One of the saddest and most revealing headlines I've seen in a very long time comes to us in the New York Times: “U.K. Appoints a Minister for Loneliness.”
Ceylan Yeginsu reports for the Times: “Since Britain voted to leave the European Union more than a year ago, Europeans have mockingly said that the decision will result in an isolated, lonely island nation. But Britain” we’re told, “in fact, already has a serious problem with loneliness.”
Research has already established that. A 2017 report, we are told, indicated that “more than nine million people in [Great Britain are] often or always [feeling] lonely.”
Now what makes this particularly newsworthy is that on Wednesday of last week the British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a new member of the government, a new official, a minister for loneliness.
The Prime Minister said: “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. I want,” she said, “to confront this challenge for our society and for all of us to take action to address the loneliness endured by the elderly, by careers, by those who have lost loved ones — people who have no one to talk to or share their thoughts and experiences with.”
Now, the bizarre aspect of this story is the fact that Britain believes that the answer to this is government establishing a new program headed by a new official, effectively a minister for loneliness. The article goes on to articulate just how dangerous loneliness is suggesting that loneliness can be a greater risk to human health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. You can look that up in the article.
Furthermore, we are told that it’s not just a problem, of course, in Great Britain. It is also a matter of concern to a former United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who wrote an article for the Harvard business review arguing that loneliness needs to be addressed in all of society, even in the workplace.
The article tells us a great deal about loneliness in Great Britain. It identifies, as the prime minister's comment signifies, that there is a particular problem amongst the aged, the elderly in Great Britain, but the most surprising aspect of the article tells us that loneliness is a newly acute problem amongst many who are very young. The article documents the fact that loneliness is now a major problem amongst many college and university students, young people who are living in the midst of other young people, often in a very concentrated social environment. This just points to the fact that one can be lonely in a crowd. Loneliness is not the absence of other people in our lives, it is the absence of relationships and meaningful human contact.
A biblical perspective would underline the fact that we shouldn't be surprised that loneliness would be not only devastating as an experience, but perhaps even deadly as a health consequence. God made us individual human beings each made in the image of God needing one another. God made us as social creatures needing that kind of social contact, and, furthermore, social encouragement. We know that human beings who are isolated from society and isolated from meaningful human contact, grow weary of life. All of life becomes distorted, a distorted view of reality; it’s one of the saddest but most inevitable byproducts of loneliness.
But we also see some big problems in this article, for one thing we notice that the extremes of age are identified as two very urgent problems: loneliness amongst the young and loneliness amongst the older. Now, of course, it can affect persons of any age, but it does tell us that there are two generational concentrations. We thus need to ask the question why. Why would there be, in our own moment, a significant increase of loneliness amongst the aged and amongst the very un-aged, the young? I think we would come to two very important conclusions.
The first is this: The breakup of the family, the isolation of the family, social mobility, and especially the demise of the extended family, explain why so many amongst the elderly are cut off, not only from other elderly persons but from their own families, from meaningful contact with persons who are considerably younger. That was not a problem when the extended family was far more of a reality. The biblical vision of the family starts with what we call the natural family, which starts with marriage; the monogamous, faithful, lifetime union, covenantal union, of one man and one woman. They are then set apart unto each other and from that union will come children, that's the natural family, and, furthermore, to that family may be added other children who come into the family not by the natural means of reproduction but rather by the gift of adoption. And then we have beyond the natural family, the extended family, an entire system of kinship. Most importantly we have the influence of grandparents in the lives of grandchildren, and we also add to that the gift of aunts and uncles and cousins, all of this a part of God's gift of family.
We find this in the very first book of the Bible in Genesis, and as we understand our commitment to a biblical worldview, we are utterly unsurprised when minimizing the reality of the extended family and subverting the reality of the natural family; human beings in our times find themselves increasingly isolated and increasingly lonely. That should come as no surprise. It's a consequence of moral actions for which we as human beings are accountable.
It's also tied to widespread social movements, to vast changes in the society, made by industrialization and mobilization and transportation and the modern workforce, but, furthermore, also driven by a subversion of the very commitment to the idea and the ideal of family. But we also come to understand that in our time something else has intervened, many things to be sure, but amongst those would have to be listed the advent of social media in the digital age. That helps perhaps to explain more directly the impact of loneliness in epidemic form amongst young people. Young adults, teenagers, and adolescents who can be lonely even in the concentrated presence of so many others of their own age.
But we also have to ask whether or not government has any practical power to resolve the real crisis of loneliness. This is where Christians remember the principle of subsidiarity, a principle deeply rooted in Christian thinking, that reminds us that we are unable to solve problems at the big level, the global level, the civilizational level, even the government level, the reflexive breakdown at the most basic level. Subsidiarity affirms that truth and goodness and reality subside along with love at the most basic level more than anywhere else. So when we’re thinking about the family, all these things, all good things, subside in marriage first then in parents and family and beyond that in local communities and congregations and beyond that in concentric rings, but here's the point: Every concentric ring outward is less competent to deal with the problem or to deliver the goods as the one that is next inside the circle.
So, a family is the best context for raising children. Parents are the most competent for raising children. The point as we’re thinking about government is this: In the light of the breakdown of the family, government might have to intervene to try to help children, but the sad reality is that no government, however competent or benign, can actually replace a parent. That's just a sign of reality in a fallen world, an affirmation of subsidiarity.
So, this should tell us that when government establishes, in this case the government of the United Kingdom, a new ministry program and a minister for loneliness it's an affirmation of a problem, it’s not likely, in reality, to be a step towards the solution. To put the matter bluntly, government can't be our friend; government can't solve the problem of loneliness. It doesn't mean that government can’t have a role by some means in helping to facilitate human connection, it does mean that when human connection breaks down at a fundamental basic level no government, no amount of government spending, no goodness of government intentions can solve the problem.
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.