At one point he makes reference to the inherent binary convictions of traditional Christianity when he writes, “Christianity make a clear distinction between those who follow Christ and those who fail to believe” (134). Key to his argument is the idea that even those who reject traditional borders, paradoxically invent new ones to replace them. This recalls Paul’s insight that even pagan Gentiles “which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law…
Frank Furedi, Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn the Art of Drawing Boundaries (London and New York: Routledge 2021): 193 pp.
The mere title of this book might lead one to think it is about immigration, a topic much in the news these days. In fact, however, though applicable to immigration, this book is about much more than that. It is about borders or boundaries as a salubrious sociological phenomenon meant to establish order and promote flourishing in human individuals and societies. Borders are important not only in distinguishing one nation from another, but in demarcating boundaries in numerous other crucial areas of life, including the differences between the public and private spheres, adults and children, males and females, and even humans and animals. The author, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in the UK, brings the requisite expertise required to examine this topic with authority. This work challenges the contemporary promotion of a “borderless spirit” as ideal.
Review of Content
We begin with a summary of the book’s content. In the opening chapter (Introduction) the author suggests there is a contemporary “paradox of borders,” epitomized in those who reject border walls, on one hand, while decrying “cultural appropriation,” on the other. Contrary to the spirit of the age, Furedi suggests that the creation of boundaries is vital. He notes, “The marking out of space and the tendency to draw lines constitutes humanity’s need for signposts and guidance” (5). This is true not just of physical but also of symbolic boundaries, including moral ones. “When symbolic borders lose their meaning, a cultural crisis ensues” (7). According to Furedi, “Western society’s estrangement from borders is not an enlightened step forward—rather it expresses a self-destructive sensibility of estrangement from the conventional sign posts that guide everyday life” (12).
Chapter two addresses challenges represented by the modern value of “non-judgementalism,” presented “as an enlightened and liberal attitude towards the world” (19). Furedi defends “the act of judgement,” however, as “a deed through which people can establish connections and develop a shared understanding of one another’s outlook” (20). The condemnation of moral judgment has led to moral indifference.
Chapter three examines “openness” as a predominate modern value: “In popular culture, openness supposedly rejects preconceived notions, refuses to possess durable commitments and ideas, and does not abide by fixed points and permanent boundaries” (31). The convergence of openness with non-judgementalism has resulted in “a mood of moral malaise” (33). Oddly enough, advocates of these values often express “bitter hostility” that is “visceral and characteristically militant” to any who see value in “closed communities” based on “ties of kinship, family, friendship, religion, and community membership” (36-37).
Chapter four further addresses how these values have challenged notions of national sovereignty, democracy, and citizenship. It questions “the project of delegitimizing territorial borders” (49). According to Furedi, belonging to a particular people inhabiting a bounded place constitutes “an important source of solidarity” and provides “moral significance for members of a national community” (53). There can be no democracy without a demos. Advocates for the new values, however, promote “global citizenship” preferring “a heterogeneous space to a homogeneous one” (65).
Chapter five addresses the erosion of boundaries between the public and private spheres. “Personal and emotional openness are regarded as cultural ideals and promoted through media and popular culture” (73). The “classical virtue of stoicism” has been replaced by public and unrestrained “emotionalism” (74). He cites as an example “the relentless drive to ‘normalize,’ routinise, and demystify the domain of sex” (76). “Pornography,” for example, “has become a culturally, even socially, validated fetish” (76). The old value of reticence is dismissed as prudishness. In contrast, Furedi suggests, “The protection of the private realm is essential for the conduct of a healthy public life” (85). He concludes:
Once the space for secrecy is lost, the individual’s capacity to question, doubt, and act in accordance with their inclinations is undermined. In this area as in others, the flourishing of freedom is inseparable from the maintenance of limits and boundaries (88).
Chapter six addresses how the erosion of the public and private distinction has had unsettling effects in public life. This has included the development of “identity politics” and charges of “micro-agression” (100).
Chapter seven addresses how the “boundaryless spirit of our time” has created confusion for “intergenerational relations” (112). In the post-traditional world, the self is made rather than “passively inherited” (113). One result has been “a diminished sense of adult responsibility” and the “phenomenon of infantilization” (115), leading to the erosion of parental authority, the tendency to treat children as adults, and of adults to act like children. A side effect has been failure to socialize children and confusion as to what values to transmit to them.
Chapter eight addresses current hostility against the practice of binary thinking, and its dismissal as “morally wrong” (130). “Binary thinking is sometimes presented as a psychological deficit—a symptom of anxiety, and a marker for intolerance of ambiguity and complexity” (132). According to Furedi, however, binary thinking is not simply a “cultural tool” but a fundamental feature of the practice of human conceptualization” (136). He notes, in particular, how “anti-binary activists” have attacked the basic human distinction between men and women. They have attempted “de-authorising not just gender but also the difference of biological sex” with “the character of a religious duty” (142).
Chapter nine suggests that the rejection of conventional boundaries has, in fact, ironically resulted in “new ways of drawing lines in everyday life” (151). This includes emphasis on “personal boundaries,” the “Me too” movement, and the desire for “safe spaces.”
The book ends with a conclusion noting again that, “Hostility towards conventional boundaries and borders coexist with the demands for new borders” (165). Furedi notes that some are even challenging the boundaries between humans and animals. Human morality is dismissed by some as “an anthropocentric conceit” (165). He concludes that “the decisive influence” is the West’s unwillingness to affirm clear borders in all areas, resulting in “a lack of clarity about the moral values that underpin the self” (173).
This is a work of sociology and not theology, and yet it contains many helpful insights for the church today. Furedi offers a compelling description and analysis of the contemporary Zeitgeist and its rebellion against traditional boundaries or borders, with respect not only to nations (cf. Acts 17:26) but also with respect to the fundamental differences between men and women, adults and children. At one point he makes reference to the inherent binary convictions of traditional Christianity when he writes, “Christianity make a clear distinction between those who follow Christ and those who fail to believe” (134). Key to his argument is the idea that even those who reject traditional borders, paradoxically invent new ones to replace them. This recalls Paul’s insight that even pagan Gentiles “which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law… Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts….” (Rom 2:14-15). This book challenges the Christian reader to consider not only how to understand and resist the spirit of the age as it works upon us, but also how to extend a winsome alternative in Biblical Christianity to a confused world.
Jeffrey T. Riddle is Pastor of Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Louisa, Virginia.