, ,

When reading some Jacques Ellul the other day I came across this passage on the book The Secular City by Harvey Cox. This is from Hope in Time of Abandonment, p. 152–153:

The Church’s great concern is to justify what man and the world are doing. This is just like olden times, except that it is no longer the same things which are being justified. Instead of the royal power, the patriarchal family, feminine servitude, worldly morality, etc., the things now being justified are science, technology, world management, politics, and the big city.

The latest fabulous example of justification is Harvey Cox’s celebrated book, The Secular City. It is hard to believe that a book so feebly thought through, so loaded with historical error, so sociologically and theologically superficial, so ordinary, with its repetition of all the commonplaces about secularization and the profane, and lacking in any depth in the subject, that a book so dubious in its historical analyses and so generalized in its sociology—that such a book would enjoy such a success. Just one thing explains it; it offers the public a justification for what is going on in the world, for what man is in process of doing. It is true that modern man in his most fallen aspect wants exactly above everything else that someone should come along to tell him that he is right in doing what he is doing. That was the springboard for all the propaganda. From the standpoint of ideology and publicity, The Secular City is a great book. Here again, for the hundredth time, I call attention to the fact that to condemn the act of justifying is not, to my mind, the same as to condemn what is being done in society, in science, and in technology. I have never condemned these!

It supplies precisely the “solemn complement” (that Marx rightly accuses religion of supplying). Urban anonymity? That is great. That is freedom. Urban mobility is admirable, the very condition of progress. Pragmatism conforms to God’s way of acting. The profane accords with God’s will. The secular city is the meeting place of man and God. Since man’s technological power is constantly increasing, the Church’s message consists in giving assurance that it is up to man to create his own destiny.

This is a tissue of commonplaces, all of which are entirely nonbiblical, and are rooted in an imaginary factor in modern society. Here is where theology does indeed become a completely futile superstructure. Yet, as Marx rightly said time and again, no matter how futile and tasteless it might be, it nevertheless turns into a deadly poison, in that it prevents man from seeing things as they really are. It causes him to live an illusion and to turn his back upon the real. The Secular City is the prime example, for our modern society, of the opiate of the people.