The FDA's approval of RU-486 is an event of immense significance, not only as the single greatest blow to the pro-life cause since Roe v. Wade but also as a harbinger of the most important battles Christians will face in the coming century.
For some time now, a host of Christian thinkers, ranging from philosophers and theologians to church growth consultants, have been telling us that we are living in the wake of a momentous historical shift—the Big Shift from "modernity" to "postmodernity." Like it or not, we're told, we inhabit a postmodern culture, and if we want to be effective witnesses to the gospel we need to understand the new rules of the game. In particular, we need to understand how postmodernity differs crucially from modernity—because many benighted souls haven't noticed the Big Shift and are still proceeding with modern business as usual.
Modernity—you probably know the shtick by now—was the product of Enlightenment hubris: the belief that humans could ultimately understand everything and control a good bit of it. But that project decisively unraveled in the twentieth century. Chastened by history, postmodernists know better.
So the story goes, as retailed in countless books and Power Point presentations. Alas, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Most conspicuously, it fails to account for the fact that the dominant discourse in our culture is the discourse of Science and its product, Technology. Science is all about understanding and controlling, straight from the sources of the Enlightenment.
The theorists of the postmodern have of course noticed this inconvenient fact, and they have tried to deal with it by invoking Thomas Kuhn's paradigms, fears of science of Science run amok, and assorted other phenomena. The trouble is that, significant as these may be in their own sphere (and it is certainly important, for example, that the socially constructed aspects of science are beginning to be more fully acknowledged), none of this has done anything to stop or even slow the juggernaut of Science and Technology. In fact, in the very years since we first began hearing from the prophets of postmodernity, we have witnessed one spectacular scientific achievement after another, including the cloning of Dolly and the first working draft of the human genome. In short, far from being dead, the Enlightenment dream is burning bright.
The ability to understand and control the world reflects our nature as human beings, created in the likeness of the Creator. We have not yet fully plumbed the depths of that gift, which confers a terrifying freedom upon us. Hence Science is at once a magnificent force for truth and goodness and a demonic force for evil.
God has given us the freedom to create weapons of mass destruction so terrible that they could wipe out every living person. And he has given us the ability to set off a series of tiny, private explosions to destroy a single life in the womb.
The central question of the twenty-first century will be this: What does it mean to be a human being? Christians say, It means to be created in the image of God. Do we really believe that? And if so, what follows?
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
Leadership, a Christianity Today and Books & Culture sister publication attempted to define postmodernism and its significance in its Winter 1997 issue.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of RU-486 includes "Abortion Pill Seems on Fast Track" (Sept. 16, 1996).
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)
Pencils Down, the Election's Over | According to political scientists, Al Gore has already won. (Sept. 11, 2000)
Humans and Other Animals | How much do we share with the birds of the air and the beasts of the field? (Aug. 28, 2000)
Cardinal Mahony's Baloney Sandwich | The public face of Catholic social teaching. (Aug. 21, 2000)
In Praise of Miscegenation | Racial categories don't mean what they used to. Hallelujah. (Aug. 14, 2000)
"Give 'Em Hell, Harry!" | Looking back at the 1948 presidential campaign. By Elizabeth Jacoway (Aug. 7, 2000)
Roaring Lambs | The Evangelical Culture of Euphemism, Part 3. (July 31, 2000)
The Evangelical Culture of Euphemism, Part 2 | Should we distinguish between
public and private discourse? (July 24, 2000)
The Culture of Euphemism | A dispatch from the Christian Booksellers Association convention. (July 17, 2000)
Get Outta My Face! | The most troublesome word in religion today. (July 10, 2000)