Redeeming Civilization

Between 1978 and 1995, someone in America sent or put out 16 parcel bombs, killing 3 people and injuring 23, some very seriously. The victims included top-ranked scientists and engineers. For lack of a better name the FBI called him the Unabomber, as his early victims were related to the university. The authorities had no clue who he was. Despite the most intensive manhunt in FBI history, they failed to catch him all those 17 years.

His 1995 bomb killed the president of the California Forestry Association. Two months later, The Washington Post and The New York Times both received a 35,000-word essay. It turned out to be a manifesto that calls for a worldwide revolution against the harmful effects of the modern “industrial-technological system.” The anonymous writer demanded that one of the newspapers publish it in full or else he would send another bomb “with intent to kill.” The authorities recognized the writer as the Unabomber. Both the Attorney General and the FBI Director recommended the manifesto be published. The two newspapers decided to share cost and on 19 September 1995 the manifesto appeared as a supplement to The Washington Post.

The manifesto is titled “Industrial Society and Its Future.” It begins with these words: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have ... destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering ... and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation.”

He also said that the social and psychological problems we experience are the consequences of industrial society requiring human beings to live in an environment for which they are not suited. In terms of the theory of evolution, which he had taken for granted, he is saying that since the human species evolved under primitive conditions, human genes are good enough to enable human beings to live in a primitive and not a modern industrial environment. This would in fact rule out civilization altogether, whether modern or premodern.

Was the Unabomber a madman? As a result of the published manifesto, the Unabomber’s own brother, who recognized his writing style, did the painful duty of reporting him to the authorities. Dr. Theodore Kaczynsky was arrested in April 1996. He pleaded guilty to avoid the death sentence and is now serving life imprisonment. He used to be a mathematics professor at the renowned University of California, Berkeley. In his Ph.D. thesis he solved a mathematical problem his own professor could not solve.

Blaming his own social and psychological problems on the “industrial-technological system,” he gave up his prestigious career and lived as a hermit in a cabin in the mountains of Montana, without a telephone, electricity or running water. He wanted the world also to renounce industrial society and return to a primitive environment and way-of-life. He was out to redeem the world from the harmful consequences of industrialization. Realizing how difficult the task was, he said in his manifesto, “In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”

The method of the Unabomber was indeed extreme but what about his message? Is life in industrial societies indeed unfulfilling? Prominent writer Walker Percy (1984: 3) asks, “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century? Why does man feel so bad in the very age when, more than in any other age, he has succeeded in satisfying his needs and making over the world for his own use?” (cited in Wells 1993: 53). Has the situation improved in the twenty-first century?

What about the claim that our unhappiness is due to the incompatibility of our genes? Has this claim been considered “scientific” by materialist scientists? While anticipating the publication of the entire Unabomber manifesto, Time magazine (28 August 1995) ran a cover story by evolutionist science writer Robert Wright entitled “The Evolution of Despair,” with the subtitle “A new field of science [evolutionary psychology] examines the mismatch between our genetic makeup and the modern world, looking for the source of our pervasive sense of discontent.”

Modern civilization, in terms of both the physical environment and the corporate way-of-life, built on materialism, is indeed not conducive for human beings made in the image of God. Echoing the view of the Unabomber, Robert Wright himself confesses in the said Time article:

Whether burdened by an overwhelming flurry of daily commitments or stifled by a sense of social isolation (or, oddly, both); whether mired for hours in a sense of life’s pointlessness or beset for days by unresolved anxiety; whether deprived by long workweeks from quality time with offspring or drowning in quantity time with them—whatever the source of stress, we at times get the feeling that modern life isn’t what we were designed for.

The solution most consistent with the theory of evolution is the Unabomber solution: a complete withdrawal from civilization. This is extremely drastic. But if the theory of evolution is true, as claimed by materialists, we have no other option. And this means that materialism has created a civilization in which people who believe in materialism should logically renounce it.

As a reaction to the spiritual emptiness that characterizes life in modernity, New Age phenomena, which are based on a mixture of premodern polytheist and pantheist spirituality, have exploded in Western and Westernized societies. How is it that religious phenomena based on primitive spirituality could re-emerge out of and within full-fledged modern civilization? According to sociologist Peter Berger (1999: 13),

The religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical [materialist] existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity. (This is not a theological statement but an anthropological one—an agnostic or even an atheist philosopher may well agree with it.) It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.

This means, if evolution is true, it has adapted humanity to be religious in order to live in the (primitive) world in which humanity evolved. And since New Age spirituality is basically primitive religiosity, its unexpected re-emergence in modernity then supports the Unabomber’s theory that we are genetically “wired” to live a primitive way-of-life. Except that the Unabomber was not consistent enough; he did not adopt a primitive religion as well. But is evolution true to begin with?

The Biblical alternative to modern civilization is a civilization that takes the Creation Mandate seriously. In its original context, the mandate involved “subduing” the earth outside Eden to make it as conducive for human dwelling as Eden. The created environment outside Eden, which is the natural environment of the earth, was already soothing to the human soul and refreshing to the human spirit. To fulfill the mandate would involve building cities in such a way that this feature is preserved if not enhanced. Other human-friendly features such as conduciveness towards the formation of community should also characterize cities.

Unfortunately, as stressed by Mumford, modernization has literally bulldozed God’s created environment into spiritual wasteland. Due to the personal vision of Lee Kuan Yew on the need to temper the harshness of the concrete jungle on the human spirit with the greenery of nature, Singapore managed to beat “the law of urban growth” to some extent to become a “clean and green city.” But this requires “political will and sustained effort” from the government. In this case, the need to draw in foreign investment was a major motivating factor. According to Lee, “in wooing investors, even the trees matter.” For “he thought that well-kept trees and gardens were a subtle way of convincing potential investors, in the early crucial years, that Singapore was an efficient and effective place” (Koh 2000: 40).

But most countries are not like Singapore, a small island lacking in natural resources, with the need to use every possible means to attract foreign investments. Hence to redeem the physical environment, a country and its government need to have a higher purpose strong enough to resist the pressure of “progress” in economic terms, whenever this threatens the earth and thus the human race.

As for the formation of community, under modernity, a conducive built-environment by itself is not enough. For Gorringe (2002: 185-86) reports,

the American town planner Clarence Perry was already recommending ‘neighbourhood units’ of 3000 to 9000 people in the 1930s. The theory was that a neighbourhood should be small enough for everything to be within walking distance, but large enough to support an elementary school, local stores and services .... The theory is excellent, but we have yet to learn how to realize it on the ground.

He goes on to say that there have been townships that “were built on these principles, and none of them are remarkable for a sense of community. If we ask why, we can of course point to developments which keep people at home—increasing comfort, home ‘entertainment’, increased mobility, long working hours—but I suspect it is more in terms of the lack of common purpose.” In other words, the obstacle to the formation of community is our way-of-life and the lack of a transcendent purpose for living under modernity.

Hence both the physical environment and our corporate way-of-life need to be redeemed through fulfilling God’s purpose for humanity—the Creation Mandate. The rest of our exposition of the Old Testament is actually about redeeming civilization. The focus is on redeeming humanity as the means to redeeming civilization. Attention will be given to how we can fulfill the Creation Mandate in and through the seven influential spheres of culture.

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