Lately I came across something online, a phone exchange between a man and his fiancée wherein he confronted her about her public infidelity and broke off their engagement. The whole exchange was set up and recorded by a phone-in radio show. All humanity is guilty of stupidity and bad judgment, and fortunately most of our stupidities and bad judgments remain undocumented, perhaps only to be shared with others in the context of sacramental Confession. But sometimes people have the misfortune to have their failures made public, such as in this case. It provides, I suppose, a cautionary tale for all of us.
The couple in question had been seeing each other for five years, and he had a ring ready for the official proposal. His plan came to a crashing halt when a friend of his saw his fiancée making out with another person in the corner of a bar. When confronted about the public infidelity, she was shocked at being caught, and tearfully explained that she “made a couple of mistakes”. (“A couple”? It happened more than once?) I mention her example not so much to draw more attention to a tragic part of both their lives but because her reaction is typical of our contemporary secular generation. That is, a great gulf now separates Christians from secular people in that the latter have lost any abiding sense of sin. The development is not new; C.S. Lewis (who died in 1963) drew attention to it as a fact of British life as early as the Second World War.
This gulf not only separates us our great grandfathers’ generation, but from all humanity before us. In the ancient world, everyone knew that they carried a burden of sin. In Chesterton’s words, whether or not there were miraculous waters in which a man could wash and be clean, at least everyone knew that he needed washing. Now we not only dispute the possibly disputable waters, but also the indisputable dirt. In St. Paul’s day both pagan and Jew acknowledged that the gods or God held man guilty for his sins, and the world received the Christian offer of free forgiveness and cleansing as good news. Today this sense of guilt is entirely lacking, and the Church must first give its audience the Bad News of their guilt before it can offer the Good News of Christ’s forgiveness. All of our evangelistic endeavours will be futile if this crucial step is omitted. This means that evangelism will now take longer, for we need to help women guilty of infidelity see not just that they have made a couple of mistakes, but that they have sinned before God. (Possibly attempting to do this publically on air over a radio programme is not the best strategy.) The same goes for all the other sins which men and women commit; they are not errors such as adding a long column of numbers and getting the sum wrong. They are transgressions against the moral order of the cosmos which leave us stained.
But how to help people see this? Our culture offers us no help, for it shouts to all that the operative categories are not moral ones. That is, the operative categories are now no longer “good vs. evil” or “righteousness vs. sin”, but rather all choices are equally valid. The diversity which is valid in the realms of (say) cuisine and musical taste are now applied to the moral realm as well: you prefer French cooking to Russian, and classical music to country, and cultural diversity pronounces both options equally valid. In the same way, society says, you prefer atheism to Christianity, and multiple sexual partners to exclusive sexual fidelity, and both of these options are also equally valid. Cultural diversity thus trumps historical morality. In this climate, denouncing fornication as morally wrong makes as little sense as denouncing country music as morally wrong. Who are you to tell me what music I can listen to—or who to have sex with?
If societal norms cannot help us, what can? In a word, conscience. The man in question in the first paragraph knows that sexual infidelity is not morally valid, because he experienced pain when it happened to him; and the woman in question also has some sense of conscience, for when confronted with her actions she broke down in tears. God has placed conscience within everyone as His lamp, searching out all the innermost parts (Proverbs 20:27). The voice of conscience continues to speak within, even when contradicted by secular cultural propaganda. Our problem is that we have filled our world with noise and can no longer easily hear conscience’s quiet whispers. Our evangelistic enterprise therefore must include a summons to quiet, a call to silence the deafening din of the world, and listen to the authentic voice of our heart within. If we are inexperienced in listening to it, at first it will not speak loudly. But if the desire to return to our true selves is present and if we attentively hearken to our heart, the inner voice of conscience will gain strength and volume. Heeding that voice is the first step on the way home.