. We might imagine, for instance, a five-stage progression beginning with an agrarian society, preconditioning for takeoff, takeoff, drive to maturity, and finally high mass consumption.
Structural functionalism assumes that as economic development takes place, new social and cultural forms must emerge. It argues that new institutional forms are desirable and necessary in view of the changes in economic life. Some Christians, who see God-given ideals behind traditional social institutions, experience modernity as a threat. While the threat is real, modernity also affords the opportunity to examine existing social structures and re-create them in light of the biblical ideal.
The Crisis and Challenge of Modernity A primary feature of modernity is the disintegration of traditional forms in
regard to values, behavior, and expectations. With this breakdown of traditional forms comes the responsibility to create new institutional structures. And with this opportunity come threats of social, moral, and intellectual chaos, making the creative task of reconstructing institutions overwhelming. This tension leads us to only see the threats of modernization rather than to face up to modernity.
Social scientists continue to debate the origins and moving forces of modernization. While some theorists believe that modernization is fueled primarily by economic and technological forces, others point out that ideological changes have made modernization possible. We believe that modernization unfolds in a dialectical manner, fed by both material and ideological aspects of life. No part of society and culture is autonomous; no social entity develops purely in terms of its own internal organization. This is true of every major structural unit of contemporary society—the church, the family, the economy, education, and politics.
Although there is interaction among all the major dimensions of life, the economic and technological are dominant in present-day Western society. The other dimensions of life have been cast into a responsive, rather than a leading, role. However, the various internal crises of modernization may lead to changes in the current balance of power. For example, the issue of moral legitimation in modern society may lead to a new role for religious and moral institutions. Many question whether a society built on moral pluralism and its attendant moral uncertainty can maintain itself. The crisis of
secularization may lead to an awareness of the need for a new moral, if not religious, consensus in modern society.
In developing a framework to analyze the modern situation, we consider four dimensions of sociocultural life: consciousness, communication, community, and commodities. Modernization is rooted largely in economic reality (commodities); changes at this level are reflected at the other levels of sociocultural life. Each level also sends feedback to the others. The dialectical model we are suggesting is similar to a general model of social structure in which each part is conceived as influencing and being influenced by every other part. We hasten to add that these dimensions should be considered as analytical constructs only. They should not be reified and considered separate components of reality.
In facing up to the challenge of being modern, we must address all areas of life. We have chosen these four dimensions because they are the settings in which major crises are occurring in our world today. We will first explore the general dilemma posed in each of these layers of sociocultural life and then turn our attention to the specific negative effects on the family.
Consciousness Consciousness refers to the individual’s subjective experiences, including
thoughts, beliefs, images, and emotions. Crises in this area can occur both within and between individuals—both subjectively and intersubjectively.
Within the individual, consciousness is fragmented among different spheres of life. The individual must negotiate between the impersonal competition of the marketplace and the intimacy of friendship and family, between rationality in the school and faith in the pew, between the fast-paced solutions of multimedia and the routine open-endedness of daily life. Under such circumstances, even the best minds and the most stable personalities can quickly lose a sense of centeredness, a clear grasp of meaning and reality.
This fragmentation of thought has resulted in a disjunction between faith and life. We ask: How do our beliefs and values affect the structure of our lives? Do competing values and beliefs shape different areas of our lives? Do our commitments and beliefs as Christians distinguish us from others? People in this era live in a state of cognitive dissonance. We have adapted to
apparently inconsistent beliefs and lack of congruency between values and behavior. For example, interpersonal commitments and intimacy are highly valued, but relationships are unstable. Many Christians speak about having compassion for the poor but avoid people in need. To paraphrase the apostle Paul, we are trapped in a sociological “body of death,” doing not the good we want, but the evil we do not want—and we do not understand our actions (Rom. 7:15–25).
A diversity of worldviews is available to us. The more modern we become, the more we are aware of this diversity and the more relative our views appear. Berger (1983) refers to this as the pluralization of consciousness. For some, this opens the door for a challenging dialogue with others to help in the construction of one’s personal value system. This can be an awesome and lonely task. Others try to mold a new consensus, either by creating a new synthesis through dialogue or by cutting the dialogue short and imposing their own beliefs on the other participants. Another possible way of proceeding is subjectivization. As Hunter (1982, 40) puts it, “When the institutional routines and ideologies are rendered implausible, modes of conduct and thought, morality included, are deliberated. If institutions no longer provide consistent and reliable answers to such questions as ‘What do I do with my life?’ ‘How do I raise my children?’ ‘Is it acceptable to live with a member of the opposite gender outside of marriage?’ etc., the individual must necessarily turn inward to the subjective to reflect, ponder and probe for answers. The process of ‘turning inward’ is the process of subjectivization.” As Hunter further suggests, the process of subjectivization is not negative—it is simply a structural feature of modern society. It can, however, foster “an incessant fixation upon the self . . . [an] abiding absorption with the ‘complexities’ of individuality” (40).
Communication Communication in modern society both shapes and reflects the
fragmentation, pluralization, and subjectivization of modern consciousness. Significant symbols—terms that everyone understands in precisely the same way—are the basis of communication. But in modern society, we cannot assume that everyone understands a term in precisely the same way. Even the words family and church have a variety of meanings that can arouse emotional debate. The denotative, or referential, meanings of words vary considerably; consider the multitude of meanings of the word love. The
connotative, or associative, meanings are even more diverse. Lack of consensus on meanings creates a dilemma. On the one hand, our diverse backgrounds and uniqueness as individuals make communication more necessary than ever. On the other hand, our lack of significant symbols makes communication equally problematic.
A variety of questions arise in the context of our attempts to communicate: How can we communicate if we cannot assume that others will understand our words as we understand them? How is dialogue possible if there is no shared basis of interpreting language? Are our vocabularies authentic? How free are we to create new vocabularies and to give new meanings to words? What is the relationship between experience and language? Can we trust the very process of communication? Will language become, like advertising, one more technique to mystify and control others?
The difficulties of communicating are compounded today by the proliferation of technical and professional languages, which mystify the nonspecialist. We also see attempts to transcend the traditional means of symbolic communication through various forms of nonverbal communication. For the most part, everyday language and conversation are impoverished because of the difficulty of capturing complex and confusing realities in simple words.
Community Although the ideal of community and family life might differ in the various
faith traditions, modernity has fragmented the sense of community and family life. Many people have lamented the breakdown of homogeneous and geographically based communities as the major crisis of the modern era. Without such communities, we have no means of social control and are thus vulnerable to our own moral laxity. People are in search of a new home or community so that they can find meaning and purpose. What is often forgotten when we grieve the loss of traditional communities, however, is the provincialism and lack of autonomy that characterize them. Isolated villages and tribal groups are noted for their ethnocentrism.
Concurrent with the disintegration of community life is the centralization of economic and political functions in corporate and governmental bureaucracies. The picture that emerges is of the isolated individual and the nuclear family confronted with the faceless image of mass society. The community that once mediated between the individual and larger institutions
is no longer there. Judicial and political institutions are increasingly called on to settle family, church, and community disputes. Government encroachment into areas previously considered private or sacred has become a serious social question to which there are no apparent answers.
Some social scientists have suggested that networks are the modern substitute for traditional communities. Friends, coworkers, and social, educational, cultural, and religious groups—together these networks can satisfy all or almost all of the individual’s needs. However, networks tend to be unstable and specialized and thus lack the virtues associated with community: unconditional commitment and a sense of belonging that encompasses the whole of a person’s life.
There is a wide range of responses to the disintegration of traditional communities. At one extreme is the trend toward a self-contained individualism that denies dependence on others and makes no commitment to them. At the other extreme, people form communities around a common value, such as economic sharing, family life, or religious devotion. Those in the middle search for a sense of community in institutional contexts such as the church, where the community metaphor is familiar, and in homogeneous neighborhoods such as suburban housing developments, where names like Homewood, Pleasantdale, and Community Heights imply commonality and identity.
Commodities In advanced capitalism, the economic sphere has been largely secularized.
Economic life develops unguided by any particular religious ideology. This differentiation of economic life is characteristic of modern institutions. The fragmentation of consciousness, complexity of communication, and disintegration of community make an integration of life around economics seem viable. Remaining unanswered is the question of whether or not a society based solely on economic and political consensus can maintain itself.
Economic principles do dominate modern social life. As the principles and values associated with economic life enter other areas (political, educational, and interpersonal), we see a pattern of the “commodification” of social life developing, where achieving quality social relationships comes to be seen as merely using the right techniques of relating. When emphasis on commodities results in the alienation of the worker, the intrinsic meaning of work is lost. When work becomes only a means to the end of making money,
it becomes a moral criterion for judging people. The twin phenomena of careerism and consumerism, two evidences of these trends, are found at the center of economic, church, and family life.
The Impact of Modernity on the Family With this basic understanding of modernity, we can now examine the dilemmas it poses for the family, as well as the false hopes it has generated (see table 6).
TABLE 6 The Impact of Modernity on the Family: Dilemmas and False Hopes
Impact of Modernity Dilemmas for the Family False Hopes
Fragmentation of Consciousness
Fragmentation of thought
Disjunction between faith and life
Religious and moral pluralism
Crisis in morality and authority
Dichotomy between private and public life
Traditionalism: restoring the family of the past
Cult of the expert
Complexity of Communication
Decline of significant symbols
Mystifying technical language
Diverse backgrounds and linguistic styles
Overreliance on techniques of communication
Isolation of communication from regular activities
Disintegration of Community
Impact of Modernity Dilemmas for the Family False Hopes
Disintegration of traditional community life
Lack of social control
Individuals confronted by bureaucracy and mass society
Government encroachment into private matters
Isolated nuclear family