((released 2006-11-01) (handle mh-82-m) (supplement ))
Guests on Volume 82: Stephen Gardner on how modern culture weakens religion and establishes a new definition of the public; Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn on Tom Wolfe and Philip Rieff’s diagnosis of cultural disorder; Wilfred McClay on how Philip Rieff’s brilliant critique of modern disorder kept him from realizing a way out of our dilemma; David Wells on how Western culture has eclipsed fundamental assumptions about human nature and God; James K. A. Smith on the postmodern insight that our experience in the world requires interpretation (and that some interpretations are better than others); and Robert Littlejohn on how education should encourage wisdom and eloquence in students.
“[T]herapy in Plato means not so much the care for us but our care for the gods, the assumption [being] that our care for the gods or for the Divine is what cures us of the intrinsic difficulties of human life.”
Professor Stephen Gardner discusses Philip Rieff’s analysis of modern culture and how he appropriated Sigmund Freud’s work in the prescient The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. Gardner explains that Rieff and Freud both address what happens to people and society when they no longer orient themselves toward the transcendent. Rieff observed that people’s ultimate aim becomes the fulfillment of desires while culture becomes an anti-culture, bent on liberating people so they might fulfill their desires, offering them therapy along the way. Gardner notes the difference between these understandings and those of the ancient world. He offers Plato’s definition of therapy to demonstrate the incompatibility.
“I think what’s so intriguing about Rieff’s work is that all of this emphasis on self and fulfillment of the self and satisfaction leads [to] a profound loss of self and therefore loss of any basis of satisfaction or fulfillment.”
Professor Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn notes that Philip Rieff addressed, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, the self-obsession that results when faith and the sacred no longer order society. The concerns of Rieff’s work are also addressed by novelist Tom Wolfe. Both attend to the re-orienting of society but, Lasch-Quinn states, they each offer different critiques of the change. She explains Rieff’s distinction between religion and religiosity, and also discusses the need for culture to place restrictions on individuals. She summarizes the great irony addressed in his work, which is that people become profoundly unsatisfied the more they pursue satisfaction.
“The more that you assume the analytic attitude is possible, the more that madness is the product, the more you are a prisoner of the world and of the world’s preconceptions.”
Professor Bill McClay summarizes a strength and weakness of sociologist Philip Rieff’s work, and discusses what the weakness indicates about contemporary culture. Rieff, author of The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud, demonstrates relentlessly that the emphasis on the therapeutic in society trivializes human experiences. However, he is not able to imagine a solution to the problem. McClay states that Rieff’s analytic method and language are at least in part to blame, and explains the origins of the analytic habit along with the role “demystification” plays in it. He notes the risks involved in assuming an analytic attitude.
“We [in the West] today are asking ourselves whether there is even such a thing as truth, and if there is whether we can know it. Now Christian faith simply cannot sustain itself without a belief in truth.”
Professor David Wells explains his assertion that contemporary culture in the Western world is more hostile to the Christian faith than it was before the 1960s. Wells is author of Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World. Christian faith, he says, is predicated upon certain timeless and changeless truths; Western culture, however, does not believe in truth. Nor does it assume that there is a Supreme Being or moral absolutes. Wells notes which additional truths of the Christian faith have been eclipsed in the West.
“What you get in this picture of postmodernism is the sense that, look we’re all telling stories about the world, but they’re stories about the world . . . These are still stories about a givenness that pushes up against us.”
—James K. A. Smith
Professor James K. A. Smith evaluates the suspicions many people harbor about postmodernism. Smith, author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, names postmodernism’s central problems while also identifying which components of the philosophy might encourage the Church to greater faithfulness. He explains that loss of confidence in logical demonstrations of universal, objective truths is not necessarily bad for Christian theology. He also discusses why the fact that postmodernism promotes particular stories over universal truths does not mean that the reality those truths describe no longer exists. Smith notes what it would mean for the Church to take postmodernism seriously for the sake of faithful obedience, rather than for cultural relevancy.
“Studying the liberal arts and sciences provides you with the skills you need to tackle virtually anything in life.”
Robert Littlejohn, headmaster of a classical Christian school, discusses the end goal of a classical liberal arts and sciences education, and how classical schools order their curriculum. Littlejohn is co-author of Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning. The book attends to logic and rhetoric and how training in these disciplines equips students for naming the world Christianly. Littlejohn states that schools with classical arts and sciences education understand their purpose as preparing students not only for college, but also for life-long learning and living well in the world after their formal schooling. In order to establish their curriculum, the schools determine which knowledge, skills, and virtues their graduates should have; the material for each grade is then oriented towards developing such graduates.
“We need a much more holistic picture of how we inhabit culture, which is why I'm now talking in terms of cultural institutions as comprising liturgies that form us in certain ways; the question is, ‘What kind of people are we being made into by these liturgies?’”
—James K. A. Smith
Professor James K. A. Smith discusses the relationship between practices and ideas. Smith, author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, explains that postmodern thought highlights how ideas and practices shape each other dialectically. In other words, participating in certain practices influences the ideas people have about the world and their place in it; those ideas, in turn, help to determine which practices people adopt. Smith notes that the dialogue between practice and reflection characterizes the process of sanctification. He also attends to the tools postmodernity offers for critiquing modernity.