Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

For A Botched Civilization?

Written by: on April 4, 2013

A read through Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries raises a number of questions about life in the modern age in the West.  Taylor a Catholic philosopher and social theorist raises the concept of the social imaginary, or essentially “a new conception of the moral order of society,” which is shared by the mass of society.  Social imaginaries are the guiding principles, goals, directions, and values that unite and shape the moral vision and agency of society, or in this case modern Western society.  For Taylor, the Western social imaginary is found in a group of free and equal individuals, endowed with essential rights, who come together for mutual benefit and security, particularly in the spheres of the market economy, the public sphere, and the sovereignty of the people to rule. 

Taylor shows how this type of modern society arose from the more traditional and hierarchical societies that posited God (or the supernatural) as the mediator and organizing principle of society.  For the most part he sees this as coming about in the disembedding of the individual from communal controls, the rise of an agreed upon moral order (or civility) and the growth of rights as the rock bed of society enmeshed within a totally secular time and space.  Here Taylor paints a fair view of modern society, with its triumphs and pitfalls, and even goes onto to suggest some useful starting points for reinvigorating a Christian engagement with modern (dare we say postmodern) society. 

As “missionary,” (although I tend to avoid this term because of its baggage) working in Western Europe, Taylor touches on some salient points for a Christian approach to modern society.  One such point is that modern society (with its boundless hope in perpetual progress) no longer finds the locus of its meaning, purpose, and social imaginary in anything outside of itself (and certainly not in God, or the supernatural, or a traditional creed).  In fact, as Taylor shows, modern society has had to make its own national and societal myths and histories to retroactively justify its imaginaries.  That is to say the circular justification of modern society falls to the sake of the individual to be an individual, and the sake of rights for rights.  Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, individualism or rights, but individualism and rights without an anchor run the risk of collapsing in on itself, or possibly even becoming tyrannical.  The modern, American raised man inside me feels that the social imaginaries of the free market, public sphere, and democratic rule will keep these excesses in check.  But, what will happen when individualism and rights become hyper, and disembedded from any meaning outside of themselves?  What happens when we disagree on what constitutes a right?

In a global world, we already see the shock to North Atlantic civility when encountering the worldviews and realities in the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the world.  But, what makes one social imaginary in the West more agreeable than the social imaginary of a Chinese communist?  Perhaps society does need something external to itself, which in fact created the basis of much of Western civility, but which we are rapidly forgetting.  Perhaps it does need the just and loving God of the Bible.  Now, I certainly am not advocating a return of Christendom or theocracy, as Taylor himself points out “what we got was not a network of agape, but rather a disciplined society in which categorical relations have primacy and therefore norms.”  Instead, that possibly, with Taylor, without injecting some form of God guidance back into the system, the system will in fact collapse.  In a sense, orthodox Christians have a social imaginary to offer.  One that is not wish-washy, but neither is devoid of immense love and compassion.  One that raises the individual to a place of value and particularness set within the protection and unity in diversity of a community. 

We have already seen with the Sexual Revolution in the 60’s and the Evangelical preoccupation with sexual fulfillment the swift eroding of the communal family for the benefit of the rights of the individual to full sexual expression and fulfillment.  While, I would not want to return to some kind of repressed 50’s nostalgia, we have to ask ourselves if we have swung the pendulum so far to the side of rights and individualism that sex in itself is disembedded from societal/communal/familial benefits, and certainly as a reflection of God’s creative power to make space for the other.  The resentment  found in the sexual freedom against the religious oppression false dialectic is only one example of what we might call a “tyranny of rights and individualization,” that threatens to unhinge our modern society.

Dutch missiologist Stefan Paas in his article “The Crisis of Mission in Europe- Is There a Way Out?” makes this point as well.  He sees Western society, grasped in this social imaginary of social order, rights, and progress, yet divorced from compassion and love.  Western society has forgotten that Christianity and the ripple effects of authentic Gospel living have formed the basis for a modern society which rightfully prides itself on justice, human rights, tolerance and order, yet now feels that those values need protection from the very religion that birthed them.  Essentially, the modern secularist imaginary defines good as that which benefits the whole, or is decided by the will of the people.  People are to be good, because it is good, it brings honor, pride, and status, not because they are driven by compassion and an honest love for their neighbor.  Or more importantly, if they are driven by compassion, how will subsequent generations sustain that compassion?  Herein lies the circular reason, a disembedded morality, if you will, that Paas explains: “Morality, after it has suppressed our ‘primitive’ and ‘tribal’ instincts, tends to produce people and cultures that look down on others, on people who are less ‘civilized’… [moreover], it breeds new kinds of violence and hatred.” (26)  

Now this is complicated stuff, and it spans two continents and many histories and nations.  I with Taylor only hope to raise some questions that we face as Christians in a rapidly fragmenting world that is only held together by the social imaginaries of the modern age.  Questions abound.  Can modern society avoid tyranny, on the one hand, and utter collapse, on the other?  Is the modern moral ideal enough in and of itself to make functioning societies?  How do we retain a communal and traditional balance?  Is the modernist experiment destined to disappoint?  And what is more, how do we relate the Gospel of Jesus Christ into this world and how do we do mission in this context?

In any case there is work to be done.

Paas, Stefan. “The Crisis of Mission in Europe: Is There a Way Out?” Scandinavian Evangelical E-Journal 3 (2012): 16-51.

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