A Brave New Post-Secular World
In my final semester of law school, I had the opportunity to take a unique interdisciplinary class—“Law, Environment, and Religion: A Communion of Subjects”—taught through the law, forestry, and divinity schools. There’s a great deal I could say about this course, but one thing in particular stands out in hindsight: the way my classmates responded to its content. Almost to a person, they agreed that the course provided a uniquely valuable opportunity to discuss their deepest commitments about God, creation, and human life; more intriguingly, many said that it was the first and only time they’d felt comfortable doing so in an academic setting.
That, to me, is both striking and deeply unsettling.
It is profoundly disturbing that Ivy League-educated students—provided with nearly limitless opportunities—could go through years of higher education without being asked to discuss the “big questions.” And yet despite that pedagogical failure, and despite their overwhelming material and social privilege, my classmates still felt a profound craving for meaning beyond meritocracy. They wanted to discuss realities and values extending beyond money or material equality.
Countless modern institutions tacitly assume that man is ultimately reducible to homo economicus: at bottom, everyone is a value-maximizing, rational actor oriented toward their own material well-being. This assumption not only anchors political discourse on both sides of the aisle, but increasingly underpins our educational system: one goes to college to get a job, after all.
But is this assumption sound?
Consider the following thought experiment: The year is 2068. Advances in big data and automation have radically reconfigured the national economy. Wealth generation rests in the hands of an elite cadre of knowledge workers, educated at top schools and trained from birth to join the managerial caste. Within the walled cities of the super-rich, crime is virtually nonexistent and the opportunities for self-actualization are limitless. Meanwhile, a stripped-down federal government provides free virtual-reality consoles, opioids, and pornography to all citizens excluded from the new labor market. Thanks to a combination of declining birth rates and life expectancies, this program becomes cheaper and cheaper over time, resulting in massive tax savings and an ever-more-efficient state bureaucracy.
Is this world a dystopia, or a utopia?
To take much of today’s political left and right at their word, this world could hardly be anything other than utopian. After all, who wouldn’t want both an end to material deprivation and to “big government” interfering with one’s life? Everyone wins!
But I’m willing to venture that deep down, most of us recognize the essential ugliness of such a status quo, even though we may lack the words to explain why. What’s missing is the same thing my classmates craved: meaning, value, purpose, an orientation toward a transcendent that demands something of us.
Both the radical left and right offer their adherents something more powerful than money: they offer destiny, an eschatological promise that seeks to compel spiritual allegiance. Even the most hard-nosed historical materialism calls its adherents outward from themselves, urging them to sacrifice their own happiness to secure a better future for the masses who will follow. (Yet material deprivation cannot be the only thing standing between man and bliss: why else would Ivy-educated elites crave a deeper form of learning?) And in the diseased fantasies of the white-supremacist right lurks the fever dream of an ethno-state: a heaven on earth for the purified few.
In short, the human craving for truth and higher purpose will not abate, no matter how prosperous one’s life becomes. And sometimes, that craving will mutate into something very ugly: it’s telling that today’s youthful neo-Nazis aren’t emerging from forgotten mine towns, but from upscale suburbs. Their spiritual rot has nothing to do with economic marginalization.
This is the future into which Christianity must speak—not merely a secular future, but a post-secular future that seeks meaning in the entrails of homo economicus. In a world drained of transcendence, the not-so-almighty dollar cannot hope to compel ultimate allegiance. The heart will always demand more.