Selfishness, Society, And The Breakdown Of The Family

Our society is thoroughly broken, as you have doubtless noticed. Many explanations have been proffered as to why a society as wealthy and powerful as that of the United States should be falling apart, riven by riots, political infighting, and racial tension. While it ultimately tracks back to the fallen nature of humanity, fallen humans have managed to construct functional civilizations in the past, and our own worked quite well for some time previously. What changed, so that now western civilization is tearing itself apart? 

In his excellent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman chronicles the transformation of the Western idea of identity, from defining oneself through one’s relationships with others, to defining oneself based solely on one’s own beliefs about oneself. This idea starts with the philosopher (and pretty terrible person) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and is then developed and expanded upon by later intellectuals, including Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzche, and a whole raft of other intellectual ne’er-do-wells, into the modern notion of what constitutes one’s identity.

In the modern world, one’s identity is constructed and defined completely within oneself, without reference to the outside world. This is why a big hairy dude can claim to be a woman trapped in a man’s body, and people will act like that statement makes sense. Not only that, but if you tell him he’s not a woman, you’re the bad guy. You don’t get a say, his momma doesn’t get a say, and his own genes don’t get a say. He is what he believes he is, because he believes that is what he is, and anyone or anything that contradicts his beliefs or prevents him from acting on his beliefs is bad and wrong.

What results from this philosophical quackery is a society founded on the idea that the individual is sacred, and anything that detracts from the happiness of the individual, however they may define that happiness, is a great evil not to be tolerated. This can, and frequently does, include the members of one’s own family, neighborhood, and society at large, since the happiness of one sinner is seldom conducive to that of another, as anyone who has been around small children for any length of time can tell you. This is, as would be expected, extremely caustic to the family, and thus to society as a whole.

When God created the human race, He designed us to be individuals in community with each other. If we look at Genesis 2:18-24, we can see that this was so from the beginning. The passage starts with the man alone, and God says that’s not a good thing. Then, He has the man name all of the animals, only to find that none of them is a suitable helper for him. The man is still alone, and it’s still not a good thing. So what God does is create the first woman, and bring her to the man, thus forming the first family. Now they are not alone, and it is good. At this point Moses interjects an inspired author’s note, explaining that this preceding narrative is why a man should take a wife: because human beings were not designed to be alone. When a man and woman get married, a new family unit is formed, thus continuing God’s design for humans to live in community, as well as to be fruitful and multiply. 

The family is the smallest unit of human society which is, according to Webster’s, ‘an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another’. On his own, Adam had no group of people to cooperate with, enduring or otherwise. He had no one to interact with to develop organized patterns of relationships. All of that changed once God brought Eve into the picture, and it was a change for the better.

Even after the fall, the family remains a crucial institution for building a society. If anything, it becomes more important, as it teaches family members to curb their sinful impulses. The family serves as a child’s first introduction to human society, as his first relationships will be with his parents, who are already in relationship with each other. In the traditional nuclear family, a child learns the rules and traditions of the family, as well as his responsibilities as a member of the family. This expands to include the rules, responsibilities and traditions of the broader society as the child grows older. This learning doesn’t take place in the classroom, but rather it is integrated into daily life through the parents directing the child’s natural curiosity, and correcting the child’s misbehavior. Members of the traditional nuclear family are intimately connected, and relate to each other on an individual level. They partake in shared traditions, and develop lasting relationships with each other, to the point that each member of the family helps to shape the other members’ personality and character. This helps to repress the sin natures of everyone involved

This isn’t how the typical American family is structured in the 21st century. Even when both parents are in the picture, increasingly the exception, not the rule, they both work and the children are dropped off at daycare or at government schools, where disinterested strangers are paid to make sure they don’t die, and that they more or less learn whatever the government says they’re supposed to learn. The family has become, rather than individuals in mutual relationship with each other, a group of individuals who happen to live together, and mostly tolerate each other’s existence. They lack family traditions, shared goals, and investment in the lives of the other members of the family, and care only about their own happiness. Conflict-avoidance is the order of the day, because conflict tends to make one very sad.

This results in selfish people who are thoroughly unused to putting others’ needs first and only care about doing and believing what makes them happy. Since, in this worldview, putting others first is just a form of self-harm and the self is the most precious and valuable thing, people are ill-suited to live and work together in the broader society because as the number of people one interacts with increases so does the number of opportunities for their respective happiness to come into conflict.

So how do we fix it? Outlaw selfishness? Mandatory hugging sessions? How about a Federal Bureau Of Not Being A Jerk? No, no, and heck no. This is not a problem that can be solved from the top down. The only way this problem goes away is if we practice Phillipians 2:3-4

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

This flies in the face of our society of me-monsters, and our own natures. It’s not something that the natural man likes at all, so don’t be surprised if it’s hard. It takes practice and hard work, but most importantly the Holy Spirit, without whom the previous two don’t amount to a hill of beans. Without the new nature that Christ gives us, it’s simply not possible to love others more than ourselves. For the Christian, however, this becomes natural as we are conformed to the image of Christ, who is the ultimate example of loving others more than oneself.

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One thought on “Selfishness, Society, And The Breakdown Of The Family

  1. Ian, you have a unique talent to break down complex societal issues into bite-sized morsels of wisdom. Thank you for your steadfastness to proclaim the simple and irrevocable truth of the scriptures as they relate to today’s issues.
    God bless, Tim


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