BEYOND THE MODERN AGE: An Archaeology of Contemporary Culture. By Bob Goudzwaard and Craig G. Bartholomew. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017. Xi + 313 pages.
The eighteenth century brought us the Enlightenment and modernity, with the promise that reason, along with science and technology, would make life better, that it would solve our problems. The truth is, in some ways, life is better. As I sit here at my computer, in an air-conditioned house, I surely do not wish to go back and live in the seventeenth century. However, reason didn’t solve all our problems. In fact, “progress” is a mixed blessing. That may be why many have turned to forms of postmodernism, because it seemed to free us from the shackles of a rather gray and confining mechanical world view. But, in the age of alternative facts, perhaps the promise of postmodernity has proven problematic. I'm not a philosopher, but how should we understand our age, and where it seems to be leading?
Beyond the Modern Age offers an analysis of our contemporary culture and its antecedents (thus the use of the word archaeology) that is undertaken by two evangelical academics of a Reformed stripe, who seem to have a predilection for the vision of Abraham Kuyper. One of the two authors is an economist from the Netherlands and the other is a Canadian. At a timbeyond the Modern Age (Bob e when we hear that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, apparently embracing his populist white nationalism, it is refreshing to hear that not all evangelicals think alike. While I found places of difference, especially regarding their take on sexuality (they’re traditionalists), I found their analysis thought provoking and insightful. As with Miroslav’s book from a year earlier, Flourishing, the authors make the important claim that religion will need to play a significant role in our attempts to deal with the issues confronting us, especially economic and climate related issues.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One is titled "The Archaeology of Modernity.” In the four chapters that make up the section, they explore four world views that they identify as having emerged since the seventeenth century. They begin with the classical/mechanical worldview of the Enlightenment, the world view of Locke, Newton, and Hume. It is the vision that gave birth to the modern world. The second world view emerged as a response to the first. This structural-Critical world view raises important questions about the existence of unjust structures. While the critique is important, some attempts at dealing with structural issues have been deadly (witness Mao). A third world view is the Cultural-Critical. They find this more hopeful, but it too has a dark side. Finally, there is the postmodern worldview. All four visions of the world have their problems, and all make important contributions to human progress. After all, as they note, it was the classical world view that made the modern world possible. Things like economic and technological advance, along with freedom, democracy, and human rights are all principles that emerged with the Enlightenment. At the same time, this world view presents serious ethical challenges, especially in its libertarian guise. The structural critique has provided an important corrective, as there are many structures that have led to inequity in society need to be challenged and changed, especially in the economic realm. However, this critique also lends itself to ideological tendencies that can impinge on the private lives of individuals. They find the cultural critique more attractive, in that it is more relational and more sensitive to individual needs, but its appeal to altruism can lead to few positive results (it puts too much faith in people). As for postmodernism, its resistance to ideology and metanarrative is important. It calls into question the hubris of rationalism, but it also can lead to deep ambivalence to truth. By itself, this is a useful overview of modern worldviews and ideologies. But that's just the first section.
In part two, titled “Transcendence and Modernity," the authors introduce us to resources that they believe can assist us in transcending or moving beyond the modern age as it has existed. Standing at the center of this conversation is a reengagement with religion, but not just any form of religion will do. We need healthy forms, and rightfully they do not limit “healthy religion” to Christianity. They seem to have questions about Islam, but they affirm it as well, if it leads to healthy communities. They remind us that in many ways the secular turn has failed to capture our imaginations, and the world is turning more and more to religion, especially in the Global South. In this context, they engage several thought leaders, beginning with Jewish sociologist Philip Rieff's "sacred sociology." Rieff calls for a reengagement with religion, which I affirm, but he, like the authors, seems to have a narrower view of sexuality, and I found this section disconcerting. Fortunately, that part of the conversation, does not color the entire chapter. Other chapters engage Rene Girard's discussion of desire and violence. This chapter was intriguing, as it helped me understand why people seem to desire what others desire. Finally, they speak of pluralism. While many evangelicals seem resistance to the possibilities of pluralism, they embrace it, but not just any pluralism, a nuanced form. In the concluding chapter in this section, the authors focus on the image of the "starving Christ and a preferential option for the poor." Here the economist emerges, critiquing runaway, laissez faire capitalism. This option for the poor is, in their mind, and in mine as well, a sign of healthy religion. They don't call for total renunciation of goods or wealth, but recognize that this can be a possible response to the temptation of greed. They don’t call for a complete abandonment of capitalism, but they argue that for there to be a future for humanity and the world, we will need to turn to an economy of care, which looks to the needs of the poor and of creation. In making this argument they challenge our enslavement to a consumerist culture.
Perhaps the most powerful section of the book is Part Three, "Finding Ways Beyond Modernity." There are only two chapters, but they are worth the price of the book. They begin by summarizing the four world views explored at the beginning of the book, setting up their discourse about economics and care of creation. Having already suggested a turn to an economy of care, they begin to lay out what this looks like. They speak of two kinds of economies, a tunnel economy and a fruit-tree economy. They call the tunnel economy a postcare economy, which focuses on consumption and production, and then seeks to mitigate the negative effects. An example of mitigation might be recycling. A fruit tree economy, on the other hand, is "pre-care." It puts needs of the other first, before consumption and production get started. This involves what they call an "economy of enough." That doesn’t sound very American, but it is very Christian. But it’s not just a slogan. They engage in economic theory, something not all critics engage in. They speak here of two kinds of labor: "directly productive labor" and "transductive labor." The first is focused on producing products for consumption. It is the basis of our current economy, which is running out of steam, because much of the means of production is being automated and the means to powering this economy is destructive of the environment. Transductive labor, however, whether paid or unpaid, has fewer environmental impacts and can be more satisfying. While production of products is necessary, going forward it cannot provide full employment possibilities. Transductive labor is more human intensive (can’t be as easily automated), and includes such activities as raising children, caring for the environment or the elderly, performing music or theater, education. They note that government departments also belong her. While such forms of labor don’t create products to sell, and thus don't automatically provide financial return, they add immense value to society and culture. They suggest, that if we give greater emphasis to these kinds of labor, we have greater chance of resolving the challenge of unemployment. This is especially important as production becomes more and more automated. Transductive labor is less susceptible to replacement by machines! This was fascinating to me and requires more attention. I only wish members of our government would read this.
The closing chapter offers more suggestions on moving forward, on both economic and climate fronts. I would love every climate-denying evangelical, especially ones who complain about the economic costs of mitigating climate change, would read this chapter. Here's the kicker, while they don’t reject science and technology, they also don’t believe that science and technology will solve our problems. They do believe, however, that if people of faith, whatever their religious tradition, would commit themselves to addressing our economic challenges, by embracing an economy of enough, and address climate-related issues, there will be hope for the future. In other words, let's recognize the secular roots of our current dilemma—the embrace of that classical Enlightenment worldview that assumes that technology is the source of unending progress—and look to our faith traditions for a better way forward (not a return to the 17th century, a movement forward through the 21st).
While there were points in the book where I found myself feeling adrift, especially in the middle parts, the last section of the book is must read. It is a call to action on the part of Christians and other people of faith to root themselves in their traditions, and then get busy making for a better world. I realize that some of my brothers and sisters don’t believe this is our calling, but here is where I get on board with the Reformed commitment to cultural and societal engagement. This is a book that climate-denying, consumerist-oriented evangelical Christians need to read—closely. At the same time, I think that some of my progressive friends might learn a thing or to, especially when it comes to economics. There is a need for a bit of realism, for some economic theorizing, that is often absent from more Progressive visions. Besides, we might find that we have important allies among those whose theologies might be a bit more “conservative.” They also challenge our tendency, whatever our political style, to become beholden to ideology. Indeed, they suggest that it is not religion that is the problem, it is ideology that has taken hold of religion. I think they’re on to something important here, so take and read Beyond the Modern Age!