Telegraph Article: Young People and Contemporary Culture
posted on 25 February 2004
The question of what it means to be human, and to live the fullness of human life as God intends we should, is one of the most important challenges we face. The question takes on added urgency for all who are actively engaged with young people - in education, in intellectual and spiritual formation, and in family and community life. How do we help young people to contribute not only to their own happiness, but to the flourishing of our society and of our culture?
As Christians we need to cultivate a careful and a sensitive regard for the culture of which we are part. It is not from outside, or apart from the world, that we live as Christians, it is from within. Both faith and culture present us with challenges. Let's take three.
Our culture tends to focus on the individual, on his or her rights, and on personal autonomy; and correspondingly less on society and the common good. This focus on the individual is valid because we are all unique. Each of us has an essential and innate dignity which comes from being human. So every person has rights, and a dignity which must be respected. However human history shows very clearly that we do not exist, let alone flourish, in isolation from each other. We are all part of something much bigger than ourselves. Which means that our rights as individuals cannot be seen in isolation, any more than we can. They have also to be seen in relation to, and not over and above, the needs of the communities of which we are part. This is something we begin to learn at home. The idea of a 'me, me, me' culture is a contradiction in terms.
Another focus, some would argue almost an obsession, in our society, and in parts of the media, is sex. This has something to do with a much greater openness about sexual issues than in times past, and that is a good thing. However it would be interesting to analyse the context, and content, of the sex which we see on our screens, and which dominates so much modern advertising. More often than not, there is no context. Sex is presented as something which has no real significance. Love is hardly even mentioned. Commitment is measured in attachments of weeks, not lifetimes. If sections of our mass media trivialise sex, it is only a matter of time before society as a whole loses touch with the true meaning and wonder of sex. Sex divorced from love, from commitment, from fidelity, and from the desire to have children is a mis-representation of something profound and extraordinarily important. We are not doing enough to prepare our young people for life-long stable relationships and, ultimately, for marriage. Which is strange considering this is what most people aspire to: 89% of young people interviewed in a recent survey said that what they most wanted was to have a stable marriage.
I think the media has got it wrong. Sex is not more important to us, or to our children, than the truth about relationships, and the real meaning of love and commitment. In the market-place sex sells. But in our culture there is much more at stake than the size of the magazine market, or the health of the advertising industry. The breakdown in family life, the increase of divorce, the ease with which sexual relationships become 'passing' and peripheral, is in danger of inflicting real damage on our society. The cement which holds society together is family life. Stable families are made and sustained by loving, unselfish and mature relationships. A failure to recognise this simple fact could prove fundamentally destabilising to our culture.
Thirdly there is a growing sense in our culture that we have the right to a risk-free existence. Some risks are real and to be avoided. But we must not let our aversion to risk take us to extremes. Is it right, for example, for doctors, teachers or social workers to live in constant fear of accusations of malpractice and the risk of litigation? Connected to our aversion to risk is the urge to find someone to blame. Everything which goes wrong has to be someone else's fault - heads must roll; compensation must be paid. Sometimes this is right, but there is a danger that we end up simply running away from reality and from forgiveness, and that we lose our freedom, our spontaneity and our compassion in the process.
This may sound rather negative. That is not my intention because I think our culture is actually much richer and truer than all this would suggest. In a media dominated age we inevitably have to look deeper to find the traces of our human flourishing. In conversation with young people I detect a deep yearning for meaning, and for a sense of purpose. Perhaps even deeper than might have been the norm thirty years ago. And for many young people this also means a strong desire to serve others in a self-sacrificial way. Young people are not taken in by some of the more superficial aspects of our culture. As human persons they remain centred on the search for meaningful relationships, for truth, and for love. Yes - they enjoy the 'good things of life' but they are also seeking things that have a more permanent value. In my experience young people today, although they may not be overtly Christian or attend any church, understand and value the spiritual dimension of their lives, because they recognise that that is how we are created. And usually, perhaps unsurprisingly, their deepest desire is to marry and have a family. Ours seems to be a society that is genuinely searching for meaning and for hope, searching - if you like - for God.