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The Spirit of Our Age
"Our nineteenth century is dying away under the hypnosis of the dogma of Evolution." With these words, Abraham Kuyper opened his presidential address at the Free University of Amsterdam on October 20, 1899. Tonight, on October 28, 1999, we meet on the eve of a new millennium as well as a new century. How shall we characterize the world's spiritual and cultural climate at the close of the twentieth century? Under what kind of hypnosis might we be living?
These are very difficult questions, and it would be all too easy for us to try to evade them. Yet Christians have a responsibility to live in close touch with our societies, to understand the signs of the times, and to discern the spiritor spiritsof the age. That responsibility becomes greater at key moments of historical transition. We are about to cross the bridge into a new century, and we must face squarely the biblical truth that, as a historian once said, "Every generation stands directly before the face of God." We may not merely lean on the shoulders of past generations and past leaderseven important Christian leaders such as Abraham Kuyper.
Trying to answer questions about the spirit of our age may seem like an impossible task. Our society and the world have become so enormously complex, much more so than a century ago, and Christians hold diverse views of reality. Any attempt to interpret the signs of our times must, therefore, be undertaken with great care and humility, starting with a clear-eyedassessment of the concrete circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Kuyper started with the firm assumption that the dogma of evolution dominated Western society as a new and integrating worldview. "Until now in our Christian circles," he said, "we had the inspiration of a faith that bound all things into a unity, giving us an advantage over our opponents.... But due to the dogma of evolution, non-Christians, too, now possess an all-encompassing system, a world- and life-view derived from a single principle, a new found Monism." The root of evolutionary monism, as Kuyper saw it, is to be found in the mechanistic assumptions of the Enlightenment. The idea of an evolutionary "unfolding" process is organic, but it is controlled by a dogma that "tolerates nothing but mechanistic action from the beginning to the end."
On the basis of this religiously deep insight, Kuyper then proceeded to interpret the social reality around him, linking the atheistic dogma of evolution to the social, economic, and political dynamics of his time. The depth-level control of evolutionary dogma, he believed, helped explain, for instance, why stronger nations try "to put an end to the lower-level existence of nations which are smaller and therefore weaker." It also helped explain the materialistic tendencies, the eagerness for sensual pleasures, the passion for money-power, and the violent passion for economic expansion.
How Should We Assess the Spirit of Our Age?
Given the complexity of our own age, with its multiplicity of idols and spirits, it may be better for us to follow the reverse order: To assess the spirits and dogmas of our time, we should perhaps first give careful attention to the multiplicity of factual processes. Bernard Zylstra taught us to move from this level to the social order and its structural formations, and then to go deeper, via the underlying layer of culture, to religious drives. In his view, every society, however much controlled by false dogmas, is embedded in the structure of God's creation that constantly calls for human response, for a human answer to God's call. Thus, an assessment of any social process or development can and should be finally based on a judgment about its openness or closedness, its obedience or disobedience, to the liberating message of God's kingdom.
Two additional preliminary remarks are necessary. First, the main frontier in the development of human society today is undoubtedly the international arena, particularly the economic and technological dimensions of that arena. There, usually under the title "globalization," we find the most rapid movements and changes with the heaviest social and political impacts. We must give careful consideration to these global developments if we are to understand the spirit of our era.
The second remark is to caution against giving too much weight to our first intuitive impressions, for in most cases they lack the necessary precision. For example, Harvey Cox stated recently that in our time "the Market is becoming more like Yahweh of the Old Testamentnot just our superior deity, but ... the only true God whose reign must now be universally accepted and who allows for no rivals," an "omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God." This may sound impressive and even contain elements of truth, but if other authors say almost the same thing about modern technology, or about the power of money, or about transnational corporations as the new rulers of the world, or about the idolatrous quest for world government, then we should realize that greater accuracy is needed in making these kinds of judgments.
The International Arena
Turning our attention to the leading factual processes of our day, we are struck by the fact that within a period of only ten or twenty years, a host of new words has entered the media and filled public debate. Think of networking, database, transnational corporations, globalization, information society, advertorials, and edutainment. Yet even more striking is the fact that all of these new words have had an international dimension right from the start. Obviously the globe has become more than simply a possible horizon for human actions; it now serves as a platform from which actions spring.
New transnational corporations (TNCs), for example, transcend the borders of the national state right from their inception. They are, so to speak, born to be footloose, meant to act globally from the outset. At the same time, however, the TNCs are gaining enormous power and market strength inside particular countries, dispersing their commercials to family rooms all over the world. Something similar is happening in the financial sector, especially in regard to short-term international capital flows. These flows are also global from the beginning and are therefore correctly called movements of "global capital," for, just like a satellite, they circle the earth without a tie to a specific country. That kind of capital can leave your country within days or minutes if elsewhere a fractionally higher financial reward is expected.
Changes in the economic and financial sector have been enormous, but they would have remained unimaginable apart from worldwide technological advances. Due to breakthroughs in information technology, financial transactions can now be made within fractions of a second all around the world. Global networking has become part of daily life. The expanding Internet is now a common feature of business and, increasingly, even a family asset. The globe has become an added layer of human consciousness, especially for our net-surfing and video-playing children. Time magazine (3 February 1997) wrote a few years ago of the planetary awakening of humankind.
This awakening is also related to new production methods such as bioengineering. Industries adopt technological changes more rapidly than ever before, and the changes are patented worldwide from the outset. More and more economists are now convinced that these changes are producing a "new economics." Productivity is increasing around the world, especially in technologically advanced countries. This entails risks of overinvestment, as evidenced in the recent Asian crisis. Yet the new economics is also characterized by the simultaneous appearance of lower interest rates, lower unemployment, and pressure for greater consumer demand, for to absorb the enormous increase in global productivity, global expenditures must grow.
In the "Network Economy," we face what Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian describe as the inversion of the law of supply and demand. Production costs of information technology continue to go down even as the demand for equipment and software goes up. This is leading to the practice of near "zero pricing." Bill Gates installed Windows Explorer at no charge in order to eliminate Netscape as a possible competitor. Thus, in the field of information technology, abundance seems to be permanently eliminating scarcity, but at the cost to the consumer of being "locked in" by the suppliers.
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