Theologian Millard Erickson once said, “I love Carl Henry’s work. It’s extremely important. I hope someday that it is translated into English!”
The date of Henry’s work God, Revelation and Authority, is important for this essay (and the subsequent essay on the Jesus Movement) because he is analyzing a cultural argument at a particular point in time. Henry published his work in 1976, and so we must understand the status of the culture at that time.
He states the counterculture critique as follows:
Beyond all this, however, and of even deeper significance, was the counterculture’s faulting of the so-called scientific world view which more than any other vision of reality has shaped the outlook of twentieth-century intellectuals. This proud achievement of recent generations the counterculture criticized and caricatured as the grandiose mythology of modern man, the fiction to which Western intellectuals are specially disposed. Not only did countercultural youth opt out of careers in science, but they questioned the indispensability of technocratic science to human well-being, and denied that the secular empirical world view tells the truth about the ultimately real world.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 112. It is a “radical critique and rejection of the reigning scientific-mechanistic view which reduces reality to the empirically observable.” (113)
It seems that Evangelical Christianity, which is itself a rejection of such a reductionistic worldview would be an appropriate answer for the counterculture. Henry faults Evangelicals for (1) not rightly engaging the cultural arguments and (2) “their hurried call for spiritual decision which often leaps over an effective intellectual confrontation.” (114).
He notes that the counterculture was seeking a “new consciousness” which takes the form of drugs, magic, mysticism. But as Henry notes
Neither the hallucinatory nor the occult can definitely unveil a realm of reality behind the statistical averaging to which scientism is devoted. One will not find authentic human values simply by exhuming the nonrational aspect of man’s nature. The emotionally manipulated irrationalities provide no access whatever to the worth and wisdom of the ages. Appeals to noncognitive levels of personality will not supply the rational guidance without which freedom becomes not only permissive but lawless. No anti-intellectual alternative can in the long run serve the countercultural challenge to technocratic omnicompetence. (116)
In short, the compliant against material reductionism is right, but the response will prove — and history has shown Henry to be right — inadequate as a response.
By retreating into an intense subjectivity as a kind of reality — the counterculture left the objective world solely to that which they ostensibly rejected. Irrationality is not a sufficient long-term response to reductionistic technology.
Now here is where Henry made a particularly prescient observation:
Whereas the counterculture may not deplore the technocratic enslavement of reason, the New Left nevertheless demands political liberation from the consequences of the scientific world view and frequently voices sharp disapproval of existing collectivist and capitalist societies alike. Following either Herbert Marcuse or Norman Brown, it often appeals first to the so-called “Marxist humanism” of the early (in distinction from the later) Marx—a contrast many scholars find unjustifiable—and then (in opposition to traditional Marxism) affirms that man’s consciousness determines his social being, rather than that sociology determines his consciousness. (119)
Note that: one’s subjective consciousness may assert one’s social being irrespective of objective consequences. I am what I insist that I am, and, thus, through a transmogrification of nature what I am subjectively must be admitted by others objectively (and inconsistently, because my subjective understanding of your subjective understanding of yourself is illegitimate — your subjectivity defines reality for both of us).
Henry finishes with the observation that Christianity rejects both subjective irrationality and material reductionism. He refers to our “final faith” materialism and technology as “a form of idolatry peculiar to the twentieth century” (120). Christianity posits and contends for a transcendental reason. He calls upon a Christianity which is well-educated and can articulate its message clearly in answer to the claims of reduction and irrationality.
What Henry did not foresee in this essay was the merger of these two elements into a cohesive whole. The giant technology companies are simultaneously bastions of irrationality, magic, sex and subjectivism. Lewis’ “materialist magician” has become a reality.
We must realize that a magical — some sort of life force which is “spiritual” and yet firmly captured within the physical universe — nature is profoundly pagan. The idea that the universe is self-generating and that inanimate matter gives birth to life and consciousness is a pagan concept. While we have renamed the gods, in the end the materialist has moved little beyond Babylon with the exception of having a far more detailed mythology of how the sky created life, and how rocks grew until they fought wars and fell in love.