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Anomie (Normlessness)

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Volume 20 Issue 3


By default and by failure, I believe, we have allowed our movement to slip into a state of ‘anomie.’ And this is a serious matter. I make this judgment based on thoughtful reflection, personal experience and investigation.

Anomie is, by definition, “a state or condition of individuals or society characterized by a breakdown or absence of social norms and values” ( This condition is often given the name of normlessness. Such a condition has the potential to push a whole culture into collapse — morally and spiritually.

There can be many causes for immorality, and the one most often cited is the unguarded exposure to immoral things. The argument goes that when good people are casual about their associations with evil people then they become desensitized to immorality or evil and they adopt contrary values or, at the very least, they compromise to one degree or another. This is clearly pointed out to us in the Bible through the doctrines of separation and sanctification. It is illustrated in the Old Testament when God called His people out of the surrounding godless nations.

But there is another cause for the collapsing of moral purity, sacred values, beliefs and, in the case of the church, doctrinal absolutes. It may be linked to sudden radical social change that uproots people or overwhelms them. Such is the theory espoused by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim and American sociologist Robert Merton in their views of ‘anomie’ or normlessness.

“People are not endowed at birth with fixed appetites and ambitions. On the contrary, their purposes and aspirations are shaped by the generalized opinions and reactions of others, by a collective conscience, that can appear through social ritual and routine to be externally derived, solid and objective. When society is disturbed by rapid change or major disorder, however, that semblance of solidity and objectivity can itself founder, and people may no longer find their ambitions subject to effective social discipline. It is hard to live outside the reassuring structures of social life, and the condition of anomie is experienced as a ‘malady of infinite aspiration,’ accompanied by weariness, disillusionment, disturbance, agitation and discontent.”

This best states the point I wish to make here, but allow me to re-phrase it from a pastoral perspective. Modern life presents many opportunities that are unique to each generation. For example, I did not use a computer when I was in high school because I did not have the option. But the opportunities I did have needed to be guided by proper appetites and ambitions. However, the appetites and ambitions are not fixed or automatic, but, as Durkheim points out, “are shaped by…a collective conscience that (are) externally derived, solid and objective.” Put biblically, the older must teach the younger the principles and truths that will righteously guide all ambitions.

Ponder, if you will, a society such as ours, which has been overwhelmed by technological revolution, communication revolution, political revolution, educational revolution, and religious revolution. Space here does not allow me to spell out the consequences of all these elements…I am depending on readers who have already experienced such consequences and are struggling with them in your churches and your families. Ponder further the tragedy that will develop if there is no collective conscience in play. What if no one spelled out the guiding principles, or turned on the lighthouse of convictions in this age? As Durkheim put it, what if the “solidity and objectivity itself” flounders?

What if no one was sure what he or she believed? What if the old paths were hidden under the slimy moss of sinful pursuits? Suppose that things changed so fast that generational gaps formed into floating icebergs as if from an exploding glacier. Then you have an anomie: a societal change in which the desire and ambitions are still there but are unguided. The falcon can no longer hear the falconer, to quote Yeats. Or, as Durkheim put it, “a malady of infinite aspiration, accompanied by weariness, disillusionment, disturbance, agitation and discontent.”

Here, I contend, is where we are as a church, as a movement — not just Pentecostals but the whole of Christianity. If we hope to get back to the truths that hold us together, then time is of the essence. We are living through an anomie, or a period of normlessness. The problem is not that we have been captured and cannot play our harps in a strange land but that we are not doctrinally or spiritually strong enough to remember the songs. In many cases our failure is that we do not demand greatness of the upcoming generation. We coddle our children; we want them to be popular, modern and fresh, but we fail to insist that they live right. We buy them computers but not the Truth. We put into their hands buildings, million dollar treasuries, and holiness-believing congregations without insisting that they keep the faith. Our silence in matters of doctrine and righteousness is rationalized by the silly idea that you can reach the world by being like the world. We are rich enough to please our flesh, but we give little consideration to pleasing Jesus. We prefer stylishness to saintliness. And, finally, when an upcoming generation cannot hear a certain sound one thing is sure: they will fail.

This generation must feel the force of Truth. We must have a conscience that is fully developed and beliefs that are tied to the anchor, which are not adjusted in order to prevent offending the rich or the fashionable.

Revelation is from the authority of the spirit, not the development of the mind. If we fail along these lines then we will have a different belief in every church, a different stand in every district. We no longer will speak the same things, and our young men and women who are not given clear guidelines will allow their ambition to fly their own course in order to reach selfish goals, crushing all that get in the way. The new ethos will be “everyone for themselves.” And someday, someone will ask, “How did they lose so much so quickly?” The answer will be that they got lost in the storm of post-modernism and, unwilling to hear the communication from the shore, failed to launch their lifeboats even as the winds dashed them against the rocks. For they were not without hope, doctrine, Truth, courage, absolutes, and a great Captain were available all the while.

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