The conflict of Christian faith and American culture

Ideas and Action

Herbert Schlossberg        

"With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction."   - Hosea 8:4

Herbert Schlossberg

Herbert Schlossberg

Idolatry and its associated concepts provide a better framework for us to understand our own society than do any of the alternatives.  Toynbee was right to say that by the 1950s, "the crucial questions confronting Western Man were all religious,"* because of the inevitable dependence of a society's actions on its beliefs.  If its actions are destructive, we must ask what it believes that causes it to behave in such a way.  Now, to some people such statements are axiomatic, but others would sharply dispute them.  Many social scientists, in particular, would quarrel with a formulation that ties behavior to belief, and that is a disagreement we shall have to deal with at some length.

For the moment, however, let us consider another kind of critic, much more numerous in our society.  The emphasis on ideas and beliefs in this discussion does not find warm welcome in an age that respects the tough-minded pragmatist who disdains philosophy and insists on the immediate, the concrete, and the practical.  But it is impossible for anyone to say that he will avoid philosophies and simply live pragmatically, because that statement is based on a philosophical belief that he has accepted without realizing it.  Legions of ordinary people know how to use such ideas as inferiority complex, relativity, and pragmatism, although scarcely any of them have read a page of Freud, Einstein, or Dewey.  Those philosophies may come down in transmogrified form, but come down they do.  That is the wisdom in John Maynard Keynes's remark that "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back."*

Our anti-philosophers are especially vulnerable in this age, because the media fill our environment with popularized philosophies.  Marshall McLuhan was right in saying that environments tend not to be noticed (although he exaggerated the effect).  We see many of their explicit contents, but the environments themselves are imperceptible.*  We do not see the environment, as Os Guinness says, because we see with it.  That means we are influenced by ideas we do not notice and therefore are not aware of their effect on us.  Or, if we see the effect, we find it difficult to discover the cause.

Idols For Destruction

Given our media-saturated existences, we would do well to consider how Keynes's academic scribblers (of whom Keynes was one) affect us.  Some academic disciplines, especially those in the social sciences, are profoundly anti-Christian in their effect, and it is difficult to counter that effect by dealing with their evidence or their arguments.  The evidence is often good and the arguments sound.  It is the assumptions we must question.  These are statements that are presumed to be true but are not proven.  No serious thought can be conducted without assumptions, but recognizing them — in our thinking as well as in others — is vital if we are to avoid falling into serious error.  Assumptions are beliefs; if they were proven they would not be assumptions.  And they are beliefs so taken for granted that it is not deemed necessary to prove them.  That makes them doubly seductive: first, because the careless or untrained are misled into accepting conclusions without recognizing their shaky foundation of unstated beliefs; and second, the very fact that the most dubious beliefs are so taken for granted by experts lends an aura of verisimilitude that beguiles the overly respectful into accepting them without question.

By and large there is nothing insincere about the way these assumptions are held.  They function in some respects much the way religious beliefs do, although in academia they are seldom recognized in that way.  And that explains the vehemence with which attacks on someone's assumptions are met; they are often attacks on that person's unacknowledged religion.

Although academic disciplines by their nature have wide divergencies of opinion within them, they also have broad areas of common agreement.  Idols for Destruction takes issue with some of those agreements, sometimes with the evidence or arguments in their favor, but more often with the beliefs with which the investigations were begun.  Soundly designed experiments, complete data, airtight controls, scrupulous honesty, and rigorous logic yield wrong conclusions when the original assumptions are wrong.

Unfortunately, many Christian intellectuals and others who influence ecclesiastical policy have adopted the academic models too uncritically.  Peter Berger, a Rutgers University sociologist, has accused opinion leaders in the church of taking their cues increasingly from the "official reality-definers — that is, from the highly secularized intellectual elite."*  In an earlier essay, Berger had explained what was wrong with that.  "Liberal intellectuals are always top candidates for the role of fall guy, for the simple reason that it is of the essence of liberalism to be contemporaneous and of the essence of being an intellectual to know what is contemporaneous."*  He need not have wasted his sympathy, for their wounds are all self-inflicted.  These intellectuals must have been the people W. R. Inge had in mind when he made his famous remark that he who marries the spirit of an age soon finds himself a widower.

Idols of the Left, Right, and Center

The irony in Berger's point is that the churches' intellectuals are falling for the intellectual fashions that have used up all their capital and fallen into bankruptcy.  It was hard to see that in the nineteenth century when Christians began retreating before the new ideologies.  Now American religion is full of the contradictions and paradoxes that come from the attempt to merge a true gospel with the faltering creeds of the surrounding society.  The internal clash is reflected in the title of one of Niebuhr's books:  Pious and Secular America.  Elsewhere, Niebuhr described the prevailing national religiosity as a "perversion of the Christian gospel," aggravating the nation's problems.*

RMS Titanic

A pluralistic society heralds the virtues of paths that have no exits.  George Forell, a theologian at the University of Iowa, has described the political movements that range across the spectrum from left to right as "rival deck stewards competing with each other about the arrangement of the deck chairs just before the Titanic hits the iceberg."*  German sociologist Karl Mannheim reveals the intellectual barrenness of thinking that one has said something when he has pasted a label.  "Nothing is simpler than to maintain that a certain type of thinking is feudal, bourgeois or proletarian, liberal, socialistic, or conservative, as long as there is no analytical method for demonstrating it and no criteria have been adduced which will provide a control over the demonstration."*  Those terms have rendered service mainly as polemical devices to smear opponents and as shorthand methods of identifying friends and enemies.

The struggle between Forell's deck stewards may usually be thought of as a clash of idols, beckoning to us as antinomies: capitalism and socialism, individualism and collectivism, statism and libertarianism, rationalism and irrationalism, nature worship and historicism, conservatism and liberalism, reaction and radicalism, elitism and equalitarianism.  The conflicting parties and the media create false dilemmas, and the ecclesiastical leaders lunge at them as if the only response to a dilemma were to impale themselves on one of its horns.  The issues of the day are so contrived as to create the illusion that every choice is wrong, that nothing can be done without doing some evil, and that the only question is which course of action is less evil.  Reinhold Niebuhr — "the father of us all," George Kennan called him — whose genius did so much to reveal the destructive self-righteousness of the twentieth-century utopias, did not serve us well on this matter.  Lesser men who learned from him that there is no course of action without its admixture of evil and that one must choose between evils concluded, naturally enough, that doing evil must not be so bad.

The participants in this struggle, along with their ecclesiastical admirers, insist that we have to choose between left and right on every issue, that there is no third way.  But if we are successful in identifying the first two ways as idols, then it is reasonable to conclude that there must be a third way.  The final purpose of Idols for Destruction is to make some progress toward finding out what it is.


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