The West Has Lost Its Clothes

In the past, Western society was held together by three sinews: tradition, authority, and power. To change the image, these were the garments that covered Western society, and without them it has become indecent. Of these three, tradition might have been the first to go, although it went hand in hand with authority. Tradition is the process whereby one generation inducts its successor into its accumulated wisdom, lore, and values. The family once served as the chief conduit for this transmission, but the family is now collapsing, not merely because of divorce but as a result of affluence and the innovations of a technological age. In a video-saturated culture in which, to play on Auden’s lines, “anguish comes by cable, / And the deadly sins can be bought in tins / With instructions on the label,” film and television now provide the sorts of values that were once provided by the family. And public education, which used to be another conduit for such value, has also contracted out of this business, pleading that it has an obligation to be value-neutral. So it is that in the new civilization that is emerging, children are lifted away from the older values like anchorless boats on a rising tide.

At the same time, society finds that it can no longer recognize appeals to authority, for any transcendent realm in which these appeals might be lodged has vanished from sight. This is evident in many contexts – in art, literature, philosophy, politics – but a single pattern is common to them all. First, the Christian theism on which Western societies were built was replaced by idealism of one kind or another. This idealism still had a transcendent interest, but it was no longer theistic. Then the idealism collapsed during the nineteenth century. Initially it was replaced by a kind of humanism that was elevated in its ethical and aesthetic interests,” but as such it had no durable conceptual base, and so it fell apart. In the political arena it gave way to various totalitarianisms – on the left to Lenin and Marx, and on the right to Hitler and Mussolini. These have now passed, but the moral vacuum they filled for a time remains, not only in politics but in many other aspects of life as well.

The three tendons have thus been reduced. Tradition and authority have been severed; only power remains. It is power alone that must direct our corporate life, power severed from a moral order that might contain and correct it and from the values of the past that might inform it. In a strange testimony to this inner vacuum, the profession of law has risen to such prominence in America that 70 percent of all the lawyers in the world practice here. In the absence of moral obligation and a sense of what is right, disputes are extraordinarily difficult to resolve, and so the set of rules that has emerged under the law must take on duties that were once shouldered by a variety of other institutions – the family, the schools, the church. Now we are left with only the lawyers. It is a terrible thing, Solzhenitsyn said, to live in a society (such as that in the former Soviet Union) where there is no law; it is also a terrible thing to live in a society (such as that in America) where there are only lawyers….

In the nineteenth century in particular, there were numerous attempts to establish a system of morals that did not need to assume the existence of God and his revelation. These experiments were all conducted by a small avant-garde made up of philosophers, novelists, and artists. What has changed is that now the whole of society has become avant-garde. It is the whole of society that is now engaged in this massive experiment to do what no other major civilization has done – to rebuild itself deliberately and self-consciously without religious foundations. And the bottom line of this endeavor is that truth in any absolute sense has gone. Truth, like life, is fractured. Like experience, it is disjointed. Like our perceptions of ourselves, it is uncertain. It takes on different appearances as we move between the small units of meaning that make up our social experience. Like our manners, it must be adapted to each context and it must remain flexible. It is simply a type of etiquette. It has no authority, no sense of rightness, because it can no longer find any anchorage in anything absolute. If it persuades, it does so because our experience has given it its persuasive power -but tomorrow our experience might be different….

Not surprisingly, these developments in the modern world have produced what Berger calls a “plausibility crisis” for Christian faith.’ It is his assumption that Christian belief, like any other kind of belief involving a worldview, needs a set of social relations, a structure of relationships, in which that worldview is seen to “make sense.” It is this external network that authenticates the internal belief. The problem facing Christians today is that this network, this structure of relationships, has been profoundly undermined. Outside is a world that ignores what is most important to Christians and that is in fact now organizing itself on the basis of that rejection. Within the larger society, secularism seems natural because its context gives it plausibility; within that same society, Christian faith seems odd, and the context strips it of truthfulness. The bias of our experience in the modern world tilts heavily against a perception that the Christian faith is true and equally heavily toward a perception that secularism is true.

David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, 84-7.

 

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Filed under Christian Thinking, Culture, Epistemology, God, Morality, Truth, Worldview

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