In the West today, many of the great questions faced by Christians deal with our place in a culture that was molded by Christianity, but that has now rejected it—not merely in a passive sort of indifference, but in an active effort to undo the faith’s historic formative influence on our world. This is the context in which a constellation of homegrown “cultural Christians” has gained such influence.
In The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman helps us understand their rise to prominence. He does so by bringing the work of Philip Rieff, the outstanding Jewish sociologist, to the table. Rieff argued that the history of the West is the history of three worlds. The first was a supernaturally charged, pre-Christian pagan world in which life and death were governed by fate.
This gave way to a second world reshaped by Jewish and Christian thought, able to advance scientific knowledge and social order, looking to expand on the basis of each previous generation, and fundamentally oriented to things that exist beyond the world itself. (In Rieffian terms, the second world is marked by “sacred order” rooted in divine transcendence. In most basic terms, it’s a world cast as a creation in relation to a Creator.)
Much more recently, a third world has emerged. This new world tries to justify itself without transcendence or any notion of sacred order. It knows no Creator, and rather, only creates itself. Rieff describes this third world as an “anti-culture” in that it exists to put to death the old world and all the order that it deemed sacred—physical, psychological, social, spiritual—precisely because that old world was a creation with a Creator.
To borrow the words of that third world’s purest exponent, the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, the third world’s driving force is to “unchain the earth from the sun” and, on that basis, to “revalue all values.” Order becomes plastic and profane, rather than sacred and constant. The third world is a wholly new thing, unpredictable, unstable, and chaotic. By necessity, it can only sail into uncharted waters.
By bringing Rieff to the fore, Trueman reminds us that what we experience as “culture war” is really the surface-level rumbling of something far deeper. Deep beneath that surface are two tectonic plates, each sustaining a world unto itself: one inhabited by culture-warring conservatives, the other by progressives. Like ocean plates, they push against each other jarringly, bluntly, violently. All the while, we remain on the surface waiting to see which plate will push itself above the other, and which will sink deep into the earth’s mantle.
Little wonder these are unsettling times for Christians. The historical backdrop to our lives is no mere theatrical “culture war.” Rather, it’s the effort of Rieff’s “third world” to undo the “second world” as if its religiously derived sacred order never happened. Bavinck perceived this when he remarked, in 1910: “In general, the current of the times is away from Christ and his cross.”
Nine years before, in 1901, he had forecast that the 20th century would witness a “gigantic conflict of spirits” between two worldviews that closely resemble Rieff’s second and third worlds. During the last two decades of his life, few names appeared in Bavinck’s writings more often than that of Nietzsche. Although Bavinck died shortly before Rieff’s birth, and as such predated Rieff’s three worlds account, little in it would have taken him by surprise: he knew well that a profound change had taken place at the dawn of the 20th century, and that in many hearts, the earth and the sun had indeed become unchained.
James Eglinton is Meldrum senior lecturer in Reformed theology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Bavinck: A Critical Biography (Baker Academic, 2020).
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