Brother, have you been saved? That’s a question we associate with soapbox preachers. But the question of salvation has not gone out of style. Only the answer has.
Only last month, for example, two leading bioethicists published a book on salvation. Julian Savulescu, of Oxford University, and Ingmar Persson, of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, have written a passionate proposal about saving the human race, Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement. We have an extraordinary capacity for self-destructive behaviour, they contend, and our selfish pursuit of profit, passion and power could trigger a global apocalypse. Whether this happens because of climate change or a nuclear holocaust, our doom will be our own doing.
Savulescu and Persson have a plan. Their ambition is familiar: to make mankind virtuous; the means are not: drugs, genetic engineering, and neuroscience. “We have radically transformed our social and natural environments by technology, while our moral dispositions have remained virtually unchanged,” they write. “We must now consider applying technology to our own nature, supporting our efforts to cope with the external environment that we have created.” In other publications, they have advocated using technology to make people more altruistic and more loving.
Essentially what these philosophers are offering is the hope of salvation from human depravity. Creatures as corrupt as ourselves can only do the right thing if we are on drugs. The bioethicists’ dark and pessimistic view is that humans must become less human to be saved. Compared to them, Calvin was an optimist.
Salvation will never become old-fashioned because there is no escape from death. Everything within us hopes for freedom from suffering and immortality. If traditional Christianity is not the answer, how about technology? A 31-year-old Russian billionaire, Dmitry Itskov, is developing immortality technology – if you can afford it. “Substance-independent minds will receive new bodies with capacities far exceeding those of ordinary humans,” he claims. “A new era for humanity will arrive!”
This is only an extreme example of the hucksters of hope. Every day, we are bombarded by soapbox preachers selling happiness with a new iPad, or new cosmetics, or new ice cream – or politics. As November 6 draws closer, you might remember the giddy exhilaration of 2008. “There has never been anything false about hope,” said Senator Obama. Well, Senator, it depends on whether what you hope in has a use-by date.
The promise of Christianity has always been “an hundredfold now in this time… and in the world to come eternal life”. It’s a good product, far better than the one touted by snake oil salesmen. When people tire of gewgaws and trinkets, the odds are good that traditional Christianity will make a miraculous comeback, no matter what Richard Dawkins & Co say.
Certainly, this is what Pope Benedict XVI believes. Taking advantage of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, he is promoting 2012-2013 as a “year of evangelisation”. Journalists – and some Catholics – may be sceptical, but he sees in the distance “a new springtime”. He has set up a department in the Vatican dedicated to promoting evangelisation (missionary work, really) in countries which have shaken off Christian culture. He has convoked a meeting of the world’s bishops for a synod on evangelisation in Rome which ended on Sunday.
This new vigour in the Vatican has been largely ignored by the media. Vaticanistas have cynically interpreted the synod’s focus on “the new evangelisation” as code for wooing Catholics who lapsed because of the Church’s stand on issues like women priests, divorce and contraception. But Benedict is more ambitious than that. Instead of clawing back lost market share, he is reviving the Church’s ambition to convert everyone.
What are the chances of success for a programme which must necessarily stretch far beyond the 85-year-old’s lifetime?
Superficially, they do not look good, at least in the West. The Catholic Church’s reputation has been tarnished by sex abuse scandals in countries where it was once strong, like Ireland, Australia and the United States. Attendance at Sunday Mass is low. There is a shortage of priests. There are many dissenters.
Despite all this, Benedict is confident. He has a strategy. He has tactics. He has a game plan. Recently he gave an interview in which he explained why Christianity’s future is bright.
First, because people thirst to fill an inner emptiness. “The desire for God, the search for God, is profoundly inscribed into each human soul and cannot disappear,” he said. “Certainly we can forget God for a time, lay Him aside and concern ourselves with other things, but God never disappears. St Augustine’s words are true: we men are restless until we have found God.”
Second, because Christianity is true. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ, faith in Jesus Christ, is quite simply true; and the truth never ages. It too may be forgotten for a time, it may be laid aside and attention may turn to other things, but the truth as such does not disappear. Ideologies have their days numbered. They appear powerful and irresistible but, after a certain period, they wear out and lose their energy because they lack profound truth. They are particles of truth, but in the end they are consumed.”
The irresistibility of truth is one of Benedict’s most consistent themes. In a culture of moral relativism which denies the existence of truth, and ultimately of a difference between good and evil, beauty and trash, Christianity has become a bulwark of common sense. He constantly reminds listeners that if God exists, the universe must be intelligible because it has been brought into being by an ordering mind. In the end, truth always triumphs.
And third, Benedict senses that a Gen Y is responding to Christianity. “We are seeing the reawakening of this restlessness, and they too begin their journey making new discoveries of the beauty of Christianity, not a cut-price or watered-down version, but Christianity in all its radicalism and profundity.”
World Youth Days draw millions of young people from all over the world to celebrate with the Pope. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian philosopher, pointed out that although Socrates was a great man, no one ever had died for Socrates, while both scholars and tradesmen died for Christ. Dawkins is a good speaker, but his crowds fit into a community hall; the Pope’s crowds spread over densely-packed acres. These impressive displays of enthusiasm and hope suggest that something unprecedented is just over the horizon.
Contemporary society offers many salvations. There is shop-til-you-drop consumerism, sex, drugs, Islam, Scientology, and even Savulescu and Persson’s moral enhancement. But Christianity’s appeal is as strong as ever: the God who created man also loved man enough to share in his wretchedness. Salvation through the cross is a unique message which has incredible resilience. It’s far too early to write it off.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.