Our Time (part 3)

The following excerpts are from David Well’s No Place for Truth (Eerdmans, 1993), page numbers are in parenthesis. I think they are timely. What do you think?

The moral hedges that surrounded our collective life have been trampled down. That is the paramount truth. What once was sublimated is now, in all of its raw and often violent nature, spewed forth in the name of liberty or self-expression. What once had to be private is now paraded publicly for the gallery of voyeurs. The virtues of the old privacy, such as reticence and modesty, are looked upon today as maladies. What was once unseemly is now commonplace. What was once instinct is now truth. What was once feeling is now belief. Then the best were always people of conviction; now they seldom are. Then self-control was virtue; now it is bondage. We are getting to know one another in ways we could not before, says Rieff, and what we are seeing is not pleasant. The concealment of self that was once of the essence of civility has now become a social and psychological problem to be resolved through release. In short, . . . we are now being directed by a culture that has learned its habits from the psychologists—and evangelicals in large numbers have come to assume that this is actually what faith is all about (168-169).

Western culture once valued the higher achievements of human nature—reasoned discourse, the good use of language, fair and impartial law, the importance of our collective memory, tradition, the core of moral axioms to which collective consent was given . . . These are now all in retreat. Reasoned discourse has largely disappeared; in a nation of plummeting literacy, language has been reduced to the lowest common denominator, to the vulgar catch phrases of the youth culture; the core of values has disintegrated; the arts are degraded; the law is politicized; politics is trivialized. In place of high culture, we have what is low. Unruly instinctual drives replace thought; the darker side of human nature destroys the nobler, leaving a trail of pornography, violence, and indifference.  . . . certainly it is the passing of the old order and the ascendancy of a new order that celebrates the collapse of the barriers that once held back the darker reaches of the human spirit. In a strangely perverse fashion, many now maintain that it is precisely in giving expression to those darker reaches that we will find release from our guilt, anxiety, and alienation (169).

What is now in place is not exactly an alternative system of belief. What is in place is no system of belief at all. It is more like a vacuum into the quiet emptiness of which the self is reaching for meaning—and finding only itself. But this is to put the matter more passively than is warranted. Vacuums may be empty, but they are highly destructive. The “systematic hunting down of all settled conviction,” writes Rieff, “represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being organized.” Its essence is not right doctrine, values, and behavior; its essence is the freedom to have no doctrines, no values, to be free to follow the stream of instinct that flows from the self wherever it may lead (169-170).

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