When I conjure in my mind the objections that people I know make to Christianity, I am reminded of my friend on the couch, enervated by life’s manifold demands. Most of these people are not confident rationalists dismissing the supernatural or wanton hedonists rejecting moral constraint; they are not dogmatic about the universe being purely material, and most want to live according to some moral code. Their real objections have to do with stretching and the fear of breaking. Faced with the Sermon on the Mount, they collapse on the couch, as it were, and protest that the degree of demand is just too much. Christianity promises new life in Christ, and our reaction is to shrink from the prospect. We think of our present lives, and we cannot imagine enduring the long commute. We hear St. Paul’s appeal—“present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God”—and we worry that we lack the inner resources to stretch so far. We fear breaking across the difference.
It is important to understand this fear, for it is at the core of a great deal of contemporary American culture. The threatening force of moral demand haunts the modern and postmodern soul. When we talk about respecting the unique individuality of each and every person, we are signaling a desire to permit and encourage self-possession. Instead of forcing individuals to stretch toward generic norms and expectations, we want to create a social environment in which moral ambition can be tailor-made. None will break across alien demands. We can endure if we carefully adjust moral demands to our unique abilities and special circumstances.
Christianity teaches otherwise. In The Divine Comedy, Dante describes the exit from the seventh and final ledge of purgatory as a wall of fire. In the poem, Virgil passes through, but Dante hesitates, overcome with fear. The voice of Virgil reassures him. “My son, there may be torment, but not death.” According to the promise of the Gospels, death has been swallowed up by life. What is alien can be inhabited. We can make the long commute from sinner to saint. Such is the reassurance that Dante portrays in Virgil’s encouraging words. That confidence turns on the way in which Christianity understands atonement.
We tend to think that the modern project is dominated by ambition. If we will but break the shackles of dogma, we are told, then the true potential of the human mind will burst forth. Progress, the great watchword of modernity, is the promised fruit of freedom. Ambition is certainly present, but greatly influential modern figures such as Rousseau and Emerson were also concerned about the spiritual exhaustion that comes from fruitless efforts to meet unrealistic and inhumane demands. They focused their criticisms of traditional morality upon the socially constructed project of inducing men and women into adopting social roles unconnected to their true natures. Both sought to give men and women breathing room to be themselves.
Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses emphasize the ways in which prevailing social mores alienate human beings and corrupt the intrinsic dignity of each person. Our healthy instinct of self-regard, our basic loyalty to our own identities as persons, which Rousseau calls amour de so, is transmuted into a competitive comparison of ourselves with others, amour-propre. As a result of this shift, we bend and distort ourselves so that we can fit into prevailing social categories and succeed according to dominant social norms. We become calculating social animals rather than spontaneous, free human beings. We disperse ourselves into our many social roles, and as a consequence, we are not linked to our true selves. Not surprisingly, then, Rousseau wishes us to throw off the shackles of social expectation and live according to the inner truth of our own natures. As the freethinking Savoyard Vicar proclaims in Émile, “I long for the moment when, delivered from the chains of the body, I will be myself without contradiction, without division, and I will only have need of myself to be happy.” Fulfillment comes when everything that defines our lives grows out of our individuality.
Emerson, a century later, does not follow Rousseau’s specific theories of the origins of social alienation, but he joins in Rousseau’s broad condemnation of the dehumanizing effects of social conformity. The crucial similarity between the two is a common judgment that the disciplinary structures of social life force changes upon the individual that create a discontinuity between one’s true self and one’s social self. When Emerson says, “Imitation is suicide,” he is drawing attention to the spiritual death that stems from self-alienation. When we stretch ourselves to meet the standards and goals set by others, we risk waking up one morning drowning in the responsibilities of marriage, children, job, and mortgage, feeling as though we have lost touch with all the passions and desires that once animated and moved us. An empty life is the antithesis of self-possession, and it is against the dispersing, emptying force of duty and responsibility that Emerson preaches his American version of the faith of the Savoyard Vicar: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and evil are but names readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution; the only wrong what is against it.” The highest good is self-affirmation, and thus Emerson concludes, “If I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” Self-loyalty is the antidote to alienation. To thine own self be true is the first commandment.
Ironically, Rousseau’s and Emerson’s diagnosis of self-loss in social conformity has become conformist wisdom in our time. “Question Authority” is the bumper-sticker philosophy of millions, and it flows directly from the worry that collective demand will corrupt individual integrity. The therapeutic atmosphere of contemporary culture is likewise saturated with variations on the fundamental Rousseauian and Emersonian strategy of resistance to self-alienation: Be Yourself! Some proponents of traditional morality claim that this modern and postmodern quest for “authenticity” is but a cover for self-indulgence and a justification for immoralities; but this reaction misdiagnoses the deep structure of Rousseauian and Emersonian protests against the shaping demands of morality. For at root, the impetus for rejecting traditional morality is protective, not permissive. The worry concerns atonement, not freedom.
Both Rousseau and Emerson are profoundly pessimistic about any form of personal change that is not internally motivated. They despair of the possibility of linking who we presently are to the persons traditional morality would discipline us to become. They cannot see how a man or woman subjected to the disciplines of commandments can be “at-one” with himself or herself. Both see morally mandated personal development as a form of self-destruction, an immolation of one’s desires and impulses for the sake of something extrinsic to the self. Thus, in order to affirm their loyalty to their own individuality, both Rousseau and Emerson reject all forms of moral discipline that are not tailored to their consciences. Again, I want to emphasize that the goal is not to clear away moral demands in order to make room for heedless self-indulgence. Neither Rousseau nor Emerson wants us to disperse ourselves in vain projects that yield only momentary satisfaction. They want our unique circumstances, our distinctive needs as individuals, and our intensely personal sensibilities and feelings to guide a life of self-possession, since only in this way can we be both morally ambitious and “at-one” with ourselves.
Christian critics of modernity are quick to point out that it is a Promethean fantasy to imagine that moral ideals can somehow emanate out of this project of self-loyalty. Even critics who have no faith at all have asserted that the idea of moral discipline tailored to individuality is a recipe for, at best, mediocrity. Nietzsche was perhaps the most colorful of the irreligious critics of the modern hopes for an individualistic morality that is applicable to all. According to Nietzsche, those who appeal to secular substitutes for the moral discipline provided by traditional Christianity are nothing more than “comedians of the Christian-moral ideal.” With delicious invective, Nietzsche describes the legions of modern educators who are forever trying to teach a humanistic ethic as “whited sepulchers who impersonate life.” Equal-opportunity individualism will produce a wishy-washy morality that does not have the courage of saying an unequivocal “yes” to the irreducible potency of the self, the “will-to-power” of the strong. For Nietzsche, the modern ethic of egalitarian authenticity produces small men who lack the courage to reject morality—or to break themselves heroically across ambitious ideals.
Nietzsche’s own proposals for creating ideals are fatally flawed, but I will not argue that here. I’ve enlisted Nietzsche only to show that even an anti-Christian can recognize and expose the incoherence of Rousseau’s and Emerson’s moral vision. But simply to show the failure of modern humanistic ethics is not to make Christian humanism immediately more plausible. In order to do that, I want to show that the underlying concern about self-loyalty that motivated important modern thinkers such as Rousseau and Emerson is, in fact, very much a part of the Christian tradition. Modernity did not discover the threat of alienation. The concern about self-loyalty is present in classical Christian literature as well, and it is a concern that Christianity meets head on.
St. Augustine’s story of his conversion to Christianity, for instance, turns on the same problem of atonement and personal identity that worries Rousseau and Emerson. As a young man, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius. “The book changed my feelings,” he writes in his Confessions. “It gave me different values and priorities . . . . Suddenly every vain hope became empty to me, and I longed for the immortality of wisdom.” With newfound zeal, Augustine embarked on a search for the truth.
For Augustine, the search was difficult and involved setbacks, but in the end he came to see the truth of Christianity. Yet this was not enough. For all his intellectual gains, nothing had changed for him as an individual. “I myself was exceedingly astonished,” he reports, “as I anxiously reflected how long a time had elapsed since the nineteenth year of my life, when I began to burn with a zeal for wisdom, planning that when I had found it I would abandon all the empty hopes and lying follies of hollow ambitions. And here I was already thirty, and still mucking about in the same mire in a state of indecision.”
The problem Augustine faced is one of personal identity, not human nature. Augustine was convinced that chastity is virtuous, and that virtue is a fulfillment and not a diminishment of his nature as a rational creature. He had no difficulty imagining a transformed human nature—and yet, he could not change. “Fettered by the flesh’s morbid impulse and lethal sweetness, I dragged my chain, but was afraid to be free of it.” Augustine sought to change, but he could not, for he wished to be loyal to himself. “Now I had discovered the good pearl. To buy it I had to sell all that I had,” but, he reports with dismay, “I hesitated.” Augustine loved his habits, and he could not conceive of living without them, not because he thought them good, but simply because the habits were his.
Augustine’s story of his spiritual journey dramatizes the true nature of our resistance to the Christian view of redemption, a resistance expressed in such influential modern form by Rousseau and Emerson. Like Dante before the wall of fire that forms the exit from purgatory, Augustine hesitated before the disjunctive demand of Christian morality, a demand that is the moral form of the promise of redemptive change. The demand seems to require a death of the self, a renunciation of personal identity. Augustine could not believe that a bush might burn without being consumed.
In his modest divine comedy, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis portrays this fear of renunciation. The spectral souls who are met by the Solid People at the entrance to heaven can only journey toward God if they will give up their doubts, vices, and shame. In Lewis’ account, few do, and the reason is simple. They cannot imagine being themselves without the very qualities of soul that alienate them from God. As the hissing lizard of lust warns the frightened man in a scene that echoes Augustine’s hesitations, “[Without me] how could you live?” It is difficult to trust the Christian promise that undergoing such change will bring new life and not death—will stretch us but not shatter us.
Christian proclamation should have no interest in allaying the existential anxiety that naturally arises when we wonder whether our individual desires, commitments, habits, and projects can really endure an otherworldly ethic. For the otherworldly character of Christian ethics stems from the fact that sin structures our personalities and gives shape to our habits. Sin is not a peripheral defect; it is not an unfortunate but subsidiary feature of our lives. Sin determines our identities. As Augustine was well aware, overcoming this propensity requires becoming a different person. Redemptive change must break the bonds of self-loyalty if we are to be delivered from the self that is in love with its sin. St. Paul uses the starkest possible language: “We know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be destroyed . . . . Whoever has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:6-7). Insofar as we are loyal to our sinful selves, we quite rationally fear that our identities as persons will not survive redemptive change.
For the martyrs of the early Church, loyalty to Christ was very much a question of physical life and death. Their deaths stand in visible and evident witness to the disjunctive structure of a Christian ethics of redemption. The Pauline language of death, however, does not denote a physical cessation of life. At issue is who we are, as individuals: our loyalties, our commitments, our hopes and aspirations. The Gospels report Jesus saying again and again, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” St. Augustine did not face martyrdom, but he felt the horror of loss. It was not as though Augustine was unable to imagine a human being living a celibate life, any more than the rich young man in the Gospels was unable to imagine selling all his possessions. The world has plenty of examples which show that it is possible to be human and celibate or poor. Rather, the problem for Augustine and the rich young man was personal: How can I be celibate, how can I be poor, without dying to my current projects, loyalties, and commitments? And if I do so die, then will I even be myself anymore? Once again, this is a problem of atonement.
How, then, can I endure redemptive change? For Christian faith, the answer rests in the identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. He is pro nobis, “for us,” as the incorporative power of redemption. In some classical accounts of atonement, this incorporative power is discussed in terms of an exchange or substitution. Others describe a representative or pedagogical role that Jesus plays. The metrics of analysis can focus variously on debt, penalty, sacrifice, or moral influence. Each account has its advantages and disadvantages, but what unifies atonement theory is a common concern to show that the changes both effected and demanded by the Christian view of redeemed life can be met. A link can be established between old and new, between dying to sin and coming to life, and that link is to be found in Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides analysis that highlights this aspect of atonement theory. Describing the logic of redemption, Bonhoeffer observes, “God does not ‘overlook’ sin; that would mean not taking human beings seriously as personal beings in their very culpability.” Whatever God does for human beings in Christ, it must be a “doing” that accounts for the reality of our lives as we actually live them. Bonhoeffer continues with the central affirmation of all atonement theory: “God does take human beings seriously in their culpability, and therefore only punishment and the overcoming of sin can remedy the matter.” This punishment Christ endures in our place.
Readers should not stumble over Bonhoeffer’s use of punishment as the metric to describe the conditions for divine seriousness about the particularity of human life. He might have used satisfaction or sacrifice or pedagogy or some other as-yet-undiscovered concept to describe the bridging function that links the person who has died to his old self with the one who lives as a new person in Christ. The crucial point is that Jesus Christ does what is necessary to establish the link; he effects atonement, and we participate in that atonement.
One of the greatest problems with atonement theory is that the terms are so often abstract. Debts must be paid; satisfaction must be offered; sacrifice must be made. This seems remote from the concern about authenticity that we moderns have learned from the likes of Rousseau and Emerson. In the Letters of St. Paul, from which a great deal of Western Christian atonement theory draws its inspiration, the link to authenticity is more evident, because Paul sees the incorporative power of Jesus Christ as enacted concretely in the lives of believers. “Do you not know,” Paul asks the Christians in Rome, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). At issue is not an abstract reconciliation of cosmic accounts. God is not up in heaven calculating debts and payments. Rather, for Paul, God is doing something here and now, and that “doing” is addressed to concrete individuals. The incorporative power of Jesus Christ, given objective form in the sacrament of baptism and subjective form in faith, carries the believer across the difference between a life dominated by sin and a life that stretches in authenticity toward righteousness.
As a consequence, Paul can use the greatest possible image of disjunction—death—while still affirming a continuity of personal identity. Jesus Christ is the enduring power across this disjunction. He has died and has been raised. The promise of the gospel is that we can participate in his bridging reality. The upshot is atonement. However great the moral demands, we can stretch toward them, even stretch to the point of dying to ourselves, without shattering our lives. To put the matter in scriptural terms more familiar to students of classical theories of atonement: in Christ, we can draw near to the holiness of God without being consumed by the purifying fires of judgment. We can become radically different—even holy—without emptying ourselves of our individuality.
A clear expression of this confidence that radical moral demand is consistent with continuous personal identity may be found in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical on fundamental questions in moral theology, Veritatis Splendor. The dominant theme of the encyclical is the sovereignty of moral truth, not only as universal and unchanging, but also as commanding the loyalty of the whole person. The ideal of moral perfection flows from this sovereignty, and John Paul’s specific reflections on technical questions in Roman Catholic moral theology are detailed defenses of the scope and depth of moral demand against various efforts to narrow and soften ethical obligations. One of the most important discussions concerns the relationship between divine law and human freedom. There, John Paul responds to contemporary worries about self-alienation with this dogmatic claim: “Patterned on God’s freedom, man’s freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in truth and conform to human dignity.” The demands of Christian ethics, even the counsels of perfection (as in that intimidating Sermon on the Mount) that press the follower of Christ toward supernatural ends, are a fulfillment rather than a diminishment of our individuality.
In order to make good on this claim, John Paul must provide some account of atonement. He does not adopt or articulate any particular theory. Instead, he reiterates the basic dynamics of Romans 6. For John Paul, the sovereignty of moral truth “is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom.” Spiritual death to the dominion of worldly powers may well be accompanied by physical death. The earthly kingdom may hang its traitors. Yet the eloquence of the martyrs rests in more than the extremity of their obedience. For John Paul, as for the early Church, the eloquence of martyrdom is evangelical, not Stoic, for the path of suffering and death recapitulates the way of Jesus Christ. The same holds for the less visible suffering of all who feel the painful death of worldly loyalties—hating mother and father, plucking out the eyes of lust, selling possessions dearly loved. The very real personal grief and travail under the disciplines of moral perfection recapitulate the way of the Man of Sorrows. This recapitulation serves as a figural expression of the logic of classical atonement theory. We can endure being stretched across the demands of discipleship because Christ has gone before us to establish the way. He has stretched himself out upon the cross.
At this point the concerns of Rousseau and Emerson return. John Paul’s unembarrassed affirmation of the goal of moral perfection and his embrace of the ideal of martyrdom would seem to vindicate the criticism that Christian faith does violence to the human person—that while Christianity may talk of redemption, it actually nurtures a death wish, a ruthless self-denial that relishes suffering. And certainly it is legitimate to wonder whether the sovereignty of a moral truth that is most visible in martyrdom leaves room for individuality, for the projects and loyalties that populate our lives and shape our identities. Far from making us “at-one” with ourselves in Christ, the perfection of Christian moral demands seems to drive a wedge into our lives and split us in two: the thin sliver of righteousness and obedience over against the vast reality of our unredeemed lives.
Were the Israelites at the base of Mount Sinai right to exclaim in fear, “Do not let God speak to us, or we will die” (Exodus 20:19)? A return to St. Augustine allows us to see how the Christian process of redemptive change can consume profoundly intimate loyalties and habits in the fires of self-discipline, while still affirming our authentic personal continuity. On this point, the crucial aspect of his Confessions is not any particular theological argument Augustine makes. Instead, what stands out is the successful literary combination of disjunction with continuity. Augustine both pushes away his past in repudiation and draws it near in memory.
The key to Augustine’s success is the repentant structure of the first eight books of the Confessions . This structure allows him to drive a wedge between his present identity and his past loyalties. He sought pleasure, self-command, fame, knowledge, and even wisdom. All of this was vain and nugatory. In his self-description, however, Augustine does not push away his past as we so often do in our own self-assessments. He does not say of his youthful lusts that they were learning experiences. He does not seek to submerge his particularity as a person into some general pattern of maturation, as when we say, “It was an adolescent stage.” He does not make himself anonymous by excusing his errors and sins as functions of inauspicious circumstances or bad social influences. Rather, he draws his youthful lusts and his adult vainglory as closely as possible to his identity. Augustine claims every episode, every byway and dead-end of his seeking, as both wrong and his own. One cannot repent of what one refuses to own.
To both renounce and own the main features of one’s life, as does Augustine in the voice of repentance, creates a literary effect that we might rightly call atonement. It is possible because, at every turn, Augustine’s penitent voice places the reality of his life into the hands of God. He concludes the extended address to God that opens the Confessions with these words: “Dust and ashes though I am, let me appeal to your pity, since it is to you in mercy that I speak, not to a man, who would simply laugh at me. Perhaps you, too, may laugh at me, but you will relent and have pity on me.” God’s identity as the one who comes as the power of redemption allows Augustine to own his past as indeed his own, while, at the very same time, he can disown it as governed by sin. God atones for those whose lives are broken, as was Augustine’s, across the difference between love of self and desire for the divine.
Donald MacKinnon was one of the more idiosyncratic theologians of the twentieth century, and his capacity to think against the grain of conventional theological fashions led him to recognize that we often puzzle out our deepest questions in disguised or muddled forms. Writing in the 1960s, when the key questions of morality and religion were framed in epistemological terms, he offered these cautionary words of dissent: “The philosopher of religion easily tends to think that the greatest obstacles today in the way of religious belief are to be found in the unintelligibility and inadmissibility of such fundamental concepts as that of a creator God, an immaterial soul, etc. But it may be that as a matter of empirical fact, the most deep-seated unwillingness to take seriously the claims of the Christian religion has its roots in a sharp criticism of Christian ethics, of the Christian image of the good life.”
I have little doubt that MacKinnon was correct. However little Rudolf Bultmann’s “modern man” was capable of believing in the “mythological worldview” of premodern culture, I am certain that the postmodern men and women of today are capable of believing almost anything. Ours is a skeptical age, and the fruit of skepticism is most often credulity. We know that we cannot know, so we settle for what is convenient or alluring or exciting or familiar. Why stretch myself when there is nothing out there to stretch toward, and when I’m okay as I am, more or less? The revulsion that we postmodern men and women feel toward Christian ethics stems in large part from the way in which redemptive hope endorses a disjunctive, otherworldly ethic, one that seeks a new identity in Christ.
You can attempt to show the theological cogency of this ethical demand, a cogency that rests in the clarity of the Christian identification of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, who, for us and for our salvation, became incarnate, was crucified, died, and was raised by the Father. You can show how the premise that Christ is the Son of God who is “for us” allows for an analysis of atonement that makes Christian moral ambition an authentic possibility and a possibility of authenticity. You can expound the repentant logic of Augustine’s Confessions to illustrate the way that Christianity, unlike the dominant modern ways of talking about moral change, encourages a life of morally ambitious self-renunciation and honest self-loyalty. But if the postmodern world falls back into modern doubt and says, “But how can you prove that Jesus really is the incarnate Son of God who died for us and for our salvation?”—then you have little recourse other than proclamation. As Karl Barth knew and never tired of insisting, the grace of God is the answer to every ethical question. Only the power of the great divine fact, the God who is who He is, can overcome our fear of moral change.
The evangelical imperative in our time is thus clear. Be patient with Rousseauians and Emersonians whose anxious desire for self-possession causes them to shrink from the sovereign ambitions of the Christian moral life. Their fear of redemptive change is an honorable fear, one that St. Augustine himself named as his own strongest resistance to God. But don’t confuse patience with concession. Tell them patiently that Christ came to redeem us and that there is no danger that the disciplines of the Christian life will stretch us beyond the breaking point—not even those of us who already feel “maxed out.” Christ, crucified and raised, promises otherwise.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.