We live in what we like to think of as a very sophisticated society. International commerce keeps the economy humming day and night. Silicon chips grease the wheels of calculation and communication. Medical centers are engaged in perpetual expansion as research facilities grow at a furious pace. Life gets more and more complicated. We can buy and sell Eurobonds on our cell phones while watching Monday Night Football at a Mexican theme sports bar owned by a partnership of German orthodontists. We can kill time after yet another United Airlines flight cancellation by sipping latte and reading about treks from Lhasa to the Rongbuk Buddhist monastery at the base of Mount Everest. Yes, our postmodern world is quite remarkable.
If Christians care about evangelism, then surely we need to get our bearings in this strange, postmodern world. If we wish to preach and teach effectively, then we must be clear about where the sharp and double-edged sword of the gospel cuts into the spirit of the age. This is especially important because our own churches are awash in disorienting analysis. Some are eager to convince us that our sophisticated scientific culture just cannot accept the simplistic and mythological worldview of traditional Christianity. Others are certain that the new world of global communication makes us so aware of cultural and religious diversity that the traditional exclusivist claims of Christianity are untenable. Still others drink deeply at the well of literary theory and in an intoxicated reverie announce that old ideas of meaning and truth have been transcended. The essence of Scripture is not the person of Jesus Christ, but its openness to “difference.” Most, however, offer a straightforward assessment: our postmodern world is so very, very complex that the traditional forms of Christian preaching and teaching must be updated and revised. I can hear the sound bite now: “We need a message that speaks to the Internet Age.”
But these approaches to contemporary challenges of evangelism are wrongheaded. Each interprets the difficulties we face as the result of new facts. Somehow, scientific discoveries and the global village of instant communication make Christianity less plausible, as if the invention of the Internet poses sudden spiritual difficulties for Christian teaching. Somehow, new theoretical and philosophical fashions alter the landscape of consciousness, as if our minds are so much flotsam and jetsam pressed forward by the surging flood of cultural change. Somehow, the mere fact of social and technological complexity overwhelms the presumptive simplicity of old-fashioned Christianity, as if human beings were ruminating animals without a care in the world before the advent of cellular phones and cable TV.
No, these approaches will not do. Instead, I propose another. The challenges facing Christian evangelism are not scientific, they are not technological, they are not philosophical or cultural in any theoretical or abstract sense. Instead, our challenges are moral and religious. The spirit of the age is, after all, spiritual. My goal, then, is to analyze these moral and spiritual challenges, for they, and not the remarkable changes on the surface of our society, shape the real task of evangelism.
We are frequently told a story about modernity that emphasizes Promethean ambition. The high labors of freedom, the noble quest for equality, the rigors of critical thought are all championed as great achievements of the human spirit. In many cases, this story is accurate. Seminal modern figures were extraordinarily confident. For Rousseau, the human desire to integrate duty and sensibility was unquenchable, and for Kant, the nobility of the moral law was undeniable. Though unsentimental and often ruthless, both Hegel and Marx believed in the benevolent march of history toward a crowning humanism. John Stuart Mill and Bertrand Russell never underestimated the depths of human ignorance and irrationality, but both retained confidence in the integrity of reason and the triumphant power of argument. They differed from each other in many ways, but nonetheless they held in common a confident hope. Our humanity, however understood, provides the sufficient basis for the highest good.
This confidence in human potency and potential defines modern humanism, and it creates a field of moral concerns that is shaped by two centers of gravity. The first is preoccupied with the creative potential of human agency. We have the spark of justice within, and the proper spiritual labor assigned to us is that of liberation. We must break down the constraining barriers that limit individuality and self-expression. Here, modernity is given over to the redemptive project of freedom. The other center of gravity is more cautious, but it is equally influential. This moral sensibility seeks to weigh evidence and avoid error. Quiet and uncoerced debate yields reliable truths, and our job is to resist the temptations of passionate excess and restrain foolhardy illusion. More skeptical and less speculative, this cautious humanism counsels moderation. We must be careful to tether our lives to secure and reliable anchors. We must build upon a firm and stable foundation.
The great American prophet Ralph Waldo Emerson penned epigrams that capture the ambition of the first aspect of modern humanism—its redemptive project—and they certainly challenge Christian principles. Against the obedient discipline of imitatio Christi, Emerson claimed that “imitation is suicide.” Against the self-condemning introspection of St. Augustine’s repentant autobiography, Emerson substituted the affirmative principle, “Trust thyself.” Against the hierarchy of creature and Creator, Emerson insisted that “nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” Against the penitential imperative, Emerson interjected, “I do not wish to expiate, but to live.” Against reliance upon a faith once delivered, Emerson stated that “the centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul.” At every turn, Emerson is a brilliant strategist of the Promethean ambition of modernity. We must throw off the chains that bind, especially our psychic bondage to social and moral expectation, and then live in freedom according to the pure dictates of personal conscience.
Empiricists such as John Locke support the other side of modern humanism—its more cautious approach. For Locke, mental life is riven with prejudice and instability. The project of philosophy is to identify simple ideas that promise to remain stable, and, on this basis, to rebuild intellectual life. In this effort, however, the true philosopher recognizes limits. As Locke writes, “It becomes the modesty of philosophy not to pronounce magisterially where we want that evidence that can produce knowledge.” Here, a skeptical temper moderates dogmatic tendencies. We should withhold assent to propositions unsupported by evidence. The goal, however, is not to propagate doubt for its own sake. Instead, for Locke and subsequent generations of empiricists, the purpose of the critical temper is to create social and psychic space for the incremental progress of scientific inquiry. Only if we release some of the pressure of traditional faith, only if we step back from the highly charged atmosphere of speculation and dogma, can we engage in the dispassionate and free exchange of ideas that leads to genuine and reliable intellectual results.
Together, a zeal for freedom and a cool empiricism have nourished the modern spirit, and for both our humanity takes pride of place. For redemptive humanists such as Emerson, once liberated from the dead hand of dogma, our humanity would be the creative and bountiful source of moral insight. For cautious humanists such as Locke, if we use critical doubt to reduce the demands of prejudice and social convention, then we can undertake the painstaking and slow process of empirical inquiry. In both cases, human power displaces divine power as the source of hope. Emerson’s hot passion and Locke’s sweet reason guide us toward fulfillment. We are to break from traditional authority in order to release ourselves from hindering fetters, and in so doing, we will accelerate the natural human push toward freedom and truth.
It should come as no surprise that Christianity has at times seen fit to do battle with modern humanism. After all, for Christians God comes first, not us. We must serve Him in order to attain freedom. His truth shall judge the minds of men, and His Word leads to all truth. Far from a hindering fetter, the authority of the gospel is the engine that drives us toward fulfillment. In spite of this obvious conflict, modern Christianity has not opposed modern humanism in every respect, and for good reason. The modern defense of individuality echoes the Christian confidence that God calls each of us by name. The new birth promised in baptism is not at all alien to Emerson’s hope that we might disentangle ourselves from the cruel weight of the past. Justification by faith also turns us away from expiation and toward “life.” Furthermore, like the close reasoning and rigorous argument endorsed by Locke, Christianity teaches doctrines as claims of truth, and not as nuggets of meaning. They possess public solidity and personal force. Against willfulness and inveterate human self-delusion, faith involves disciplining the mind to conform to the God-given facts. Like the empiricist, the theologian must serve that which is given.
In both cases, whether ambitious or cautious, modern humanism shares with Christianity an interest in transformative power. Both are champions of change. For Emerson, freedom impels, for the restless divine spark of individuality always seeks full expression. He hopes for a time in which the radiance of individuality will illuminate the cosmos. For Locke, facts have force, and our minds receive the impress of their reality, and we should discipline ourselves to believe accordingly. Christianity preaches neither Emersonian freedom nor Lockean empiricism, but the gospel also has potency to convert minds and change lives. The power of the cross transforms sinner into saint. For this reason, modern humanism and Christianity share a love of power and a hope for change, and given this common love and common hope, many have sought to re-evangelize modern Western culture by reinterpreting modern humanism and redirecting its account of the power of life toward the properly Christian goal of putting God first. For apologists, the dynamics of freedom and the force of facts properly orbit around the power of the cross, and Emerson and Locke, properly understood, advance the cause of the gospel.
Maybe this attempt to conscript modern humanism to the task of evangelism was helpful. Maybe it was a mistake. The matter is irrelevant for us today. The tenor of our age, however humanistic in spirit, lacks the Promethean elements that much of modern theology has had to confront. Cultural critique has run amok in our time, undermining our confidence; we no longer imagine ourselves to be heralds of freedom and truth. The voices of condemnation and the calls to repentance no longer challenge our confident humanism; we hear such demands in the echo chambers of therapeutic consciousness.
After Freud, conscience cannot stand against social authority, for the two are intertwined. Individuality remains a cherished ideal, but the multicultural agenda threatens to submerge it in a morass of race, class, and gender. For all our humanistic faith, we are not great believers in the intrinsic goodness and integrity of human nature. We shrink from the harsh disciplines that might shape our souls, even the humanistic disciplines of authenticity and rational inquiry. We need years of therapy in order to overcome self-doubt, and even then, our acquired sense of self-trust is fragile. Still further, we worry about ideology and wring our hands over the inevitable cultural limitations that undermine our quest for knowledge. The specter of patriarchy is everywhere; everything depends upon one’s perspective. In all this, the effect is not Emersonian ambition or Lockean confidence in reason. Pronouns are changed, symbols are manipulated, critiques are undertaken, but almost always in the spirit of a new conformity that fears imprisonment without cherishing freedom and flees from error without pursuing truth.
In these and many other ways, the outlook of modernity has shifted from ambition and confidence to fear and anxiety. The spirit of the age is no longer self-expressive; it is self-protective. Whether one is a Derridian, a disciple of Foucault, or a student of Heidegger, the very potencies and powers that give human life dynamism and drive are laden with danger. We are all familiar with the postmodern litany. Language is a vessel of power that seeks dominion. Truth claims are tinged with imperial ambition. Technology alienates us from life. Economic dynamism produces rapacious inequality. The slogans of modernity—liberty, equality, and fraternity—may well endure, but they are viewed against a background of menace and not promise. Postmodern culture continues to put humanity first, but it does so in an atmosphere tinged with dread.
Because postmodern culture is essentially defensive, the challenges of evangelism have changed, and the many modern theological strategies of mediation are altogether beside the point. One need not meet the rigorous demands of modern intellectual life when the present age is running in the opposite direction. One need not tailor the gospel to fit the ambitions of freedom if the postmodern soul endeavors to shrink to a point where it will no longer be noticed. But the demise of old challenges gives rise to new ones. Postmodern humanism may not be Promethean, but it most certainly is not Christian either. In order to understand this new humanism, we need to examine its defensive posture. Two features are very much in evidence: a fear of authority and a flight from truth. Both are integral to the strange way in which postmodern culture seeks to serve humanity through negating powers that encourage self-discipline and personal transformation.
The contemporary allergy to authority and flight from truth is certainly familiar to anyone in touch with American culture today. Consider the slogan: “Celebrate diversity!” This platitude is so ubiquitous that it now seems self-evident. Some people are tall, others are short. It would be absurd to require all people to be the same height. Just as people are of different heights, we reason, so also do people have different spiritual sensibilities and needs. It would be absurd, then, to require them to hold the same beliefs or conform to the same moral rules. Even as only a violent attack upon the bodies of individuals would produce a world of people the same height, so also enforced uniformity of belief and practice requires violent assaults upon conscience, intellect, and will. Therefore, we must reject all authoritative claims as so many acts of violence.
Of course, Christianity is inevitably caught up in the postmodern flight from authority. As the most powerful force shaping Western culture, Christianity becomes the very essence of the authority against which we must protect ourselves. If we are afflicted with enduring divisions of race and class, then surely Christianity must have a hand in causing this evil. If Western societies subordinate women and deny them public roles, then, again, Christianity is at the root of the problem. The list of particulars is endless, varying in focus according to the interests of critics, but the basic logic is always the same. The authority of tradition must be overthrown, the sacred bonds of loyalty to what has been passed on must be broken, so that we can be released from the oppressive burdens of present power.
Anxieties about the closed circuit of dogma, the exhausting weight of tradition, and the crushing force of institutional authority lead our postmodern culture to the extreme of denying the authority of truth itself. Our efforts to shield ourselves from coercive demand and its violence against individuality make us fear that some proposition, some insight, some conclusion to a syllogism might usurp control over our intellects and our souls. Indeed, I am convinced that if the Vatican were to promulgate a document advising Catholic theologians that 2 + 2 = 4, and that theologians are not to say otherwise if they wish to speak the truth, then journalists would have no difficulty finding any number of sources who would denounce the authoritarian tone of such a directive. Recall, for example, the hue and cry surrounding Dominus Iesus, the recent Vatican statement concerning interreligious and ecumenical dialogue. The mere fact that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated rather conventional Christian propositions about the uniqueness and necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation was sufficient to touch raw nerves. In the end, the offense is not what the Church teaches, but that she undertakes to state, with clarity, what is true and what is false.
Such hyperbolic reaction can seem silly. But we should not underestimate the intensity of the postmodern horror at the thought of obedience in any form, a horror that makes the power of truth itself a threat. “Sharing” now smothers debate. God forbid that anyone should formulate a reasoned argument; it might contradict or “marginalize” the experience of others. All sentences must begin with a compulsive ritual preface: “From my point of view . . .” The truth and falsity of all claims depend upon one’s “perspective.” Everyone must be affirmed; the views of all must be validated.
Many of my colleagues in philosophy are convinced that this descent into the fog of all-views-are-equally-valid stems from a widespread belief in relativism. We are all, these professors imagine, in the grips of a bad theory of truth, and they spend a great deal of time trying to disabuse their students of this bad theory. The problem, however, is that doing so is ineffective. I can point out to my students that the truth of 2 + 2 = 4 does not, in fact, depend upon anyone’s point of view. I can expand upon the objectivity of the natural sciences. I can lecture about the distinction between truth and justification. I can exhort all to recognize that the possibilities of error and prejudice do not make them inevitable.
My efforts are in vain because my students have a fundamentally unreflective commitment to the proposition that all truth is relative. They hold such a view as dogma, not as theory. It is a presupposition, not a conclusion. To be sure, sometimes they use the techniques of cultural critique. Truth claims, they say, are relative to their cultural contexts. If I press the issue and ask them to explain how such a view is consistent with the fact that modern science is practiced in India, Japan, Russia, and the United States, and that scientists go to international conferences and seem to agree with each other about all sorts of things regardless of cultural context, they look at me and shrug. At other times, they deploy sophistic tricks. A student insists that one cannot make nonmathematical claims about mathematics, and this demonstrates that all systems of thought are closed and self-referential. Therefore, truth claims reduce to empty tautology. When I ask him in what sense the proposition that engineers find mathematics useful is a mathematical claim about mathematics, he just looks at me and repeats his conviction. His belief is more certain to him than anything I might say. It is a matter of faith, not evidence or inference.
These experiences in the classroom have convinced me that relativism is not a philosophical theory. It is a spiritual truth, a protective dogma designed to fend off any power that might claim our loyalty. It is a habit of mind that insulates postmodern life from the sober potency of arguments and the force of evidence, from the rightful claims of reason and the wisdom of the past. My students can look me in the eye and insist that one should never impose one’s beliefs on others and that all truth claims, including, I presume, the moral rigorism of never imposing one’s beliefs on others, are relative. Here, our contemporary horror of obedience joins hands with solipsism in order to protect the soul from all demands, rational or otherwise. Here, we come face-to-face with the spirit of our age.
A comparison of this outlook with the approach of modern humanism illustrates the striking shift from outward ambition to inward self-protection. For Kant, the traditional authority of Christian dogma must be rejected because it is indefensible. In its place we must put the proper and humanizing authority of the moral law, the truth of which is clear to practical reason, and the consequence of which is to restructure human society so as to respect and promote human dignity. In this way, the criticisms of Christian claims serve an aggressive project. Unjust and wrongful authority must give way to a just and proper authority that will usher in a new age. The false and debilitating authority of dogma must be renounced so that human beings can undertake the revolutions of genuine freedom based upon reason.
My students lack this rebellious spirit. Like so much of postmodern culture, their dispositions are submissive. They respect my authority as a teacher. They do not bridle against what they are told. They accept the fact that they must jump through educational hoops in order to get the professional certification they desire. They do not resent the harsh demands of the marketplace. They accept as a nonnegotiable fact the right of governments to punish, imprison, and make war to protect national interests.
In this sense, their attitude is not Promethean, but it is also not traditional. My students submit to the many demands of postmodern life, but with the knowing wink and sigh of a child raised on a steady diet of critique. They accept limitations, but they keep everything at a distance. This distance and the many spiritual disciplines of postmodern life that deflect and demystify the powers that would penetrate into our lives is the most fundamental form of postmodern humanism. It is a protective distance. In a society socialized to be nonjudgmental, supported by the conviction that all truth is relative, the walls of defense against authority are strong indeed. We can safely navigate the danger of life, detached from the true and everlasting dangers of obedience and commitment, for nothing has the right to make a claim on our souls. Such is postmodern freedom.
Many cultural observers have noticed this spiritual detachment. Usually it is described as postmodern irony. There are many instances of such irony in the postmodern literature. Jacques Derrida’s address to the Société française de philosophie, “Différance,” is a particularly witty performance. What Derrida says about what is written but cannot be heard launches a spiraling series of meditations that culminate in observations about the role of différance as the “ground of being.” (I must use scare quotes, for in his essay Derrida uses all metaphysical terms ironically.) I will not retrace his dialectical reductions, but will simply report his conclusions. For Derrida, the power that produces meaning and claims of truth “governs nothing, and nowhere exercises authority. . . . Not only is there no kingdom of différance, but différance instigates the subversion of every kingdom.” Roughly translated, Derrida is saying that our world is set in motion by power. Of that there is no doubt. But such power is originless and pointless. The order of things is a “bottomless chessboard on which Being is put into play.” There is no beginning or end; there is no purpose or principle by which to regulate or judge the play.
What is so important about Derrida is not the detail of his various literary performances. To imagine that deconstruction offers theoretical insight is to fall victim to just what Derrida mocks. Instead, the most telling aspect of Derrida’s work is his spiritual advice. He does not rage against a meaningless cosmos. He does not adopt the young Sartre’s existential determination in the face of a godless world, and he certainly does not adopt the older Sartre’s strategy of Marxist dogmatism. Instead, Derrida advises us to adopt lightheartedness. We should affirm the bottomless chessboard, he says, with “a certain laughter and a certain step of dance.” In short, we should recognize that deconstruction, whatever that finally means in terms of theoretical commitments and interpretive performances, yields spiritual freedom. Nothing can sustain the burden of ultimate meaning or final truth, and therefore, nothing can rightfully put demands upon our souls.
In the hands of moralistic American critics, Derrida’s work can take on ponderous significance. “Logocentrism” oppresses, and somehow “difference” liberates. The old humanism mixes with the new, and messianic theorists imagine that the critical sophistication of postmodernism more effectively clears the ground for the proper demands of freedom and justice. However, Derrida’s spiritual advice is far more widely followed than either the preaching of his moralistic disciples or the theoretical twists and turns of his semiological method. To be sure, few break into laughter and a dance. The stress and strain of postmodern life leaves little time for such indulgences. Nonetheless, the postmodern world cherishes the spiritual freedom that Derrida rightly identifies as the fruit of deconstruction. Ironic detachment, the smirk of critical tropes, the serene complacency made possible by the dogmatic belief that all truth is relative: these and other habits of mind keep our souls free from the disturbing need to change.
We should forswear conspiracy theories. Whatever we might imagine that Derrida represents—cynical French intellectual life, decadent academic self-indulgence, ruthless Nietzschean will-to-power—none of these things have caused or even influenced the world in which I live and work. My students certainly lack any knowledge of Derrida, and they could not begin to recapitulate the arguments of postmodern literary theory. Yet, they are surprisingly close to his conclusions. Their relativism is painfully unsophisticated, but it serves the same purpose as Derrida’s elaborate theoretical machinery. Their dogmatic conviction that truth is not really possible serves to promote spiritual freedom. Of course we must live according to countless rules. Yet, guided by the therapy of critique and buttressed by a dogmatic relativism, the chessboard is bottomless. In such a world, delicious irony keeps us afloat.
If I am correct in reading the signs of the times, then the spirit of our postmodern age is Petronian, not Promethean, and this has important implications for how we preach the gospel. Petronius was an enigmatic Roman who lived during the time of Nero. His notorious observations of Roman life come down to us in the Satyricon, a rambling narrative that is part soap opera, part National Enquirer, and part serenely detached social description. In the Satyricon, Petronius is a participant who stands at one remove. He is an observer who can mock and satirize. He can describe venality without judgment; he can narrate vice without protest.
In these ways, Petronius exemplifies the spiritual ideal that now dominates postmodern Western culture. He creates a pervasive atmosphere of superficiality that drains all spiritual significance from events. His characters are realistic, yet they are spectral, soulless creatures who utterly lack gravity. Never moralistic, never interjecting with the voice of some loftier vision, Petronius simply drains all power from social life. It is not sufficiently real, not sufficiently thick and weighty, to disrupt the equilibrium of the soul. For this reason, as both writer and participant, Petronius is in the world, but not of it. Yet his freedom has nothing to do with the ascetical disciplines that detach the Christian from the world. Instead, Petronius enjoys a spiritual freedom similar to the dance and laugh advocated by Derrida. It is the freedom that comes from the confidence that there is no Lord of life—from the wry certainty that the world is carried forward on the currents of instinct, venality, and conceit.
The modern theological tradition is keyed to the challenges of Promethean ambition, not the Petronian apathy that prevails today. We are the inheritors of that tradition, and as a consequence, we respond to the postmodern age inappropriately. Cynicism can indeed seem like a gain for the gospel; after all, the New Testament counsels Christians to take a jaundiced view of worldly wisdom. Furthermore, irony can appear to be an ally, for the postmodern reluctance to adopt the old humanistic projects, whether Emersonian or Lockean, with wholehearted vigor suggests a newfound humility. Finally, the willing conformity that characterizes so much of postmodern life can give the evangelist hope that the prideful self-sufficiency of modernity has finally exhausted itself. These are, however, deceptions made possible by a fixation on pride as the primary barrier to faith. But sloth and cowardice are just as deadly. Both slink away from the urgency of conviction. Both fear the sharp edge of demand and expectation. Both have a vested interest in cynicism, irony, and outward conformity. These vices, not pride, now dominate our culture.
What do the vices of sloth and cowardice mean for evangelism in the postmodern context? How does our Petronian humanism and its commitment to spiritual freedom shape the challenges of preaching and teaching the gospel in our age? I am a university professor who observes his students and tries to orient himself in the increasingly strange landscape of this third millennium. I am not engaged in pastoral work, at least not in the primary sense of ordering the community of the faithful in worship. Nonetheless, in my own pedagogy, I am constantly trying to penetrate the defenses of irony; I am always attempting to bridge the seemingly depthless chasms of critique. Furthermore, I am more a child of this age than I would like to admit. Petronius is closer kin than Prometheus, and to the extent that I know my own resistances to the gospel, I have some small insights into the pastoral challenges. Therefore, I will venture a brief observation.
No moderation of the demands of the gospel will satisfy the postmodern spirit. Promising quiescent freedom from the disturbances of expectations and demands, our age nurtures no hope in the human heart. For this reason, it will interpret any gospel of redemption as an offense, no matter how carefully modulated, no matter how cleverly dressed up in the finery of modern ideals of freedom and rational responsibility. Therefore, evangelism has no reason to hide the hard demands of the gospel.
John Paul II is a signal example in our own time. Veritatis Splendor, which focuses on moral theology, warns against the dangers of moral relativism and subjectivism. What is striking about the encyclical, however, is not its polemic. It is rather the extraordinary view of freedom it advances—a view utterly at odds with the spiritual freedom so cherished by our age. The encyclical ends with a meditation on the Virgin Mary. She is commended as the exemplar of Christian freedom. Called to serve the Lord with body and soul, she gave herself in obedience to a demand the scope and import of which she did not understand. For John Paul II, the Virgin Mary is the model of Christian moral obedience because she has the courage to accept those disciplines and sacrifices that do not just yield a freedom from sin, but a freedom for supernatural life. Only by taking the severe and dangerous risks of obedience to something beyond our comprehension can we have the freedom to participate in divine glory.
As a consequence, Christian freedom requires a spiritual ambition that is very much at odds with the postmodern age. Such ambition does not throw up protective walls to block the demands of the gospel. Instead, this spiritual ambition forsakes prerogatives, re nounces the rights and privileges of intellect and will. All defenses to the transforming power of grace are removed, even those which emerge out of the rightful worries we all have about dominion and deception. Only in this way, says John Paul II, can we draw near to the power of life. After all, Christian ambition is supernatural precisely because it seeks to become more than that which human power can produce. The moral challenge of evangelism is, then, to nurture an ambition that has the courage of obedience, the courage to draw as near as possible to redemptive power by removing lines of defense.
This can be done in any number of ways, but I wish to end with a challenging proposition—namely, that the slothfulness and defensiveness of Petronian humanism can be confronted most effectively by daring it to question the most cherished, most morally sanctified, and most Petronian moral commitment of the postmodern age: sexual freedom. The issue of sexual freedom is crucial precisely because it is so automatically and unreflectively affirmed. God forbid that my needs might be stymied, my impulses denied. God forbid that I should have to submit the raw material of my life to God so that I might be melted down and reformed into something very different. God forbid that I should have to change. We defend ourselves against chastity, not because we are prideful and self-confident hedonists, not because we take great joy from the confusing labyrinths of sexual desire and satisfaction, but because we are fearful that, once the invasion of grace begins, it will not relent until the capitol falls. We embrace sexual freedom because it is a crucial line of defense against a whole range of transformative demands.
As St. Augustine knew, if we can change this altogether fundamental part of our lives—a part woven into the fabric of instinct—then the defenses against redemptive change are down. If the perfectly normal and natural needs of the body can be directed toward God, then surely the higher faculties of will and intellect can as well. If something so “impossible” is, indeed, possible, then who knows what might happen next?
My students may not know Derrida, but they are not fools. They well know that the imperative of Christian chastity is a direct assault on what is forbidden by the Petronian humanism of our postmodern age: allowing ideals to enter into our souls in order to reshape our identities. It is a direct assault upon our spiritual freedom, but not because it involves restraint and limitation. I must reiterate. My students know and accept the many restraints society imposes upon them. The surfaces of their lives bear all the marks of aesthetic, hygienic, and economic discipline. No, chastity is an assault from which they recoil in horror because, to the twenty-year-old mind, it is so insanely ambitious, so hopelessly impossible, so ruthlessly physical and personal.
At this point, my students may understand next to nothing about the Christian ascetical tradition, its goals and methods, or about the relation between self-denial and God’s intentions for our salvation. These are matters I am not sure that I understand. But of this I am sure. In their recoil from chastity, they have difficulty maintaining Petronian equilibrium. It is difficult to contemplate chastity with “a laugh and a step of dance,” for none of us can discipline lust at a distance from ourselves. We cannot cool the boiling cauldron with the wink and nod of irony. This is why sexual freedom is the functional center of postmodern politics, morality, and culture. At this center point, the increasingly alien and ambitious teachings of Christianity must cut like a sharp and two-edged sword, or they cut not at all.
R. R. Reno is Associate Professor of Theology at Creighton University and the author of Redemptive Change: Atonement and the Christian Cure of the Soul, forthcoming from Trinity Press International.