Idols of Modernity

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Source: Review of Politics, The
Publication date: 2004-04-01

IDOLS OF MODERNITY David T. Koyzis: Political Visions and Illusions. (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003. Pp. 281. $18.00.)

This book should be of interest to all who wish to understand the emergence of modern political thought and the rise of contemporary ideologies. It offers a comprehensive survey and Christian critique of five modern ideologies: liberalism, conservatism, nationalism, democracy and socialism. David Koyzis describes the tyranny of modern ideology as the fate of western civilization. The "good society" of western civilization is in a crisis because the idea of the highest political good has become ideological. The modern project has from the beginning believed that in the end political wisdom would disappear except as ideology. The modern notion of the political good has been discovered in the formation of the technological civilization through the conquest of human and nonhuman nature and thus political life could be ordered by ideology and administrative technique. For Koyzis, this fate has become the defining characteristic of our time and it is likely that our future will be shaped by these "political visions and illusions."

Koyzis's book is an attempt to unmask the idols of modernity by questioning the public rhetoric of ideology. Its thesis is that "ideologies are inescapably religious" in that "ideology flows out of the (idolatrous) religious commitment of a person or community" (p. 27). Koyzis approaches all modern secular ideologies as subspecies of idolatry because they "find their origin in a single religious worldview that sees the cosmos as an essentially closed system without reference to a creator/redeemer"(p. 8). he argues that ideologies represent "a type of false consciousness" that are "rooted in the biblical category of idolatry" (p. 22). The author views ideologies as "modem types of that ancient phenomenon idolatry, complete with their own accounts of sin and redemption" (p. 15). Koyzis suggests that modern men have committed themselves to the belief that salvation is attained in and through ideologies. Thus each of the ideologies is based on a specific doctrine of salvation (soteriology) with its own version of secularized "realized" eschatology.

The most valuable part of his book is the first five chapters, which survey the key political ideologies of modern times. Each ideology is given a careful analysis and penetrating critique, unmasking the illusions inherent to each. Koyzis's Christian critique involves asking six questions: What is the ideology's creational basis? What facets of creation has the ideology focused on? What inconsistencies have led to internal tensions within the ideology itself? What does it see as a source of evil? Where do they locate the source of salvation? To what extent is it able to account for the distinct place of politics in God's world? These six common themes bring together Koyzis's discussion and critique of each "vision and illusion" for the purpose, he claims, of raising "the level of general awareness of ideologies and their powerful influence in the world at large" (p. 41).

David Koyzis shrewdly observes that ideologies harm political life because they confuse the proper place of religion in public life. Before the rise of modern progressive ideologies the wisest ancient political thinkers believed that the practice of religion was vital for the regime. Religion was understood to be that sphere of life in which human beings attempt to come to terms with the "sacred bond" of society - the awareness of the eternal - the ultimate questions of human existence. Accordingly, a nation most fully and clearly constitutes itself and its people in its posture toward the eternal. George Grant once observed that ideologies are idolatrous in the worst sense of the word for the simple fact that they "make public the modern denial that reverence is the matrix of human nobility; but as surrogate religions they slip reverence in. It is, however, reverence for something not truly worthy of reverence, such as the state, the race, the multitude, the nation" (Perspectives of Empire : Essays Presented to Gerald S. Graham, p. 196). Koyzis agrees with Grant that contemporary ideologies attempt to eliminate the religion question from the public realm. Ideologies have become idolatrous illusions: "they are surrogate religions pretending they are philosophies... [or] surrogate philosophies trying to fulfill the role of displaced reverence" (ibid., p. 195). According to Koyzis, the awareness of the eternal - the eternal consciousness - has been replaced with progressive assumptions about the nature of reality, individuals and society, as well as a particular secular understanding of the common good.

Chapters seven through nine, entitled respectively, "Transcending the Ideologies," "Toward a Nonideological Alternative," and "The State and Its Task: Doing Justice in God's World" represent the heart of the argument of the book. Here Koyzis attempts to "transcend all ideologies and embrace a biblical - hence creational and redemptive - understanding of politics and its place in God's world" (p. 41). Koyzis contends that "a Christian approach to politics and justice, insofar as it avoids ideological thinking, has the advantage of being more in tune with the world as God's creation" (p. 266). To articulate "a consistently Christian view of the World and of a nonideological understanding of the place of politics within it" (p. 189) Koyzis looks to the modern Christian traditions of neo-Thomism and neo-Calvinism. These traditions, Koyzis argues, "will continue to have relevance for doing politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century"(p. 41). Unfortunately, the impact of these two movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has thus far been somewhat limited.

Koyzis's selection of topics, and the way in which he comes to terms with them, are determined by his own Reformed Christian political theoiy, which may be described as Dooyweerdian. His understanding of the nature of politics, the state and Christian philosophy has been deeply influenced by the Calvinistic political theory of the neo-Kantian Herman Dooyweerd and the Dutch statesman/ theologian Abraham Kuyper. Even though Koyzis rightly insists that we must look for "nonideological alternative visions" if we are to free ourselves from the blinders and prejudices of out time, it is not clear whether he himself has managed to transcend the iron maiden of ideology. Koyzis's alternate visions seem to be modern "routinized" versions of neo-Thomist and neo-Calvinist illusions. His attempt to retrieve these two traditions of Christian political discourse in an epoch defined by the rhetoric of ideology is problematic.

The irony of the book, in this reviewer's judgment, is that the author could have found much better support for his critique in a return to premodern Christian political thought and the tradition of Christian natural law which for centuries was the cornerstone of western ethical and political thought. I agree with Leo Strauss that a return to the wisest of the ancient thinkers could be a source of liberation from the tyranny of modern ideologies. Ideologies have arisen in modern progressive societies because of certain prejudices and presuppositions of modern political thought. If we are to free ourselves from this modern tyranny we must force ourselves to encounter the challenge of ancient modes of thought that do not share our ideological presuppositions - we must rethink the foundations of political order both ancient and modern to discover the path to spiritual liberation. In order to engage the idols of our time and "to illuminate our trackless way into the future" we must re-open and reflect on the religion question that was at stake when modern ideologies came to be in their theoretical formulation.

-Calvin Townsend

Copyright University of Notre Dame Spring 2004