What causes a moral wave in a society? We are familiar with change induced by outside forces: a technological advance, a natural disaster. But when we as mere mortals want to change the status quo, what characterizes the ferment in which human effort eventually bears fruit?
The question may be a peculiarly modern one. We live in times when agency is at once vaunted yet elusive, our unprecedented powers of reach, data, and technological mastery somehow yielding less an expression of glory than a mass sink into numbness. Low-grade nihilism simmers just beneath the surface of everyday conversation, the desire for impact birthed in secular zeal soon stymied by chokeholds of institutional breakdown and pixelated trust. With several generations having passed since a spokesperson for justice was able to inspire historic factions to march together in unified joy, many experience today’s problems as wicked, insurmountable. Cynical indifference is tempting both humble and ambitious alike, and, still more concerning, a generation of young adults.
I come to this question tentatively, not as someone flying back from Davos but as an observer of complexity. I think we are all feeling the frustration of historical stasis today, even as changes in technology and acceptable language have never spun faster. It’s like coherence itself is endangered, as much in the crack-up of a shared social conscience as in the pockmarked integrity of our own lives. I honour notions of sacrifice in my writing but lack the resolve to apply it consistently in real time. You call out injustice in public but feel squeamish about acknowledging your contributions to it. We text expressions of care to one another but lack the creativity to prove it off-screen. We feel exhausted by the ever-accelerating pace of modern life, by performative politics, by the cultural demand to keep up appearances and continually refine our own identities. We long for experiences of beauty, transcendence, and meaningful co-creation.
At some fundamental level, the question of social change has always been one of attention. Are we setting aside the slow and quiet space required to discern the movement of God? Have we lost the ability to be awakened to a Word beyond our own?
More Questions than Answers
One thing that seems clear is that the process of cultural regeneration is newly up for grabs. Just about every self-aware leader I speak with, in just about every sector, confesses an unnerving level of guesswork regarding patterns of causation, means versus ends, top down versus bottom up, time horizons, and strategic levers. And since the pandemic, institutions once confident in how to shape those in their charge—churches, schools, media, health-care institutions, philanthropy—express weariness if not despair. How could all those years of sophisticated design yield such widespread indifference if not rejection from the public? How could an age unprecedented in its grasp of complex systems fail so utterly in keeping the vulnerable from falling through the cracks?
For the next little while, Comment will be diving into the currents animating these paradoxes. We’ve deemed the questions large enough to require two issues—a part 1 and a part 2. The issue you hold in your hands is devoted to contemporary analysis and introspection, while its sequel will dive into some narratives of those often-hidden seedbeds that nurtured what we can now see as historic inflection points. Both will be exploring the following questions:
- What are the assumptions about the way influence works that can no longer be trusted?
- What is the distinction between social movements that are legally successful (e.g., gay rights, the pro-life cause) and a widespread cultural shift? What is going on when an effective social movement nonetheless still yields cultural and political fracture, versus when it yields healing and unity?
- How do top down and bottom up relate these days? When have they coalesced successfully? Why are they having so much trouble syncing now?
- What is the role of particularity in empowering a universal shift in mores? Why do some eras yield a flowering of new and effective institutions at scale, while others stagnate for several generations? Why do some high schools graduate an unusual concentration of movers and shakers? Why was Disney so creative in the early 1990s? Why do so many interesting figures in the American parachurch movement find their roots in Pittsburgh?
- What is the math of social change? How do we locate limits wisely, and in a way that ushers in power from a few discrete levers? Is seeking large scales of change a distraction, or precisely that which we should be seeking?
- What role does the loss of a self-confident good and shared telos play in all this? Does cultural change become dangerous when technique is the only muscle left?
- Can change of the sort we at Comment yearn for happen without a spiritual revival? If so, how can human beings make way for the Holy Spirit to move?
- What is the role of art in social change? Purposeful friendship? The neighbourhood? Cultivated “wombs” of hospitality and incubation?
- Where are the true prophets today?
- How does one receive change gracefully? Especially when it appears to threaten one’s way of life?
We hope these questions echo some of your own, and that they will sharpen the debates happening in the shifting landscape of policy, philanthropy, religion, and tech. There is such need for portraits of the possible, for focused study of the patterns that yield regeneration, not just devolution. May the pieces that follow quicken your longings for what could yet be, for the full and gathered time that is the mark of Immanuel.