How Can the Church Respond to ‘Liquid Modernity’?

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Patrick Gilger writes:

We now, and thankfully, live in a world in which women can vote, persons may no longer be property, and a serf owes the fruit of his labor to no Lord. Ours is a world in which we may set our own ends. Yet despite such rightly celebrated freedoms, there is one capacity that remains beyond the purview of individual persons: the capacity to construct a morally significant world. Which means, to the extent that it takes the individual as the object of its ministrations, purposive psychology cannot aid young people in providing for themselves what no individual can provide for her or himself: a morally significant world; a cosmos rather than a universe….

First, contemporary society seems to have lost belief in the dreams that originally drove modernity. We have grown cynical, finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the dissolving of corrupt and constraining social forms will pave the way for truly just ones….

Additionally, and this is the second point, because differentiation continues apace and new, smaller, more personalized, spheres of value are continually being produced, our public institutions have become increasingly fragile. And as they have these carriers of our capacity for common action have become less and less capable of sustaining even the provisional, constricted, sub-cosmic narratives found in solid modernity….

Liquid modernity is the term Bauman coins to describe a shared state, one in which each of us is individually free to choose any identity for ourselves—as long as we have the personal capacity to carry it off. And we can choose any purpose for our lives—any purpose, that is, that we can provide for ourselves. But no individual, regardless of capacity, can alone construct a collective good. For this a community is required. And it is the common action and common narration necessary for the construction of a cosmos that liquid modernity disempowers; seeks to deny us….

Young people today are awash in possible narratives, immersed in available practices. Loosed from their moorings, thousands of disembedded meaning fragments—in the form of advertisements, denominations, brands, self-help practices, workout regimes, Instagram influencers; the list could continue—fill the sea of our liquid modernity….

In other words, the prize of the competition in which, like it or not, we are always already engaged is not the minds of the young but their anxious hearts.

There is a consequence to the preceding. It is that, in such a set of circumstances, amidst such unchosen constraints, our task is not just to calm personal anxieties. It is to cobble together stable narrative-action packages, to help build local counter-liturgies both persuasive and strong enough to resist the liquid liturgies that treat persons as products, produce constitutive disruption and uncertainty, and profit from that production. It is to take, from the storehouse of our tradition, good things both new and old. It is nothing less than the task of capacitating a living Christianity….

I suggest that the Church’s proposed narratives ought to imitate the teachings of its founder, taking on the form of parables or metaphors rather than treatises or monologues. This is because parables do not coerce rational assent but invite the participation of the hearer. They leave space for the action of the free human precisely because of their ambiguity….

It remains true that young people need to be helped in the process of learning how to embed their autobiographical narratives within the social and cosmic narratives of the Church. This learning process is, in part, what new research in Catholic educational theory has begun to uncover and systematize. One example of such is given by Pat Manning in his recent volume Converting the Imagination. There he approaches education not as information-provision but as the cultivation of “pedagogical habits.” In addition to treating students more like apprentices than empty vaults for the storage of information, this approach to education as habit-capacitation includes the kind of stimulation and expansion of student’s imaginations that can pave the way for the embrace of, or embedding in, a larger narrative. It helps to facilitate the process of young people, in this case students, emplotting themselves in a wider story.

Still, it may seem that one thing may be lacking: a place where these narrative-action bundles, these shared stories and embodied practices, are made available. But this is how Manning understands the classroom, or, on a broader scale, Catholic educational institutions themselves. These micro- or meso-spaces can be understood in this light as “holding environments” in which it is possible, with the help of others, for groups of people to make the transition from rootless to rooted. I would, in conclusion, like to propose that we extend this model one step further. It is as a holding environment that, I suggest, the Church ought to understand itself and its role in our liquid modern age.

You can read the full article at Church Life Journal here.