There are some writers who speak to me in fairly predictable ways. Some of them are contemporary people who write for newspapers, on the internet, and other social media. Others who speak to me are long since dead: spiritual greats from centuries ago, i.e. people like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and a host of others. I don’t really pay too much attention to their political or religious categorization---such as conservative or liberal, evangelical or modern.
One such writer I like is David Brooks. He writes for the New York Times. Some of the really great material he brings is nothing he invented. It comes from something he reads or hears and, then, reflects on it. Maybe I am attracted to this because it is much like I work.
Recently, I read something from Brooks. I was lured by the headline of the article: “What Our Words Tell Us.” Granted, I have a love of words. Any of my students will tell you that. So I wondered what our words tell us, according to David Brooks. I was not disappointed.
His article begins with the fact that Google has launched a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. Figures like this blow my mind. But I admit that I wondered whether my books were part of the database. I guess that is hubris---pride. I am glad I don’t know the answer!
The database enables someone to enter a word and perform a search. You can find out how often the word is used in a particular century. Brooks was quite interested in the trend line of words. What words were once important and have become less important in our own time? Do these trends tell us something about our culture? These are fascinating questions. And Brooks thinks he can sense some trends and make some conclusive guesses about our culture. I share a couple of his observations.
The first point Brooks wants to make is clear. “So the story I’d like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic.” This one did not surprise me. In fact, I would have been very surprised had he concluded differently. It does seem like the world in which I live is more individualistic. He has a host of words---words like “personal” and “self”---that make the case for his point.
The second point is a little disturbing. Brooks contends this about our culture. “As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked.” Simply put, he is suggesting our time is less moral and less aware of morality than earlier times. Again, I am tempted to think this is true. And apparently our use of words buttress that point. He cites the decreased us of words, such as “virtue” and “decency.” That makes me cringe.
Clearly, both of these points have implications. Brooks puts it bluntly. “The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.” I would be willing to argue this does reflect a culture that is more individualized (atomized) and demoralized.
The question this poses for me is whether this means spirituality is implicated? I think the answer is affirmative. To put it more sharply, I wonder if this does not explain, in part, why religion seems less important in so many arenas of American culture. In fact, I wonder if the rising interest in spirituality is not the human heart---atomized and demoralized---looking for meaning and purpose in ways that religion used to address them?
Brooks has his own conclusion which, granted is not proof, but is a good guess. He says, “these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.” I think he is correct. I do see less interest in community and, certainly, less focus on obligations. For example, many writers point to contemporary culture’s emphasis on “rights” and less on “responsibilities.” This resonates with me.
I am persuaded that there has been a cultural shift. As one who recalls the ‘60s, our world nearly 50 years later is culturally different. Explosions of technology, scientific innovation, etc. has created a different world. So has the cultural shift led to spiritual loss. In some ways I believe the answer is yes.
I am not depressed by this or ready to give up. I am challenged and energized to seek with others how to generate a spirituality fit for our times and our culture. And I believe what our words tell us give us a clue. Perhaps we generate this spirituality by focusing on community and morality. Perhaps these are the key and not doctrine. That’s my hunch.