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Biblical Religion and Social Science in the Modern World1


Robert N. Bellah

In October 1982 at the Holy Spirit Chapel in Berkeley, California, Professor Bellah gave a talk, which drew largely from a paper he published in the National Institute for Campus Ministries Journal (NICMJ) in 1981. The paper came out of a conference in which the National Institute for Campus Ministries asked a number of people--including the theologian Robert McAfee Brown, the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, and the scientist M. Elizabeth Tidball--to speak about their fields in relation to biblical religion. In this paper, Bellah identifies four major assumptions of the modern world. Using biblical religion as a case, he shows how modernity's presuppositions contrast with all humanity's major religious and philosophical traditions. The paper is reproduced here with permission from CrossCurrents. A descendent of NICMJ, CrossCurrents is a contemporary journal sponsored by the Association of Religion and Intellectual Life located in New York City.


I have frequently experienced the uncomfortable disparity between the acceptance of an intellectual obligation and its fulfillment, but never more acutely than on the present occasion. I was asked "to compare/contrast the assumptions of the biblical worldview with those implicit in the social sciences today." Since the relation of social science and religion is something I have long been interested in, this seemed a natural and an exciting challenge. Only on further reflection did the terms of the charge seem staggering. Do I have anything like the scholarly competence to characterize the biblical worldview? Who among us could begin to catalogue the variety of disparate assumptions that can be found in the cacophony of the contemporary social sciences? I must therefore make more than a perfunctory bow in the direction of scholarly modesty. What follows can only be a few preliminary considerations toward dealing with the topic that was posed for me.

I would like to begin with the assertion that the assumptions of social science are the assumptions of the modern world. They came into existence together and are indissolubly interlinked. A critique of social science cannot but be simultaneously a critique of modern society and vice versa. Biblical religion has not been extruded from the modern world, though many of the prophets of modernity predicted that it would be. But biblical religion has certainly been pushed to the periphery, especially in the intellectual world where modernity has enjoyed its greatest triumphs. In some respects we can even say that in contemporary society social science has usurped the traditional position of theology. It is now social science that tells us what kind of creatures we are and what we are about on this planet. It is social science that provides us images of personal behavior and legitimations of the structures that govern us. It is to social science that the task is entrusted, so far as it is entrusted at all, of, in whatever the contemporary terms for it would be, "justifying the ways of God to man."

Of course this is not entirely the case. Our language, both public and private, is saturated with terminology that is biblical in origin. But there are very few law schools which spend much time in showing how "the laws of nature and of Nature's God" have much to do with our legal system. The latter is much more apt to be explained in terms of legal realism or legal positivism. Every president since Washington has invoked the name of God in his inaugural address, but there are very few political scientists who think that has anything to do with the American political system. The latter is much more apt to be interpreted in terms of conflicting interest groups, the dynamics of bureaucracy, or considerations having to do with political economy.

In some research on public and private commitments of middle class Americans in which I am currently involved we are finding that the language of psychology has penetrated deeply into popular usage, whether derived from Sigmund Freud or Fritz Perls.2  Politically concerned citizens with whom we have talked depend implicitly on social science to construct their arguments whether they are free enterprise enthusiasts or are working for "economic democracy." It is true that biblical language is not absent. We have come across those among whom biblical words like faith and love still inform personal existence. And we have talked to some whose political commitments seem to derive more from biblical prophecy than from Milton Friedman or Karl Marx. But often the biblical and the contemporary sociological or psychological terminologies are hopelessly confused, and it does not always seem that the biblical discourse carries the determining weight. Nevertheless the presence of communities and practices still oriented to biblical religion in our society is a fact of great importance to which I will return.

There is a mainstream in social science just as there is a mainstream modern liberal capitalist society. There have been rebellions and critiques of the mainstream, in philosophy, art and politics, that have had their social scientific counterparts. Indeed the greatest figures in modern social science are ambivalent toward the mainstream and are among its most somber critics. I am thinking not only of Marx but of Freud, Durkheim and Weber. Yet the mainstream has carried the day and informs the presuppositions and the practices of most working social scientists. Intellectually, mainstream social science is derived from seventeenth century English social thought and the French Enlightenment. Charles Taylor characterized the Enlightenment version as "a view man as the subject of egoistic desires, for which nature and society provided merely the means to fulfillment. It was a philosophy which was utilitarian in its ethical outlook, atomistic in its social philosophy, analytic in its science of man, and which looked to a scientific social engineering to reorganize man and society and bring men happiness through perfect mutual adjustment."3  While "perfect mutual adjustment" seems a bit beyond our grasp just now, this characterization would be remarkably apt for most members not only of American faculties of social science but of professional schools as well.

The assumptions underlying mainstream social science can be briefly listed: positivism, reductionism, relativism and determinism.4  I am not saying that working social scientists could give a good philosophical defense of these assumptions, or even that they are fully conscious of holding them. I mean to refer only to, in a descriptive sense, their prejudices, their pre-judgments about the nature of reality. By positivism I mean no more than the assumption that the methods of natural science are the only approach to valid knowledge, and the corollary that social science differs from natural science only in maturity and that the two will become ever more alike. By reductionism I mean the tendency to explain the complex in terms of the simple and to find behind complex cultural forms biological, psychological or sociological drives, needs and interests. By relativism I mean the assumption that matters of morality and religion, being explicable by particular constellations of psychological and sociological conditions, cannot be judged true or false, valid or invalid, but simply vary with persons, cultures and societies. By determinism I do not mean any sophisticated philosophical view, but only the tendency to think that human actions are explained in terms of "variables" that will account for them.

Most social scientists do not think of these assumptions as conflicting with the assumptions of biblical religion. The assumptions are so self-evidently true that they are beyond contradiction. Biblical religion, being "unscientific," could have no reality claim in any case, though as a private belief or practice it may by some be admitted to have a "psychological" truth. Yet these assumptions conflict, and conflict sharply, not only with biblical religion but with every one of the great traditional religions and philosophies of mankind. For social science, in these regards embodying the very ethos of modernity, there is no cosmos, that is, no whole relative to which human action makes sense. There is, of course, no God, or any other "ultimate" reality, but there is no nature either in the traditional sense of a creation or expression of transcendent reality. Similarly no social relationship can have any sacramental quality. No social form can reflect or be infused with a divine or cosmological significance. Rather every social relationship can be explained in terms of social or psychological utility. Finally, though the social scientist says a lot about the "self," he has nothing to say about the soul. The very notion of soul entails a divine or cosmological context that is missing in modern thought. To put the contrast in another way, the traditionally religious view found the world intrinsically meaningful. The drama of personal and social existence was lived out in the context of continual cosmic and spiritual meaning. The modern view finds the world intrinsically meaningless, endowed with meaning only by individual actors, and the societies they construct, for their own ends.

Most social scientists would politely refuse to discuss the contrasts just mentioned. They would profess no ill will toward biblical or any her kind of religion. They are largely unaware of the degree to which they teach and write undermines all traditional thought and belief. Unlike an earlier generation of iconoclasts they feel no mission to undermine "superstition." They would consider the questions raised above to simply, "outside my field," and would refer one to philosophers, humanists or students of religion to discuss them. So fragmented is our intellectual life, even in the best universities, that such questions are apt never to be raised. That does not mean that they are not implicitly answered.

Christians have not always been clear about the contrast between their faith and modern ideology, either. Some have accepted without quite realizing it the assumptions of empiricism and positivism and tried prove biblical faith on scientific grounds, as in the current creationist controversy. We call them fundamentalists. Others, liberal Christians, have tried to believe there is perfect harmony between biblical religion and modern thought and have even gratefully accepted the idea that their religion has only psychological or sociological truth. Yet from the very beginning of the modern era there have been those, like Pascal, who have seen the enormity of the problem.

It is interesting how clearly John Winthrop, writing before Leviathan was published in 1651, saw the contrast between Christianity and what will be fundamental tenets of modern social thought. Let us consider the contrasts he draws between two conceptions of love and freedom, basic issues for both Christianity and social science. In 1630 he wrote that Christians are members of one body in Christ and that the "ligamentes of this body which knitt together are love." This love gives Christians a "sensiblenes and Sympathy of each others Condicions," to the extent that they not only bear each other's burdens but are willing to lay down their lives for one another. But then Winthrop adds:

The next consideracion is how this love comes to be wrought; Adam in his first estate was a perfect modell of mankinde in all their generacions, and in him this love was perfected in regard of the habit, but Adam Rent in himselfe from his Creator, rent all his posterity alsoe one from another, whence it comes that every man is borne with this principle in him, to love and seeke himselfe only and thus a man continueth till Christ comes and takes possession of the soule, and infuseth another principle love to God and our brother.5

With respect to liberty Winthrop makes a comparable contrast, writing this time in 1645:

There is a liberty of corrupt nature, which is affected both by men and beasts, to do what they list; and this liberty is inconsistent with authority, impatient of all restraint; by this liberty sumus omnes deteriores: 'tis the grand enemy of truth and peace, and all the ordinances of God are bent against it. But there is a civil, a moral, a federal liberty, which is the proper end and object of authority; it is a liberty for that only which is just and good; for this liberty you are to stand with the hazard of your very lives; and whatsoever crosses it is not authority but a distemper thereof.6

Winthrop thus contrasts love of brother to love of oneself alone and freedom to do what one lists with freedom to do only that which is just and good.

But Hobbes in Leviathan, the basic if often unrecognized textbook of contemporary social science, portrays precisely an atomistic man rent from God and from all other men, who loves and seeks himself only. His freedom certainly is to do what he lists, for "just" and "good" are only names that men give to what they desire. Winthrop knew what was coming, so to speak, because Hobbes' portrait of man is so similar to Augustine's picture of natural man in his City of God. What was new in Hobbes, and would be true in modern thought ever after, is the idea that such fallen, corrupt men (in the traditional view) could construct a good, indeed an excellent society, relying neither on divine reason or guidance, but on their own devices (and social science) alone.

We should not forget, of course, that Hobbes had good reason to be suspicious of just such men as John Winthrop. Christians have often in history been arrogant and willing to inflict their views on others at great cost to those with whom they differed, as Winthrop on occasion was and as Augustine was. Hobbes understood very well freedom to do what one lists and how to manage it but he was acutely anxious about the subversive potentialities of a freedom which men assert is to do the just and good and for which they are willing to lay down their lives. Sectarian fanaticism seemed to him one of the most potent sources of the English civil wars. Relative to Christian arrogance he offered his own lower view of man as more realistic and practical. It had, however, its own potentiality for arrogance and distortion.

It was Hobbes who indelibly introduced the natural science model into social thought. But to the extent that traditional practical reason now became social science, the moral bond between the theorist and those he studies was broken. The social scientist is rent, morally, because of the purely cognitive natural science model, from those he studies. The results can be destructive indeed, as in what Edward Shils calls technological sociology:

The manipulative conception of man and society entails the perception of the object of manipulation of a discrete entity having no social relationship with the manipulator except with regard to the manipulative actions themselves. It denies the object's capacities for and claims for moral regard by the manipulating person ...

The technological self-interpretation of man and society accepts either a mechanistic, conventionally behavioristic conception of man as incapable of valid reasoning and as unable to make choices guided by moral standards. Or it sees them as capable of rational decisions based on scientific knowledge and obdurately resistant to considerations of moral obligation.

A sociology which conforms entirely to either of the divergent postulates of the technology of control is one which sees the relationship between controller and controlled as wholly devoid of any moral and cultural content ...7

Freedom, in the sense of freedom to do what one lists, essentially following one's desires and interests, has been linked to manipulative control throughout the history of modern thought, from Hobbes to B. F. Skinner by way of Mandeville, Adam Smith, The Federalist Papers, and many others. Personal passions, even quite base ones, can be channeled, by way of proper social engineering (even the free market requires its structures) so as to produce a good society. Private vice, as Mandeville put it, can render public benefit. Both capitalist economics and liberal politics were based on that view.

It is perhaps less interesting to contrast the theoretical premises of this modern view of man and society with those of traditional religion than it is to look at their consequences in practice. What kind of human beings are these atomized individuals, each pursuing his or her own utility that the new society, embodying what Louis Dumont calls "the triumph of economic ideology,"8 produces? They have been anxiously described by many of the greatest thinkers since the eighteenth century: Rousseau, Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx, Nietzsche. Perhaps no one has given us a more careful or a more sober portrait than Tocqueville in Democracy in America. Tocqueville was greatly concerned that Americans, archetypal representatives of the new society, were abandoning all heroic, spiritual or aesthetic goals for the sheer pursuit of material comfort. In a description that applies, if anything, more to us today than 150 years ago, he says that in America there are:

... more and more people who though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs. Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands.

Forgetting ancestors, unable to think of descendents and isolated from contemporaries, "each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart."9 Tocqueville feared that, a society of such isolated self-regarding individuals would be unable to sustain free institutions and would fall victim to despotism, a form of manipulation which from Hobbes on was always in the background. In the TV series "Dallas" this ethos of self-regarding individualism reaches a kind of culmination, and the overtones of despotism are quite explicit.

But Tocqueville does not believe that atomistic utilitarianism is the whole story in America. He explicitly points to John Winthrop and the tradition descending from him as mitigating the destructive implications of America's economic passion. It is precisely through religiously based mores, "habits of the heart,"10 that self-interest could be mitigated and socialized. Tocqueville argued that it was only the presence of a vital religious life based on very different premises, supporting, for example, public cooperation for the common good, that gave him any hope for America. Hegel too felt that bourgeois "civil society" would be self-destructive without the presence of Sittlichkeit, concrete ethical obligations quite comparable to Tocqueville's mores.11  We can ask whether biblical religion today still can provide what William Sullivan calls the "moral ecology" to control our self-destructive tendencies.12  But first we must consider a more radical alternative.

From relatively early on the emergence of modern society and its social scientific ideology has aroused profound antipathies and revulsions. Rousseau was convinced that bourgeois man could never be a citizen and proposed instead the ancient polis revived in modern form and based on a general will that would unite the whole. The French Revolution, that may in some of its expressions have been more inspired by Rousseau than historians have recently thought, was both the triumph of the bourgeoisie and a strange critique of it, with its almost inhuman attempt at a reign of virtue. Romanticism, partly inspired by Rousseau, spawned a wide array of artistic, spiritual, intellectual and ultimately political assaults on modernity.13

One tendency which appeared in the Romantic era was a desire to cancel the whole project of modernity and return to the hierarchical organic unity of the Middle Ages. This appealed not only to artists and poets but to a variety of Christians, some of whom were militantly reactionary, but others of whom were genuinely searching for a life of simple dignity, close to the soil, and characterized by the pleasure of artistic and craft creations.

Another tendency was to assert primordial loyalties of blood, language and culture, that seemed about to be swept away by the free market and the culture of universal scientific utility. Some of those reacting in this way were defending the legitimate claims of particular cultural loyalties in the face of modern economic and scientific abstractness. But some would follow this tendency into an ardent nationalism that would consume all other values and eventually lead to twentieth century phenomenon of fascism.

A more complex reaction developed from the thought of Hegel. Following the dialectical logic of Hegel, Marx, the greatest exemplar of this tendency, sought not to deny the modern project and return to some earlier epoch or some particularistic loyalty. Rather he wanted to accept chief features of modernity, including industrial production, technology and science, but move to a new form of society that would replace atomistic individualism with a new free form of social unity. Marx developed an elaborate analysis that I cannot reproduce here. Greatly simplifying, it involves the transition from the subjective dependency of pre-capitalist (feudal) society to the subjective independence but objective dependence (on the structures of capitalist production) of bourgeois society to the subjectively social and universal individuality of socialism.14  Instead of the alienated pursuit of wealth, socialism will bring a multiplex self-realization. As Marx says,

[W]hen the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as humanity's own nature? The absolute working out of his creative potentialities, with no presupposition other than the previous historic development which makes this totality of development, i.e., the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick?15

That sounds more like Marin County in California than the Soviet Union. Unfortunately the manipulative potentialities of modern society that slipped into socialism along with industrialization, technology and science, have reached a degree of intensity in Soviet society only rivaled by that other revolt against modernity, Nazi Germany.

Certainly the effort to "overcome the modern" (kindai o chokoku suru), as the Japanese ideologists of the early 1940's put it, has produced some of the greatest pathological disturbances of the twentieth century.16 The Chinese cultural revolution, in its effort to oppose "taking the capitalist road," instituted a reign of virtue that was also a reign of terror whose final destructiveness for Chinese society we are only now beginning to see.17

And yet the problem persists. Sheer defense of the modern project may be a hopeless enterprise. Mainstream modern society expressed in liberal capitalism and interest-group politics, and rationalized by the individualistic utilitarianism of modern economics and much of the rest of social science, seems bent on the destruction of the conditions of its existence, the context or moral ecology that Tocqueville and Hegel thought were necessary for its survival. Daniel Bell has well described the failure of commitment that today characterizes all the advanced industrial societies as

the loss of civitas, that spontaneous willingness to obey the law, to respect the rights of others, to forgo the temptations of private enrichment at the expense of the public weal-in short, to honor the "city" of which one is a member. Instead, each man goes his own way, pursuing his private vices, which can be indulged only at the expense of public benefits.18

Bell's inversion of Mandeville suggests how the whole modern project comes apart when its moral ecology is destroyed.

And it is hard to see how a culture that systematically deprives the cosmos, nature, society and the person of any intrinsic meaning or sacrality, which declares that the only truth of the human condition is the desires and fears of individuals, and that the only formula for social harmony is the systematic manipulation of those desires and fears, could do anything but destroy moral ecology and provoke periodic revolts and outbursts of ferocity and destructiveness. Under these circumstances what do adherents of traditional religions who have never wholly accepted the terms of modern ideology, or to speak more directly, what do Christians do under these circumstances?

One approach is to continue the search for a third way that will overcome the defects of modernity, reassert some of the virtues of traditional society but neither reject the achievements of modern reason nor reassert the oppressive features of traditional society.19  Since the efforts to find a radically new solution to the impasse of modernity are themselves in part secular expressions of Christian apocalypticism it is natural that such alternatives would continue to have a Christian appeal, as in the liberation theologies of Latin America and elsewhere. The catastrophic failure of most of these efforts so far to do anything but exacerbate the worst features of modernity should give us pause. We might ask about the fact that if few of the architects of modern utilitarian individualism have been believers, so very few of the critics of modernity have been. Most of them have been profoundly doubtful of the value or relevance of traditional religion in the modern world, even the most sympathetic of them, such as Hegel and Tocqueville.20  Does this mean that Christians should exclude themselves from the search for a viable alternative to the self-destructiveness that seems endemic in modern society? Not at all, but it probably does mean that Christians should devote themselves to that search with caution and detachment, not forgetting that in even the best of societies we will be as strangers and wayfarers. Such an attitude may provide just the reservation against total commitment that could help future efforts to find a third way from becoming as idolatrous and destructive as past ones.

But for Americans in particular we might ask whether the more modest traditional role of biblical religion in providing a moral ecology that would mitigate the worst features of modern society is still viable. To the extent possible I think that Christians should continue to try to provide that moral context. But we should be clear about the increasing difficulties, and even while we continue our traditional functions in American society we need to undertake a much deeper and more searching criticism of our society than we have ever made before, one that does not ignore what social science has to say but one that will be ethically and theologically informed. The first thing to be aware of is how much the traditional role of Christianity in America is already undermined. There has been a long tradition of ethically and spiritually narrow criticism of certain aspects of modern American society that today is particularly widespread among self-styled Christians such as the Moral Majority. What is sad about them is not only that their anti-intellectualism deprives them of the tools to understand the society in which they live, but that while they oppose vehemently certain symptoms of our corruption, they may contribute fundamentally to its worsening. This they do by a politics that strengthens our amoral majority that is bent on the elimination of the last vestiges of our life as a covenant people genuinely concerned with all its members.

For the liberal churches which have always had far more cultural and social influence than their fundamentalist brethren there are other dangers. For one thing the ideology of secular modernism has won away large portions of the youth of these churches in the last 30 years, in part because of the influence of college education, the missionary outpost of modern culture, which has become available to a much higher percentage of our middle class than ever before.21  Even more insidious is the invasion of that culture into our lives even when we explicitly deny its central tenets. We cannot avoid radical secular individualism simply by ideological critique. It is much more than an ideology; it is a way of life. It resonates with our economy, our political system, even with the way we organize our private lives. It is rooted in wholly unconscious preconceptions and practices that pervade us even when we wish ardently that this were not the case. Therefore not only a profound intellectual criticism but an alternative lifestyle may be necessary for us to withstand the pressures to be absorbed into a system that we cannot accept and remain faithful to our religious calling.

We live in a social system that tells us, not just verbally but in the daily practice of life, that we are alone, that we are here to pursue our own interests, that neither anyone nor anything can save us except ourselves. It tells us that we must mistrust every noble impulse we feel because it must be only a form of our own self-seeking. We live in a society where a book entitled Looking Out for Number One was a best seller for many weeks and has spawned a whole series of successful imitations. Intellectuals seldom read or mention works of such vulgarity, though they may be telling us something of great importance about our society. But even a distinguished philosophical work like John Rawls' Theory of Justice premises the radically self-interested individual as the necessary starting point. Though Rawls' argument far transcends that framework, he believes that to be convincing that is where he must start. That fact is as culturally telling as is Robert Ringer's book.

What I am describing is not simply an ideology but a whole set of social practices and institutions that breed, support and reinforce it. The belief in the isolated self is reinforced by what happens to us in our daily experience. Together with the full stomach has come the empty soul. For many our freedom is contentless and our daily life barren of meaning. The research project referred to above has found that for many Americans occupation causes psychic isolation. Work lacks the articulation with a larger organic society that it often has in other cultures and civilizations. Instead work creates a boredom from which one seeks to escape if one is on the lower rungs or if one is on the higher rungs it often requires a degree of anxious self-manipulation from which one desperately seeks relief whenever possible. Above all work does not provide a way to tie one into larger structures of meaning and participation. Public life outside of work is often equally if not more barren, consisting of encounters either with the market, where virtually everything from the most private to the most material needs can be met by the payment of money, or with large impersonal bureaucracies that one learns at best to manipulate. We are studying that still sizeable minority of Americans who resist the tendency to locate real life in one's own living room in front of the TV screen. There are millions still struggling in one way or another to make a public life in America possible, but the cost is high and "burnout" a constant theme among those who are publicly active.

What life in this extraordinarily rich society lacks above all is what traditional cultures have: that round of meaningful action that ties them into society, nature and the cosmos. For us it is not only nature that has become cold, lifeless and abstract. Society too is cold, lifeless and abstract. Even intimate relations grow more and more calculating. One of the things my research group did not expect is that the word love is viewed with suspicion among many of the people we are studying. Love is seen as dangerous because it threatens the autonomy and independence of the individual.

Cumulatively the pressures and tensions of our way of life are very great and require certain reactions in order for us to stay alive and functioning at all. One increasingly important reaction is to alleviate the greyness and deadness of one's daily life by a stress on purely private inner experience.

Owen Barfield points to the eighteenth century as a time when subjective experience was beginning to be emphasized as expressed in the appearance of such words as interesting, entertaining and exhilarating.22  These words, he tells us, point to inner states with no necessary correlate with anything in the external world. Our research is finding an advance stage of the same tendency. The words that come up again and again in our interviews are feeling, creative and creativity, aliveness, excitement, and energy. Increasingly we come across rather cryptic phrases like to get it or onomatopoetic expressions like zing. What is striking is that we are discovering a private world of great intensity and no content whatever. There is a vehement insistence on selfhood but it is an absolutely empty self; except for the sheer quantity of excitation there is nothing there at all. Symbolic, ethical or religious content terms get swallowed up in the language or psychic process. Creative for example would certainly be used more circumspectly in a society that deeply believed in God as the real creator. Among us creative tends to be a contentless quality pointing to the intensity of inner experience.

The extreme individualism of our culture entails a functional, though not always an ethical, egalitarianism. Individuals are both absolutely unique and absolutely interchangeable. There are no organic connections between them that would allow for an ethically meaningful hierarchy. Functions are different and some may supervise others but there is no sense of a whole of which all are parts. There are also no standards from which an ethical hierarchy could be deduced. No unique individual can be judged by any other. There can be no notion of noble and base. My sensations are as good as your sensations and who is to say anything about better or worse. We maximize individual choice beyond what any traditional society has ever done and then we deny all objective standards of choice. Choice is finally completely private. We stress human rights as our most sacred belief but we define rights as the absence of external limits on individual decision. The ultimate right becomes the right to commit suicide. Who is to tell me I shouldn't?

While this whole system obviously works and a complete collapse is not in sight, the level of dissatisfaction is clearly on the rise. It isn't working very well and all the signs are that it is going to be working less well in the years ahead. If, then, we are not moving into a utopia of human happiness and fulfillment, if indeed our society is less and less capable of giving people a sense of meaning about who they are in relation to the world in which they live, how can religious communities make any difference? To the extent that the religious communities are themselves pervaded by the ethos of utilitarian individualism and the desacralized world view that supports it, and it is hard not to be when one's daily life is based on those premises, then there is little they can do. To the extent, however, that religious communities can retain or recover a sense of being in but not of this world, can live, at least to some extent, in patterns of voluntary simplicity and mutual concern, then they may act as genuine alternatives to the prevailing current.

I am not suggesting that Christians or followers of other traditional religions abandon the larger society and try to save only themselves, as some sectarians of various faiths are indeed doing. Christians have contributed centrally to every great movement for social reform in American history. It is still possible, as our situation worsens, that drastic reforms in our economic and political life may occur, probably as a result of a large scale social movement and a spiritual awakening, as has been the case before in America.23  Certainly all our intelligence as well as all our faith deserve to be committed to that end.

It is also possible, however, that modern society is not going to solve its problems, that it will sink into a time of protracted troubles with regression along many dimensions. Such periods have not been few in human history. Some of our ablest observers, such as Robert Heilbroner,24  are close to predicting such an outcome. In that event too there is much to be done by the faithful. As corruption widens it is ever more necessary that there be demonstration communities where elementary decencies can be maintained and handed down, humanizing a bad situation as long as it exists, and providing seedbeds for larger efforts at social amelioration when that becomes possible.

As our society fails to realize the promises upon which it was launched several centuries ago it may be possible to question, even in the central citadels of intellectual life, the basic assumptions of the modern project. As a first step it might be possible to reclaim the idea of practical reason as the true calling of social science. Somewhere further on, a practical reason rejoined to the ecstatic reason of religious insight might even appear.



1. Published in The National Institute for Campus Ministers Journal, 6, 3, 1981, pp. 8-22.(return to text)

2. The project is entitled "The Moral Basis of Social Commitment in America" and is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations. The field researchers are Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton. Also see Steven Tipton, Getting Saved from the Sixties, University of California Press, forthcoming. (return to text)

3. Charles Taylor, Hegel and Modern Society, Cambridge University Press, 1979. This book is drawn largely from Taylor's much more comprehensive Hegel, Cambridge University Press, 1979, but is a remarkably powerful treatment of certain aspects of modernity in itself. (return to text)

4. This list is drawn in part from E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Harper and Row, 1973, and is somewhat differently developed in my essay "Faith Communities Challenge-and are Challenged by-the Changing World Order," in Joseph Gremillion and William Ryan, eds., World Faiths and the New World Order, Interreligious Peace Colloquium, 1978.(return to text)

5. From "A Model of Christian Charity" in Edmund S. Morgan, ed., Puritan Political Ideas 1558-1794, Bobbs-Merrill, 1965, pp. 84-86.(return to text)

6. From a speech by Winthrop in 1645 in the General Court following his acquittal from impeachment in the office of Deputy Governor as contained in Cotton Mather's "Nehemias Americanus. The Life of John Winthrop, Esq., Governor of the Massachusetts Colony," reprinted in Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self, Yale University Press, 1975, p. 200. It is interesting that Tocqueville, in quoting the same passage from the Mather biography, omits the phrase "and whatsoever crosses it is not authority but a distemper thereof." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, tr. by George Lawrence, Anchor Books, 1969, p. 46.(return to text)

7. Edward Shils, The Calling of Sociology and Other Essays on the Pursuit of Learning, University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 36.(return to text)

8. Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx: the Genesis and Triumph of Economic Ideology, University of Chicago Press, 1977.(return to text)

9. Tocqueville, p. 508.(return to text)

10. Tocqueville, p. 287.(return to text)

11. Taylor in Hegel and Modern Society, p. 118, makes the comparison between Tocqueville and Hegel but does not make explicit the equation of mores and Sittlichkeit. (return to text)

12. Sullivan develops his notion of moral ecology in his Reconstructing Public Philosophy, University of California Press, forthcoming. (return to text)

13. Taylor's discussion of Romanticism in Hegel and Modern Society, passim, is especially helpful. (return to text)

14. This discussion is indebted to Carol C. Gould, Marx's Social Ontology: Individuality and Community in Marx's Theory of Social Reality, MIT Press, 1978, Chapter 1. (return to text)

15. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundation of the Critique of Political Economy, tr. by M. Nicolaus, Vintage Books, 1973, p. 488; cited by Gould, p. 25. (return to text)

16. See my essay, "Japan's Cultural Identity: Some Reflections on the Work of Watsuji Tetsuro," The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1965, pp. 573-594. (return to text)

17. See Richard Madsen, The Moral Basis of Political Activism in Rural China, University of California Press, forthcoming. (return to text)

18. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Basic Books, 1976, p. 245. Chapter 6 of this book, "The Public Household," is particularly germane to the themes of this essay. (return to text)

19. Roberto Mangabeira Unger in his Knowledge and Politics, Free Press, 1975, gives a helpful recent interpretation of the problem, trying to give some descriptive depth to a possible form of society that would move beyond and incorporate the positive features of traditional and societies. (return to text)

20. Hegel was suspicious mainly of Catholicism. Tocqueville wondered at the frequent appearance of a contrast "between Christian virtue and what I call public virtue." From a letter of July 20, 1856, quoted by Marvin Zetterbaum, Tocqueville and the Problem of Democracy, Stanford University Press, 1975, p.50. (return to text)

21. On this point see particularly Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen, eds., Understanding Church Growth and Decline 1950-1978, Pilgrim Press, 1979. Hoge argues in Chapter 8 that the mainline liberal churches have not lost membership but have failed to gain the commitment of many of the children of their now aging membership. (return to text)

22. Owen, Barfield, "Language, Evolution of Consciousness, and the Recovery of Human Meaning," Teacher's College Record, Vol. 82, No. 3, Spring 1981, pp. 427-433. (return to text)

23. See William G. McLoughlin's valuable essay Revivals, Awakenings and Reform, Chicago University Press, 1978. (return to text)

24. Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquirv into the Human Prospect, Norton, 1974. (return to text)

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