The great American sociologist Philip Rieff (1922–2006) stands as one of the 20th century’s keenest intellectuals and cultural commentators. His work was stunning in its intellectual breadth and depth. Rieff did sociology on a grand scale—sociology as prophecy—diagnosing the ills of Western society and offering a prognosis and prescription for the future. Although he wasn’t a Christian, his work remains one of the greatest gifts—even if a complicated and challenging one—to Christians living today. (Tim Keller often lists Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic as one of his essential “big books” on culture.)

Rieff began his academic career in the 1950s and 60s by focusing on the work of Sigmund Freud. According to Rieff, Freud’s exploration of neurosis was really an exploration of authority, as Western man was realizing the idea of divine authority is an illusion. God doesn’t exist; therefore, he isn’t a legitimate authority. Freud recognized that as belief in God faded, psychological neuroses multiplied. Instead of correcting this by pointing persons back to God, however, Freud sought to heal by teaching his patients to accept this loss of authority as a positive development.

Thus the therapeutic culture was born. In place of theology, Freud and his progeny left us with sociology. Rieff warned that the tradeoff would not be a fruitful one.

Religion in Our Blood

Though Rieff rose to prominence as a public intellectual in the 1970s, he suddenly withdrew from the public eye for more than three decades. In fact, it wasn’t until the year of his death—2006—that he re-entered the public square with the publication of his magnum opus, My Life Among the Deathworks.

Deathworks is a devastating critique of modern culture, focusing on our vain Western attempts to reorganize society without a sacred center. According to Rieff, a patently irreligious view of society—which the Western world desires—isn’t only foolish and destructive, but impossible. We can no more live without a religious framework than we can communicate without a linguistic framework or breathe without a pulmonary framework. Religion is in our blood, and the more we deny it, the sicker our society becomes. As Rieff surveyed the 21st-century Western world, he perceived the sickness had become nearly fatal.

Cultural Works of Death

To expose the problems of modern society, Rieff outlines Western history according to three cultural “worlds,” each representing a time period (not a separate sphere of existence). The first was the pagan world, enchanted by its many gods. Following this was the second cultural world, one dominated by monotheism. This era has only recently given way to the third cultural world, our present age, in which many wish to do away with the gods altogether.

As Rieff saw it, human civilizations have always understood social order to be underlain by sacred order. The latter always and necessarily funds the former by providing a world of meaning and a code of permissions and prohibitions. Sacred order translates its truths into the tangible realities of the social order. Thus culture makers and cultural products served as middlemen between sacred order and social order, between God and society.

But the spirit of our third cultural world seeks to undo all of this.

Within this three-world conception of history, Rieff placed Christianity in the second cultural world. Christian monotheism provided the sacred foundation on which Western society was built, and gave individuals a place to stand. Virtue wasn’t just taught explicitly but reinforced implicitly through cultural institutions—in such a way that it shaped the instinctual desires of each successive generation. Most importantly perhaps, the underlying sacred order provided a powerful means of opposing social and cultural decadence.

The third cultural world, however, defines itself by its desire to sever this sacred/social connection. Whereas each of the first two worlds sought to construct identity vertically from above, our third world rejects the vertical in favor of constructing identity horizontally from below. Rieff knew the result of this rejection would be nihilism: “Where there is nothing sacred, there is nothing” (Deathworks, 12). 

Rieff pulls no punches in describing the cultural fruits of this project, describing them as deathworks. Instead of causing society to flourish (via works of life), modern cultural products function as subversive agents of destruction (works of death), undermining the very culture from which they arose. Rieff indicts an array of cultural elites—but especially Freud, Joyce, Picasso, and Mapplethorpe—for their role in poisoning society. “The guiding elites of our third world,” he observes, “are virtuosi of de-creation, of fictions where once commanding truths were” (4). Wishing to forget religion and rebuild society (irreligiously) from the ground up, these elites carefully construct a contemporary tower of Babel.

Enslaved to Desire

Of course, the attempt to construct a religionless society is as absurd as the attempt to reach God with a physical tower. As Reiff notes, “Culture and sacred order are inseparable. . . . No culture has ever preserved itself where there is not a registration of sacred order” (13). Yet our third world continues its production of deathworks as a “final assault [on] the sacred orders, of which their arts are some expression.” Deathworks, then, are “battles in the war against second culture” (7). In Rieff’s eyes, the third world is now busy with self-congratulatory festivities in honor its apparent rout.

One of the front lines of the contemporary battle is the notion of truth. The third-world perspective abolishes truth, leaving only desire. Yet desire proves to be as fierce an authority as any god—and jealous to boot. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum. So the throne on which God once sat doesn’t remain empty; it’s simply filled with the more erratic god of desire.

The chief desire in our American third-world culture is sexual, and this desire demands freedom of exercise. You may now believe or disbelieve in the existence of God (yawn), but you must never question the dogma of absolute sexual freedom, nor restrict its public exercise.

Onward to a Fourth World

Christians who resonate with Rieff’s grim assessment may be tempted to go back, attempting to retrieve the lost Christendom of a previous age. But Rieff pushes us forward to envision a fourth world. We cannot ignore the deathworks our third cultural world has created, but we can work towards a world in which sacred order once again underlies social order. And if Rieff is right, the time for such change may be sooner than we think. The third cultural world seems powerful now, but its foundations are weak and already starting to crumble. A world founded on material desire, after all, may promise much, but our society requires much more (see Rieff’s The Crisis of the Officer Class, 6). 

Even amid a crumbling third-cultural world, we must recognize that the fourth world will not enact itself; it awaits a people who will speak and act responsibly. Responsibility in a time such as this will involve a return to seemingly defunct notions of truth and virtue. And this will become increasingly possible as our culture undergoes a “radical disenchantment” with the permissiveness of third-world culture (Crisis, 169). It seemed so liberating to fire God from his post and live without limits! But a world without boundaries is a frightening—not a freeing—place. We must recover the beauty of the “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.”

When we read the events of our own time with Rieff-like eyes, we’re able to recognize many cultural products of our time as deathworks, and their authors as subversive agents undermining social order. But while Rieff generally takes aim at the creative class, we can expand our vision to include not only elite artists but also more ubiquitous culture-makers—popular entertainers, media outlets, corporate giants, and Supreme Court justices. As one example, we might point to the Supreme Court majorities who created “rights” to abortion and same-sex marriage out of thin air; those decisions are social deathworks in the deepest sense.

And yet, as helpful as Rieff is in identifying the cultural deathworks of contemporary society, his prescription for overcoming them is deficient. He often glances backward, pointing society to the moral code of a previous era. He also points forward, speaking of a future that ought to follow our corrupt age, a future defined by a virtuous cultural elite. But Rieff could never fully articulate a vision for either. He understood well the poison, but could never fully formulate the antidote.

Where Hope Prevails 

As he looked backward, what Rieff saw dimly was the biblical doctrine of creation. Had he reached for the wealth in that Christian doctrine, he might have grasped the enigma of humanity—of our created goodness and fallen badness—along with the Bible’s rich teaching about human flourishing. Moreover, what Rieff yearned to see in the future can only be found in a fully Christian eschatology, in its powerful and beautiful vision of Christ’s consummation of the kingdom. Only a Christian eschatology, rooted in the atonement of Christ and awaiting his triumphant return, can provide both a vision for the future and the power to work toward it. We don’t merely need a heavenly vision; we need divine power to bring heaven down to earth.

This is what Christianity, and Christianity alone, offers. The resurrection of Jesus declares that where death seems to have the final word, the ending is not ultimate. God will restore the earth, and his kingdom will prevail. What he created, what he mourned over as it reveled in deathworks ranged against him, what he pursued and redeemed—this he will restore, from top to bottom. And what finally grounds our hope—a hope that, sadly, seems to have eluded Rieff—is that we’re privy to this finale before the finale. Though we live in the muddy middle of the script, we’ve caught a glimpse of the last scene.

As those who know the end of history’s story, then, Christians can engage in cultural activity with a humble confidence. As dark as it may seem, the realm of culture will one day be raised to life, made to bow in submission to the King. Since Jesus will gain victory and restore the earth, we remain confident. And since it will be his victory, we remain humble.

The 20th-century missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin aptly captured this idea of Christian hope and action, even amid a culture of death:

[A transformed society] is not our goal, great as that is. . . . Our goal is the holy city, the New Jerusalem, a perfect fellowship in which God reigns in every heart, and his children rejoice together in his love and joy. . . . And though we know that we must grow old and die—that our labors, even if they succeed for a time, will in the end be buried in the dust of time—yet we are not dismayed. . . . We know that these things must be. But we know that as surely as Christ was raised from the dead, so surely shall there be a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwells righteousness. And having this knowledge, we ought as Christians to be the strength of every good movement of political and social effort, because we have no need either of blind optimism or of despair. (Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, 55)