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Practical Atheism

The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist by Craig M. Gay.
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (255 Jefferson Avenue, S.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49503), 338 pp., 1998.

Michael P. Federici

Craig Gay’s The Way of the (Modern) World addresses the place of God in the (post)modern world. He attempts to make sense out of modern secular culture’s hostility and indifference to religion. His thesis is that to modern society God “is largely irrelevant to the real business of life.” The irrelevance of God is the result of the modern tendency to place emphasis on human potential and human achievement which manifests itself in political, economic, and technological life. If God is even thought to exist, he is irrelevant. In short, (post)modern culture is based on the notion that human beings do not need God; the quality of their lives is not affected by transcendence. Gay calls this mentality “practical atheism” and he asserts that it is deeply embedded in modern consciousness.

Gay is open about his intellectual and theological prejudices. He describes his study as “evangelical” and “conservative”. He argues that “If there are solutions to the perplexing problem of the secularization of (post)modern society and culture, . . . they are to be found in historic trinitarian orthodoxy.” Given this characterization of his study, it is not surprising to find that Gay frequently uses biblical references to support his argument. Nor is it surprising that his analysis is written for an informed Christian reader.

Gay’s prescriptive response to the problem of practical atheism is Christian faith and Protestant theology. The book argues that contrary to the way of the modern world, God is relevant. What makes this conclusion so difficult for (post)moderns to accept is that their culture compels them to live as if God does not exist or even if he does, to act as if he is irrelevant. To accept Gay’s “way” (i.e., living as if God is relevant) means being rejected by the world. Gay constructs what he calls a “theology of personhood” that is meant to serve as an antidote to the spiritual ills of the modern world and to allow Christians to live “in” the (post)modern world but not be “of” it.

Most of Gay’s book is an attempt to explain the causes and characteristics of the modern secular ethos. This ethos is seductive because it draws individuals away from God by giving them the false hope that humans have the ability, apart from God, to become self-realized. To illustrate specifically how modern culture corrupts the soul, Gay devotes individual chapters to three primary aspects of modern life and culture that turn individuals away from God—politics, technology/science, and economics—but he also touches in more limited analysis on education and mass media. A representative comment from his analysis is the following: “modern science and technology have, by now, largely emptied the world of religious meaning.” Gay offers similar pejorative criticisms of capitalism, higher education, and the mass media. His survey of the rise of secularism in modern society and its contribution to the culture wars, draws heavily on the work of Peter L. Berger and to a lesser degree on that of George Grant, Max Weber, Leo Strauss, and Charles Taylor, to name a few. Gay uses his sources well to illustrate the way of the modern world but he tends to quote rather extensively at the expense of independent analysis.

Perhaps the most interesting part of Gay’s book is his discussion of Christianity’s contribution to the rise of secularism and the rejection of God. Gay argues that Protestant Christianity is itself partly to blame for turning human consciousness away from God. He traces the theoretical connections between Protestantism and capitalism to demonstrate how they resulted in radical individualism and materialism. While the argument is not original, Gay uses it effectively to illustrate the cultural and intellectual movement toward secularism. For example, Gay decries the fact that in the contemporary world “faith and prayer are rather routinely eclipsed by the practical efficacy of expertise and technique.” Gay leads the reader through an analysis of ideological influences on the modern mind that have turned (post)modern man away from God and toward an anthropocentric world view. Interestingly, though, he pays little attention to liberalism’s influence on the rise of modern secularism. More could have been done to explain liberalism’s role in shaping the way of the world. For example, the rise of modern science and technology have certainly played an important part in secularizing the modern world but Gay says little about what liberalism has done to prepare the way. As much as anything, liberalism is responsible for removing spiritual concerns from public life. Science and technology, while part of liberal culture, were able to fill the void that liberalism created.

The Way of the (Modern) World is not simply a criticism of the secular quality of the modern world but it also provides a prescriptive response to it. The response is limited largely to Gay’s final chapter and is a defense of evangelical Christianity. Gay’s prescriptive response to the practical atheism of the modern world is theological (“theology of personhood”) in that he uses the authority of the Bible to make his case for Christianity. Gay’s defense of the relevance of transcendence in the (post)modern world is good as far as it goes, but it relies too much on biblical authority. While the argument is apt to convince Christians who are predisposed to the idea that the Bible and Protestant theology can provide an effective remedy to the spiritual ills of the modern world, Gay makes no attempt to reach those outside this tradition who may be equally disturbed by secularism. Consequently, the book seems to be written for believers who have lost their way in the (post)modern world. Moreover, what makes the thesis somewhat untenable is that the author focuses most of his attention on the reasons why the (post)modern world rejects Christianity. He even borrows the language of a “post-Christian” world. Yet he argues that the response to a civilization that has lost touch with and even rejected Christianity is Protestant theology and especially trinitarian orthodoxy. Why the modern world, which Gay characterizes as post- if not anti-Christian, is apt to accept Protestant Christianity is not made clear. What is it that will cause “closed” souls to “open” to God’s grace? Gay does not provide an ethical framework for understanding the moral nature of the modern crisis nor does he provide much in the way of moral prescription. He seems to assume that the Christian symbols he uses to make his argument are transparent. Yet one of his main points is that in the modern world such symbols have become opaque.

It is interesting that a Christian writer like Gay should devote so little attention to the ethical life. Given the cultural context that he provides, his treatment of the inner life is abstract. His reaction to the spiritual disorder of the modern world is more metaphysical than it is ethical. Missing from his prescription for the renewal of Western Civilization is the man of character. In fact, when he discusses thinkers like Aristotle, a rich source for philosophical insights into the ethical life, it is to reject his science, not embrace his ethics. The final chapter of the book draws on the biblical tradition of patience as the core virtue of what Gay calls a “theology of personhood.” He recognizes the importance of other virtues such as self-control but he considers patience to be the paramount virtue. In a culture that, as Gay describes, is defined by its desire to control nature through science and technology, it would seem fitting to emphasize the urgency to re-establish the virtue of ethical self-restraint rather than to focus on patience. In other words, Gay places his emphasis on God’s search for man which requires the patience to wait and hope for God to reveal truth. As a result, what gets lost is the need for man to search for God both ethically and philosophically.

Consequently, Gay’s analysis lacks ethical substance. While he sees the answer to the modern crisis as an ethical problem, he provides little in the way of ethical insight. For example, in his discussion of economic life and its contribution to secularization, he remarks that the solution to the problem of economic markets that foster secularism is not to consider an alternative to the market system. Rather “Each of us needs to decide . . . to act ethically and substantively within the system no matter how impractical we may occasionally have to appear in doing so.” Of course Gay is correct about the need for ethical action in economic life. But what he means by “ethical” is not clear. His analysis, therefore, is somewhat abstract because it invokes morality as if its meaning and substance are clear. Gay’s argument would be more convincing, especially to non-evangelical Christians, if it was illustrated with historical and philosophical examples of ethical behavior and placed in a philosophical framework that demonstrated what the ethical life is. One is left with the impression that the problem of secularism in the modern world is primarily intellectual (i.e., embracing the right theology) not ethical.

One final criticism of The Way of the (Modern) World is that it tends to reject most of what is (post)modern. While Gay recognizes that traditional society cannot simply be recreated, he fails to explain specifically how it should be reconstituted. The term “modern” (or “post-modern”) itself is a complex concept that requires philosophical definition. Gay hints at what is good in the modern world but his argument would be more persuasive if he explained what is redeeming, if anything, about modern life including liberalism. After reading his book one is tempted to reject modernity and its representative thinkers altogether. Yet, are modern philosophers like Machiavelli or Hobbes all bad? Is it not possible that they alerted us to aspects of life that were given less attention by ancient and Christian thinkers? Is it not possible that the true, the good, and the beautiful found new forms of expression in the (post)modern world?

The Way of the (Modern) World addresses a topic that is of paramount concern to those who believe in a transcendent reality. Even those who are not predisposed to evangelical Christianity or trinitarian orthodoxy will appreciate Gay’s characterization of the modern secular ethos. The book’s limitations not withstanding, Gay’s study will prove valuable to those perplexed by the phenomenon of modern secularism.

Michael P. Federici is an associate professor of political science at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Challenge of Populism and Director of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the National Humanities Institute.

Posted: March 29, 2007

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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