by Bob Wheeler

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch: The Scream, 1893



This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.  While most political conventions are fairly routine and eminently forgettable, this one marked a turning point in American culture.  The country was roiled over the Viet Nam War.  The incumbent President, Lyndon B. Johnson, had decided not to run for reelection.  There were huge ant-war demonstrations in the city which turned into riots.  Hubert Humphrey won the nomination and Richard Nixon won the election.  In the process a whole generation became disillusioned.

Some of us have vivid memories of the dramatic changes that have taken place in American society since.  We remember the relative tranquility of the 1950’s, and then the turbulence of “the Movement,” the counter-culture of the ‘60’s and the Sexual Revolution.  And since then we have witnessed the rise of radical feminism, the legalization of abortion, and skyrocketing divorce rates.  The country we see today is hardly the country we knew back in the ‘50’s.

The fact of the matter is that the changes that we have witnessed in the last fifty years have their roots much further back in time.  And to understand why it is necessary to understand something about the nature of civilization itself.  Civilizations are formed when relatively large groups of people decide to share a settled existence together.  They form governments, establish cities and build infrastructure.  The engage in commerce, pass laws and prepare for their common defense.  They go on to create works of art, music and literature.  And in so doing they create for themselves a standard of living that far surpasses anything they had previously known as primitive tribal peoples with a hunter / gatherer economy.

There is a problem here, however.  Mankind, as a whole, is in a state of rebellion against God.  The motive in creating these civilizations is self-interest.  And while at first a civilization may be built around some sort of civil religion in order to encourage personal sacrifice for the common good, in the end the very success of a civilization is its undoing.  As it becomes rich and prosperous, its citizens become self-indulgent and generally lose interest in religion and patriotism.  “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“Sweet and beautiful it is to die for the Fatherland”) becomes “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

Underlying all of this, however, is a deep philosophical problem.  As fallen, sinful human beings we do not want to acknowledge God as Creator and Lord, Someone whom we must obey.  And so we will create philosophical systems to provide alternative explanations of reality.  But we must still live in a world that was created by the one true and living God.  This creates a tension between fact and theory, between what we would like to think is true and reality as we actually experience it.

In modern Western thought the problem arose through the scientific revolution of the late Renaissance and beyond, culminating in the publication of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) in 1687.  This, coupled with the reaction against the religious wars of the late 16th and early 17th Centuries, led to the development of a purely secular philosophy, one based on pure reason rather than on divine revelation.  Two of the philosophers who led the way in this were Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

What followed was “The Age of Reason” or the “French Enlightenment.”  The world would make rational sense because it was founded on certain immutable laws of nature.  God was the divine watchmaker who created it all, but does not interfere with it after it was created.  The miraculous and supernatural simply do not occur.  And it is possible to make sense of all of this through the use of pure reason alone.  Any kind of divine revelation is unnecessary.

But where does this leave man himself?  If the entire universe functions according to immutable laws of nature, if everything is based on reason and logic, where does that leave the individual human being?  He becomes nothing more than a cog in the vast machine of the universe.  But we are conscious of having feelings and emotions, hopes and desires, and an inner sense of right and wrong.  Thus it would only be a matter of time before there would be a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, and that took the form of an essay written in 1754 by Jean Jacques Rousseau entitled “Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality Amongst Men,” in which he argued that human beings are good by nature and are corrupted by civilization.  This, along with his subsequent writings, helped inspire the Romantic Movement of the early 19th Century with its emphasis on individual freedom and self-expression.  The legacy of the Romantic Movement lived on in the form of Existentialism and Post-Modernism, in the bohemian lifestyle and the beat generation.  Thus the central tension in modern Western thought is between nature and freedom, between rationality and irrationality.

What brought the crisis to a head in the late 1960’s were the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War.  As more and more young people became disillusioned with the U.S. Government and the “Establishment” they came to embrace a variety of alternative lifestyles and Counter-culture philosophies, some of them rooted in Neo-Marxism and Existentialism.  Much of the protests died away in the 1970’s, but the Existentialist viewpoint lived on in the writing of Simone de Beauvoir whose famous book The Second Sex became virtually the bible of the Feminist Movement.  The basic premise of the book was Sartre’s – that existence precedes essence, that we exist as autonomous individuals and should be free to define our own essences.  The practical implication (for women) was that gender roles were artificial and confining, and should be done away with.  Later the LGBT movement would take up the battle cry and argue that gay and transgender people should be allowed to define themselves as well.  The result of all of these changes was a loss of faith in universal truths and moral absolutes.  And this, in turn, resulted in social decay.

But all of this began with the Age of Reason and the secularization of Western culture.  If we try to rely on human reason alone, we have to assume that there is a rational order to the universe. But, as we have seen, this reduces man to the role of a cog in the machine.  But if we assume that a human being exists as a free and autonomous individual, then it becomes impossible to establish a rational order to the universe.

The problem with a purely secular worldview is that if we make something other than God as the ultimate reality, we cannot do justice to reality.  We leave something unexplained.  And to complicate matters, man’s reason is finite – we cannot see the whole picture.  How did we get here?  What is the ultimate meaning and purpose of life? What happens to us when we die?  Philosophers have struggled to answer these questions, but have never been able to come up with a convincing answer – just ask another philosopher.  Secular philosophy leads to a dead end.

The only solution is to be found in God – the true and living God, the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth.  And we are dependent upon the revelation which He has given us in the Bible to give us the answers to life’s great existential questions.  Only then can we achieve our full potential as human being created in His image.