Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World
Jeremiah L. Heiser's review of "Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World" by Chantal Delsol.
Delsol, Chantal. Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2003. 252 pages with index. $25.00, hardback.
For the first time in recent history, Western society lacks meaning. What previous generations used to consider true, no longer appear relevant. How can we explain this phenomenon? This is precisely the task of Chantal Delsol’s masterful work Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. Her primary thesis is this: The modern project, like Icarus, flew too close to sun, causing a backlash that has left Western society without any meaning; humanity must now find new methods of shaping meaning. Delsol, while not a Christian, offers a timely critique of many aspects of society that synchronize with Christianity. In order to highlight these similarities, the following will briefly overview her arguments and offer a critique on how her work integrates with a Christian worldview.
The first section (chapters 1-4) of Delsol’s work pertains to a predicament modern humanity finds themselves—an existence without meaning. To set up this argument, Delsol begins by discussing the fall of religious and secular ideologies. The question raised by Delsol is this: How, given the current predicament humanity finds themselves, can we find meaning in a world that appears to lack meaning? To find meaning, according to Delsol, one must stand for something other than oneself, either a value, idea, or an ideal. The problem with the world today is that many do not stand for anything, stripping their lives of any meaning. Not only do people lack meaning, but they now reject the figures of existence—religion, morality, economics, and politics—that humanity used to create meaning and structure. The effect of this rejection has been severe, resulting in black markets in which many of the figures of existence have reappeared in the form of cheap substitutes. Although Delsol does not seem optimistic about the black markets, she finishes the first section by admonishing readers to avoid returning to essentialism by strictly adhering to the past figures of existence without acknowledging their flexibility.
The second section (chapters 5-8) concerns what Delsol labels “Revelations of the Devil.” What exactly are these revelations of the Devil? First, they are seeking the good without the true. In much of Western society, good is not rejected on the basis of logic, but rather on the basis of what is considered evil by the majority of society. The result has been a morality of complacency. That is, humanity is no longer concerned with searching for the objective good, distinct from them, but now defines the good in terms of self-fulfillment, which can be difficult to define. Here is another way to put this: The morality of complacency has effectively robbed Western society of any structured ethical system, creating a society consumed with self-interest and ridden with subjectivity. The subjectivity present makes it impossible to define the good. Second, morality now has been reduced to a morality of emotion and indignation, which allows people to define their morality based on reactions to what they despise, not what is objectively good. Delsol finishes this section by asserting that a certain clandestine ideology exists in our present time—that of “correct thinking.” On this very basis, if people challenge certain political beliefs or opinions, like the Western concept of human rights, they risk being marginalized and ostracized.
In the third section (chapters 9-14), Delsol claims an urgent need for a new anthropology. Delsol opens this section with a critique of democracy. Because democracy prefers a multiplicity of opinions, each of them as valid as the next, it often shies away from objective truths that would limit certain so-called freedoms. The limiting of objective truth by techno-politics has led to a rejection of worldviews, for democracy worries that one conception of truth might take over. The rejection of worldviews has led another more stifling phenomenon: the inability to make decisions. Here the prudent, which used to always have a place in society, have been replaced by the supposedly competent in decision making, which has rendered society unable to make decisions. Next, Delsol tackles the sacralization of human rights, one of the byproducts of democracy. Ontological equality should be absolute, but does equality across the existential spectrum exit? Since society has created an existential equality, we attempt to equalize individuals by how we view individual action (function vs. roles), which also impacts the way we care for people.
The final section of Delsol’s book (chapters 15-19) deals with mastering the world in a different way. First, the world can be mastered in a different way by questioning the very idea of progress. While the notion of progress has been viewed by the Western world in an idyllic fashion, our failures to actually progress have shown us its finitude. Second, not only has the notion of progress been rejected, but the very idea of God has been rejected, causing Delsol to conclude that God is exile. Religion needs to shed its own oppressive tendencies and express itself in a manner consistent with the times. With the sudden limitations of progress, along with God exiled, humanity now has to face an uncertain world. One interesting predicament of this uncertain world, however, is the newfound inability to suffer. What is Delsol’s solution? Be people of vigilance, not of the progress we have to blame for the overall lack of meaning most of us experience.
Delsol’s book has a lot to commend: her critique of modernity, her description of the times we live in, and her disdain for the subjectivism and relativism that are prevalent in much of culture. Even though much of her work from a Christian perspective can be commended, we should also be cautious of too high an appraisal of her work. First, Delsol asserts that a certain moral conscience exists without explicitly endorsing a Moral Law-Giver. She asserts that no extrinsic force is necessary to create the norm by which all should live (pp. 233, 241). On the one hand, her acknowledgement of a moral conscience is a positive step in the right direction. On the other hand, simply stating that a moral conscience exists without a Divine causative agent is mere casuistry. What sets the standard or the norm? Incidentally, because her argument does not possess a unifying law, it falls prey to relativism. As we have seen throughout history, human reason alone is an insufficient standard for agreeing on objective, normative truth. Second, Christianity, with its adherence to natural law (Rom 2:14-15), provides a cleaner, more plausible explanation of the similarities in moral standards throughout history than just moral conscience. God literally wrote morality on our hearts.
Another problem with Delsol is her inaccurate portrayal of Christianity. In her chapter on the exile of God, Delsol argues that people reject the former religions, especially Christianity, because they were oppressive. When the concept of religion appears again, humanity needs to fashion a much kinder, gentler religion (pp. 198-199). In this section, she does exactly what she critiques in her comments on the good without the true: She rejects Christianity not based on logic, but rather on what she considers evil. This portrayal could not be further from the truth. Jesus was innately concerned about his followers’ ethical commitments in a teleological, virtue, and deontological manner. Jesus’ ethic was an ethic of love. He commanded believers to love their God and love their neighbor (Lk 10:27). Jesus commanded believers to not ignore those who are downtrodden (Mt 25:31-46). Jesus was concerned with the inner-state of someone’s heart (Lk 6:45) (See Douglas Groothuis, On Jesus, chapter 6). Her assumption that Christianity is always oppressive also ignores history. Was not William Wilberforce, a devout Christian, responsible for helping abolish the oppressive system of slavery in Britain? Oppression is a human problem (since oppression takes place outside of religion as well), not a religious problem. Therefore, it is not logical to reject religion simply because someone views it as oppressive. Furthermore, Christianity, with our view of personal and systemic sin, offers the best explanation for why oppression exits.
Delsol’s work offers a timely critique of the modern project and the apparent subjectifying of values that has led to relativism in society. Where Christians and Delsol must part ways is in her assertions that there is no unifying Moral Law-Giver and that Christianity has been overly oppressive. For those concerned with being able to critique some aspects of society in the public square, Delsol is a must read. However, readers hoping to learn more about the meaning of existence must be weary.
Jeremiah L. Heiser