Can Christianity and Post-Modernity Reconcile?

It is popular today to speak of clashing worldviews as “narratives.” History shows, we’re told, that it is almost impossible for a narrative to imagine a standpoint outside itself. That is what defines it as a narrative. It is only when it has been surpassed by another narrative—as paganism was eclipsed by Christianity and Christianity by the Enlightenment—that we look back and realize the earlier narrative was contingent, one story among others which have been told and believed. Recognizing narratives as culturally dependent descriptions relativizes their truth claims. It was Christendom’s blindness to the relative nature of its narrative in a pluralistic world that led to its various persecutions of Jews, Muslims and Protestants, for if everything other than Christendom is sin, then we either get war … or a new narrative.

So goes the post-modern narrative. Interestingly, post-modernism does not understand itself to be a narrative, but a meta-narrative, a narrative about narratives: that there are many of them, and all of them contingent. As René Descartes expressed the idea in his Discourse on Method,

So long as I merely considered the customs of other men, I found hardly anything there about which to be confident, and I noticed there was about as much diversity as I had previously found among the opinions of the philosophers. … I learned not to believe anything too firmly of which I had been persuaded only by example and custom; and thus I little by little freed myself from the many errors that can darken our natural light and render us less able to listen to reason. (I.11)

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The result of this Cartesian suspension of belief is that the first-person perspective is now closed to us; all customs are “customs of other men.” Descartes’ Europe is a hodgepodge of disorderly towns, none of which are home, for Descartes himself is from nowhere (II.12-14). We cannot believe any narrative from the inside, as if it were really true and action-guiding, but only from the outside as a description one might use for a time and then conveniently put aside. Our philosophies are anti-metaphysical and ahistorical, as Descartes’ heirs Kant and Rawls have explained: we enlightened ones exist independently of time, place, and tradition, from nowhere in general and for nothing in particular.

The primary use of the post-modern narrative is political. As a Catholic ethicist, I have often presented papers to my post-modern colleagues. They do not respond as philosophers—questioning premises and inferences—but as Cartesians. Their first question is always some version of, “But you live in a pluralist society, so isn’t all of this a bit silly?” There is nothing outside of the post-modern text.

A Post-Modern Misunderstanding of Christianity
One problem with post-modernism so described is that, while it correctly asserts that Christendom (being made of sinful men) sometimes mistreated its cultural minorities, it wrongly assumes that Christianity is an inherently insular narrative. Part of Christianity’s glory is that it contains within itself resources for recognizing pluralism and difference that do not undermine its claim to truth. Christ calls difference “the world” (John 18:36), and while some worldliness is sinful and some is merely ignorant, the world is at the same time redeemable. Christ illuminates it like a light in the darkness (Jn. 8:12). This is the insight Vatican II expresses in Dignitatis humanae: that while error has no rights, people in error are worth saving (no. 2). Christianity therefore conceives itself as fundamentally missionary and evangelical in character. We Christians are to make disciples of all nations through the witness of our lives and the power of the Word. As the Council fathers put it,

Truth … is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it. … No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.

Christians should win the world with and for love.

Christianity therefore recognizes an internal limit of positive law. For example, St. Augustine counseled that secular law should leave unpunished many things punished by divine providence (De lib. arb. i.5). St. Thomas Aquinas likewise wrote that

human laws do not [should not] forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft, and such like. (Summa Theologica, I-II.96.2)

His argument is that, just as putting new wine in old wineskins will cause them to burst (Mt. 9.17), so too should law “lead men to virtue not suddenly, but gradually” (ibid., ad. 2). Like the grace it communicates, law must accommodate itself to the human condition, including the condition of sin. Christian law should restrain itself in its dealings with sinners and unbelievers, not because the law thinks itself false, and not because it approves of everything sinners and unbelievers might do with their freedom, but rather because it loves them and wants them to see as it sees and this is only possible if it ‘respects their subjectivity’ and changes their hearts.

The Christian tradition thus prescribes charity towards the sinner rather than tolerance, at least towards those acts that only affected the individual, or behavior that John Stuart Mill called self-regarding. The difference between charity and tolerance is that charity sometimes allows what it nevertheless condemns as unsuitable for human beings made in the imago dei. It refrains from legally coercing some self-improving acts and proscribing some vicious self-regarding acts because “the truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power” (DH, no. 1). This is consistent with the Christian mission to evangelize the world; Christians witness rather than command.

One can find echoes of Christianity’s favoring a policy of legal restraint as late as Mill’s On Liberty. Like Aquinas, Mill argues that the scope of law should be limited to actions which harm others, where “harm” means roughly something like wrongfully and in violation of a right invades someone’s welfare interests—that is, seriously prevents them from flourishing. Mill famously denied that giving offense and setting a bad example constitute harm to others. Although such actions might be morally wrong, Mill agrees with Aquinas when he writes that “these are good reasons for remonstrating with [the offender], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise” (On Lib. 4).

For post-modern liberalism, things are not so: offense is sufficient for harm. This is because the post-modern narrative prescribes tolerance rather than charity, and it does so, like Descartes, because it begins with doubt about narratives, rather than love for the individual, like Christ. Post-modernity, not Christianity, is premised on the claim that error has no rights, and since it claims that all claims are to be bracketed as doubtful, contingent, local, and flawed, the only claim without rights is a claim to truth. It will recommend restraint, but not self-restraint. It will call for the restraint of others towards oneself: they may not make truth-claims upon me that might elicit or demand my consent. Insofar as post-modernism therefore sees evangelization as both wrong and hurtful, it is incompatible with Christianity—as we see in Indiana and elsewhere.

Does Church Undervalue Teaching Role of Law?
One objection to Christianity’s advocacy, in most cases, of limiting the scope of law to harmful, other-regarding acts, is that it underestimates the pedagogical power of law. By this we mean the power to change hearts by changing habits, and change habits through prescriptive laws, as some argue occurred in America over the last thirty years regarding race. Legal permissibility teaches moral permissibility, the objection goes, and law that blatantly permits what is morally wrong is to some degree guilty of scandal. I think there is some force to this objection, but it also downplays the explicitly pedagogical purpose of the Church. Legal permissibility need not entail scandal if the meaning of limited law and sound moral teaching has been adequately communicated to the culture. Only the Church guards the guardians. A silent Church allows post-modernity to reduce charity in truth to (in)tolerance in relativism, which causes liberalism to become a tyranny of restraint.

Consider, for example, our current debates regarding gay marriage. Christians and non-Christians might agree that individuals should be free from state interference to engage in self-regarding actions in the sense defined above. What Christians and non-Christians do not agree on is what counts as self-regarding and other-regarding actions. Christians do not think of sexual acts as self-regarding, but as acts that must be assessed in ways that include the additional virtual and actual people implied by them, namely, children. Thus Christians living in a pluralistic culture might in charity live in a society in which individuals had legal permission to view pornography, but not one which permitted prostitution (and porn without prostitution is difficult to make).

However, history has conspired against Christians’ ability to prudently defend this view. First, the world decided that all sexual acts were self-regarding, assisted in this delusion by contraception. Second, the post-Vatican II Church largely failed in its pedagogical function, as many prelates substituted a liberal understanding of toleration for the Christian conception of charity and so failed to guide their flock. The result is that today we believe that “all love is equal,” by which we mean that all sexual behavior is self-regarding and rightfully permissible. Christians who argue otherwise are finding themselves coercively silenced or co-opted into material cooperation by the post-modern state, one which bears their imprint (toleration) but not their spirit (charity). Error has no rights, liberals argue, and Christians are mistaken about sex; ergo, the state should teach them otherwise.

There is a good argument to be made here that, putting aside the content of the issues over which our polity disagrees, we are in an age of political regress than progress. A people who cannot distinguish between the truth-value of an idea and the moral and political dignity of those who hold it is a culture that has traded charity for tyranny.

Christians and liberals can find common ground in the notion of limited law, one that confines the scope of legal coercion on controversial social issues to those that harm others. For Christians to advocate such a compromise, however, would require the Church to speak clearly and forcefully, in charity and truth, in the public square, about the difference between legal permission and moral license. For liberal post-modernity to accept the compromise, it would have to cease attempting to enforce a barbaric and archaic conflation of persons and ideas. It would have to change its heart.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is John Stuart Mill.


  • Joshua Schulz

    Joshua Schulz teaches moral philosophy in the Catholic intellectual tradition at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from Marquette University in 2010.

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