Society and the Sacred: Langdon Gilkey

an excerpt from the introduction..

I do not think I need describe the myth about history and our relation to it that has provided the religious substance of American culture. It has been too basic to our life as a culture to require that and too deeply ingrained in all of us as the way things-history-are. Its usual name is the Myth of Progress, or belief in it. It sees history, beginning way back with Egypt and Greece, as a story of cumulative development leading up to modern times temporally and to Western culture, and especially to America, spatially. Here and now, with us, the goal towards which this story has led, and so the goal in which it culminates, is represented by our culture.

Thus, in terms of this story, do we know who we are, what we are to do, and what we can count on? This story has been one of cumulative learning and cumulative techniques, leading up to the scientific and technological world we so clearly represent. One finds it engraved in all our grade-school textbooks in countless graphs of the number of telephones, the miles of railroads, the number of televisions, the number of cars, toilers, and so on, all of which are conceived to represent Civilization and in all of which we are clearly Number One. This is progress, and more of the same, will, we have believed, more and more "free" the future from its ills. It is also the story of the cumulative freeing of men and women from political, religious, and social authorities and tyrannies, of mankind from older brutalities and cruelty. Again, we, as the prime example of democracy, represent this culminating phase of the historical and moral development of men and women. [n neither case has history completed itself: science and technology will grow indefinitely, remaking our ideas of the world and the world itself, generation after generation. Democracy will also increase, entering and transforming those areas of economics, racial, and social existence not yet freed from traditional authorities. But in any case, these developments will be more of the same thing that has found its perfect exhibition so far in our own community.

This myth, I hardly need say, has governed our common existence for some time. It helps us determine what is creative and what is not in the world, and what our own priorities are or should be. It tells us what to defend and why we defend it. It gives meaning to our work, confidence in the midst of failure, and hope in the face of tragedy or of temporary discouragement. It helps us to distinguish good from evil forces in the world around us, and gives us confidence in the ultimate victory of good over evil in history. Above all, it tells us who we are in history and why we are here. It forms the ultimate set of presuppositions for most of our aims and so our patterns of education. The sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities understand their role and worth-and large parts of their methods-on its basis; it represents the one common creed of our academic life. Like the similar Communist myth in Russia, this myth functions in our social existence "religiously," that is, as the ultimate formative and authoritative symbolic structure of our commonality. It is crucial for our effective living, our credible self-understanding, and our creative action for the future.

Now, what makes this issue of more than academic interest today- and one with which the philosophy of religion and also theology have increasingly therefore concerned themselves-is that this myth, and with it much of the substance of our cultural life, has been disintegrating around us. It is, I would suggest, the disintegration of this secular myth-not that of the traditional Christian mythos-that constitutes the present religious crisis of American society. For now our questions about the meaning of our work and our lives, of the significance and insignificance of what we are and do, of good and evil and the ultimate result of their encounter, that is, of the victory of the good and the conquest of the evil in history, have no framework in which to find an answer. Above all, our confidence in our own history and so ourselves as a community has been badly shaken: that confidence was based on the assurance that our science and technology were building a better world, and our growing freedoms were establishing the grounds for a fuller humanity everywhere. Of this hope in the future we are now much less sure. Science and technology seem to be capable of making the world demonic, inhuman, soulless; and freedom seems ever anew subject to some mode of historical fatedness and possibly in the end, helpless.

Go to an excerpt from chapter 2

Main Navigation


Sacred Space



Emerging Women / Renovare / Christians for Biblical Equality / Soul Horizon / OpenSource Theology / Jesus Radicals / Regeneration / New Phuture / Cutting Edge / Relevant Magazine / Shoot the Messenger / Vine and Branches / Jesus People USA / Sacred Future / Tribal Generation / Reality / Waves Church / Matthew's House / Sacramentis / Praxis / Post Boomer / FutureChurch / MethodX / TheOOZE / ginkworld / The Landing Place / ::seven:: / emergent village / Highway Video / emerging church / Sojourners / Ship of Fools / Beyond / Next-Wave / Small Fire / ThePowerSurge / dtour

• © 1999-2004 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on June 10, 2004