The Tower of Babel

Michael S. Horton
Saturday, September 2nd 1995
Sep/Oct 1995

Modernity built the tower’now postmodernity must face the challenge of condemning the unsafe structure.

Our Time is the epithet David Wells attaches to modernity and its postmodern successor. Princeton philosopher Diogenes Allen declared, "A massive intellectual revolution is taking place that is perhaps as great as that which marked off the modern world from the Middle Ages." (1) It is a shift that shapes every intellectual discipline as well as the practice of law, medicine, politics, and religion in our culture. This article will serve as a basic introduction to a topic that has become paramount in every university discipline at the present time: the collapse of the modern worldview and its much-hailed successor: postmodernism.

Theologian Thomas Oden argues that "modernity" began with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, (2) while art philosopher Charles Jencks decided to be even more specific: It ended at 3:32 p. m. on July 15, 1972, "when the Pruitt-Ingoe housing development in St. Louis (a prize-winning version of Le Corbusier's 'machine for modern living') was dynamited as an uninhabitable environment for the low-income people it housed." (3) Obviously a lot of people have their own opinions about when the shoe dropped, but most agree that it was fairly recently.

In both of these attempts at fixing a time-line, however, we have a window on the character of this period we call "modernity." Why did Oden, for instance, choose the storming of the Bastille as the beginning of the period? The French Revolution was one of a number of revolutions that sought to remake the world from scratch. Universal reason, progress, and planning would eventually create the perfect society in spite of the great costs in terms of genocide as a means to arriving at the gates of Utopia. Not only economically exhausted, but spiritually weary, the Soviet empire collapsed under its own weight. It is true that the United States "spent" the Soviet government out of business, but the spiritual and philosophical issues underlying the collapse are far more significant. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it marked the end of the naive optimism toward ideological movements. Perhaps Utopia would have to wait after all.

But Jencks also gives us a vista from which to view the identity of "modernity." From the architectural side of things he reminds us of the silliness of it all. Taking itself far too seriously, ideology, art, politics, religion, education’everything’was drafted into service to the Great Idea. Humility has not been a major characteristic of this era, as human beings have come to believe that they can control the earthly environment and their own destiny, collectively and individually, through technology, politics, military power, and science. That is why Jencks saw the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing development in St. Louis as a marker.

A "machine for living," this highly-rationalized and carefully-crafted environment actually ended up being uninhabitable. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, everyone from scientists to artists tended to view the world in mechanical terms, so that even one's home could be considered a "machine" that "fixes" social ills. The building's demolition, like the collapse of the Berlin Wall, marked the end of the "engineered society." Or did it?

That is the question. Many would argue that modernity has not really ended and that it has actually accelerated, so that even those who decry modernity the most and wear the label "postmodern" proudly, are often actually hyper-modern in their outlook. This seems to make a great deal of sense when, for instance, so-called "postmodernists" fail to realize that the label itself assumes the idea of progress, one of modernity's cherished dogmas that has come under sharp fire by postmodern academics.

But what is it? What is modernity and why is there such a reaction to it? Where is the church in all of this and how does our faith relate to this massive upheaval in human thought during our own lifetime? Let's begin with the first question: Defining modernity.

Some people think in more visual than conceptual terms (a postmodern influence), so one way of looking at the modern worldview is to picture Rockefeller Center, city projects, and tract homes. Each in its own way reveals the modern spirit. Modern architecture tends to accent order. Driving down some of the major streets in Washington, D. C., one can see these towers of modernity dominating on either side. Modernity created these large business-like buildings with little embellishments for a reason. Unlike an old Victorian town square in the Midwest or a Bavarian village, there is no distinct local style. One could be in New York, Nairobi, Singapore, or Sao Paulo and have to look at one's travel itinerary to remember where one is in the morning at the modern hotel. While many styles throughout history have been primarily regional and distinctive, the modern style is global, and it is part of a culture that is obsessed with doing business, making money, selling things, and engineering the New World. The buildings say that.

Tract homes say that, too. Organized, well-planned communities are part of the modern worldview. Mobility has already uprooted us from our ancestral places, so our new "communities" are also landmarks of the modern worldview. Each home is basically the same as the next, convenience being more important than charm.

Others, perhaps less visual, may think of modernity in sociological terms. Having already mentioned mobility and rapid transportation (which already makes one feel somewhat rootless), there is also the technological revolution. Neil Postman's Technopoly has explored this with such fascinating detail and entertaining prose that every reader of this article should pick up a copy at the next available opportunity. We all assume that technology is a friend, Postman says, for two reasons.

First, technology is a friend. It makes life easier, cleaner, and longer. Can anyone ask more of a friend? Second, because of its lengthy, intimate, and inevitable relationship with culture, technology does not invite a close examination of its own consequences. It is the kind of friend that asks for trust and obedience, which most people are inclined to give because its gifts are truly bountiful. But, of course, there is a dark side to this friend. Its gifts are not without a heavy cost….It creates a culture without a moral foundation. It undermines certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living. Technology, in sum, is both friend and enemy. (4)

Expressing the dissatisfaction with modernity is Sting's "If I Ever Lose My Faith In You":

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress.
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church.
You could say I lost my sense of direction.

I never saw no miracle of science
That didn't go from a blessing to a curse.
I never saw no military solution
That didn't always end up with something worse…

It is the confidence in the machine, in organized labor, management, and distribution; in science, technology, social and material progress; in consumerism and marketing and in the strength of economic systems to liberate the human spirit (whether capitalism or communism). This is a large aspect of what is called "modernity." Let us look at some of the most obvious features from a more philosophical perspective.

Modernity arose with the triumph of the Enlightenment. The Renaissance and the Reformation had previously unleashed powerful forces toward liberty, civil rights, the freedom of the secular spheres to operate independently of the church, and had given birth to the rise of modern science, education, and universal literacy. However, the Protestant Reformers were just as insistent as the Roman Church on the importance of authority. Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) meant that the Church could never have the last word, but that the final place for hearing the voice of God was in the pages of Holy Writ. Carefully interpreting the sacred text, the church was supposed to appeal to gifted teachers to instruct the faithful (and all of them, not just the devoted monks and clergy) in the great truths of the Faith. Individualism was not tolerated, as the Reformers criticized the many sects of their day for their disregard of the institutional church. However, much changed when Rene Descartes (1596-1650) put forward his famous formula, Cogito ergo sum‘"I think. Therefore, I am."


Devoted to rationalism, Descartes insisted upon absolute philosophical certainty. There must be a way of knowing things beyond any doubt, Descartes insisted, and therefore he sought a foundation for grounding all human knowledge. That foundation was universal reason. Like Plato, Descartes believed that instead of the world shaping the mind, the mind shaped the world. In other words, when I observe a "dog," I attribute characteristics of "dogness" that I already have formed in my mind. Immanuel Kant followed Descartes in this watershed, but was, in his words, "awakened from my dogmatic slumbers" in rationalism by the British empiricist David Hume (1711-76). Hume insisted that the only universal foundation for knowledge was empirical observation. While Descartes and Kant were busy with their rational "ideas" of "dogness," Hume wanted to study the dog without any presuppositions’starting from scratch, if you will, building his idea of "dogness" from the dog itself instead of the other way around. Kant's later work, therefore, blended rationalism and empiricism. For instance, he argued that there were two realms of knowledge: the "noumenal" and the "phenomenal." To the former class belongs faith, since he believed that it could not be rationally or empirically demonstrated. Much of philosophy and especially science, however, belong to the phenomenal realm, since they rested on evidence or deductions that had something to do with reason or observation.

Kant went on believing in God and some aspects of his pietistic upbringing simply because he could not conceive of the possibility of morality apart from such a presupposition. If we must live as if God exists, then he most likely does, said Kant. But from then on, faith would be regarded as outside the realm of rational inquiry. It would become a synonym for "blind leap." In fact, Lessing spoke of his own wrestling with the question of faith and reason in terms of a "ditch" that was widening before him. Hume at least had the temerity to suggest that there was no such thing as this "noumenal" business. "Knowledge"’if that word means anything at all’cannot include mystical leaps or a priori judgments. It must be based on empirical observation, and if in our universal experience we know that resurrections simply do not occur, then it would be foolish to make room in our thought for such a preposterous possibility of that having happened in first-century Palestine. He was rigorously consistent, except when he applied his own empiricism to his own beliefs. Christianity could not be true’not because its historical truth-claims had been falsified’but because miracles simply do not happen. In other words, it was a presupposition, an a priori assumption: the very thing Hume abhorred.

To simplify, there are two major effects of this shift: First, Enlightenment rationalists and empiricists both claimed the possibility of absolute certainty. Either by deduction (rationalism) or by induction (empiricism), the knower could attain certitude. This gave modern men and women a tremendous confidence’indeed, arrogance’in their powers to rebuild the world from scratch on a universal foundation of knowledge. Even religion, now, could be explained in terms of the "universal ideas" that are common to them all. The result was the modern university's "religion department," where Christianity, Buddhism, and fern worship are all studied "comparatively" in order to find the common threads. Those common threads, of course, are simply part of the universal reason that underlies foundationalism. Postmodernism, as we will see, is doing us a favor by dismantling this approach by calling into question that possibility of some grand explanation above these other explanations. Christians believe that biblical revelation is the grand explanation (in postmodern parlance, the "metanarrative"), not merely the best religious expression of natural religion.

Second, foundationalism made the individual self central. The rationalist, born out of "I think, therefore, I am," made the knower the center of the universe. My own individual mind is competent to form ideas of what the world is like. Like an ice-cube tray, my ideas could provide a secure grid for understanding everything’apart from revelation or the church. The empiricist at least turned the focus from the subjective knower thinking and chasing its tail in one's own mind to the observable world outside. Gravity is a reality apart from the mind. It is not merely an "idea" the mind imposes on reality, but the nature of reality itself, and the only way we can come to know that reality is by adjusting our ideas to suit the nature of the case. Nevertheless, it was still the knower who was central, and revelation, tradition and community were simply not factors in the modern experiment.

One can see how this led to related ideas that have been remaking our civilization for the last three centuries. First, there is the notion of "progress."


The roots of this modern idea actually reach back into the Middle Ages. Joachim of Fiore, an imaginative monk, wrote a commentary on The Revelation that enjoyed widespread popularity’except among the clergy, and for good reason. It was heretical. The Age of the Father (Old Testament) was superseded by the Age of the Son (New Testament), and at any moment the Age of the Spirit would dawn. In this age, there would be no need for the Bible, sacraments, or the church, and Joachim's Gnostic bent becomes obvious here. The Anabaptists picked up on this influence at the time of the Reformation, challenging the Reformers for "chaining" the Holy Spirit to a book, water, bread and wine, and an institution called "the church." Instead, they insisted that they themselves represented the Age of the Spirit and were prophets of the New World.

Petrarch, a Renaissance mystic, also picked up on this idea and predicted the soon arrival of this age when all of the world's religions would be united. One can see the idea of progress in this scheme. Of course, much of modernity is simply a bastardization of Christianity. After all, the Christian view of history makes the idea of progress possible. In Eastern Religion, history is cyclical, anchored in reincarnation. But in biblical religion, it is linear’always looking forward. Eve looked forward to the fulfillment of the promise of a Messiah, as did the patriarchs and prophets. Even after Christ's advent and ascension, we are still looking forward to the Second Coming, final resurrection, the restoration of creation, and eternal life with God. The triumph of evil lies in the future: this is a Christian hope. But modernity hijacked the idea, and instead of waiting for God to act, it decided to usher in the Consummation by substituting redemption with progress.

The plot thickens with the arrival of G. F. W. Hegel (1770-1831), who pushed Joachim of Fiore's vision of an Age of the Spirit to the limits. Although still claiming to be a Christian who was making the faith relevant to an increasingly skeptical modern age, Hegel's idea of God was "the Absolute." The evolution and progress of history was God! It was the Spirit triumphing over matter, good winning out over evil. And the way history made its route toward Utopia was in a zigzag pattern, from thesis, to antithesis (its opposite) and finally synthesis.

To adopt this confidence in progress, one has to presuppose that human nature is basically good, and this the moderns did without difficulty. Evil structures and institutions are to blame, and Rousseau's "noble savage" is captured in Gaugin's famous paintings of Tahitian natives. Rousseau once wrote, "Savage man, when he has dined, is at peace with nature, and the friend of his fellow creatures….The case is quite different with man in the state of society….Nature made man happy and good, and society depraves him and makes him miserable." (5) It is this worldview that gave birth to twins who, in spite of their Cain-and-Abel rivalry, were both deeply shaped by this outlook: Marxism and Capitalism. Economic structures would liberate the human spirit and bring progress until finally evil would be vanquished. Whether the proletariat or the "Invisible Hand of the Marketplace," modernity would achieve Utopia. A devotee to Hegel and a great admirer of the Anabaptists, Karl Marx (1818-1883) believed that history was moving toward the abolition of church and state. Of course, this would first have to be achieved by its very opposite: totalitarianism, but this fit perfectly within a Hegelian framework. Even capitalism, Marx believed, was a positive development toward the ultimate end of communism. Opposites attract. When the "prophets" are filled with "holy zeal," even genocide may be necessary to achieve the proper ends. It was not Stalin, but Rousseau, who declared, "Mankind will have to be forced to be free." Order will not just "happen," and the modern age is obsessed with order, from totalitarian regimes to the planning of communities of tract homes. The enlightened prophets always know best, and however much they rebelled against the tyranny of the church and wars of religion, far more bloodshed and anguish followed on the heels of their apocalyptic dreams.

It was this basic orientation that inspired the prophets of the modern world in Europe and America. In the United States, pragmatism was promulgated by William James (1842-1910). In a modern world, where the machine is the key paradigm, whatever works is the test of truth. John Dewey (1859-1952), father of modern education, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), father of psychology, and Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), father of sociology, developed entirely new disciplines based on the modern worldview and its spirit of independence from religion and authority. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) seemed to provide modernity with the proof for its experiment in progress with his Hegelian version of biological evolution. These disciplines would provide certainty at last and serve humanity in the goal of universal knowledge and progress. Where theology once provided the "big picture," a unified way of viewing distinct disciplines, fragmentation began to take place in understanding the world and the self. Friederich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), the father of modern liberal theology, attempted to reconcile Christianity with modernity, but in the process left the church with nothing to say that was not being said (almost always sooner) by everybody else. Truth is found by looking within, Schleiermacher argued, in the feelings rather than in revelation.


With the self (i.e., the "knower") at the center of the universe, modernity attacked authority, institutions, tradition, and community and instead set up its own authoritarianism, centralized bureaucracies, marketplace whims, and individualist tastes.

Unfortunately, much of the orthodox Christian response to all of this has been to either conform in the interest of "relevance," or to simply react and bury one's head in the sand as if the Enlightenment had never happened. Whatever his failures in terms of coming fully to an orthodox position, Karl Barth (1886-1968), himself a liberal who became disenchanted with modernity, launched the most unrelenting barrage of artillery against modern liberalism since the triumph of modernity itself. Alexander Pope had declared, "The proper study of Man is Man." But Barth recoiled at this idea he had once happily embraced. Humanity is not at the center, Barth insisted; God is at the center, and we do not learn the truth about him, about ourselves, or about redemption, from either deducing things from our rational "ideas" or by observation of the natural world. Christianity does not simply echo the best in the world's religions, united by "universal reason" or "universal experience": It totally contradicts reason and experience. We don't find God, Barth demanded, but God finds us.

We can understand the over-reaction, but it was an over-reaction. While Barth was correct to insist upon the God-centered character of revelation and redemption, Romans 1 and 2 especially seem to point us in the direction of recognizing that even unbelievers can have true knowledge of God apart from biblical revelation. The problem is that they suppress the truth in unrighteousness. The last thing Barth should have done, in this writer's opinion, is to have attacked modernity by standing on its foundation, established by Kant. Barth accepted the idea that faith was opposed to reason and in this acceptance of a key tenet of the Enlightenment, he could not refute the most fundamental problem between Christianity and the modern world.

Individualism, pragmatism, order, progress’all built on the supposedly universal foundation of reason and experience: These became the warp and woof of modern existence that reigned unchallenged until recently.

Even as they were building the Tower of Babel, many of its architects were aware that something was missing. Marx declared, "All that is solid melts into the air" in the modern world, and Nietzsche spoke of a "weightless" existence following the "death of God." Yeats poetically announced, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." Barth remarked,

The new thing in Nietzsche was the man of "azure isolation," six thousand feet above time and man; the man to whom a fellow-creature drinking at the same well is quite dreadful and insufferable; the man who is utterly inaccessible to others, having no friends and despising women; the man who is at home only with eagles and strong winds;…the man beyond good and evil, who can only exist as a consuming fire. (6)

More than anything else, the Enlightenment was an adolescent's rebellion against his parents' religion. Colin Gunton observes, "The distinctive shape of modernity's disengagement from the world is derived from its rebellion against Christian theology. In that sense, there is something new under the sun. Modern disengagement is disengagement from the God of Christendom." (7) This is why Vaclav Havel warned that the foundation of the West is exactly the same as that of the East, and our future is their present: "I believe that with the loss of God, man has lost a kind of absolute and universal system of coordinates, to which he could always relate everything, chiefly himself. His world and his personality gradually began to break up into separate, incoherent fragments corresponding to different, relative, coordinates." (8) This makes the breakdown in a coherent theological system within evangelical Christianity (the part of Christendom that at least claims to still be clinging to the historic faith) all the more serious.


It is against this backdrop that a tidal wave of criticism has broken on the shores of the once-cheerful beaches of "enlightenment." After two world wars "to end all wars," existentialism began to turn on modernity with a vengeance. Confidence was lost in the project, and no longer was Utopia seen as an attainable goal. Perhaps suicide is the best way out, Sartre declared.

But those who have opted for less terminal solutions include Jacques Derrida and a host of "postmodern deconstructionists" who have wed Marxist ideas to existentialist despair. Ironic, isn't it? That architects of modernity (Marx, Freud, James, Dewey, et al.) would be regarded as offering solutions to the problems they helped to create is a sign of our bankruptcy. Where does our culture go for answers? Derrida, Lyotard and other deconstructionists have argued that we are all involved in "language games," and that Nietszche was correct in his assertion that all human intercourse is part of the "will to power." Language, we are told, is an instrument of cleverly disguised oppression, and this has been most fully exploited by academics interested in advancing various forms of Marxist ideology (Liberation Theology, feminism, etc.). Words do not really mean anything in themselves, but in reading between the lines we can at least anticipate the next move of our opponent. Called the "hermeneutic of suspicion," deconstructionism maintains that there are no norms for meaning and human language.

The idea of progress, too, has taken some serious hits in recent decades. However, the idea that evil institutions are responsible for corruption rather than sinful human nature and the possibility of engineering a good society through pragmatism and ideology dies hard. It is difficult to determine whether "postmodernism" is actually "modernism" at warp speed. In the next few articles, we will explore the nature of this postmodern reaction. Whether you are a student taking upper-division philosophy or a homemaker trying to figure out why the ground seems to be moving right underneath you while you are trying to raise your kids, this topic is terribly relevant. In order to be disciples of our Lord, we must be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. Before we can "take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor 10:5), we must first have thoughts and attempt to understand other thoughts out there that present themselves as rivals. This is not easy to do, of course, but neither is any other aspect of our discipleship. Conversion does not give us an instantly renewed mind any more than it provides us with an instant victory over our sinful affections or actions. Our marriage to Christ, like an ancient marriage between princes of allied nations, is a declaration of war on all that would oppose the peace, liberty and advancement of Christ's kingdom. May we be given the grace and the resolve to "gird up the loins of [our] minds" (1 Pt 1:13, KJV), in this age of unprecedented challenges and opportunities.

1 [ Back ] Gene E. Veith, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), p. 27.
2 [ Back ] Ibid.
3 [ Back ] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 39.
4 [ Back ] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), xii.
5 [ Back ] Cited in Colin Gunton, The One, The Three And The Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 224.
6 [ Back ] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 3/2, pp. 232, 240.
7 [ Back ] Gunton, op. cit., p.16.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., p. 71.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Saturday, September 2nd 1995

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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