that can pave the way for the embrace of, or embedding in, a larger narrative. It helps to facilitate the process of young people, in this case students, emplotting themselves in a wider story.
Still, it may seem that one thing may be lacking: a place where these narrative-action bundles, these shared stories and embodied practices, are made available. But this is how Manning understands the classroom, or, on a broader scale, Catholic educational institutions themselves. These micro- or meso-spaces can be understood in this light as “holding environments” in which it is possible, with the help of others, for groups of people to make the transition from rootless to rooted. I would, in conclusion, like to propose that we extend this model one step further. It is as a holding environment that, I suggest, the Church ought to understand itself and its role in our liquid modern age.
To understand this suggestion in depth we can turn to the work of psychologist Robert Kegan because it was he who, drawing on the foundational work of D. W. Winnicott, read holding environments as those contexts that capacitated personal human evolution. This took place primarily in his book The Evolving Self, where Kegan detailed not only stages through which the self evolves but holding environments as well. Kegan contends that holding environments made personal evolution possible by being, in his words, “cultures of embeddedness. . . psychosocial environments which hold us (with which we are fused) and which let go of us (from which we differentiate).”
This image of the Church in a liquid age as a holding environment that makes the narratives and practices of the tradition beautifully available is one that is both firm enough to serve as solid ground in a sea of narratives and pliable enough to resist the temptations outlined above. This is a Church which understands itself as a culture of embeddedness, an incubator in which young people have space to process the anxious experience of being overwhelmed by the ocean of options in which they swim. It is the framework of a Church that refuses to responsibilize the young by resorting only to individual capacitation but instead teaches them how to act together embodied works of mercy and shared; in story and song.
It is the vision of a Church that does not only talk about such a common mode of life but enacts it, performs it by placing its own body, through bodies of its members, in proximity to the bodies of the poor. It is the vision of a Church which relinks personal, social, and cosmic narratives not by force but as Jesus did, by telling stories that make self-appropriation possible. This is the sketch of a Church that does not pretend either that it owns the truth as a rational possession or that it possesses a will capable of realizing what has been sketched but one that insists on leaving room for its weakness—which is the same thing as leaving room for grace. It is a pilgrim Church that imitates in its own self-understanding the redemptive tactics of the Incarnation by affirming proximity and refusing coercion. It is a Church that is willing to relearn the habits of belonging so as to share the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties, of the people of the present age.
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is a condensed excerpt from Roots: Catholic Youth Evangelization in a Post-Pandemic World (eds. Cavadini and Wallenfang), courtesy of Wipf and Stock, All Rights Reserved.