Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 104 (June/July 2000): 17-20.
The dawn of a new millennium finds us at what some have called the modernist impasse. During the past generation, as the writings of European existentialist philosophers swept across this country, people began to believe that the ultimate object in life was personal autonomy. The "do your own thing" mentality gripped us in the sixties, was translated into a variety of slogans in the seventies and eighties, and has emerged as an extreme individualism that is now our highest value. This passion for autonomy is responsible for many of the social pathologies that plague our nation. It has even affected our understanding of law, and profoundly so.
We now see that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was about much more than abortion. It was about the Supreme Court of the United States finding in the Constitution an implied right to privacy that extinguished the moral debate going on in all fifty state legislatures. That decision has led to innumerable decisions in which the judiciary has taken more and more of the rights of self–government away from the people—all in the name of a right of privacy, that is, personal autonomy. The most egregious example of this is the 1992 Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision. In words written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, but which might as well have been written by Jacques Derrida, the Court handed down the following: "Liberty is defined as the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of being, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
This obsession with autonomy has created utter chaos. For example, it has led us to a sexual epidemic, to brutal violence, and to the rampant fatherlessness that is at the root of so many of our social pathologies. I’ve been in six hundred prisons across America; I’ve looked in the faces of these kids, and I have watched them over twenty–five years of ministry. Those faces have changed. Twenty–five years ago, you could talk about God the Father and at least those kids had a frame of reference for what you were talking about. Today, God the "Father" is a bad word. I’ve seen the anger in the eyes and the lack of any real conscience. Conscience, the law written on the heart, is in these kids horribly malformed, for it has no basis on which properly to be formed. Augustine had it right: the desire for autonomy is "a deadly corrosive for the soul."
Unmitigated love of autonomy has led us to one of the most galvanizing contemporary events. It will be recorded by historians as the Columbine High School tragedy. I have called it the Pearl Harbor of the culture wars, because suddenly people have been caught up short. They thought that they had an adequate worldview, a secular modern worldview that gave them all the freedom they could want. But all of a sudden they discovered that the wonderful fruits of that worldview have produced tragedy. They saw on display at Littleton two fundamentally opposed worldviews. On the one hand they saw Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, self–professed disciples of Hitler, himself a disciple of Nietzsche, who proclaimed the news that God is dead, denied the reality of evil, and celebrated a radical will to power.
But at the same time they saw that worldview on public display they also saw the worldview of two girls, Rachel Scott and Cassie Bernall, who would not deny their faith and were gunned down in cold blood. And for a week thereafter the world saw on every news broadcast those incredible church services, both Protestant and Catholic, which exalted Jesus, featured parents forgiving the slayers of their children, and showed what was almost a celebration of the lives of the kids killed by their classmates. Columbine forced the culture to look at those two worldviews, displayed in vivid relief, and choose which way they will live. It is as if God was saying, as He did to His people of old, "I have set before you life and death. Choose life." People are becoming eager to listen to something more reasonable and more rational as a way of life than what led to Columbine. There is evidence that the culture is beginning to change even before our very eyes.
Just look at the indicators. Crime, for one, is today down to pre–1973 levels. Part of that can be explained by demographics, part by the huge explosion of prison construction that now accommodates 1.9 million people in America’s prisons and jails, and part of it by the kind of community policing that New York, among other cities, has adopted. But these alone do not fully account for the changes we are seeing.
Welfare has been cut in half, and the percentage of the population on the public dole is the lowest since 1967. The divorce rate is down 19 percent since 1980. Teenage pregnancies are down 12 percent since 1991. The number of sexually active teenagers in high schools has declined for two years in a row. Abortions are down 15 percent since 1990, despite the regime of the most pro–abortion President in our history.
The nation’s moral discourse is changing as well. Just over two years ago, I participated in a television round table with five other talking heads. When I suggested that the inner city crisis was basically a moral problem, there was an awkward silence. The host looked at me as if I’d just arrived from some distant planet. After a nervous cough or two and a lengthy pause during which no one said anything, a woman two seats away from me finally piped up saying, "Yes, that’s why we built a new community center here in D.C." They just didn’t get it; they didn’t understand what I was talking about. And yet it wasn’t a year later that I was on every major talk show explaining what moral reformation is, what repentance is, and why private morality has public consequences.
The polls indicate that people want something different. Right after Columbine, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll asked Americans about their values. Eighty–four percent of those who described themselves as conservative and 33 percent of those who described themselves as liberal agreed that a priority of contemporary America was to promote respect for traditional values. What was until recently a pejorative term has now become something both conservatives and a large minority of liberals would identify as a national priority. In the same poll, 58 percent said youth violence was the number one social issue, and 76 percent said they favored federal funding for faith–based solutions to public policy problems. This is evidence of a significant shift in our nation’s values.
We’re witnessing the coming of what Professor Russell Hittinger describes as the death throes of modernity. We’re seeing its dying gasps, as people are recognizing that the prevailing value system of the past forty years simply doesn’t work. This is what provides believing Jews and Christians of all confessions (and, I would add, moral conservatives who draw their moral views from the accumulated wisdom of Western Civilization) such an extraordinary opportunity to reshape the culture.
In the sixteenth century, Erasmus sought to create a network of like–minded scholars from across Europe in the hope that, joined together around the truth, they would be able to restore a moral consensus and save Western culture from sectarianism, nationalism, and superstition. Erasmus crossed confessional lines and intellectual disciplines in his effort to renew moral life on the Continent, publishing the works of a wide range of scholars from many nations.
Although Erasmus did not succeed in his project, his strategy was the right one. Today we must, in every discipline, in many and varied contexts, and with a spirit of mutual love and encouragement, reach across confessional divides and present together a rational and biblical view of life that can reach our desperate neighbors and transform our culture. This is precisely what is needed as we enter the new millennium—not just for the sake of the Church, but for the greater good of mankind.
What must we do to make our case for Christian truth? What is our challenge as we enter the new millennium?
First, Christians must understand that faith in Jesus Christ is much more than a matter of personal conversion and salvation (the heart of the Evangelical faith); and it is much more than liturgy (a principal focus of the Roman Catholic faith). Christianity is a worldview. It is a way of comprehending all of reality by seeing all of life through God’s eyes. It affects every single aspect of life; it isn’t simply a matter of, "I’m saved, you’re saved, and we’re okay." It is a matter of God, Creator of all, being Sovereign over all. As Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch theologian and political leader, put it, "There is not one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign, does not cry out, ‘Mine!’" Christians must recognize this in order to know the fullness of life in Christ, to be able to formulate a defense of Christian truth in every single area of life, and to begin taking back our culture in the name of the King of kings.
Next, we must understand that the great battle going on in the world today is not the culture war. Rather, it is a cosmic struggle over first principles, as Kuyper also recognized. At root are competing answers to the question of how we understand reality itself. This issue turns on the question of origins. On the one hand, secular naturalism argues for a materialistic explanation for the origin of the universe, the earth, and human life. On the other hand, opposed to secular naturalism, biblical theism testifies to the God who is, who is not silent, who spoke us into being, and who reigns over the earth and all His domain. If we are to persuade a hungering world that our view of reality is true, we must be prepared to advance our case in both word and deed and to present a sound cultural apologetic.
This is a strategy Christians have pursued from the earliest days of the Church. When Christians were accused of heinous crimes against the Roman Empire in the second century, they not only defended Christianity rationally, on the merits of the faith, but also answered the objections of the rulers of Rome by challenging them to look at the way Christians lived. Justin Martyr argued that the Christian life was more rational and created a better–ordered society. The writer of the Epistle to Diognetus boasted of the morality of his Christian contemporaries, as did Tertullian a generation later. Augustine engaged in cultural apologetics famously, of course, in The City of God, as Aquinas did much later in his sweeping Summa Contra Gentiles. John Calvin and other reformers carried on this tradition in the Reformation by showing how Christianity improved every sphere of life, personal, communal, and cultural.
We must make precisely this same case today, and we must make it comprehensively, and together. Consider the law that holds together the fabric of a nation. As we have seen, it has been hijacked by judicial activists who say law is not found in any overarching standard but merely in what judges say it is. The public needs to understand the Judeo–Christian idea that law must be reconnected to transcendent truth.
Similarly, a powerful case must be made that Christians have been and are the great defenders of human rights and human dignity, not just for the unborn, but in every area of life. The Star of David and the Cross of Jesus Christ have stood as great scandals to the tyrants of this world because they express belief in a King above the kings of this world. One thinks of the great nineteenth–century abolitionist Sojourner Truth; of the English parliamentarian William Wilberforce and the noble effort he led to bring an end to the British slave trade; of Susan B. Anthony, who was a pro–life Quaker. That is our Christian tradition, our common heritage.
Understanding and defending Christianity as a comprehensive worldview enables us to do something else that, in the long view, may be more important than rescuing a culture. It enables us to achieve Christian unity in a way that could perhaps not be possible otherwise. All Christians must bear the shame of the millennium just ended in which the world has been offended not by the scandal of the Cross, but by the scandal of division among us. Whether it is the division that erupted at the beginning of this millennium between East and West, the rift of the last five hundred years between Roman Catholics and the heirs of the Reformation, or any of the countless rifts and strifes that divide Protestantism today, it is our shame; it belongs to every one of us.
Now, as one who has incurred no small number of battle scars for my role in the ongoing dialogue called Evangelicals and Catholics Together and for my commitment to reaching out across the confessional divides, I want to be the first to say that there are still deep divisions that remain between communions. ECT has made some progress, but I do not minimize or trivialize the issues that separate us. But the fact is, as we begin to see Christianity as a worldview, we are able to do what Edward Cardinal Cassidy argued is the duty of Christians: to work for unity, because unity is the normative condition that Jesus himself called for and established. It is unity for which Jesus prayed, and to work against it is a sin. Seeing our faith as a worldview helps us to work toward that divinely sanctioned condition, because, while divisions remain among us, we nevertheless engage in what my good friend, Dr. Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School, calls "the ecumenism of the trenches." We discover that we stand and fight side by side as Evangelicals and Roman Catholics. In doing so, we are enabled to see beyond those divisions, as important as they are, when our focus is upon the great contours of Christian truth as it is presented and defended in the world.
There was no more determined a Calvinist reformer than Abraham Kuyper. He saw clearly our need for unity. In his famous Stone Lectures of 1898 at Princeton, Kuyper described what happens when we see Christianity as a worldview: We "might be enabled once more to take our stand by the side of Romanism in opposition to modern pantheism. For what we have in common with Rome are precisely those fundamentals of our Christian creed now most fiercely assaulted by the modern spirit." "If Roman Catholics pick up the sword and do valiant and skillful battle against the same enemy," Kuyper argued, "is it not the part of wisdom to accept their valuable help?" It is precisely this kind of ecumenism of the trenches that moved Father Richard John Neuhaus and me to begin the work of ECT.
Now the spirit of ECT is spreading around the world. A group similar to ours has been meeting for several years in the Republic of Ireland. Just recently, I received an invitation to speak to a group of churches in Nebraska. This group, comprising several Protestant churches of various denominations and a number of Roman Catholic churches, has been meeting together to discuss how to put ECT into practice. In South America, Evangelical leaders have been meeting with the Catholic Bishops Conference, and just recently the two issued their first joint statement. And just a few weeks ago, in Sofia, Bulgaria, the ministries of Prison Fellowship International came together for our international convocation. On the closing night, the host ministry, which is heavily influenced by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, held the communion service. Unconsecrated bread was shared by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox believers in a spirit celebrating the great truths held in common in Christ.
I believe we can succeed in bringing Christian truth to bear on our culture only if we stand together in defense of our common faith, drawing upon the best of our respective traditions. The Roman Catholic tradition offers much: the Church’s historic role in the culture, the authority of the Magisterium, a commitment to scholarship, and a long tradition of reflection on social and political issues, particularly a concern for social justice and the poor. As an Evangelical, I have to confess that the Roman Catholics were in the trenches of the pro–life struggle before we were. We were laggards until Francis Schaeffer challenged us in the seventies. The Catholic tradition brings a great commitment to the life of the mind, as well as a passion for the arts. It is a tradition with an appreciation of a well–formed worldview.
On the Evangelical side, we bring much to the table as well, especially what I call the Evangelical impulse. The Evangelical impulse is fueled by three distinct elements of evangelicalism: first, an emphasis on personal conversion; second, devotion to Scripture; and third, belief in the priesthood of all believers, which energizes a whole army of people to do marvelous works of service, turning every legitimate vocation into a ministry.
Those who say today that we should give up on the culture—that there’s nothing more we can do to win the culture war—should study the history of the great revival that began in 1858, when just ten men gathered to pray in downtown New York in the Dutch Reformed Old North Church. They assembled under the gathering storm clouds of war, in a time of great economic uncertainty. Jeremiah Lanphier gathered ten men to pray every day at noon. Before long, seven hundred churches joined them. Within six months, every public facility in New York City was filled to overflowing, and ten thousand people were in the streets gathering every day for noon prayer.
That revival spread up the Hudson River, into Canada, across the sea to England, throughout Europe, and then on to the entire English–speaking world. It resulted in the great awakening of the latter half of the nineteenth century, out of which came such organizations as the Salvation Army, a pure demonstration of Evangelical enthusiasm. In this country, it inspired the great work that followed from the preaching of Dwight Moody. (It is ironic that some of Moody’s spiritual heirs are critical of the work of ECT; were Moody alive today, he would be one of the first at the ECT table. In 1893 Moody invited Roman Catholics to the platform at his crusade in Chicago. More significantly, in his hometown of Northfield, Massachusetts, Moody contributed to the building of a Roman Catholic church, arguing that if people are going to be Christians, whether they’re Catholic or Protestant, the object is to help them to be good Christians.)
If Catholics and Evangelicals come together, combining the great strengths of our two traditions; if God fuels us with the Evangelical impulse, this love of God which comes from our conversion; and if we are faithful to the scriptural commandments, then a great army of people will be unleashed to defend and demonstrate Christian truth in the world. Ours is a truly wonderful opportunity as the world looks around and surveys the shambles of the modern experiment.
The history of the twentieth century is a catalogue of failed utopian promises. It started with post–Edwardian triumphalism, wonderfully captured by a scene in the movie Titanic in which a British aristocrat starts to board the ship. He looks up at it, this enormous feat of modern engineering, and he arrogantly proclaims, "Even God couldn’t sink this ship." You know the rest.
The same fate has befallen every one of the other twentieth–century "isms": Darwin’s and Hegel’s ideas about continuing revolution and progress; the utopianism of Dewey and Freud that has crippled education and our sense of responsibility; scientism; Marxism; National Socialism; humanism; materialism; consumerism. All of the great utopian promises of the twentieth century lie in shambles. Some of them are still with us today, but they are bankrupt ideas waiting to be swept into the dustbin of history. We stand at a moment in time—a remarkable, extraordinary moment—when and if, following the example of Erasmus and Kuyper and the teaching of Jesus, Christians can come together across those historic divides and bring the great strengths of our traditions to bear, we will see John Paul II’s springtime of evangelism come to glorious harvest.
Charles Colson’s latest book is How Now Shall We Live?, coauthored with Nancy R. Pearcey. This essay is adapted from the Erasmus Lecture delivered in New York City. The annual lecture is sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.