And the breakdown of our society
You ever wonder why more and more topics seem to be contentious and rather difficult to talk about? Whether it’s about the definition of marriage, sexual identity, abortion, transgenderism, immigration, covid policy, or any other social issue, it feels like there is an ever-increasing chasm between two sides that can’t find any common ground and only know how to talk past each other.
One may be tempted to think that disagreements like these have always existed and that most generations have a tendency to exaggerate and catastrophize the extent of their own problems. But the nature of our current disagreements are not like those in the past. There’s a much deeper, more fundamental division that’s causing the futility of our public discourse and the unraveling of our society.
The 20th-century sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff gave us a helpful framework to understand what is going on. Author Carl Trueman explains what Rieff called First, Second, and Third World cultures.
“First Worlds are characterized by a variety of myths that ground and justify their cultures through something that transcends the immediate present. These might be the tales of the gods and heroes in the Iliad or the Norse sagas, the philosophy of Plato, or the mythic stories of origin found in Native American societies. Whatever their specific content, what they share in common is that they make the present culture accountable to something greater than itself. Rieff says that a belief in fate is perhaps the key here.
Second Worlds are characterized not by a belief in fate but by faith. The great examples would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where cultural codes are rooted in the belief in a specific divine and sovereign being who stands over and above creation, and to whom all creatures are ultimately accountable. First and Second Worlds are similar in that both set their social order upon a deeper, even sacred, order. It is the Third World that represents a decisive rupture on this point.
Third Worlds are characterized by their repudiation of any sacred order. There is nothing in a Third World beyond this world by which culture can be justified. The implications of this are, according to Rieff, comprehensive and catastrophic…