Science in Christian Perspective




Our American Cultural Crisis

George J. Jennings 
Geneva College 
Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania 15010

From: JASA 32 (September 1980): 186-189.

Among social scientists who have reflected on Western culture in general and on American culture in particular, the Russian born sociologist, Putirim Sorokin, and the American anthropologist, Jules Henry (both deceased), voiced alarming concern with conclusions that hear reiteration and further consideration in the light of recent international developments.

Sorokin from earlier experiences of oppression, incarceration, and death sentences in the Soviet Union (as well as earlier in Czarist Russia) for his political stance held! that "Sensate" culture marked with hedonism, relativism, and secularism had replaced the medieval "Ideational" culture characterized by self-denial, transcendental sources of truth, and ethical absolutes. Because of a commitment to "objectivity" and materialism, Sensate culture in Western society had mostly lost distinctions between right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, and the more abstract human values. In consequence, moral, social, and esthetic anarchy' became dominant in the West. In essence, Sorokin viewed the Sensate developments leading to the 'crisis of our age."

Similarly, Henry was passionately negative in assessing American culture with his more personal and arbitrary approach. As an anthropologist, lie envisioned culture as human phenomena whereby people learned and shared coping abilities to serve mankind with "preserved experience. Rot, argued Henry, culture developed initially to serve human societies but in its advanced American form it had become to a considerable degree detrimental to the Well-being of its hearers. To document his views, Henry' cited dishonest advertising, excessive indulgence and permissiveness toward children, the "absurdity" of the competitive learning experience (education), and a pervasive "nightmare" fear of the enemy (the Soviet Union)-all major indicators of "culture against man" in American life.

An Age of Cultural Crisis'

As an anthropologist with theistic presuppositions, I agree that we indeed live in an age of cultural crisis. This expression is used here to describe a pervasive anxiety that snakes many Americans feel that not only are they unable to deal adequately with their immediate problems, but far more seriously, they are uncertain as to the actual nature of what disturbs them. The result is that they are quite prone to vent their hostility on groups and things which often cannot be regarded in reality as fully responsible for the threatened nature of their existence.
Whatever political reality there exists to Communistic threat in America, or elsewhere (as the present Afghanistan crisis aggravates), the ubiquitis fear of Coimmunism often appears to he rather a matter of attempting to nail a free-floating general anxiety to a concrete object, rather than a serious effort to deal with a political problem. The various polls suggest this as the public offers changing views toward governmental leadership even though there may he no necessary relationship between political decision and some particular fear.

Because world Communism is a deliberate attack upon the results of the cultural crisis without adequate confrontation of the underlying nature of the problems of our age, it must he opposed. It must not be regarded as the cause of all our difficulties, but rather as one significant result of our failure to appreciate the ultimate causes.

To conclude that we live in an age of cultural crisis does not mean that there are not analysis and proposed solutions being offered. We know the contrary to he true. Certainly it does not refer to the wide differences of opinion as to what is advisable of various options-except as these differences reveal a basic moral ambiguity, On the tactical level, differences 1)1 opinion may represent cultural health rather than some, malaise.

Again, to suggest that we live in an age of cultural crisis dues not mean that there is a complete absence of health in all of American culture. 'there is evidence to the contrary, arid one of the very hopeful signs of it is the continuing ability of some of our leaders to work out pragmatically mixed approaches to complicated political and economic questions. What cultural crisis here dues mean is that it is frightfully difficult in contemporary life to capitalize on the elements of health because the framework within which our civilization is understood appears to he either so ambiguous or so inadequate as to make lucid decisions in practical affairs impossible.

The threats of a third world war and of ubiquitous economic chaos suggest forcibly that our problems cannot he treated simply by some re-adjustmnent of the political and economic factors. When the cultural framework can be taken for granted, as if was in Medieval Europe, people do meet their problems of social dynamics by rearranging the details of either political or economic life. But when the underlying intellectual, emotional and institutional structure itself becomes part of the problem with which we wrestle, then the situation becomes serious, in some degree critical.

Culture, as defined in anthropology, is this structure in a totality of what is learned and shared. It includes not only the explicit intellectual rationale of a civilization at a particular time, but also the ideological factors which govern most normal decisions by individuals and groups toward various specific goals. It includes the whole interlocking pattern of postulates and both conscious and unconscious premises which people take for granted in the quest for solutions to an issue, to communicate with each other and to implement practical action. Culture is to be equated to a general individual and group sense of self-fulfillment.

On the human level, cultural stability' is the most relevant measure for assessing the relative health of a civilization. When thee culture is functioning with some degree of stability, people can think, relate themselves to each other, and act with some genuine confidence that such behavior is congruent with things as they are-even if this is not the ease in actual practice. When the culture becomes ambiguous, people's thoughts, relationships and actions provide no sort' basis of confidence, even though they may appear to be pragmatically satisfactory, The expectancy which focuses social life is blurred, and anxiety- inevitably follows.

To allow that we live in an age of American cultural crisis, therefore, is to recognize that this sense of expectancy (or predictability), by which the social, political and economic institutions have been built, is difficult to connect meaningfully with the historical decisions we are forced to make. Whether it is a question of American foreign policy', or of the role of the family' in in urban technological society', there are few sufficiently clear perspectives to enable people to Make accurate decisions and to take valid action.

As any of our recent presidents know, historical issues continue to arise, but in the absence of an adequate perspective, consistent policies are difficult to make. The result among Americans is that there is all endemic free-floating anxiety' regarding the past and the future, whale time present remains uncertain and confused. Satisfactions tend to border on time hysterical, while disappointments are often depressing, even paranoid. Small wonder then that the incumbent president's popularity in time polls fluctuates greatly.

Two Postulates

Western culture, which is carried perhaps to its highest pitch in the American version, for the past three centuries has rested upon two parallel and interlocking sets of postulates. Within a general philosophical milieu of a pronounced transcendental void, these do not appear sufficient at present in America to enable people to interpet their experience adequately'. The two postulates are: (1) By an objective relationship to whatever concerns one, people are able to control, manipulate or at least to adjust to, circumstances satisfactor/y; and (2) Individual self-fu/filment through economic acquisitiveness is the means whereby a healthy society lies.

These two postulates have been analyzed by many writers with various interpretations, including those by Sorokin and Hemiry' mentioned above, for a long time. While they may be stated in various ways, and while appreciation must he allowed for shadings of emphasis between the classes in any region, they continue as dominant characteristics in American society. But modern Americans are losing confidence in them without realising it They are not opposed by a viable alternative, since even Communism is actually an extreme systematic rationalization of Western culture. In brief, the problem confronting modern Americans is that they no longer possess sharp cultural postulates which make decisive actions valid or meaningful.

The general emergence of Western society that gave rice to the American form since the Industrial Revolution has been punctuated with many technological and scientific victories at the expense of the structure that made possible the winning of these victories. Three developments can he cited to illustrate such triumphs:

(1) There have been offered popular solutions to the cultural malaise as reflected in individual anxieties in what might be labeled the peace of mind school of religious thought. Such approaches are exemplified by Norman Vincent Peale's Guide to Confident Living and Joshua Loth Liebman's Peace of Mind. Dale Carnegie and many others could he included. Their views represent an attempt to enable people to escape the consequences of the cultural crisis without facing the fact that the crisis arises out of an historical situation where real problems demand solution.

On the other hand, these efforts to gain personal confidence presuppose the continued relevance of both premises and employ a glib version of the depth psychology and a Ritschlian understanding of the function of religion to authenticate it. They proclaim in various terminology the possibility of individualistic self-fulfilment in outmoded concepts. On the other hand, they conclude that the tensions or pressures which threaten people can he eliminated by employing proper technique, again derived from a combination of psychiatry with Christianity understood, not as Cross, but as euphoria.

(2) The vogue of literary existentialism is another phenomenon which aids in illuminating the crisis of American culture. Interestingly, this school of thought is best associated with European names like Martin Heidegger in philosophy and Jean-Paul Sartre in the field of the novel and the drama; however, it is not to he confused with Soren Kierkegaard's "existentialism" which has had much influence upon Protestant theology in America.
Of course the present essay's compass makes our treatment of literary' existentialism severely abbreviated, yet the school's existence has considerable significance for appreciating the crisis of our culture. It must be noted that this thinking emerged during the unstable decade prior to the second World War at which time it came into full bloom. There are diverse stances within it with a spectrum of views from an attempted syncretism with Roman Catholicism to the bold nihilism of Sartre.

Literary existentialism in the ultimate sense denies the significance of culture at all. Its major concentration on knowledge is completely through decisive action. One scholar has noted that the effect of this focus is not unlike the grin of the Cheshire Cat, as if decision without content and content without context were possible. Some of its proponents are aware of this; but for our present purpose, this position serves to dramatize, by its rejection of Western culture, the chaos in the breakdown because none feels compelled to reject that which one can take for granted in normal life.

(3) The rise of atomic science and technology as the present zenith of these twin developments illuminates yet another facet of our cultural problem. A direct corollary of the two postulates in today's America is the general conviction that science-primarily the physical sciences-and ethics blend with each other as part and parcel of a single entity. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima terminated abruptly' this miscegenation that the Western world had condoned. But unfortunately it did not relate science and ethics its an alternative fashion, Instead, it left a conspicuous question mark, which American society recognizes only vaguely and about which it finds little to do.

This threefold manifestation of our culture crisis, with a tripartite impact upon our lives, makes apparent that we do not find it easy to meet our practical problems of house, occupation, community, and international responsibility in the light of their inherited expectancy. This is because we do not grasp-we become impotent in seeking to grasp-the complete significance of the difficulties confronting its, and when these problems are so diffuse to defy coping with them, their persistence terminates in compounded confusion. Yet these three illustrations also identify' the fact that people remain unprepared to analyze their culture critically', but that they either try' to continue affirming it, or find it a frustrating problem. Hence, Solzhenitsyn's Commencement address at Harvard in 1978 met with much negative reaction by those who refused to consider the possible ultimate problem the decline of the transcendental dimension front its dominant position in the past.

At its inception, the communist movement purported to he the creation of a new culture, but its formulators stopped short in their analysis of what they criticized. While their criticisms made positive contribution in its exposure of covert evils in Western civilization, its own acceptance of the basic premises of that which it attacked made it peculiarly dangerous. Its attacks on social ills which people found hurting them had considerable appeal in spite of its unlikely' promise that it alone could provide an adequate foundation for social reconstruction.

As events have occurred this century, that which was theoretically dangerous in Communism became a horrendous destructive force since one of the two superpowers became the hearer of the communist promise. The combination of the tendency of cynical self-justification, common to all nations and enhanced in proportion to the actual power at that nation's disposal, with the messianism of a communist theory, which was actually a rationalization of a false alternative to that which it criticized, has made Soviet Communism the menace that it is, and of course must recently' confirmed in Afghanistan.

While the Western world in general, and America in particular, does not recognize this aspect of Communism for what it is, it seems increasingly apparent that the movement as a desirable alternative to the traditional methods of handling political and economic affairs has lost much of its appeal. Its illumination of social injustice has become part of the general heritage, but its program more and more appears to be a way of embalming rather than reformulating any culture as a whole.

Communism seemingly will not he accepted now in the Western world except where Soviet military interference is sufficient to allow communist minorities to seize political control; the same has been true most recently in Afghanistan in Asia. In the Far East, it still holds appeal as a creative force, but it has become an unsurprising syncretism with Oriental views as those of 'Toaism and Confucianism, even to Buddhism. The political and economic ineptitude of the West, especially America, makes the ambiguity of its Far Eastern appeal less conspicuous, even though it appears to blend a blatant nineteenth-century nationalism requiring an individualistic basis with the mechanistic social approach of orthodox Leninism.

Yet the quest continues for a political and economic formula that will annul the tensions that increasingly distress Americans-brought to an even higher pitch by the energy crisis and international dependence. There remain those in American culture with considerable faith that the "trickle-down" theory is still valid. From this position to that of the radical anticommunist left, there are differing stances. But probably the most telling aspect of our cultural crisis is that most people in our society' seem to have diminishing confidence of any kind, no awareness of the nature of their difficulties and no hope of practical expression that anything undertaken will alter the situation for the better.

The Challenge for Christian Faith

As for the Christian faith, here is challenge and judgment. As the late Richard Niehuhr observed in a chapter of his work, Christ and Culture, there is a view held by some that culture, which certainly is to include our American form, is opposed to Christian faith. While it is impossible for people to live without culture of some kind in that the), most have a viable framework for interpretation of the rnilieu of their lives within history, they are always tempted to rest their confidence in that interpretation. When the current of affairs appears to flow smoothly, the culture itself is attributed the role of Cod to all practical purposes. When the culture. becomes shaky or uncertain, people tend to seek for a stable order as if that were an end in itself.

It seems obvious that we in America of the twentieth century' are in a period of cultural breakdown. And it is absurd that we can eliminate having to deal with culture as such. People most devise some generally acceptable set of categories-possibly for a radical revision of our culture-given concreteness by social institutions, or they cannot deal with life at all. For Christianity, the challenge is to approach the problem of cultural reconstruction on an understanding that culture must he subordinate to faith. Yet there must also he an awareness, which some thinkers, no matter how theologically profound they may be in other matters, do not understand, that faith itself can become so involved in culture as to cease to he faith in the biblical sense. This was the tragedy of ttie Middle Ages in Europe, where culture and faith because so identified with each other that the culture itself could not be analyzed and criticized.

The challenge, if it is to be accepted with realism, involves judgement upon our culture-even if met by adverse reaction as Solzhenitsyn fully appreciated. In a genuine sense, Christianity in its practical operations is much involved in our American culture as are other social institutions. It cannot face the problem of crisis in American culture as if its organized life were not part of the problem. It cannot really claim to have understanding of symptomatic contradictions in contemporary politics and economics any more accurately, in its official teaching and institutional program, than the rest of civilization of which it is a part.

American culture understands peace to consist of the absence of international tension, either through the suppression of all major difficulties or through the achievement of an equilibrium secure enough to withstand all conceivable shocks and stresses. Our modern cultural problem raises the question as to whether such an understanding of peace is either broad or deep enough to have any long-range significance. Certainly, peace as specified in the Bible is neither monolithic nor judicial in essence, but rather it is an underlying harmony based upon faith in the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ. But this harmony is not to be envisioned as a political alternative to the various schemes attempted or proposed in the international scene. Rather, it stands in judgment on all political achievements, yet at the same time it is also a continual inspiration to those seeking more adequate political adjustments.

The history' of Christianity has seen continual attempts to synthesize it with whatever culture was prevailing in order that it might he used as cement for the social structure or as reioforeeinent for the particular ethical standards of a society, and above all as the means whereby men may find justification within the social process. The Age of Justinian saw one form of such an attempt and the Middle Ages another. Kierkegaard felt that
Cruntvig and Marterssen were doing exactly this in Denmark of a century' ago. The point is that Christianity is never a means to something else without ceasing to be fully Christian!

In our twentieth-century culture crisis in America, the distinctive contribution of the biblical point of view has not often been faithfully' represented-it is amazing what aspect of our culture has been identified as Christian! Usually this is because many' churches are still seeking to justify themselves in terms of the prevailing social structure. And tragically, the American leadership in Christianity' cooperates more often than not, as in the various efforts to merchandise organized Christianity to the people as a bulwark against Communism.

Our expectancy as Christians is not in the achievement of a society without tension, a peace in which all conflicts of individuals and groups are annulled, nor a prosperity which is automatic, nor a freedom without demands. Our expectancy' within our American culture is rather that we may continue to seek both political peace and economic prosperity, both individual freedom and an adequate standard of living for everybody, not as ends in themselves, but as practical occasions in which we may observe the love of God taking concrete form in human society. We believe that the judgment of Cud must be pronounced on what we achieve as well as on what we oppose, and we pray that we may obtain grace to recognize it and accept it.



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