Living on the Other Side of the Line

One of the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer’s “Schaefferisms”—terms he coined that he was particularly fond of– was “the line of despair.” If you want to understand it as he meant it, you will need to read a little of his work. The God Who Is There would be a good place to start. In simple terms his “line” marked the point in history when a culture abandons its belief in “true truth” (another Schaefferism) and buys into relativism. In his analysis some cultures crossed the line long ago; others never embraced the notion of “true truth” at all; still others never abandoned it. Of course, crossing Schaeffer’s line was like crossing the equator: you don’t immediately notice a big difference in your surroundings. Just as the world just north of the equator looks pretty much the same as just south of the equator, a newly post-Christian culture may not feel worse than an almost non-Christian one. But the farther north you go, the colder it gets.

Christian Smith is a sociologist at Notre Dame. His work on the religious sensitivities of American young people is worth reading. In Soul Searching : the Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Souls in Transition: the Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults and most recently Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood he presents the results of a his research. If you have the time and the inclination, Smith’s books are worth reading. If not, take a look at David Brook’s NYT op-ed essay, “If It Feels Right…” His summary of Smith’s work is concise and to the point.

“It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, which Smith and company recount in a new book, Lost in Transition, you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

‘Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,’ Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. ‘I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,’ is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said. ‘It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?’

Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: ‘I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.'”

Smith is very careful to point out that the young people he interviewed weren’t all living lives of sin and debauchery, and Brooks offered the hope that marriage, kids, and jobs would force “broader moral horizons” upon them. But if Schaeffer is right, then the solution to the problem won’t be that simple.

His solution in part was an intellectual one. We need – all of us, not just our children— to change the way we think, to “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” as Paul put it in Romans 12. After 70 years of drifting north of the line of despair, things have become pretty cold, intellectually and practically. But any purely intellectual solution will always be superficial.

Schaeffer put it like this in True Spirituality:

“The alternatives are not between being perfect or being nothing. Just as people smash marriages because they are looking for what is romantically and sexually perfect and in this poor world do not find it, so human beings often smash what could have been possible in a true church… It is not just the ‘they’ involved who are not yet perfect, but the ‘I’ is not yet perfect either. In the absence of present perfection, Christians are to help each other on to increasingly substantial healing on the basis of the finished work of Christ.

This is our calling.”