I was recently asked by a friend who is a trustee at a college of theology what I thought they should be looking for in their search for a new president for the college. My default answer to this question of any institute of higher learning has always been to bring in leaders who can help turn theoretical intelligence into applied intelligence. To focus on the transformation of knowledge from passive to active. In the case of a college of theology, how to turn the noun—theology—into a verb. How to actualize the study of the nature of God and religious belief into measurable societal benefits; to heal a once great nation and world. To save ourselves from ourselves.
Since 1944, when the U.S. passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (commonly known as the G.I. Bill), thousands of Americans went to college; most of whom were the first in their families. This effectively set the expectation of higher education for every American and established one of America’s greatest advantages over the rest of the world: our colleges and universities. Learning—the development of knowledge—has been America’s greatest asset in its ascent to superpower status. Since the end of World War II, Americans got way-smarter and it way-mattered.
During the last half of the 20th century and now into the 21st, our colleges and universities turned out thousands of engineers, scientists, mathematicians, digital technologists, business managers, bankers, doctors, and lawyers serving all the requirements of an industrial high-growth society. My own father, who was a World War II veteran, wanted to be an architect, but his father told him the country needed engineers. So, since he was a pilot in the Army Air Corp (the predecessor to the Air Force), he became one of the first aeronautical engineers ever minted out of the University of Michigan. Like many others in his time, he was a significant albeit largely unknown contributor to America winning the space race in the 1960s. We not only won the space race, Americans created the most affluent society in the history of the world.
However, our needs have changed. As I have argued recently at this post, our great success in transforming the world from a state of scarcity to one of abundance, and in the case of the United States to high affluence, has been both amazing and debilitating. Today, America is a very sick society. Notwithstanding our extraordinary wealth, we are emotionally and spiritually impoverished. We are the most violent nation in the world with the highest suicide rates in the world. When our children die, the most likely cause is death by gun. That fact alone should stop us in our tracks and cause us to take immediate corrective action, but it hasn’t. Meanwhile, many of our fellow Americans manifest all the characteristics of the chronically abused even though they are often considered well-off by traditional metrics.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, our citizenry had entered into progressive states of withdrawal. Many, like the white Christian nationalists who supported Trump, felt they were being slowly dispossessed of their position in society, while others saw the promise of Obama’s post-racial post-bigotry America evaporate before their eyes. Yes, we became profoundly divided, but together we were slipping into a bog of anger, fear, and depression. That bog of despair became our only common ground. Then, the pandemic turned isolation into a national state of mind. Deceit became a principal modality for many of us, most especially our politicians. Of course, the most divisive president in the history of our nation also contributed mightily to our emotional and spiritual malaise. We now know that his only purpose was to exploit our new vulnerabilities for his own gains. Thus far—in his ex-presidency—he remains a parasite feasting on the soul of America.
Today, our youngest adult generation—Gen Z, the Zoomers—are rejecting most of our traditional institutions and norms that bound us together and provided the foundation of our common interests. As David Brooks cited in the New York Times recently,
the Wall Street Journal/NORC poll … found that the share of Americans who say patriotism is very important to them has dropped to 38 percent from 70 percent since 1998. The share who say religion is very important has dropped to 39 percent from 62 percent. The share who say community involvement is very important has dropped to 27 percent from 47 percent. The share who say having children is very important has dropped to 30 percent from 59 percent.
These results were heavily influenced by Zoomers whose sense of withdrawal is even more significant than the general population. They have more-or-less had it with America and, frankly, I don’t blame them. They came into the world around the time of 9/11. Since 9/11, they have seen our ill-fated wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, Covid-19, the Trump era, and now a Supreme Court that is—for the first time in our history—taking rights away from Americans, many of which directly impact them. America in the 21st century is hardly a picture of superpower magnificence. Zoomer’s rejection of American institutions and norms is completely understandable. After all, what have we given Zoomers to believe in besides social media? America is sliding backwards for the first time since the Great Depression more than ninety years ago.
Unlike the post-World War II era, however, this is not a problem for smarter engineers and scientists. Our fundamental problems are relational involving matters of the heart more than the mind. Americans today suffer from poor interpersonal relations, poor relations with the natural world, and poor relations with the truth that underpins reality. We don’t need more STEM classes, we need more—much more—of the humanities. We need to reconnect with each other and the world in which we live in an honest and respectful manner. We need schools of theology and divinity, schools of the visual and performing arts, and schools of liberal arts to lead us out of this darkness. We desperately need them to translate the abstract contemplations of aestheticism and spirituality—and the heart and soul more generally—into coherent action plans to restore our nation and to lead the world again.
My daughter’s dream about college was different than my father’s and, in an era of affluence, she was allowed to pursue hers. She fell in love with live theatre in middle school and, after attending a performing arts high school, wanted to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In her essay to gain admission, she related her experience in acting in the production of And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank. In her preparation for her performance as Anne Frank, she was able to meet with Holocaust survivors. She related this experience in her admission essay as believing that theatrical performances could change the hearts and minds of those who attend. She now works to cultivate creative teams to produce shows on Broadway for Creative Arts Agency. She is a shining example of what our country and world need right now (and has one proud papa).
In the Christian tradition, this is the season of resurrection and renewal—of inspired new beginnings. Our politicians have proven they are not going to lead us out of our malaise. If anything, it appears to be in their perverted interest to act to deepen it. It is up to philosophers, artists, the clergy, poets and writers to bring us answers we can both understand and act upon. We must stitch back together the fabric of the America that believed in itself; that cared about its neighbors at home and allies abroad; and who understood the sacred nature of Nature itself.
As a young boy-then-man in the 1960s and 70s, I witnessed great tumult in American society during the civil rights movement, the Viet Nam War, and Watergate that followed. There were violent protests—often accompanied by bombs rather than guns. We also had recessions and much higher inflation than we have today. We were locked in a cold war with the Soviet Union that was commonly cast as a fundamental battle between good and evil. The threat of a nuclear apocalypse was an everyday concern. Perhaps the presence of an enemy kept us humble and focused.
However, one thing never wavered: our belief that America was the greatest nation in the world. This remained an unshakeable core belief for the vast majority of Americans regardless of political affiliation, religious tradition, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, or gender. Had we perfected the aspirations of our founders that “all men are created equal,” or that everyone deserved the opportunity to pursue happiness on their own terms? Absolutely not. But we never abdicated our belief in those ideals.
Today, we need a renewal of our ideals—perhaps a combination of old ones and new ones. We need to listen to the soft power of the humanities more than the hard power of the sciences. We need everyone to lock arms and move forward to once again embrace the ambitions of our founders and those of the leaders of the world’s great religions including not just Jesus Christ, but Moses, Muhammad, and the Buddha too. We will never achieve perfection, but that is not failure; that it is simply human. Jesus Christ’s Sermon on the Mount set impossible standards, but it is not the standards that matter in the end. It is the pursuit thereof that will bind us together in a cause to save ourselves personally, our nation, the world, and humanity itself.
I have always believed in the power of One; of you and me and every other One we know. My message is not just for scholars of the humanities. It is for each and every One who comprise humanity. As I have written before, we must stop shaking fists and start shaking hands. We must turn contempt into understanding and conflict into cooperation. Hope is hard, but it holds more promise than cynicism. Remember, we are dependent on each other and upon Nature. This is a fundamental truth. Another, which some describe as a “noble” truth is that suffering is inevitable. The silver lining of suffering is, however, that it makes enlightenment possible.
Please join me in transforming our collective suffering into our mutual enlightenment. To affect healing and embrace hope. It can be done. It must be done. My humble plea is that each of you go forth into this season of renewal and bring your one humble, curious, and warm light into the world. Perhaps together, our lights can vanquish the darkness. Maybe we can even reconstruct the pedestal built by prior generations upon which America once stood.
This much is clear: we have the resources to do whatever we wish. The question remains: do we have the will? Can we summon the strength of our humanity to set aside our grievances and claims of victimhood to lift each other out of that bog of despair? Can we convert our losses into opportunities to address our world again with courage and compassion; with reverence for our past and a renewed sense of hope for our future? Can we commit ourselves to each other as partners for a new day?
The time is now to open ourselves to this new day for a new America that is eager to be born.
Happy Easter, Passover, Ramadan, and spring!