Subversive Intuitions and Generational Personalities

Among the more striking characteristics of generational theory is the particular personalities of the four generational types; as Strauss &Howe explain, the cycle of historical events, parenting styles, and cultural shifts lead to a cycle of general generational traits. Of course, each person is different, and each specific generation is different, but there are patterns that emerge fairly clearly when we look at large cohorts over time.

In my work in generational theory, I’ve concentrated primarily on the currently living generations – how people who are living relate to each other, particularly in UU congregational settings. But in reading the first couple of chapters of Gary Dorrien’s The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progresive Religion 1805-1900, I began to see what Strauss & Howe are really talking about.

Dorrien’s first few chapters concern primarily the founding of Unitarianism and the Transcendentalist movement – key of course to our denomination, but also key to American liberal religion in general. Among the players in these early years are 

  • William Ellery Channing – born 1780 – Compromise Generation (Adaptive)
  • Andrews Norton – born 1786 – Compromise Generation (Adaptive)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson – born 1803 – Transcendental Generation (Idealist)
  • Theodore Parker – born 1810 – Transcendental Generation (Idealist)

Now what we know about Adaptives is they are very invested in process, considering all sides of an issue, and bringing people together.  Idealists tend to be invested in vision, big ideas, and persuasion.

Thus, when Emerson and Parker catch fire with their transcendentalist thought, they are willing (Parker moreso) to throw firebombs; Parker was so horrified at the rancor at a meeting of the Berry Street Conference that he remarked “I intend in the coming year to let out all the force of Transcendentalism that is in me. Come what will come; I will let off the Truth fast as it comes.”

Emerson seemed a little less eager to rush into controversy; however, his Divinity School Address was a bold statement against the Unitarians, and he should have expected the firestorm that ensued. Norton fanned that flame; while he was an Adaptive, Norton saw Emerson’s – and the other Transcendentalists’ – passion as an affront to what he saw as the open arms of Unitarianism. Consensus challenged led Norton to fight for what was most important, coming together.

Channing, on the other hand, didn’t engage the fight as much as he worked tirelessly to find common ground, to bring everyone together. As Dorrien notes, this factional fight was what Channing spent the latter part of his career mediating. As a result, he was claimed by both sides – another charge often leveled against Adaptives, who just want everyone to get along.

I think about the parallels today – Harry Reid, the Adaptive, against John Boehner, the Idealist. Harry, accused of playing both sides – and John, so stuck in his resolve he won’t budge. And in our congregations, we see it: the over 70s who won’t leave leadership for fear of what will happen to the congregation they so lovingly nutured, and the Boomers who usher in big sweeping changes with great vision and excitement.

What will be interesting in the subsequent reading of our Unitarian and Universalist history – as well as the next decades of our congregations – is how the next generation of Nomads, those pragmatic, just do it types, affect and shift who we are and can become.

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