The Moral Crisis of Our Time

Nineteen sixty-eight is rightly remembered as a year of chaos, confusion, and confrontation. As the year began, the noted sociologist of religion, William “Will” Herberg (1901-1977), published an essay entitled “What Is the Moral Crisis of Our Time?” in the Intercollegiate Review (January-March 1968). As a college senior reading that essay, I was struck by its analytical and prophetic power.

In Catholic tradition, the word work means efforts that bring order out of chaos. Will Herberg’s essay “worked” for me. Its thesis was – and, I believe, is – so clear and so compelling that it effectively provides a moral and intellectual beacon with which we can see through the darkness of our day and find a path (cf. Deuteronomy 5:32-33) leading to ethical sanity. In short, Herberg’s essay was, to use the literary term, an anagnorisis for me – a kind of mental “Road-to-Damascus Moment” – that drew the loose threads of the day into a recognizable fabric.

Fifty years ago, at the dawn of the fateful year of 1968, there was still hope (as Herberg points out) that out of the rampant chaos then beginning to reign a new morality would emerge from the ashes. (Little did he, or we, know what lay before us as the terrible months of 1968, and beyond, elapsed.) But the situationalism of that new “morality” would fail, Herberg said, “unless [there was] some principle, some standard transcending the particular context.” Without objective standards, “nothing but moral chaos and capriciousness can result.”

If such chaos leads to personal pleasure, though, Herberg warned us, it would be considered desirable. After all, we send our children off with a hearty “Have Fun!” and hardly anyone even remembers saying, “Go with God.” About the rising and ubiquitous sybaritic “culture” of our day, Herberg was prescient.

Herberg’s thesis was as perceptive as it was succinct: “the moral crisis of our time consists primarily not in the widespread violation of accepted moral standards . . . but in the repudiation of those very moral standards themselves.” The moral code of the Greeks, based upon reason, and of the Hebrews, based upon Revelation, had atrophied, he wrote, to the point of dissolution. We were “rapidly losing all sense of transcendence.” We were adrift, by choice, in a sea of disorder with no “navigational” standards to consult.

Where we had looked to knowledge as truth, we were starting to exalt knowledge as power, complemented by the ideology of technology worship. In 1968, Will Herberg did not foresee the grave dangers of unlimited artificial intelligence – the cyborg Sophia did not then exist – but Herberg knew that a kind of technopolis was on the horizon, and he warned us about it.

He pointed to Jean-Paul Sartre’s advice to a young man living in Nazi-occupied France as an example of the moral bewilderment increasingly held as “authentic” in the 1960s. The man had asked Sartre if he should fight the Nazis in the Resistance movement or cooperate with them, obtaining a sinecure in the Vichy Regime. The choice hardly mattered, said Sartre, as long as the decision was authentic and inward. If there are no objective standards to govern moral choice, then what is chosen does not matter. The only concern is whether one chooses “authentically.” Thus Herberg concluded: “The moral crisis of our time is, at bottom, a metaphysical and religious crisis.”

Herberg prophesied rabid subjectivism, all-pervasive antinomianism, and a soul-searing secularism, what Pope Benedict was much later to call the “dictatorship of relativism.” In contending that standards cannot exist unless tradition is respected and revivified, Herberg quoted the Greek elegiac poet Theognis (about sixth century B.C.), who said: “Only he who has the tradition has the standard.”

We now may be so mired in narcissistic norms that we cannot even understand Herberg’s jeremiad: “No human ethic is possible that is not itself grounded in a higher law and a higher reality beyond human manipulation or control.” The reason of the Greeks and the Revelation of the Hebrews are now replaced by modernist profane worship of man by man: thus, tyranny beckons and awaits.

Herberg quotes cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897): “When men lose their sense of established standards, they inevitably fall victim to the urge for pleasure or power.” Herberg, who was Jewish (and also wrote a book on American religion still worth reading Protestant, Catholic, Jew), does not quote St. Paul, but he could have: “when [people] measure themselves [only] by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.” (2 Cor 10:12) Nor does he quote St. John, but he could have: “Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly.” (7:24)

Here, exactly, is the crux of the crisis of our day. Is there any rule, canon, standard, or authority that we justly accept as governor of our morals, our politics, our very lives?  We know that the substitution of self or state for God leads to the Gulag. There is a reason, in short, that the First Commandment is first, for God’s wisdom “ordereth all things sweetly.” (Wisdom 8:1 DRB) Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear?

In 1968, Herberg wrote that he could not be sanguine about the prospects of restoring tradition and of revitalized moral standards based upon reason and God’s revelation. Plaintively, he asked, “Is it ever really possible simply to regain what has once been lost?” Were Will Herberg living today, would he have any cause for greater optimism now than he did fifty years ago?

Will Herberg lectures, c. 1968

James H. Toner

James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.