Introducing “The Shifting Experience of Self”
Henry David Thoreau had it half wrong in Walden when he said things don’t change; we change. The fact is people do change, but so do all kinds of things, like technologies, governments, economies, and every other institution in society. And these changes in the world bring about changes in us, and vice versa. The relationship between us and the social and material world is complex and intertwined, much more so than Thoreau, from his bucolic pond, imagined.
Further, the rate of change, the kinds of change, and the scope of change taking place today are impossible to understand without also looking at the ways they are affecting societies and how we understand and experience ourselves and others. While trends and fads mark the surface changes we see happening around us every day, there are deeper changes that take place over time, sometimes not as near to the surface and often more difficult to discern. For humans to flourish in the midst of these changes, we need to understand them at as deep a level as we can. Only then can we think about how to respond, by cultivating them or resisting them, by heralding them or criticizing them.
The essays in this issue of The Hedgehog Review explore a range of contemporary changes from the shifting experience of the self that is the focus of our thematic section to the mobile nature of religious belief in the U.S. to the concrete reorientations taking place in the relationship between the U.S. and China to the future of Christianity in our global age.
The thematic section on the changing experience of the self points to the ways in which, more and more, we are living our lives “out there,” often to the detriment of our inner lives. Contemplation is beginning to seem passé, and the self is becoming more performative than reflective. As everyday life has become more “optional” (de Zengotita), “confessional” (Bauman), and “up in the air” (Ferguson), we have become, these scholars argue, more characterized by a feeling of loss—whether from a “thinness to things, an insulational quality” to the world (de Zengotita); by the loss of intimacy and privacy (Bauman); by the sense that life is “being lived elsewhere” (Ferguson); or by the eclipse of inwardness as a way of life (Lasch-Quinn). The diagnoses these scholars offer challenge us to consider how social change may be trans- forming our experience of ourselves and long-held ideas about the modern world.
In an interview on their book American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell draw a picture of the American religious landscape characterized by a high level of tolerance and open-mindedness towards those of religious beliefs other than their own. One of the most interesting parts of their study concerns the “nones,” those who don’t or won’t identify themselves with a particular religion. This group, Putnam and Campbell found, are not necessarily nonreligious; in fact, they may have quite strong religious views—“it’s just that their religious identity is substantially weaker” than other Americans. One striking aspect of this phenomenon is its instability. Putnam and Campbell interviewed people twice, a year apart. One third of those who answered “none” with respect to their religion at the first interview, identified with a particular religion at the second. Perhaps even more striking, an equal number of people who identified with a particular religion at the first interview moved into the “nones” category a year later. So the movement into and out of identifying with a religion, even within the space of a year, is significant.
In their article on Americans’ response to the rapid changes taking place in China, Jeffrey Alexander and Hans Andersson see the need for an expansive vision of what a modernized society might look like. American engagement with China over the past few decades has been premised on the seemingly safe assumption that a market economy and democracy are inextricably related, that China’s conversion to one, a market economy, would necessarily bring conversion to the other, democracy. With China continuing to defy that conventional wisdom, peace may require a basic rethinking of the terms on which the relationship is built. Moving beyond the U.S., Hans Joas argues that Christianity is a global, not Western, religion that needs to find new ways to articulate its message—ways that take into account the rapid and deep changes taking place in the world. He asks how “in the midst of such social transformation, values might be transmitted in a new way and how through new experiences they might be renewed.”
We may not want to push the fact of change as far as Heraclitus, who claimed that nothing endures but change. And yet, we would do well not to underestimate the changes taking place in the world today and rather to spend some time reflecting on them. That reflection itself might just be part of the constructive response needed.