Recently I went to a lecture by Niall Ferguson (that's pronounced like Neil), with these words in the title. Degeneration and Regeneration. It was ostensibly a lecture about how our institutions in the US have declined (maybe even disintegrated), and how the come-back is also happening. Not "how" as in "this happened..." but "how" as in literally what steps took place that brought us here.
His number one point was that this societal/cultural/institutional disintegration is happening because of a "massive breach in the social contract between generations." He talked about how at some point, we stopped caring (or at least our policies and most of our actions imply that we stopped caring) about those who will come after us and thought primarily about what was good for us now. This wasn't even entirely about generations as we normally conceive of them--Boomers and Xers and Millennials (though there was some talk in this area)--
but as in "those of us alive now" forgetting that what we have was at least partially built by those who came before, and that we should be thinking about what we're building for those who come after.
To which I say: yes yes yes. We have become so enamored of our instant gratification and our ability to meet our every desire that we have forgotten that there's more to life than what we can have, do, or be ourselves.
When this shift happened and our primary concern became ourselves and the comfort of our lives in the here and now, our institutions began to decline so rapidly it's actually a little mind-boggling. Our economic institutions, our religious institutions, our educational system, our understanding of what it means to be a member of a society, our associations and groups, our political institutions--all are failing. The economic collapse is a pretty tangible symptom, and I think we could put Congress pretty squarely in that tangible-symptom column too. And the decline in church attendance. And the decline in groups like Rotary or the Junior League. And the discussion about public schools and teachers, and the discussion about unions and pensions and minimum wage and all kinds of other things.
Though I will note that Niall Ferguson and I disagree pretty heavily about some of those things. (His solution to the education problem is to privatize education and create economic-style competition among primary and secondary schools. I think that would actually further contribute to the breach of contract between generations.)
In any case: his lecture title is about de-generation, which has happened and continues to happen. But he also talks about re-generation--he has massive amounts of optimism, maybe even hope. Some of that may be tenuously founded, but he has it nonetheless.
I think I do too, but I also think it's going to take a HUGE amount of work on our part to re-generate--as in, to rebuild the contract between the generations. It will require actual relationships with people of different ages, socio-economic statuses, life experience, etc. It will require that we constantly and consciously look for the bigger picture--not just what can we do right now, but what will that mean in 5, 10, 15, 50 years? It will require the long view of history and the future. It will require that we learn to listen to one another without formulating our own rebuttal. It will require that we learn compassion.
Most of all: it will require that we actually spend time together not just in our own nuclear families or small friend-groups, but by associating with all kinds of people, even some with whom we disagree, as we listen and search and wonder and serve.
Kind of sounds like church.
Here's hoping that the church can recover the best of itself--its calling to be the Body of Christ--and lead the way on this regeneration. of course, that would require that we take the focus off of what and who can serve us (save us?) in the short term and look at the bigger picture. That bigger picture is what we usually call The Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us to pray that it will come on earth as it is in heaven. That's a pretty long view--much longer than the annual statistical report or the fundraiser or the hymn selection or the new member class or how many hours the pastor spends visiting/in the office/at Presbytery.
Can we take our eyes off the expedient ways we seek to feed our immediate desires long enough to look at that bigger picture, to be a part of the regeneration?
I don't know the answer to that question, but my own answer is: I hope.