The western world is dying?

John CarrollJohn Carroll is Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, and a secular humanist. He believes secular humanism has failed western society and he has something useful to say to believers about how we communicate to postmodern people.

A decade ago Carroll published The western dreaming : the western world is dying for want of a story, an evocative title for a book which argued that “the spirit of the western world cannot survive without stories”. He had concluded that the secular west has so concentrated on the functional that we have lost our sense of purpose, which we find through deep and meaningful stories rather than science and technology.

Then in 2004, Carroll produced The Wreck of Western Culture:Humanism Revisited, arguing that western culture has jettisoned the belief that the human race can find redemption through God, but “in seeking to remake themselves in their own imperfect image, the people of the West have lost their soul”. In this he is outlining an diagnosis that his colleague, David Tacey spells out in detail in his analysis of the prevalence and causes of medical and psychological illnesses in western society.

In 2007’s The Existential Jesus, Carroll took his analysis of the importance of story a step further. In a somewhat fanciful (some critics said) analysis of the Gospel of Mark, Carroll tries to show how the story of Jesus functions as a foundational myth for our western culture. It’s not that he doesn’t believe the gospel story is historical (it seems that at some level at least he recognises that it is), but that he can ignore questions of historicity because it is its power as a story that he finds important.

Most critics found this book inconsistent, unhistorical and illogical in places, but all agreed it said some worthwhile things. Historians would generally disagree with his scant regard for the historical facts in his interpretation of the story of Jesus. Believers who, like me, build their faith on the same historical facts, may well find his writing hard to stomach.

Nevertheless I find three things interesting and worth considering in all this.

  1. Carroll is, as far as I can tell, a secular humanist and agnostic, yet he was part of a reading group at La Trobe university (most members were also secular humanists) that met weekly to read a chapter of the Bible, and which found Mark’s gospel the most dynamic of all the books they read.
  2. He seems to be part of a small but growing group of non-religious analysts who are pointing out that, for all the scientific, medical and technological triumphs of our age, the loss of belief in God has led to a loss of meaning and purpose and had a significant adverse impact on wellbeing.
  3. He suggests that the christian church can learn from all this. It also has “lost” the stories of Jesus and has replaced them with doctrines about Jesus, which are nowhere near as attractive: “you failed to re-tell the great story that you’ve been given, and …. if you manage to start re-telling this story, then you will engage with people of our times. Because this actually for the modern West, this is the great story I think.”

All three of these aspects seem to me to offer insights into communicating the good news of Jesus to those around us. Many people already recognise that our culture has lost its spiritual values and lost its way. Many are willing to look at and even admire the life of Jesus.

And the greatest drawcard we have (if we have forgotten it) is Jesus. His story, told with meaning, may be far more attractive than all the doctrines we hold about him, true as they may be. We shall look at this some more.

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14 thoughts on “The western world is dying?

  1. I have read the bible cover to cover – twice, and on a fairly regular basis read selected exerpts that I have pencilled. I add more notes as my research continues.
    I have NEVER been spiritualy moved to consider the story anything but that: A story.
    At the beginning of my research ( which was merely for curiosity’s sake) and in my naivity I even wrote a small book, titled, Oh, For God’s Sake,- How religion hijacked the world.- believing what I had discoverd to be ‘earth shattering’
    I truly could not accept that anyone could actually swallow all this hogwash. Much to my chagrin, many hundreds of people had already arrived at this conclusion and the literature bears testament to this.
    Ongoing investigation (as much as I am capable of anyway) of extra biblical literature, Josephus, Tacitus, Senneca etc has revealed nothing that would alter this belief. In fact, more study merely convinces me what I first believed after an investigation of Moses (which is amost a contradiction of terms considering the parsimoneous amount of information there is) – something that most honest scholars have known for years. It is a story with almost no historical veracity.
    Personal tales ( like Nate’s) add to this, but also add the emotional & traumatic aspects that I had not encountered before – or expected to be honest.
    It revealed a whole new ball game – the insideous indoctrination of certain aspects of Christianity that are similar to Islam, that strip away the ‘self’.

    The more one looks at the gospels with a truly open mind, apply the same
    critiques as you would any historical work then the more it reveals itself to be a story. And a poor one at that considering all the contradictions an erroneous claims.
    If one is able to extract anything of moral value that makes you feel and behave as a better person, then great.
    But the supernatural core, and the insistance that failure to adhere to certain Christian Creeds will result in eternal damnation is utter nonsense and is a damning indictment on religion in general, especially when this heinous diatribe is foistered on children as ‘truth’.

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  2. “The more one looks at the gospels with a truly open mind, apply the same
    critiques as you would any historical work then the more it reveals itself to be a story.”

    Thanks for your comments. I won’t take them further here, because this post was simply about the gospels as stories, whether true ones or false ones. But for all your continued bald negative statements about the gospels, your conclusions about their truth are simply opinions, same as mine. And opinions which you refuse to base on the conclusions of the best historians. So I will happily continue to believe both the historians and the gospel writers.

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  3. Which is pretty much what I have said all along.
    Your belief is objective providing it incorporates the supernatural elements of your faith.
    I have never sought to impugn your personal right to believe whatever you like.

    The best historians?
    I flatly disregard ANY and EVERY historian who might have the slighted Christian agenda, as you would a Muslim historian trying to convince you of the veracity of the Qu’ran – and rightly so, I might add.

    Other than that, I generally have few problems…

    I merely challenge the claims of veracity. And as such claims vary from the literal acceptance of the bible to the liberal it merely hammers home the point that truth is whatever you want it to be. Ask Nate. He was lied to for years.
    But people are not entitled to their own facts.

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  4. “I flatly disregard ANY and EVERY historian who might have the slighted Christian agenda, as you would a Muslim historian trying to convince you of the veracity of the Qu’ran – and rightly so, I might add.”

    1. I would not object to a Muslim historian who did genuine historical study, just as I don’t object to atheists or Jews, and use them all the time – for example, Grant, Casey, Ehrman, Sanders. You are the one refusing to accept the conclusions of the experts.

    2. It is doubly hypocritical of you to make these comments because you don’t even accept the conclusions of historians with no christian agenda, you reject those who don’t give you the conclusions you have already decided must be right.

    “But people are not entitled to their own facts.”

    And so, sadly, you don’t live up to your own dictum.

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  5. Zombie thread alert!!

    I would be wary, I think, of reading John as pointing towards a return to the Christian story – especially what can broadly be termed Christian metaphysics. There is a need for a story, and it seems that culture is unable to provide a compelling one, at least for the moment. However, the answer may well be in a re-telling of a story very much unlike what Christians, like myself, hold to today. For John the reason the church has failed is because it all too quickly inserts its own doctrinal dogma into the text, before reading it. In this way it pre-empts the conclusion, and imposes meaning, without letting the text speak.

    We need to also be clear at what levels John’s “decline of the West” (in fact it’s not his, it’s directly in the tradition of the founding fathers of sociology: Marx, Weber and Durkheim) narrative works and doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at an everyday level. We live, especially in urban Australia, in one of the most prosperous, stable and safe periods of all human civilization. In this sense there is no decline. Where the decline thesis works is in the area of culture, this is a very particular domain. But John is also hopeful. There is, he claims, a sort of renaissance occurring in television – inaugurated by The Sopranos, and continued in works like Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. These shows that capture some of the complexities of contemporary life in a caricatured way that allows us a distance, to be able to stand back and appreciate the critique of ourselves. People do still grope at meaning. What secularism (again a very contested term) has enabled is a freer and perhaps more authentic exploration of meaning. What the secular move has failed to do is hold onto the resources of the older institutions of meaning, to hold onto a continuity with the great work of the past.

    The other caveat I would add is that John nowhere suggests, nor from what I can tell does he think, that Christianity might unproblematically serve as a universal story. It has become a Western story, and blended with the Hellenic culture that backgrounds the West. Christians, perhaps, may not be happy to hear this.

    To share an illustrative anecdote that John and I were laughing about the other day, there’s a funny thing that happens with the inter-play between history and meaning in works like the Gospels and other cultural texts. I went to the gallery with a friend of mine to look at a particular painting, to try and read it with my friend. While there a school group set up in front of the painting – annoying. Their guide spent about 15 minutes going over the restoration details, the techniques used to test it for authenticity, the provenance, the procurement, etc., etc. Never once did the guide try and make sense out of the painting – try and read it, like my friend and I. This is, in a sense, how we might talk about the historical study of the Gospels. Yes, it matters to an extent, but it is not decisive. The Gospels are not history. They are theological narratives filled with very complex and very powerful big ideas, they draw upon an historic source – to a greater or lesser extent: it’s the ideas and meaning that matters, not the source. It’s reading the painting, not talking about how it was restored in Paris …

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  6. Hi Mentieth, thanks for sharing all that, I really appreciate it even if it required a Zombie thread alert!!

    Obviously you know John, presumably you work with him, so it is good to hear the things you have shared. I didn’t intend to infer that John would support any conclusions I drew – my thoughts were simply my own response and application of some of his ideas. (I believe it is good to listen to all sorts of ideas because I can learn something helpful even from people I violently disagree with – not that I see John in that way, of course.)

    I think christianity can serve as a universal story. Its story has become westernised, true, but it was originally a middle eastern story, and I and many other christians are trying to recover more of the original perspective via scholarship (others’ not mine!). And it won’t be long, if it hasn’t happened already, before China and Africa take over from the west as the largest centres of christianity, and who knows how that will change things down the track?

    I also strongly agree with this: “For John the reason the church has failed is because it all too quickly inserts its own doctrinal dogma into the text, before reading it.” I don’t think it is the only reason it has failed as I see failure, but I think it is an important one.

    But I disagree with this: “The Gospels are not history. They are theological narratives filled with very complex and very powerful big ideas, they draw upon an historic source – to a greater or lesser extent: it’s the ideas and meaning that matters, not the source.” I understand that the gospels are biography (“bios” the learned like to say), containing interpretation of events and reflection on them as well as the events themselves, but the events are still there. We all need a story, but in the end we need a truthful story if we can find it, and I don’t believe the christian story would have been so successful if it wasn’t also truthful.

    Thanks again for your comments. I would be very interested to hear more of what you think about christianity in the west, what aspects of the story you think matter most, where christianity in the west is actually headed, and what you mean by “the answer may well be in a re-telling of a story very much unlike what Christians, like myself, hold to today”.

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  7. Unklee,

    My issue with readings of secular thinkers by Christians is that it seems to me they import their own ideals into the text. So, there are some that read something like ‘Western Dreaming’ and then suppose that the implication is a possible revival of Christianity in the West. That might be a nice thing, but it doesn’t follow, and it doesn’t seem likely. There’s a complex issue in neo-Pentecostalism, that is sweeping through Africa and South America, but many Christians would be uncomfortable with that too. It has an uncanny ability to tie together religious experience (not a bad thing in itself) with unreflexive theology. So you find interesting quirks in the social effects of neo-Pentecostalism, like the fact that it improves the quality of life of most South American families that convert because the father doesn’t waste the money on gambling, drinking, etc., and behaves, spends more time at home, etc., and yet we see a further perpetuation of many older forms of Patriarchy that disempowers women. Or you find that many neo-Pentecostals are creationists – even though this isn’t in any direct way implied by their religious practice or religious experience.

    In any case, the point I would want to make is that if Christianity is going to reinvigorate itself in a meaningful way today then it has to be open to so-called “heretical” readings. It’s sort of complex how this plays out in practice – John’s ‘Existential Jesus’ is an interesting experiment to this effect. We have to be okay with the idea that perhaps it’s best to read St. Paul through Thessalonians as an apocalyptic writer, and not through Romans (as a sort of proto-Calvinist systematician). We have to see the ways in which being gay affirming (which I happen to be) shows a fidelity to the core convictions of the New Testament, even if seemingly contradicting the imperatives of it. Essentially what needs to be re-captured is how we traverse the distance between what the text says and what it means for today. Too many people assume that the explicit claims of the New Testament can be unproblematically applied to the contemporary context. This isn’t necessarily true.

    As for whether or not the Gospels are history, I don’t mean to say they aren’t historical. What I do mean to say, however, is that they should be read for what they mean, and not for their ability to disclose historical happenings. Kierkegaard makes this point better than me in his ‘Concluding Unscientific Postrscript to the Philosophical Fragments’ — I’ll try and source the references later today.

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  8. Hi, thanks for replying, I really appreciate this opportunity. I don’t think I’m giving a “reading” of John’s texts, I’m simply applying what I find interesting there to things that interest me. I’m under no illusions that my conclusions reflect what John thinks. It’s not really much different to taking a song like (say) the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”, which talks about loneliness, and discussing how a church could assist people who are lonely – a point Paul McCartney almost certainly didn’t have in mind.

    I dunno about a revival of christianity in the west but I do agree that the western church needs to learn some new tricks. I’m not sure I’d be as definite as you about some of the matters you raise, but in principle I agree, and I agree with many of the things you say here. My own beliefs have undergone considerable change in the last decade or so while still remaining christian.

    I think the real issue here is one of truth. What sort of truth do we believe christianity has (if any)? On one level (the one I guess John and other scientists of religion like David Sloan Wilson, Justin Barrett, Paul Bloom, etc, work on), christianity is a sociological and psychological phenomenon to be studied by the appropriate methods. On another level it is a belief system that we can adopt for cultural reasons, like many modern Jews do. But there still remains the question of whether it is true, and in what way it is true.

    I am happy to learn from people on those other levels, but in the end many of them are not believers, so I have to adapt my learning to account for that difference to me. For example, I follow a “Science on Religion” blog by Connor Wood who is studying Religion and Science at Boston University. I have asked him how he thinks the science interfaces with belief in the truth of christianity, but so far he hasn’t answered that question.

    And of course the truth or otherwise of christian claims about God and Jesus will make a difference to whether sociological predictions about western christianity are fulfilled. Certainly, I believe that sociology can tell us a lot, but my “job” as a christian is to see that we (the christian community) do better!

    I’d be interested to hear more of your reflections on these topics if you have the time and the interest. Thanks again for all this.

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  9. In terms of truth I’d have to develop something out of the background of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. For Kierkegaard the important truths go beyond what he calls the spheres of aesthetics and ethics, and encapsulate the religious. What he means by this is difficult – I don’t understand it. It seems to relate the big ideas that mediate our relation to universal morals, and the ways in which it is justifiable to transgress these morals. ‘Fear and Trembling’ is this reflection. Perhaps it is the case that we are embedded in a cosmic narrative that is big enough to house evil – certainly there is evil. But perhaps we are part of a cosmic story that is big enough to put this evil into its proper place (the ending of Job can be read this way). What is this story for the West? Whatever answer we give to this will be something towards religious truth. It changes, obviously, and it isn’t universal, even within the West, but we can grope towards it. Here Lacan speaks most exemplary: “with God everything is permissible.” the task is to define God.

    As for Heidegger, he draws out how truth is an interplay of revealing and concealing. It let’s things be seen as they are, but closes off other possible ways of seeing them. To see who a person “truly” is is to see them as something, but consequently not as something else: it closes that possibility. What Heidegger maybe neglects is the element of truth that is an interplay of remembering and forgetting.

    If you think about the way in which the gods of Olympus died, they did not go away because arguments were presented against their existence. Because they were falsified, or didn’t fit beneath a microscope. Their decline was the decline of culture. At play were many forces – some of them were the failings of the stories to meet the changing experiences of people. In this sense we can read the decline of Olympus as a matter of revelation, but also a matter of cultural forgetting. The institutional supports that perpetuated the way of life engendered by the stories died off. And when we say that Zeus does not exist we mean simply that the way of life engendered by the cultural story does not exist. This is how we can talk of truth at the level of culture.

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  10. I think what you say about truth, Kierkegaard and Heidegger are a little beyond me. I was thinking much more practically. The historians tell us what we can know historically about Jesus and how we can understand him in first century Judaism. So the first truth I want to know is whether what he said about life, himself, God and ethics are true or not – meaning do they reflect what really is the case. If I think these things are true (which I do) than I can build on that. The western church may die, or change or keep on going, but that doesn’t necessarily negate my conclusion about Jesus.

    I think philosophy is very useful in analysing logic, defining terms, etc, but I’m not sure I’d want to pin my life on the conclusions of some philosophers like the two you mention (yeah I know K is more of a theologian than a philosopher, but I am sceptical of many theologians too. I recall seeing the musical Godspell several decades ago, and it began with a philosopher (with name on chest) walking on stage and starting to speak his philosophy. Then a second, then a third, until their philosophising became a babble. Then the John the Baptist character appeared, blew his shofar and announced “Prepare the way of the Lord!” The babble stopped. I see it a little like that.

    I understand what you mean about the Greek gods, but you are seeing this in a sociological way, and I think a postmodern way. I say Zeus certainly does not exist. Perhaps the stories no longer met the culture’s needs, but they were also inadequate on a truth level to meet the challenge from christianity and from science.

    So I think on the matter of truth we see truth very differently and therefore everything else you say here very differently. Or have I totally misunderstood you?

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  11. Unklee,

    I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with postmodernism or sociology, but we’ll move on.

    You may or may not find philosophy useful – I’m tending towards tempering its usefulness – but it has given us a few very keen and interesting insights into how we make sense of the world. One of the most interesting results gained has come from phenomenology; the idea that when we apprehend anything in the world what is needed is not merely the thing that is apprehended, but also a noetic (i.e. receptive) structure that makes it meaningful. So, in order to apprehend that you are looking at a computer screen you can’t simply have the computer screen, you have to have the concepts of ‘computer’, ‘screen’, and then inter-play of how you relate to these objects in your perception. (Admittedly this is a Kantian point, but Husserl and Heidegger articulated it most forcefully.) So what? Here’s what I suggest in terms of the “truth” of the claims of the New Testament as history:

    What is at play in accepting the New Testament as true is not just the historical facts, but also a certain receptive (or mental – though I don’t like that connotation) framework that accepts what those historical facts mean. (James 2.14 – 26 – especially v19 – sort of captures this idea.) So, why do most people reject the New Testament claims to historicity? Because their conceptual framework won’t allow it. To accept that the New Testament touches the reality in which we live is to already accept Christianity as your framework through which you make sense of reality.

    And, in fact, I think there is a rhetorical strength in talking about Christianity in this way. If you speak about Christianity as a set of big ideas that can be used to make sense of the world – in the same way one could use Marxism, liberalism, anarchism, existentialism, etc., (any ideological framework) – it becomes equal with any other claim about fundamental reality, and must be assessed as such. The acceptance of the connection of this set of ideas (Christianity) to the reality in which we live is equivalent to accepting the ideas as a framework for making sense of the world. Moreover, in doing this there is a need for conviction (for faith), which is the point all along. Not simply accepting that certain historical events happened, but appropriating them wilfully (not because you are coerced by argument, inconsistency, etc.), and accepting their meaning.

    Lastly, as a critique of the desire to show that Christianity is historically or scientifically credible, I would suggest that to do so in some way diminishes the autonomy of Christianity. What do I mean by this? Essentially, seeking to make Christianity scientifically credible already cedes to science that it is the measure of reality. This is too much. Science may well say true things about reality, but it is not the measure of it per se. There’s a great lecture by Jean-Luc Marion on youtube about the intersection of philosophy and theology, and he traces the history of these terms. Part of what he unpacks is that there is a sense in which the separation of the two is about maintaining very historically contingent disputes as if they are ideal categories. This simply isn’t true. We need to be conscious of the ways in which we enter into and use different discourses about the world.

    Also, to suggest that the disappearance of the Olympian gods was to do with their being unscientific is simply historically naive. Perhaps you might give a revisionist, or anachronistic account of why they are not believed in today, but this ignores the complex reality.

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  12. Also, because I know how many of my comments on science can be read, let me be clear: I do not oppose science, nor think that it doesn’t present facts about the world. It does. What I oppose is simply the claim that science is objectively interesting. I don’t particularly find science interesting, so I don’t engage it, and don’t feel the worse for that.

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  13. Hi Mentieth,

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with postmodernism or sociology – or philosophy, I just think some of them don’t address the questions I was raising, but slip past them.

    I understand what you say about noetic structure and I have no problems with it. And I have come across applying some of those thoughts to the New Testament in the writing of Anthony Le Donne, and I think I agree with this too: “why do most people reject the New Testament claims to historicity? Because their conceptual framework won’t allow it. “

    But I don’t think this necessarily leads to your next statement: “To accept that the New Testament touches the reality in which we live is to already accept Christianity as your framework through which you make sense of reality.” Non-christians scholars such as the late Maurice Casey and Michael Grant accepted the historicity of the New Testament without accepting Christianity as their framework – their framework was historical study and first century Judaism. I think people can read these scholars and make judgments on the truth of the NT without already accepting the christian framework.

    I think I would guess that for most people, the conceptual framework which they hold is the difficulty. Christian faith seems unrelated to life as they experience it in the rich west, and Jesus is an uncomfortable person.

    I generally agree with your next paragraph and think it is helpful. But if christianity makes sense of the world in some philosophical sense but the history (i.e. the life, teachings, death and alleged resurrection of Jesus) isn’t true, then what we have isn’t christianity. I’d be interested to hear what you think remains if the history isn’t true and believed to be true.

    But I think I completely disagree with your paragraph beginning “the desire to show that Christianity is historically or scientifically credible”. Your previous paragraph seems to present a sort of coherentist approach to arguing truth, which I agree with. But that means christian truth has to be coherent with all other truths we know, including science – just as the results of science have to be coherent. That is why, for example, I am happy to accept many of the clear findings of neuroscience, but find it difficult to accept the (admittedly somewhat speculative) statements of some neuroscientists that we have no freewill, our consciousness is an illusion, etc.

    I know little history, but I said, and I think, that the Greek gods largely disappeared with the growth of christianity, and their fate was sealed, along with a lot of Greek philosophical and medical ideas, when medieval natural philosophers finally jettisoned Aristotelianism due to the growth of scientific understanding. I don’t think there is real disagreement between us here.

    I didn’t interpret anything as being anti-science, but it is good to head of possible misunderstandings.

    I’m not sure where this discussion is going now. I am really enjoying hearing your perspective, and it seems I have no problems with a lot of what you say, but problems with some of your conclusions. If you want to keep going, I’d be interested to hear what exactly you believe and why, and how your academic study (I’m presuming) has informed this. Thanks.

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  14. Unklee,

    The New Testament has a tendency, I think, to get caught, between history and theology – which is the central paradox of the incarnation. Accepting the New Testament as history may well be interesting, but it’s hardly the point. The point of Christianity is a set of ideas that are historical, but are not merely historical. In this sense a historian that accepts the historicity of the New Testament, but doesn’t accept the broader claims of Christianity as a world view misses the point entirely.

    When I say that I think accepting Christianity implies that the New Testament touches the reality in which we live, I think this does imply a certain level of historicity. However, I don’t necessarily privilege the historicity, because it’s not just a question of whether these things happened in “reality”, but that what they signify and mean is also true. It’s quite a rudimentary observation that the “truth” of history can be understood as “what you would see if you were at that time and place.” There is a need for this sort of truth in terms of adhering to Christianity – which is why the explicit historical references in the creeds are so apposite. However, reality is a nebulous idea. The way in which a maths formula is true is different from the way in which history is true, so too, the way in which an ideological viewpoint is true is different again, or the way some people talk about art as expressing a truth, and so on. It seems to me that reality encompasses both the material (“what you would see if you were there”) and a sort of metaphysical element (a noetic structure). The relation between the two is not straightforward, I don’t think it’s so obvious a leap from the historical to the metaphysical – I do think it’s probably easier the other way around.

    Ultimately I think the truth of any religious, ideological, or really foundational set of ideas is found in communities that live in fidelity to those ideas, and constantly re-tell them in meaningful ways. I’m not sure that can be said of Christianity today.

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