The problem Judaeo-Christianity is supposed to address is human shortcomings, the cost of which becomes more horrifying by the decade. But how can a privileged, self-satisfied American (say, a Yale professional student—or, um, me, writing books for publishers in Manhattan, New Haven, and Boston), without special intervention, grasp the life-giving idea of sin, in a modern culture designed to hide even basic cause and effect? Isn’t the task, then, to shock that person out of his complacency, not with stories of hell (which he’ll sneer at as mere stories), but just by inducing him to look around and persuading him that he, like everyone else, is a sinner, but could bear to acknowledge it because he also has hope? That’s the basic evangelical mission.
This realization is, to me anyway, a source of great joy: I think our new Great Awakening will be from a deep and deadening sleep. Technology makes previously laborious, choice-heavy acts quick and easy and concentrates our minds simply on doing more of them. Highly automated, super-convoluted marketplaces hide what goods and services cost, in every sense of that word. The media’s presentation of things going wrong normally stimulates no responses but Schadenfreude and the impression that experts are fixing whatever fragmentary, temporary difficulties—and these must comprise all difficulties, right?—they notice between commercials. Politicians and pundits fast-talk past how our functionaries actually do things like “securing our borders”—and past every other big question. And work is so complex and rushed and competitive that a pompous busy-ness fights against any curiosity about the generality of current sin, which is that other people’s distant, disregarded agony gives us huge benefits, so that we can effortlessly do evil and yet feel good. To my mind, the fundamentally alarming thing isn’t that someone trained to face the suggestion of his own and his society’s sinfulness with disbelief or indignation doesn’t understand or accept a metaphysical principle. It’s that he doesn’t even have a grip on physical reality.