Modern Culture – A Sickness Unto Death

“A Theological Sickness Unto Death – Philip Rieff’s Prophetic Analysis of our Secular Age” is the title of a paper published in TGC’s Themelios journal. I have read Rieff’s My Life Among the Deathworks and am working my way through the related A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. For evangelists and apologists wondering what is going on in our culture, and wanting to survey the cultural landscape in order to better strategise our evangelism and apologetics, this article may be helpful.

In Rieff’s view, therapeutic ideology, rather than Communism, was the real revolution of the twentieth century. Compared to Freud, the neo-Marxists were cultural conservatives who still believed in the notion of authority and the idea of a cultural code. The proponents of Freudian therapeutics, on the other hand, would not countenance authoritative frameworks and normative moral codes. In a therapeutic culture, authority disappears. In place of theology and ethics, we are left with aesthetics and the social sciences. Thus, therapeutic culture was born. This tradeoff would turn out to be so destructive that Rieff would describe the United States and Western Europe (rather than the Soviet Union) as the epicenter of Western cultural deformation.

In contrast to the first and second world cultures whose social order is undergirded by a world beyond the visible and a moral authority beyond the self, third world cultures (contemporary Western cultures) sever the connection between sacred order and social order, limiting the “real” world to the visible and locating moral authority in the self. Similarly, whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing.

The construction of a fourth world will involve a recovery of sacred order and, by extension, recoveries of revelation and authority, and of transcendent meaning and morality. Recoveries such as this do not enact themselves; they await a people who will speak and act responsibly. This fourth world “people,” Rieff argues, must articulate and embody seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue, a formidable task in our radically disenchanted and morally permissive third world culture. Nonetheless, in spite of the formidable challenges posed by third world order, there are already cracks in the foundations; although it once seemed liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits, the third world will soon realize that a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. Thus, a responsible people must arise to manifest the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”