I truly believe that this new millennium will witness a new springtime of evangelization.
Or better, re-evangelization, since much of the territory to be conquered was won in the first thousand years only to be lost in the last one hundred.
It is especially in such territory that Christianity will face far more difficult obstacles than the first Christians met.
The first Christians had to confront paganism, but pagans still had both feet planted on natural ground, even if they were putting Christians to the sword. As a consequence, they had a firm sense of the natural law, of moral boundaries written into the universe which even to think of transgressing filled them with horror.
That does not mean that pagans were saints awaiting baptism as a mere formality. They were fallen, and their judgment was consequently distorted.
The same Romans who were the first among the pagans to formulate the outlines of the lex naturalis (the natural law) also positively enjoyed a good day at the theater watching Christians, slaves and criminals shredded and eaten by wild animals.
But if we look to another ancient theater, the theater not of the gladiators but of the tragedians Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides, we can see the moral core of paganism, clear and intact. The ancients loved tragedies, but tragedies presuppose that there is a moral order which can be violated. Without such an order, there can be no tragic plays, for there can be no tragedy in our lives which the plays imitate.
The great Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his Poetics, argued that a good tragedy relies on a good plot. The plot “should be so constructed that even without seeing the play, anyone who merely hears the events unfold will shudder and feel pity as a result of what is happening — which is precisely what one would experience in listening to the plot of Oedipus.”
The example of Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex is especially instructive. Oedipus, king of Thebes, discovers that he, himself, is the cause of the evil plague which the gods' wrath has visited upon Thebes. Without knowing it, he has killed his father and married his mother — thereby becoming both father and brother to his own children. Oedipus is so horrified to learn of his unnatural relations with his mother that he gouges his own eyes out and wanders blind into exile.
That was then and this is now. In our own day, we have sunk below the level of the pagans. We have not only embraced all their moral errors — they also accepted divorce, contraception, abortion, infanticide, homosexuality and suicide — but we have also gone beyond the point of feeling any moral horror at all. We are beyond tragedy, and therefore almost beyond hope.
Witness the following headline: “Infertile Men Turn to Fathers for Sperm.” This procedure, “now regularly performed in British clinics,” and which is neatly described in the article as “logical, appropriate, and ethical,” allows a grandfather to father his grandson; it can turn a father into the brother of his son and a son into the brother of his father.
We must raise the culture to the level of paganism first.
What for Oedipus was a moral nightmare has become a dream to be pursued. Incest? No problem. “If you'll just have a seat, fill out these forms, the doctor will be right with you.” We can imagine, in 20 years, with what utter bewilderment a 21st-century audience will watch the agony of Oedipus. “What is that man so upset about?”
It was common in the ancient tragedies for those caught in the web of tragic fate, such as Oedipus, to curse the day they were born. Had they lived today, rather than wailing and gouging their eyes out, they could see a lawyer instead.
“Boy Compensated for Being Born,” trumpets another recent headline. Nicholas Perruche, born 17 years ago with disabilities, is — along with his parents, Christian and Josette — suing doctors for allowing him to be born, rather than being aborted. The parents argue that the medical staff “failed to realize that his mother had caught rubella … during her pregnancy,” and the rubella caused the defects. “Would my son really have wanted to live if he'd known he had all these disabilities?” asked Christian. “That's the question I'm posing.”
We are, therefore, beyond tragedy in a second sense. Not only have we rejected any natural moral boundaries, and therefore have no feelings of moral horror doing what is unnatural, but we reject the very notion that we must suffer things outside our power to control. When things do not go our way, somebody must be at fault, and so somebody will have to pay. The chorus in Oedipus Rex bewailing the fate which has crushed the king has been replaced by a chorus of lawyers bent on exacting retribution by any means. We can imagine the billboards. “Don't curse the day of your birth. Get even! Call us at 1-800-SUE-MAMA.”
So, at this, the dawn of Christianity's third millennium, we find ourselves not in a tragic situation, but a situation without tragedy. Christianity introduced a Divine Comedy 2,000 years ago as an answer to pagan tragedy, not only correcting, sharpening and transforming the moral sense of paganism, but offering an eternal reward for those crushed under the wheel of life's tragedies. Having now sunk to a level below paganism, we must raise the culture to the level of paganism before we can re-evangelize it.
Ben Wiker teaches classics at Franciscan University of Steubenville.