Eberhard Arnold on Youth and Identity

The following comprises a series of excerpts from a 1919 publication titled The Religious Sentiment of Today’s Youth. While exploring the unease of the post-war generation, Eberhard Arnold explains that finding a true identity is nothing less than finding God’s will.

Youth is like a cable stretched between the people of yesterday and the people of tomorrow.

It is the nature of all genuine young people to seek harmony between the world without and the world within. Young people want to remain in harmony with themselves in all things, and they believe that order and harmony will be achieved through this world. They wish to assert themselves and consciously be themselves. But they seek the shape of this self in the whole of the world. This identity expands beyond what is individual and becomes the primeval fount of all existence. Again and again the world is experienced as a collective identity, and nothing exists outside of it. The youthful person senses the religious force of this great identity. At the same time, such people wish to be the self that lives and shapes the world according to their own inner compulsion. The longing that caused Novalis to say, “The individual soul must be brought into harmony with the world soul,” was as much religious as it was personal. Here lies the mystery of the enormous tension in today’s youth: that on the one hand they lay claim to the individual self, its autonomy and its religious intensity, while on the other hand they seek nothing more ardently than the soul of the world, the spirit of the cosmos, the all-embracing Spirit of the Deity.

Once again young people wish to make humanity's highest and most godlike inner calling an outward reality, independent of all outward coercion, and in opposition to all that is base and ugly. Precepts that may or may not have been valid for earlier generations cannot guide young people to this calling; the only thing that can do it is a life of personal inner conscience, a new religious world feeling, the instinctive sureness of a firm decision. What young people are fighting to attain is the ideal of the free and truthful personality; it is love; it is to be truly human.

What is meant here by “youthfulness” is a liberation for individual independence, without which morality and religion cannot exist. Hence it means freedom from all restrictive dependency and from the enslavements of tradition. This essential character of youthfulness is best expressed in the struggle for the free self-determination of the spirit. Physical fitness and a natural deepening of a feeling for life are means toward this final goal of highest and purest manhood and womanhood. Youth wants to confront a new life with a new humanity. Free of the misgivings of the older generation, they want to dedicate themselves to their ideal in all genuineness. Again and again it is the same passionate rebellion against tradition and authority (as in the Sturm und Drang of Goethe and Schiller) that has to place its own feelings, the unfettered enthusiasm of its own soul, above all the misgivings that others may have.

This is because they all, each in their own way, seek a religious freeing from the narrow individualism of past times; they strive for the inner harmony that should unite their personal emotional experience with the entire world, with its life and suffering.

Yet as long as we try to enlarge our own self so that it becomes the world, as long as we persist in seeing the meaning of the world in a random uniting with all the elements of the universe, our merging with God remains an impersonal one. The desired personal worth is not won either for God or for our own self on this road. We ourselves remain without the integrity which alone makes a personality. And we have no living, personal God.

Humankind attains God only by doing his will. Jesus said when speaking of his mission: “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (John 7:17).

And as I come to know God alone in his will, so it is alone by doing his will that I arrive at my own will, at myself. By knowing myself at one with the ever present will that is God, I recognize myself as coming from God, I recognize the particular character of my present situation as given to me by God. It is in this experience and nowhere else that the self comes to value its existence as a personal will, as a self-governing ego, as a soul. By winning God I win my soul, I win my personal life. The experience of God unveils for me the eternal meaning of my present situation and the divine reality of my own self. It reveals to me the God-given significance of my presence, of my existence.

Submission to God’s will means in truth the awakening of inner independence and of human freedom. Only the inner essence of eternity gives significance and worth to my own self. Without that, it is only sound and fury, futile and senseless. Only when I know why and for what purpose I am in the world, only when I recognize and experience my holy task, can there be a genuine affirmation of life. This affirmation consists in surrender to the task, in an inward sensing of the divine “thou shalt.”

Here the connection between the infinite and the finite finally becomes tangible. Here the central view, for which young people have been searching, is attained in its wholeness. The longed for insight into the depths of reality has been found. Only in this way is the core of all life at the same time the experience of the worth of one’s own soul. The limitations of self are torn down; and just in this way identity is won. Imprisonment in space and time is overcome; and in this way it is possible to endure life in space and time, and to joyfully affirm it.

Draft translation.

Article edited for length and clarity. View original document here: The Religious Sentiment of Today's Youth.