The Age of Anxiety

Western culture has been through what have been described as an Age of Faith, an Age of Enlightenment, and Age of Science, and so on. What label best describes our present age? Perhaps the Age of the Screen to capture how, like no age prior, we live much of our conscious lives on glowing rectangles. Perhaps the Age of the Gavel to express how the ubiquitous judgmentalism, cancellations, and holier-than-thou attitudes have supplanted meaningful discourse, especially on social media. Perhaps the Age of Polarization to express just how incapable many have become of seeing any insight or moral value whatsoever in the opposing political party. There is truth in all of those.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor prefers the moniker of “the Age of Authenticity” to express that being true to ourselves has become the highest goal in the West. Princeton’s Robert George has called it the “Age of Feeling.” Both philosophers are correct to point out that allegiance to our emotions, the idea that reality should be conformed to our subjective feelings rather than our ancestors’ idea that we could conform our feelings to objective reality.

For most of human history, feelings were the kind of things that could be embraced, resisted, ignored, celebrated, chastened, silenced, trained, or challenged. Our ancestors could do a whole lot with their emotions. The freedom of our day is far more limiting. You have one option when it comes to your heart—follow it. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a bigot, a phobic, a hater, or worse yet, a Republican.

Given the unprecedented authority granted to emotion in our day, it is accurate to describe this as “the Age of Feeling.” Blended Scotch is for “heart followers only,” as a recent ad instructs readers to “follow your heart with Cutty Sark.” An ad for a Sony soundbar targets those who “only follow the instructions of their heart.”

Then there are the children’s songs. In Disney’s Mulan soundtrack, Stevie Wonder catechizes young impressionable minds, “Don’t think so much. … You must be true to your heart. Your heart can tell you no lies.” Packed auditoriums of adolescents, hands outstretched in worship-pose, sing in unison with pop star JoJo Siwa (who recently came out as “technically pansexual”), “No-No-Nobody can change me, change me. I follow my own lead. Once you get to know me you’ll see, got all these emotions, they’re guiding every moment.”

Our Age of Feeling is hardly stable. It is collapsing all around us into what indie ensemble Arcade Fire have branded in the opening track of their latest album as “the Age of Anxiety.” We are told that anxiety disorders now effect a whopping one-third of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18. Before 2009, 37 percent of students who visited university counseling centers cited anxiety as their problem. By 2016, the percentage jumped to 51 percent and continues to climb. In 2020 the American Psychological Association declared “A National Mental Health Crisis.” Chapman University recently released its annual Survey on American Fear, with fear of corrupt government officials topping the list with 4 out of 5 Americans. Over half of Americans fear pollution, cyber-terrorism, economic collapse, the pandemic, civil unrest, illness, and death.

It is no accident that the Age of Feeling is giving way to the Age of Anxiety. Sure, there are many contributing factors—the alienation and losses incurred by the pandemic, coddling parenting styles built on the false premise of human fragility (as Jonathan Haidt has argued), the world-shrinking effects of social media that bombard us with terrible global news at an unprecedented pace, political upheaval, and more.

But there is a more profound theological reason that the Age of Feeling turns to an Age of Anxiety. We are creatures and not the Creator. We were never designed to bear the impossible weight of creating and sustaining our identities. That is a God-sized task, and whenever we elevate ourselves to supreme status, playing God, anxiety inevitably spikes.

If history is any teacher, then a culture-wide anxiety crisis is nothing to take lightly. It primes a culture to enter ages of political totalitarianism, ideological violence, shallow escapism, and other gloomy outcomes. Speaking of another “major watershed in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Rennaissance,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn closed his famous 1978 Harvard commencement with the poignant words, “It will demand from us a spiritual blaze. … No one on earth has any other way left but—upward.”

Amen. Rather than watching passively as our Age of Feeling and Anxiety devolves into ages of totalitarianism and chaos, let us work and pray toward a coming Age of Revival centered on the Lord Jesus Christ.

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Thaddeus Williams

Thaddeus Williams is the author of the best-selling book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth: 12 Questions Christians Should Ask About Social Justice (Zondervan/HarperCollins, 2020). He serves as associate professor of systematic theology for the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University and resides in Orange County, Calif., with his wife and four kids.

Don't Follow Your Heart

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