15. A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview

A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview[1]

In his book, Engaging the Powers,[2] Walter Wink provides two especially crucial insights. The first is that one main effect the fallen powers have in the modern world is concealment; they distort and hide from us the true nature of reality, of what binds us, and of the sources for our liberation. The second is that the best criterion for discerning what is truth and what is deception in the swirl of ideas and values and theories that we are immersed in our world is nonviolence.

In this chapter I will reflect on our modern worldview as an expression of “concealment” in our culture. Using pacifism as a basis for critique, I suggest that our culture’s worldview alienates us from truth and life. Perhaps we fragile human beings feel the influence of the fallen powers most profoundly in the concealed assumptions of our worldview that lead to violence—violence against human beings, for sure, but even more fundamentally, violence against creation itself.

A metaphor for the modern worldview

By the late eighteenth century, the scientific revolution was in full sway in western Europe. The change in consciousness that we call modernity found expression in the human relationship with the natural world, one example being how people related to the forests of western Europe. A monument to modernity, Diderot’s encyclopedia, produced in mid-eighteenth-century France, in its entry on “forests” reflects the new thinking of the time. This entry focuses almost entirely on the economic value of forests—the commercial products that could be extracted from the forests, possible tax revenues, ways forests could be exploited to yield profits. “Forests” are no longer thought of as home to a whole variety of life-forms living in ages-old harmony.[3]

The change in the perception toward the natural world (which also applies specifically to forests) can be seen simply in shifts in vocabulary. “Nature” becomes “natural resources,” with the emphasis on the usefulness of nature for human exploitation. Trees that are understood to have economic value become known as “timber,” while those without such value are labeled “trash trees” or “underbrush.”[4]

“Scientific forestry” emerged at this time and deeply influenced the landscape of western Europe. In the late 1700s, foresters began to remake Germany’s forests. They hoped to bring into being a more easily quantified forest through careful cultivation. They cleared the underbrush, reduced the numbers of species (often to monoculture), and did planting simultaneously and in straight rows on large tracts. Eventually, the old-growth forests were transformed into truly “scientific forest,” i.e., neat and tidy mono-cultural, even-aged forests.

The initial results from remaking Germany’s forests were spectacular. On an aesthetic level, the regularity and neatness of the appearance of the new forests resonated deeply with the values of modern Europe. At first, the new forests provided economic rewards as well. The Norway spruce became the tree of choice due to its hardiness, rapid growth, and valuable wood.

It took time for the effects of this type of forestry to become apparent. Only after the planting of the second rotation of the spruce did the problems become clear. The first generation had grown well because it benefited from the rich soil left by the old-growth forest in all its diversity. However, after that deposit of nutrients had been exhausted, the output of the forest shrank dramatically. A new German term was coined—Waldsterben (forest death)—to describe the effects.

Several of the practices of “scientific forestry” directly led to the problems. By clearing the underbrush, “trash trees,” deadfalls, and snags, in the name of neatness, foresters greatly reduced the diversity of insect, mammal and bird populations so crucial for soil building. By transforming old-growth bio-diversity into a monoculture of same-age species, foresters made the forests much more vulnerable to massive storm damage and infestation of “pests” specialized to Norway spruce.

Scott uses this story of the transformation of Germany’s forests as a metaphor for the havoc wreaked by modern attempts to dismember “exceptionally complex and poorly understood set[s] of relations and processes in order to isolate a single element of instrumental value.”[5]

In a similar way, this story may serve as a more general metaphor symbolizing the modern worldview, and particularly, for the purposes of this paper, symbolizing the impulses toward coercion violence characteristic of this worldview. I will begin with some provisional definitions, then illustrate further my critique of the modern worldview by considering several aspects of that worldview, and conclude with a brief outline of an alternative way of looking at the world, what I call a pacifist way of knowing.

A pacifist basis for critique

I understand pacifism to mean the love of peace. The “-ism” connotes ultimacy; “peace” is an ultimate value. Placing ultimate weight on “peace” could be problematic, depending upon what we mean by it. If “peace” means avoiding conflict, then we rightly reject pacifism as a useful term.

As a Christian, I argue for a different, biblically oriented understanding of “peace”—or, “shalom.” I see peace as a holistic concept best understood in relation to a constellation of concepts such as the wellbeing and wholeness, health of the entire community on all levels. We may think of respect and harmony in relationships among human beings and between human beings and the rest of creation.

Pacifism is a positive vision for how life can and should be. For pacifism, nothing is as important as healthy relationships with all of creation. A pacifist approach to life privileges holistic peace above any other value or goal—be it economic wealth, the nation-state, moral purity, or the survival of any particular human institution.

Consequently, for pacifists, violence is never acceptable since there are no values that take prioiry over peace. So, nonviolence is certainly part of the pacifist commitment. However, the term nonviolence is less all encompassing and positive than the term pacifism. The vision of life I am trying to articulate centers not primarily on the absence of violence but on the positive reality of holistic peace.

In our work to overcome the ways our modern worldview serves the powers’ efforts at concealment and delusion, pacifism becomes a central criterion of discernment. We evaluate values and practices in terms of how they do or do not foster peace. The presence of violence serves as a warning, tipping us off that something is wrong with the system—similarly to how the death of the songbirds tipped people off concerning the devastating effects of DDT on the ecosystem.

The presence of violence shows when penultimate values are given too high a priority. When this happens, many other problems undermining the wellbeing of life will arise.

The “modern worldview”

Various historians argue that the modern worldview emerged in its fullness in the early 17th century. They pinpoint the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era in the West during the late fifteenth to the early seventeenth centuries. Columbus, Copernicus, and Luther were the providers of the final blows that ended the medieval period with their respective discoveries of the New World, the solar system, and a new doctrinal system freed from Church control.[6]

Less than a generation later, the modern era began with the laying of a foundation for a new worldview. Francis Bacon was a key initiator of this new worldview, followed by René Descartes and John Locke. All three thinkers pled for a new order, deriving energy from their indictment of medieval disorder, the deadwood of tradition, and the oppression of hierarchy and community. They urged a new fundamental agreement, one that razed the tottering and constricting medieval structures and began anew on a solid fundament.

Richard Tarnas, in The Passion of the Western Mind, provides a helpful synopsis. The modern view contrasts with the medieval in seeing the cosmos as “an impersonal phenomenon, governed by regular natural laws, and understandable in exclusively physical and mathematical terms.” In the medieval view, a personal and all-powerful God ruled the cosmos. The modern cosmos has more autonomy.[7]

Science came to be the central intellectual authority, dethroning religion as the “definer, judge, and guardian of the culture world view.” In the scientific approach to truth, reason and observation take the place of revelation and theological doctrine. Religion evolves to be more a matter of personal and subjective sensibilities, leaving public knowledge to scientifically verifiable understandings. Faith and reason are sharply divided.

In the modern view, the cosmos is comprehended by rationality alone. Other aspects of our nature—emotional, aesthetic, relational, imaginative—are irrelevant for understanding the world. The universe is known through sober impersonal scientific investigation. Such knowledge results “not so much in an experience of spiritual liberation but in intellectual mastery and material improvement.” The domination of nature becomes the goal of intellectual activity.[8]

The final aspect of the modern worldview emerged with the integration of the theory of evolution and its multitude of consequences in other fields. Now, human origins and the processes of nature’s changes were seen as exclusively attributable to natural causes and empirically observable processes. With this step, the change from seeing earth no longer as the center of creation but simply as another planet was followed by seeing the human being also no longer as the center of creation but simply as another animal.

Critique of three aspects of the modern worldview

To illustrate problematic aspects to the modern worldview, I will briefly discuss three inter-related elements in that worldview—the view of the universe as impersonal, the quest to dominate nature, and the impact of rationalism on how we approach life.

We may start by denying the assumption that the rapid pace with which western society has depleted the national order is simply an inevitable product of human evolution. In fact, human beings lived for tens of thousands of years in an essentially steady-state harmony with the rest of creation.[9] Only with modernity, did human culture declare widespread war on the natural order. That is, what changed were human consciousness and the worldview of a large enough group of people to have a major impact.

Impersonal universe. David Abram, in The Spell of the Sensuous, argues that the key issue for human well-being is finding the way to restore our mutuality with what he calls the “more-than-human world.” The objectification of the world outside of ourselves, he believes, was a move with profoundly destructive ramifications. For Abram, one of the key aspects of this separation between human beings and the rest of the world, and with that separation the attributing of consciousness only to human beings, came with the emergence of an abstract written alphabet. As cultures shift to printed letters, “the stones fall silent.” As our senses focus their enlivening perceptions on the written word, “the trees become mute, the other animals dumb.”[10]

This shift began with the ancient Greeks and gained impetus when Christianity spread throughout the Western world. Only with the advent of the printing press, however, did this process come to dominate an entire civilization. The printing press brought in the Enlightenment and, with it, a deeply detached view of the more-than-human world—the view that came to characterize the modern period.

A particularly influential tenet of the Enlightenment along these lines found expression in Descartes’ explicit separation of the thinking mind, or subject, from the non-human material world—that Descartes understood to be the world of “things”, or “objects”.[11] Such a separation turned the world into an impersonal entity, understood primarily in objective, impersonal physical and mathematical terms. No longer were the inner mind and the outer world understood as inextricably related, wherein understanding in one realm heightened understanding in the other. They are separated, seen to be operating on different principles.

This separation between human consciousness and the other-than-human world and the consequent redefinition of nature, opened the gates to massive disregard for other forms of life in the world. The collapse of complex ecosystems, the poisoning of waters, the extinction of species—these all stem from our forgetting our human inherence in a more-than-human world.

Abram points out that for at least 10,000 years prior to 1492, human cultures had continuously inhabited North America. These peoples “gathered, hunted, fished, and settled these lands without severely degrading the continent’s wild integrity.” The relatively brief time since Columbus has seen the destruction of much of the natural wealth of this continent.[12]

We find an illustration of the costly consequences of how the notion of the universe as impersonal and human beings as separate that is characteristic of the modern worldview filtered down to common people in Robert Hughes’s book The Fatal Shore, an account of western European settlement of Australia.

Hughes tells of abundant aquatic life in the southern ocean, the previously undisturbed sanctuary for the black whale, the sperm whale, and the fur seals. Every season, sea mammals by the millions traveled north from Antarctica to the coasts of New Zealand and Australia. These animals had no natural enemies and knew nothing of human beings. They had economic value, and they were defenseless.

Tens of millions of them were wiped out in less than thirty years. The new European settlers exploited these sea mammals without mercy, killing them year-round, clubbing their prey to death. The sealers never stopped, recognizing no off-season for mating and pupping time. Pregnant seals were killed by the thousand, and the pups were left milkless on the rocks to starve. “Disturbed in their ancestral rookeries, which soon became bogs of putrefaction—for the sealers took only the skins and left hills of flayed carcasses behind—the seals stopped breeding and abandoned their haunts.”[13]

In time, several of these species ceased to exist. They had simply been a resource to extract from the earth. The western worldview understood nature as having no intrinsic value, but simply as part of the impersonal universe.

Domination of nature. Once human beings depersonalize and objectify nature, they easily think of their relationship with nature as one of domination. At the beginning of the modern era, Francis Bacon, a founder of the modern worldview, gave voice to this dynamic. In The New Atlantis, Bacon spoke of torturing, exhorting, and subjugating nature for human benefit. In doing so, he sets to the tone for the modern approach to reality, to daily life, and to the physical world.

Albert Borgmann, in his book Crossing the Postmodern Divide, argues that the modernistic largely successful quest to dominate nature began with the voyages of discovery at the beginning of the modern period. The Baconian philosophy found expression in the Herculean efforts of western culture to advance in the face of nature’s resistance.

Borgmann cites several examples—the voyages of discovery beginning at the end of the fifteenth century, the extensive harnessing of wind and water power, the growth of manufacturers of mass consumption, and the development of bookkeeping methods and financial instruments. “In each case, expansion faced major barriers—which were overcome by force.”[14] Dynamite, massive construction equipment, pesticides, herbicides, modern mobilizing of financial and physical resources all are examples of the use of brute force to subdue, control, and dominate nature.

Borgmann uses the building the railroad across the northern United States as a metaphor of the modern quest to dominate and subdue nature. One barrier railroad builders faced was gaining right of way for the tracks, and at least in parts of Montana this land was simply taken from Native American reservations with the threat of military force. Another barrier was geographical. Getting through the mountains in western Montana into Idaho required massive and brutal force. This force came from use of dynamite human labor.

The massive amounts of earth that had to be moved were unprecedented. The development and application of explosives for such work was a prerequisite for the transcontinental railroad. Human beings no longer had to be deterred by geographical barriers. The domination of nature required that distance and terrain, weather and season, be subdued. An extraordinarily aggressive attitude toward reality propelled this conquest.

Ironically, the work of the railroads is now about over. The Milwaukee Road that used to span the continent now is bankrupt and had its line dismantled. The Northern Pacific merged with the Great Northern and the Burlington. Eventually, the line through Missoula, Montana was sold it off. “The major legacy that the Northern Pacific left to Missoula is a threat to its water supply. Since the 1950s, when locomotives were switched from steam to diesel, tens of thousands of gallons of fuel were spilled in the train yard. They soaked into the soil and now float on the water table. Pesticides, paint, and solvents are working their way down to the community’s source of drinking water.”[15]

Rationalism. The modern worldview is probably best understood in terms of its understanding of rationality. At the beginning of the modern era, scientists in the seventeenth-century established that “rationality” would be understood in a pretty narrow manner: limited, in Stephen Toulmin’s words, “to theoretical arguments that achieved a quasi-geometrical certainty or necessity.”[16]

This rationalistic form of knowledge and control requires a narrowing of vision. Such tunnel vision brings into sharp focus certain limited aspects of an otherwise far more complex reality. This focus makes the phenomenon at the center of the field of vision legible and hence more easily and carefully quantified, analyzed, and controlled. This “rational” method seeks to “purify” the work of reason; it separates this work from particular historical and cultural situations.

James Scott labels the practical implementation of rationalism “high modernism.” Characteristics of high modernism include commitment to consistent movement forward (progress), absolute truths, and rational planning of ideal social orders under standardized conditions of knowledge and production.[17] High modernism’s problematic elements follow, first of all, from its claim that it is backed by the authority of scientific knowledge in its quest to “improve” the human condition. Secondly, high modernism uses this authoritative claim to silence competing sources of judgment.

However, the use high modernism makes of science is narrow and totalitarian. “Nothing is known until and unless it is proven in a tightly controlled experiment.” Knowledge gained through other means is not taken seriously. “Traditional practices, codified as they are in practice and in folk sayings” simply do not matter. They exist under the radar of modernity.[18]

Scott provides an example of one of many cases where this rationalistic imperviousness to context has exacted a terrible toll in recent years. In the fifteen years following World War II, people sprayed large quantities of DDT intending to kill mosquito populations and control mosquito-born diseases. In preparation for these actions, scientific experiments focused only on determining the dosage concentrations and application conditions required for eradicating mosquito populations. Within that framework, DDT worked quite well. It did kill mosquitoes and significantly reduce diseases. However, the experimental framework left important considerations out—with tragic consequences. It gradually became apparent that DDT had a devastating ecological impact. Residues were absorbed by organisms all along the food chain, with deadly poisonous effects.

One aspect of the problem was how side effects multiplied. “A first-order effect—say, the decline or disappearance of a local insect population—led to changes in flowering plants, which changed the habitat for other plants and for rodents, and so on.” Secondly, scientists had examined the effects of DDT on other species only under experimental, not field, conditions. Scientists “had no idea what the interactive effects of pesticides were when they were mixed with water and soil and acted upon by sunlight.”[19]

One of the very early critics of rationalism, Blaise Pascal, raised a concern that remains apropos today. The great failure of rationalism, Pascal said, is “not its recognition of technical knowledge, but its failure to recognize any other.”[20]

These three elements of the modern worldview (seeing the universe as impersonal, dominating nature, and privileging rationalistic science as determinative of acceptable knowledge) combine to foster a tremendous amount of violence. Yet, they are simply part of the air educated people in the West breathe. We need major dis-illusionment.

A pacifist way of knowing

As an alternative to an uncritical living within the modern worldview, I want to propose a pacifist way of knowing. I will mention two elements of a pacifist way of knowing that specifically respond to my critique the inherent violence of the modern worldview.

The web of life. The first aspect recognizing the interconnectedness of all of life. Native American philosopher Gabriel Horn writes of the contrast between two ways of knowing.

The first coheres with what Horn calls “our Original Intention.” “Take only what you need, live in harmony and balance with your environment, love the Earth. Such a thought process does not allow artificial extensions, like the tools we create or even the weapons we make, to become actual extensions of the self.” People whose thought processes follow this path do not believe they are superior to other life forms. All things are necessary parts of wholeness.[21]

The other way of knowing “travels on an asphalt road.” For this path, people’s artificial extensions, on which they increasingly depend, are linked with their very identity. This leads to an ever-widening separation not only from non-Western peoples but also other life forms. The wheel is no longer seen as something sacred but simply as an instrument for moving faster.[22]

Wendell Berry argues that we must resist the modernist urge to reduce everything to abstract classifications. “Without some use of abstractions, thought is incoherent or unintelligible, perhaps unthinkable. But abstraction alone is merely dead.”[23]

Instead, we must understand ourselves as intimately connected with the other-than-human world. “If we are to protect the world’s multitude of places and creatures, then we must know them…with affection, ‘by heart,’ so that in seeing or remembering them the heart may be said to ‘sing,’ to make a music peculiar to its recognition of each particular place or creature that it knows well.”[24]

Eloquent reality. The second aspect of a pacifist way of knowing is openness to the richness of life, what Albert Borgmann calls “eloquent reality.”[25] Many people have characterized the 20th century as a century of deep alienation and brokenness. Such alienation seems to follow from a worldview that has abstracted from the non-human world all conscious intelligence and purpose and meaning and then projected onto the world a soulless machine. Richard Tarnas writes, “this is the ultimate anthropomorphic projection: a [human]-made machine, something not in fact ever found in nature. From this perspective, it is the modern world’s own impersonal soullessness that has been projected from within onto the world.”[26]

A pacifist way of knowing argues that this modern interpretation of the universe is only one particular perspective. Other perspectives are possible. Belief in “eloquent reality” tells us this life, this world, is genuinely beautiful, healing, soulful, invigorating. Reality understood thus is not totally orderly, objective, controllable, or quantifiable.

Martin Buber articulated an understanding of the world focused on relationships as the core of what is most real—in contrast to the world of use, control, and exploitation (the “It-world”). Buber argued that the world we live in is where we will encounter our peaceable God. “I know nothing of a ‘world’ and of ‘worldly life’ that separate us from God. What is designated that way is life with an alienated It-world, the life of experience and use. Whatever goes out in truth to the world, goes forth to God. Only he that believes in the world achieves contact with it; and if he commits himself he cannot remain godless. Let us love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled;…in all its terror, [daring] to embrace it with our spirit’s arms—and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.”[27]

Gordon Kaufman is another who profoundly and painstakingly articulates a pacifist way of knowing in relation to the big issues of God and the world. Seeking for peace on earth—what Kaufman calls a “humane order” characterized by love, justice, creativity, mutual respect—goes with the grain of the universe. Reality is not soulless, arbitrary, meaningless. “Our deepest human aspirations are not alien to this ecological-historical order into which we have been born: the world in which we live is a humane-seeking order. We can give ourselves whole-heatedly to responsible life and work within it.”[28]

A pacifist way of knowing, then, makes two strongly counter-modern assertions. First, all of life is interconnected. We are called to respect that interconnectedness and to seek harmony with all of creation. Second, life in this world is where we encounter the divine. Let us love this actual world, and in that way we will be loving the God who made it and enlivens it.


1. This chapter originated as a presentation to the conference, “Walter Wink and the Powers,” at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, March 2000. A version was published in Ray Gingerich and Ted Grimsrud, eds., Transforming the Powers: Peace, Justice, and the Domination System (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 53-64.

2. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

3. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 5-21.

4. Scott, Seeing, 13.

5. Scott, Seeing, 21.

6. One such historian is Albert Borgmann. See, Crossing the Postmoden Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

7. Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (Boston: Ballantine Books, 1990), 285-89.

8. Tarnas, Passion, 287.

9. Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 17-18.

10. David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in the More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1996), 131.

11. Abram, Spell, 31.

12. Abram, Spell, 94.

13. Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding (New York: Knopf, 1987), 331-32.

14. Borgmann, Crossing, 27-28.

15. Borgmann, Crossing, 34.

16. Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: Free Press, 1990), 20.

17. Scott, Seeing, 377.

18. Scott, Seeing, 305-06.

19. Scott, Seeing, 291-292.

20. Quoted in Scott, Seeing, 340.

21. Gabriel Horn, Contemplations of a Primal Mind (Novato, CA: New World Library, 1996), 28.

22. Horn, Contemplations, 28-29.

23. Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2000), 136.

24. Berry, Life, 137-38.

25. Borgmann, Crossing, 110-47.

26. Tarnas, Passion, 432.

27. Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Scribners, 1970), 143.

28. Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 338-39.

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