One of the central questions facing our society today is how rival visions—what constitutes “the good life,” or what constitutes “progress,” or what future we should aspire to—can coexist peacefully, without coercion or domination, in a pluralistic age.
Christians who see through the empty promises of the sexual revolution or question the definition of “progress” given by the Enlightenment may be surprised at the level and intensity of the pushback they receive from those who are secular, or increasingly, from religious people fervent in their newfound faith after converting to the sexual revolution’s ideology.
Why the Progressive Pushback?
There’s a reason why hostility toward the traditional Christian perspective, especially in relation to sexual morality, is so strong. In his essay “Our Secular Theodicy,” Matthew Rose explains how the eschatology of “progressives” depends on the success of their project. Anything that hinders their movement’s success or makes their project take a step backward, or anyone who is only partly in line with the new party orthodoxy jeopardizes the Story that has captured their imagination.
Rose lives in Berkeley, California, which he describes as “one of the most religious cities in America.”
Its churches are being converted into mosques and Buddhist temples, but its one true faith endures. A popular yard sign states its creed: “In This House, We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, and Kindness is Everything.” The sign is both profession and prophecy. Like the biblical Joshua whose promise it echoes (“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”), my neighbors are in a holy vanguard. They have seen the future America, have identified its present enemies, and are leading us into a promised land.
Rose sees a story at work here and an eschatology that provides hope for the current struggle. He traces some of this fervor back to Ernst Bloch, who proposed that eschatology is the central category for understanding politics:
Our anticipation of a future society that will reveal the meaning of human history and redeem its fallen state. [Bloch] named this kingdom “utopia” and argued that its arrival is the object of every human hope and the justification of every human suffering.
Rose notes the irony in taking this development:
Having rejected a Christian understanding of nature, it retains an intensely Christian understanding of history. It sees human history as goal-oriented and our advancement as a series of conversions and liberations, the outcome of which is the creation of a community that can redeem our fallen history. Bloch appreciated, as deeply as any modern thinker, that this is not a secular understanding of time. It is a biblical story, told in the misleading language of progressive politics.
How to Redeem the Awful Past?
According to this way of thinking, then, the way we redeem history is by leading forward in a way that makes moral sense of the past. We cannot do away with the suffering and injustice of history, but we can still atone for these wrongs. How?
We can demonstrate that a moral community is possible and show thereby that history’s victims, and those who stood with them, are part of a progressing moral story. This story is eschatological; its meaning depends entirely on its successful final outcome. But if we can reach it—if we can build a community of real justice and equality—human history will have been justified. It will be shown to have been worth it.
Rose describes this idea as a “humanistic theodicy.” Instead of the traditional theodicy that tries to justify the goodness of God in light of evil, Bloch attempts “to make sense of humanity in view of its apparently senseless history. Only by creating a just community, Bloch posits, can we vindicate past and present injustices.”
If Bloch is right, and if Rose is right in his assessment of this eschatological perspective, then we can understand why there is so much riding on every single point in the sexual revolution. We can understand why the meltdown over medical conscience protections seems so over-the-top, or why so many are appalled at Bermuda’s decision to repeal same-sex marriage in favor of domestic partnerships. We can understand why even atheistic dissenters such as Jordan Peterson or Camille Paglia are to be shouted down at all costs, why bakers and photographers must be hounded out of the public square, or why every legal lever available must be weaponized to ensure the new orthodoxy.
Today’s politics are infused with eschatology.
Their power and appeal depend on the belief that they advance a liberating moral narrative, inspiring a secular Exodus that will lead to a secular Pentecost. That is why they see history as moving in a single moral direction. It is not because they are determinists. On the contrary, history must progress toward greater individual freedom and social equality because any other outcome threatens the moral intelligibility of history itself. The stakes could not therefore be higher. Should the next emancipatory chapter fail to be written—or should a future Trump or Brexit alter its forward flow—it would not be a mere disappointment. It would interrupt a story that justifies their deepest commitments, and the theodicy in which they are engaged.
Rose is right, and I look forward to sharing more about how the “eschatology of Enlightenment progress” works out when my book Eschatological Discipleship comes out this spring. (I explained the gist of of the book last week.) A crucial aspect of discipleship is asking the worldview question, “What time is it?” so that we are able to (1) live in line with Scripture’s understanding of the future and (2) counteract rival visions of “where the world is headed.” We need to devote more attention to both the Enlightenment eschatology of “progress” and the sexual revolution’s view of “emancipation,” showing where these understandings of the future come into conflict with the way Christianity orders time and sees the future.