014 Modernity’s Inquisitors


The classic question “what ought I do” entails not only an ethical imperative but a future orientation, a certain awareness (if not certain knowledge) of what’s to come. Some recent books suggest we should prepare to survive modernity’s collapse.

Bill McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information (New York: Random House, c. 1992) details the results of a fascinating experiment. Having videotaped all the TV programs aired, on May 3, 1990, on a cable system, he watched 1,000 hours (in itself no mean feat!) and thought about it, trying to understand how this medium affects us.

Then, to taste a different world, he spent a day in solitude on a mountain in the Adirondacks (near his home), listening to the wind rather than commercials, watching squirrels rather than sitcoms, reflecting on the vastly different kinds of “information” provided by nature and TV.

The very experiment, of course, is refreshing. He concluded: “We believe that we live in the ‘age of information,’ that there has been an information ‘explosion,’ and information ‘revolution.’ While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information” (p. 9).

The world has changed in the past 40 years, in part through TV. Increasing numbers of in people simply grow up in TV-land. Their world-view comes from the world viewed on the tube! “And as every great teacher . . . has told us, what we do and see each day is what shapes us, not how we behave or pretend to behave on special occasions” (p. 220). Without significant exposure to the real world, the natural world, they lack the perspective needed to separate fact from fantasy.

Consequently, our notions of family come from “The Brady Bunch” or “Three’s a Family,” our views of wilderness from “Wild Kingdom” or “National Geographic” specials, our impressions of politicians from campaign sound-bites, our beliefs about God from televangelists, our understanding of the world from carefully-orchestrated newscasts. McKibben’s not worried that TV’s “decadent or shortens your attention span or leads to murder. It worries me because it alters perception” (p. 22).

What we lose, by immersion in TV, is the healthy baptism in reality nature affords. There’s lots of truth we need to know, things our species has always known, embedded in the natural world. Over the millennia wise men and women have pondered and learned important truths while walking, farming, sensing the seasons, wondering at the stars. In gardens and parks, as well as wilderness areas, one may “read what John Muir called ‘the inexhaustible pages of nature . . . written over and over uncountable times, written in characters of every size and color, sentences composed of sentences, every part of a character a sentence'” (p. 35).

Following Muir’s advice, one learns to know a world quite unlike TV-land. In the natural world, such as the mountain where McKibben watched the patient movements of hawks and ducks, you learn that other creatures “are not there for you–they are there because the world belongs to them too” (p. 84). Yet this world, creation, as McKibben documented in an earlier book, The End of Nature, is everywhere endangered by our ruthless greed.

What’s true for our knowledge of nature is also true for our knowledge of God. McKibben carefully watched a plethora of TV “ministries.” What he found was that “above all else, they depict a strangely puny God. He can be easily persuaded to grant human wishes–a short of genie-in-the-bottle God” (p. 88). Lots of testimonies are given concerning what God has done and will do for us. Yet there’s “something missing here too–a sense of the experience of God, of the presence of the sacred that led people and societies to religion in the first place” (p. 93).

On the mountain McKibben sensed a God of a different order! He found, with Job of old, God in the thunder and the whirlwind, God the Creator, doing more than dash about answering our prayers for health and wealth. Ancient insights, inscribed in sacred scriptures, are confirmed on the mountain, where “the divine makes perfect sense.” And, McKibben believes, “if we felt it down to the soles of our feet we might be more moved to protect the rightness, the integrity, of the planet” (p. 99).

One of McKibben’s discoveries deeply impressed him: despite our boasts of “progress,” daily life for most of us has hardly changed in 40 years: “in material terms life on a 1960’s sitcom closely mirrors life on a 1990’s sitcom” (p. 113). The freezers and stoves, the cars and clothes, have hardly improved, despite some superficial changes. Coincidentally, studies “show that a ‘higher proportion of Americans reported being very happy in 1957 than anytime since” (p. 118).

Perhaps that’s because when we’re glued to the tube we’re in bondage to a medium which manipulates us through insatiable desires and shame, and which punctures anything smacking of nobility and lofty purpose. TV entertains, but (like the indescribably sad faces of rock musicians) it mainly numbs depression rather than inspires affections.

McKibben’s as fine writer. He knows how to illustrate his points, how to elicit reader response. He offers few simple solutions to our TV-sired predicament, though he certainly would urge us to take control of it and understand its philosophy. And to give us balance, to provide a real antidote to TV’s poison, he insists we must reach out and touch reality, the living around us.

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Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World (Albany: State University of New York Press, c. 1992), by David W. Orr, challenges us to re-think and re-orient our educational endeavors with a singular focus: to save the earth. The volume is one in the “SUNY Series in Constructive Postmodern Thought,” which explores the possibility, in the words of its editor, David Ray Griffin, that modernity is an “aberration,” that “the continuation of modernity threatens the very survival of life on our planet” (p. vi).

Given modernity’s misguidance, we need to find wiser guides than those which have structured today’s technological society. Unlike the “deconstructive postmodernists” who’ve attracted considerable media attention, however, “constructive postmodernism” seeks to “salvage a positive meaning not only for the notions of the human self, historical meaning, and truth as correspondence, which were central to modernity, but also for premodern notions of a divine reality, cosmic meaning, and an enchanted nature” (p. v).

Orr, director of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, first deals with “the issue of sustainability,” arguing we live on a finite planet which needs careful husbandry. Data detailing environmental degradation should chill us: daily we spew aloft 15,000,000 tons of carbon, wipe out 115 square miles of tropical rainforest, desertify 72 square miles of land, drive to extinction 40-100 species, erode 71,000,000 tons of topsoil, shoot 2700 tons of CFCs into the stratosphere, and add another 263,000 persons to the world’s population. The earth simply can’t long endure modernity’s technological society.

Yet the critical nature of the environmental crisis isn’t really technical. “Above all else it is a crisis of spirit and spiritual resources” (p. 4). The makers of modernity have so successfully preached a gospel of endless Progress and Prosperity, of economic growth and material affluence, that many of us take for granted their self-evident goodness. Whatever promotes human progress and prosperity must be good! That such progress and prosperity have been purchased by devouring nature’s resources rarely troubles their defenders, who, like Julian Simon, argue natural resources “‘are not finite in any economic sense'” (p. 8).

Not so, argues Orr, who champions “sustainability” instead of growth. Rather than equating social “good” with economic growth (the sacred GNP), sustainability ought to define the “good.” According to the oft-quoted words of Aldo Leopold, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

If one accepts sustainability as the goal, the next question naturally focuses on the means to that end. What kinds of things ought we do? To answer that question Orr eliminates some options: 1) trying (through “midwifery” strategies) to alter some aspects of society; 2) relying on self-interest driven free enterprise markets; or 3) influencing political establishments.

He espouses a fourth option: an education which persuasively articulates ecologically-rooted ethical values, which he discusses in several chapters, the most interesting and challenging section in my opinion. Here he focuses on ways educators can teach “ecological literacy,” by which he means “that quality of mind that seeks out connections. It is the opposite of the specialization and narrowness characteristic of most education” (p. 92). Making students ecologically literate means teaching them to know and care for the earth.

Unfortunately, despite the growing environmental crisis, education has generally detached us from the very world which sustains us. Fewer and fewer folks grow up in rural areas, fewer and fewer children touch much more than the remote control button to change TV programs, few of us walk on anything other than concrete sidewalks on our way from the car to the mall.

The end result is that we’re mentally impoverished as well as insensitive to nature’s needs. “‘The interior landscape,'” in Barry Lopez’s words, “‘responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is affected by land as it is by genes'” (p. 86). As the great philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed: “‘First-hand knowledge is the ultimate basis of intellectual life. . . . The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity. It is tame because it has never been scared by the facts'” (p. 99).

Yet at the very moment we need ecological sensitivity we’re educating without any ecological connections. “‘The problem'” of conservation education, according to Aldo Leopold, “‘is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is such a thing as land'” (p. 141). What we need, especially in the liberal arts colleges, is an education which prepares persons “to live well in a place” (p. 102). Too many professors, too many students, lack roots to any particular place, know nothing about the place where they live or study, and have no affection for it. We need places like Walden, where Thoreau learned to know himself as well as his environment.

In the final, brief chapter the second section, “Is Environmental Education an Oxymoron?”, Orr broods over the perplexing fact that throughout history the only folks who have lived harmoniously with the land, for extended periods of time, were either non-literate tribes or overtly anti-modern religious sects like the Amish. Indeed, the more educated a person is these days the more likely he or she is to accentuate the damage the earth! Yet Orr has hopes, they be, that radically re-styled education might begin to make a difference.

This book is well-written, accurate, refreshingly free of cant and cliche, worthy of careful reading and discussion. For us who teach it’s particularly perspicacious, since of all folks we’re supposed to most aware of larger issues and future prospects, providing our students with necessary skills and prompting them to effective lives.

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Reuben Welch urged me to read (and loaned me his copy to make sure I did) John H. Leith’s From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to its Own Theology and Practice (Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox Press, c. 1990), and I share his enthusiasm for this treatise. Leith’s written other studies, including The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say that No One Else Can Say, so we’re indebted to an accomplished scholar for this work.

Like so many others in mainline denominations, Leith’s concerned about declining membership, anxious to promote church renewal. But he’s not interested in quick fixes, slick sales gimmicks, psychological tricks, or emotional excesses. In fact he proposes no “new suggestions”! The church, he thinks, just can’t renew itself. It must humbly await God’s renewing! Waiting, praying, remembering, witnessing . . . these are what the church does best–in fact, they’re about all the church can do! Preaching, teaching, pastoral care–old fashioned but time-tested–are properly churchly activities. Results can’t be programmed. God will do what He wills as He wills when He wills!

“The renewal of the church,” he says, “requires the application of the message, or the interpretation of life today in the light of the Christian faith. Here the theological or logical order is critically important. The church is in trouble in considerable measure because it has sometimes interpreted the faith in the light of experience in the world. The first step in the renewal of the church is recovering the proper order” (p. 14).

In the first chapter, “Heritage and Trust,” Leith celebrates the deposit of faith entrusted to us–“the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Unfortunately, it’s a faith largely lost in large segments of Christendom. What we must, above all, preserve is contained in “Jesus Christ: the history of God’s works in creation, judgment, and redemption which Jesus Christ fulfilled. Faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord constitutes the church” (p. 26).

We maintain the church by devoutly doing what the church has done: preaching, teaching, pastoral care. Preaching (as one would expect from a Presbyterian seminary professor) must be theological, biblical, exegetical, expositional. It’s the only kind of preaching which saves, the only kind worth doing. We preach not to entertain but to remember and bear witness to our Redeemer.

Teaching, using all the skills of scholarship and intellectual discipline, has, Leith insists, always undergirded to the Reformed tradition. Educational endeavors within local congregations, denominational colleges and seminaries, all have their proper role. Yet too often, these days, both colleges and seminaries fail to preserve their churchly mission, sliding into basically secular educational modes.

Pastoral care–soul cure–characterizes the church. Visitation, counseling, ministry to needy people, is essential wherever the church retains its heritage and mission. In the Reformed tradition of Calvin and Barth, pastoral care grows out of clearly theological perspectives. Unlike Pelagius and some of his heirs, Reformed theologians have never had high hopes for human perfection or social reform! So pastoral care means, mainly, helping folks who are mired in their sinful predicament. Visiting people in their homes, caring for the sick and dying, being present with folks in the midst of their trials, is the ministry of pastoral care.

Leith’s back-to-basics message needs hearing, even by many of us who don’t share his strongly Reformed perspectives. Just to do what the church has always done, without being too concerned with the world’s standards of success (growth; income; sophistication), may well be all we’re asked to do!

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From a Wesleyan, rather than a Reformed perspective, comes the most recent of Tom Oden’s books, Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, c. 1992). This is more a report from a theologian-at-work than a theological work, but it’s fascinating to those of us who have watched Oden’s theological pilgrimage as well as any who are curious about religious life in Russia.

Oden was invited, by the professors who formerly directed the Department of Atheism of Moscow State University, to give some lectures on American Evangelicalism in the winter of 1991. He found his hosts genuinely interested (“ravenously hungry” in fact) in his beliefs, his audiences warm to the Christian faith.

Though TV pundits’ reports accentuate shortages of food and consumer goods, Oden found Russians often far hungrier (and willing to sacrifice for) the bread of life. “Post-Soviet Christians told us it is incorrect to assume that they need material food more than spiritual food” (p. 160).

Most of us . . . unless we’ve slept through some of the most remarkable events in all world history . . . have heard how religious aspirations have rebounded in Russia. Oden confirms this: “People are freely giving money to restore churches which had been stripped to the walls. They are seeking to support educational programs, rebuild hospitals, orphanages and charitable institutions outlawed for seven decades” (p. 159). When opened, churches quickly overflow. In St. Petersburg there are now 60 churches, full of young people, where there were only 10 a decade ago.

Certain points of contact between Russian Orthodoxy and conservative Evangelicalism gave Oden some commonalities with which to dialogue. Like many of us in the West, religious thinkers in the East are going back to the sources of the Faith, the first five centuries, which are particularly rich in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

He also found, however, that “These two giant, quintessentially modern societies, Soviet and American, seemed to me surprisingly similar at one level, for they were both suffering from the rapidly deteriorating assumptions of modernity” (p. 12). Oden calls this “postmodernity. In both societies the remnants of Enlightenment optimism, scientism, and hedonism now rot and suffer. Despite enormous differences, both Soviet and American societies are grieving over the decomposing assumptions of modern nihilistic relativism” (p. 12).

Readers of Oden’s other works will find his anti-modernity musings much akin to that espoused over the past decade in other works. What’s interesting is how his critique applies it to Russia and America, so often considered poles apart!

This is a readable, fascinating report from the front lines! (Which is not where you usually find academic theologians!) But it’s well worth the reading.

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