Empty Sky Liberalism and the Post-Christian World

Freedom Uncoupled from Truth Leads to Bondage

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from an address delivered at the 2024 Providence Faith and Life Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.

To walk wisely and effectively in the world, a Christian must understand the world – the world as it is, not as we imagine it to be. We are not living in the Christian world of our parents’ youth. Ours is a “post-Christian” world. 

At the height of Beatlemania in 1966, John Lennon got himself in a mess of trouble for remarking publicly that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” The English-speaking world at the time was far from a holy city on a hill, if it ever has been. But, in America, the fact that he had to publicly apologize and explain himself indicates that we were a functionally Christian society. The public pieties were Christian pieties. Today, the expectation of having to abase oneself for a blasphemous remark, even if only from business prudence, is inconceivable. What is fully expected, rather, is that your social or celebrity cred will increase by violating Christian norms, and that you would get into that level of trouble only by offending the current pieties of liberal progressivism, or wokeness. This is the post-Christian world.  

Our transition from a predominantly Christian world to post-Christian was not a sudden cultural shift, traceable to “the sixties” or the Clinton presidency or any such recent turn in the road. Nor can it be reversed by the right candidate and outcome of a presidential election. It has not been as superficial as the co-opting of certain elites by a generation of college radicals and a few corrupt financiers. It is a development in Western civilization as a whole, rooted deep in the beginnings of modernity, and, like the Christian view, it is comprehensive in its scope, reaching to our views of God, man, and the universe. 

The post-Christian world introduced a different metaphysics – an empty sky; a different hope – the perfection of our earthly life; and a different morality – personal autonomy. The result has been predictably, catastrophically, and unsustainably inhuman, explaining much of what appears to a traditional Christian and to common sense as a world-gone-mad. 

As such, the post-Christian world is in existential crisis. It is tottering and scared. But a way of life will not crumble and vanish without something organized and confident to replace it. The wise Christian must therefore ask: what is the post-Christian, how is it still dangerous, and what will revitalize Christian civilization?

What is “post-Christian?” 

Post-Christian is not “non-Christian” exactly, or simply pagan as it was before. Post-Christian means was Christian, but now rejects Christianity and the Christian heritage. The post-Christian world is what Aaron Renn has termed a “negative world” in that sense. It hates things Christian. It sees them not only as false but evil, and itself as having progressed beyond Christianity. 

But it refused to see that it retains Christian moral assumptions like universal human value, and thus also universal human rights and special protection for the weak. But these assumptions have become groundless because the post-Christian rejects the only ground of them: the Creator who revealed himself to the Hebrew prophets and in the Bible. The evangelistically atheist Richard Dawkins laments the passing of cultural Christianity and greets with horror what is replacing it in his dear England, but cannot see its vital relationship to living Christian faith. The post-Christian has reference back to the Christian and depends on it parasitically. 

The power of its appeal to these principles rests on a denied-but-assumed Christian moral foundation. For example, post-Christians approve of love over hate, but why? Love for all people everywhere in a competitive world of scarce goods, including even one’s declared enemies, makes no sense apart from assurance from the biblical God that he is your fortress and your strength, the ultimate source of your safety and prosperity.

Post-Christians still affirm “rights,” but whence these rights? We have rights because we have value. But that universal human value is grounded entirely on our creation by God in his image. Yuval Noah Harari, a popular, atheist academic, is sober and blunt about the moral significance of materialism. 

Human rights are just like heaven and like God. It’s just a fictional story that we have invented…It may be a very nice story…you want to believe it. But it’s just a story, it’s not a reality. It’s not a biological reality. Just as jellyfish and woodpeckers have no rights. Homo sapiens have no rights also. Take a human, cut him open, look inside…you don’t find any rights.

Apart from the biblically revealed image of God, however, the only grounds left for our equal value is loud assertion. 

Rights and equality are of one cloth for us. By equality we mean rights, and by rights we mean equal rights. But why equality? Why equal human value? This value is not empirically obvious. Walk the streets of Lower Manhattan and you will see homeless beggars on the sidewalk and power suits heading for work in highly paid positions. What you see is inequality: people of high value to society and people of negative value, high performance and low-to-no performance, brains and drains. The equal value these diverse people share must be accepted on faith, which Christians do because we walk fundamentally by faith and not by sight. Again, the post-Christian world is parasitical at its best.

It is for good reason that our Founders declared to the world and to all posterity: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. When I became an American citizen in 2010, the judge who administered the oath of citizenship in that Brooklyn federal courthouse cited the Declaration of Independence as holding-to-be-self-evident only that we “are equal” (not “created” equal) and “endowed with certain unalienable rights” (not “by our Creator”), as though the righteous Yahweh, who made all things and will judge all flesh, could be modernized out like an antiquated spelling. A Politico journalist, speaking on an MSNBC news analysis panel, recently explained that “Christian Nationalists” hold the peculiar and extremist view that rights come from God, not from any earthly authority like the government. The panel nodded. 

For this reason, post-Christian society is by definition in crisis. A crisis is an impasse, from which there is no going forward under existing arrangements. This crisis of-and-for the post-Christian world is not a crisis for Christians, but it’s a challenge. We live in this post-Christian world and must deal with it, and often seduced by it. So, in that regard their crisis is our crisis, because we are all in this together. 

Different metaphysics

The post-Christian world begins with a new and strategically diminished metaphysics: the denial of God. After the religious wars of the early seventeenth century, the most enlightened thought-leaders like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and John Locke made it their plan to drain religion of its power over the heart and the Church of its influence over the state. The sky is empty. In post-Christian minds, the world is stripped of divine origin and influence. God is denied his worship rights. People deny their impulse to worship. There is the world and only the world. As John Lennon sang in his secular hymn, “Imagine,” there is “no hell below us; above us only sky.” But as you recall from the song, this is not a lament. This world of demystified matter and endless, empty space is not seen as meaningless, cold, and hopeless. In the post-Christian world, it is believed that people are essentially good, and that the world – contrary to all previous thought – is perfectible.

Different hope

At the heart of the Christian faith, and thus of a Christian society, is the Christian hope. Hope is a powerful motivator. It gets you out of bed each day, through the dark valleys of life’s trials, and on to every accomplishment. Any successful attempt to replace Christianity and Christian civilization would, therefore, require a rival hope, and so that’s what the architects of the modern world consciously produced. 

It was Christianity that introduced hope into the world, the great promise of God to his faithful people. We often speak of hope as a kind of wish or aspiration. “He hopes to be a doctor one day.” But properly speaking, hope is a confident expectation of good in the future. Proverbs 10:28, “The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish.” “Hope” in the proverb parallels “expectation” and, following the conventions of Hebrew poetry, is taken to be synonymous or close to it. The certainty of Christian hope is the assurance of God’s infallible word (Rom 3:4; Heb 6:18).

This world is good, though fallen and thus vain. God by his common grace fills it with tokens of his goodness and mercy – sunshine and rain, fields and forest and majestic mountains, honor and friendship and filial piety. This world is good, and we are endowed with not only the means but also the responsibility to make it much better, for love of neighbor’s sake and for God’s glory’s sake. So, in this world as God designed it, there is hope of safety, comfort, and undiscovered wonders. But it points beyond itself to the goodness and glory of its Creator.

Specifically in the fallen world of sin and suffering, the Christian hope is eternal life by the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the returning King. In II Corinthians 5:1, Paul calls it “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” He means the resurrection body. In Hebrews 11, the hope, the promised and expected though unseen blessing, is “the city…whose designer and builder is God,” “a homeland,” “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” Then, in the next breath, God “has prepared for them a city” (11:10, 14, 16). This is all the perfected New Creation.

But ultimately, this hope is beholding and living in the all-satisfying presence of the glory of God. Romans 5:2, “Through him [Christ]…we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” This is all the future state, the new heavens and earth as Revelation 21 presents it: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, & they will be his people, & God himself will be with them as their God” (v.3). There we see the spiritual enjoyment of God. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (v.4). There, stated negatively, is the physical enjoyment of God’s good world. So, the Christian hope is freedom from sin and all its effects in body and spirit, and freedom of entry into the sweet, eternal presence of God by the high priestly ministry of Christ.

From the start of the modern project, the seventeenth century architects of this differently grounded, differently directed civilization – progressive civilization – subtly took on the biblical alternative. The post-Christian always has reference back to the Christian. The hope of the modern project is not the previous hope of cross, resurrection, and return. The rival modern hope is freedom from the misery of our earthly estate in this world and by our hands. It is freedom from poverty and disease, from suffering and oppression, through the human conquest of nature by modern science and technology, including the social sciences. Francis Bacon, one of those great master builders, promised that this civilizational re-founding and redirecting would, if I may, “wipe away every tear from our eyes, …neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore.” 

The rival hope is expressed in the modern ideologies. That’s what an ideology is: ideas and their practical application for perfecting life-together on earth.  An ideology is a man-made gospel, a promise to perfect the world in its comfort, justice, and peace. It is the hope of bringing heaven down to earth by human goodness and brilliance, or at least by the extraordinary goodness and brilliance of a few. So this human hope became ideological instead of theological. Think of communist or libertarian utopia: everyone living in peace and harmony because we figured it all out.

But the modern reader may ask, “Can we not have both?” Doesn’t every godly believer enjoy all this conquest of nature – modern medicine and prosperity, transportation and communication – and also love God and submit all these things to his service? What’s the problem? It is true that these modern marvels and mercies are all good things, all a blessed unpacking of God’s good creation. Yet a problem there has been, and this should be no surprise. God warned Israel as he was about to bring them into the Promised Land,

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land…And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God…lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God… (Deut. 8:7-14). 

Lord Acton warned that “power corrupts,” and power over nature is no different. Francis Bacon knew that we would lose sight of heavenly and spiritual things, the life hereafter, as we became engrossed in the ever more impressive and pleasant earthly things, in the possibilities of life here-and-now. Bacon promised a better land and was counting on us “forgetting the Lord” so that the most talented people would go not into theology and pastoral ministry, but into science and business where they could be of actual human use. He even insinuated the new hope into the old religion, presenting the new hope as Christian, while turning our hopes away from Christ to self. 

So, this modern hope is not the Christian hope, but it springboards off its Christian heritage. Where it is launched, however, is not into an even better future, but into the abyss beyond.

Different morality

This post-Christian world has also a different morality. We know from the way we speak of “progress” that it is not only scientific and technological, but also a progress in morals. There could be no “post-Christian” without the cult of progress to capture hearts and displace the Christian. People often speak of “the march of progress” and of being on “the right side of History,” which of course is irresistibly progressing! Don’t be on the wrong side of History! It will not end well for you! “History will judge you!” People say, “We’ve progressed since then!” President Obama, in his second term, spoke of his views on same-sex marriage as having “evolved.” Moral “progress” generally means that public morality becomes more permissive of what was once seen as immoral, perhaps socially destructive, even perverted.

Progress means the spread of “enlightenment.” By this we mean living by reason and science instead of by religion and superstition. The progressive views these two ways of life as mutually exclusive, and religion as one and the same with superstition. By “reason and science” as guides for life we mean social science, psychological science, and evolutionary biology. But this claim to live by science rather than by religion is a boast, because no one can live by natural science of any kind. They can supply no moral guidance for life as they are incapable of discovering or grasping moral reality. They can tell us about the is and the can be, but they are necessarily silent on the ought. Social science can tell us how people behave and how we can make them behave otherwise, but not how people should behave.

Morally, all we are left with is individual autonomy – self-directed self-assertion, and, in the end, feelings, what makes us feel good, and feel good about ourselves. The ethic of autonomy does not, after all, prioritize specifically rational autonomous choices. Why rational? To make the moral demand that people exercise their autonomy rationally would violate their autonomy! The modern philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant taught us that freedom is having no other law to live by but what you give yourself. It is to live by a law that is from neither God nor tradition nor nature, but wholly self-generated, a law from me to me. This is what people admire today as “authenticity.” 

But the modern hope, the modern vision, is dishonest and parasitical. It depends on a hold-over residue of Christian morality while at the same time undermining it. Severed from Christ, this sustaining after fume has a limited life, eventually leaving “post-Christian” with no other star and compass than each person’s individual appetite. In the end, this amounts to the will of the strong over the weak because the strong are better positioned to satisfy their appetites. People in the thrall of their untutored passions—acting on any and every impulse—are something between savage and insane. Hardly the Age of Reason! This is why, in the name of post-Christian moral progress, people who are clearly mentally ill or emotionally disfigured, or whom we once easily identified as evil predators, are being defended in their self-destructive tendencies and life choices, even celebrated for their authenticity! 

We threw aside Christ and his kingdom, the grace and gospel of God, to embrace a substitute gospel, to embrace what was billed as a better hope: the empire of reason over nature, the empire of man over the universe without any star for guidance but comfort and security. Comfort, even delightful comfort, is the blessing of the gospel of modern economic science. Security is the blessing of the gospel of modern political science. Now, one must hasten to affirm that comfort and security are good! We must all thank God for them in their modern abundance! The modern economic and political sciences themselves are good! But they are not gospels. Underlying these goods of comfort and security, specifically as pursued in the modern way, is a gospel of individual liberation as personal autonomy. It does not have to be! But it is. Or has become. That modern gospel is liberation not only from government oppression (good!), and from the merciless control of one’s neighbors, especially the powerful (also good!). But as it has become decoupled from the restraints of Christian culture, it has become also liberation from tradition and religious authority, and from religion itself and from any moral demands that come from any source other than oneself. 

Thus, the modern free person—the person who is free in the uniquely modern way—takes nothing from nature, that is, from the way the world is, from the created order. Hence, the sexual revolution in general, and the current gender madness in particular. Hence, the rhetorical question, “What is a woman?” Why should nature have the final say? Hence, a baby is just tissue at best, and at worst a hostile intruder against whom a woman may defend herself in pursuit of her empowering and self-given goals. Autonomy! Noble freedom! If you are not ready to kill your baby, are you really free? Or are you still captive to “oppressive traditional norms”? If your child is not transitioning into a gender other than what he or she was “arbitrarily assigned at birth,” is your child actually free, or being constrained by your “oppressive traditional norms”? If there are not enough children transitioning in your local public school or asserting non-traditional genders (of which there are limitless numbers, because freedom), that is prima facia evidence that the school is not educating them faithfully in their human possibilities. And on and on.

The original project was founded on the almost universal, and thus reliable, desire for comfortable self-preservation. Where it has ended is a moral foundation of personal autonomy, the right of self-direction, even to the point of complete self-definition, regardless of how irrational and obviously false. The crisis of the post-Christian world is its absurdity, its hypocrisy, its incoherence. 

A Sad Ending

So this modern story, this new epic, the post-Christian liberation from Christianity has a sad ending. Because of this limitlessness, this empty sky, the deep cold space of human possibility, what we got from our lunge into liberation was not rational enlightenment, but insanity, the empire not of reason but of appetite and impulse, a more profound empire of some people over others, what Alexis de Tocqueville in another context called “soft despotism.” You’re in chains, but you don’t notice them, and you love their benefits. Where we end up is not freedom, but a new bondage. 

The modern project has over-promised and under-delivered. It has delivered wondrously amazing technologies and unprecedented creature comforts, personal security and civil peace. Yet the modern beneficiaries of these blessings live with restless anxiety, endless therapy, constant search for new, even better gospels, and, despite rising average lifespans, the certainty of death as usual.

When you toss Christianity and, with it, Christian civilization and Christian cultural influence, what you get is not universal enlightenment—a society of free and rational, mutually respecting people; not everlasting neutral liberal proceduralism; not a world of endless libertarian permissivism, everyone just minding their own business under common rules, equally enforced, in steadily growing prosperity. No, you get a return to paganism, and rule by the basest human passions. It’s not pretty. 

The post-Christian view leaves modern liberalism and noble freedom with no limiting principle. Whereas, at one end, the post-Christian order is groundless in its moral foundations, at the other end, it is limitless in its moral goals, its hope. Limitless is not good, because it’s a nothing, a gaping bottomless hole, an abyss. This progress in ever-expanding freedom has no end in view, no purpose, no “for the sake of which.” Hence, everyone’s right to “identify” as anything but with no hope of satisfaction from this choice, only an endless Hobbesian “desire of power after power that ceases only in death.”

This is not to say that modern liberalism is bad. Liberalism, as I’m using the word, is a system of political and economic liberty, operating under the rule of law which specifically secures individual rights against the government. This is the liberality of liberalism. Thus, it is also specifically limited government, having sufficient power to protect the people, but checked so as not to oppress them. In this way, people live in freedom, that is, free in their property, free in their private sphere (home, business, movement, speech, and religion), and free even to protest the government itself.

However, without a broad recognition of a transcendent moral order, of a higher government by God and an accountability to God – without a limiting principle for that liberty, we are left with what I venture to call “empty sky liberalism.” When the moral universe rings hollow, it is easy to deny the humanity of some, and start counting equality from there. We all remember race-based slavery on these shores and now we see the equally horrific inhumanity toward babies in the womb. Politics will pretend to stand for equal freedom, but it will be deceitful and brutal.

Modern liberalism needs a morally limiting influence that only Christianity can provide. President John Adams said in 1798 that our constitution presupposes a moral and religious people, and that it is wholly inadequate to any other, in disagreement with Immanuel Kant who claimed that a well-crafted liberal constitution should be able to govern a society of devils. Adams spoke as a statesman still saturated with Christian understandings. Kant was more thoroughly modern. We started with Adams but ended with Kant. 

Without that limiting influence, economic freedom becomes a fatal economy of peddling seductions and poison, especially when the powerful stand to profit. Something like Potterville in place of Jimmy Stewart’s Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. Drugs – opioids, fentanyl, potent marijuana, but it’s only the plebs in coal country and human waste on the streets of San Francisco who are dying. Vivid, emasculating pornography as close as your phone. Addictive video gaming and social media for emotionally vulnerable children. Abortion-on-demand even to the point of birth. Gender altering surgery for children, regardless of what their parents think. And if you are unhappy with the results, there is medical assistance in dying.

If no Christ, what then? This empty sky liberalism ends morally in pagan abandon and politically in the advantage of the stronger. Proverbs 25:28, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” Utterly exposed. And if not post-Christian paganism, even overt Satanism, then Islam will step in to fill the moral and spiritual void. Post-Christian English schoolchildren are being converted to Islam by their devotedly Muslim peers. Their hearts are crying out: Won’t someone please fill the sky! 

The American Founding was not simply modernistic. It was a blend of modern enlightenment ideas with classical and Christian influences: classical notions of honor, for example, and the Christian view of man and morality, and the judge of all the earth. Thus, the freedom it treasured and fortified constitutionally was noble and constructive. 

But freedom uncoupled from truth leads to bondage and self-destruction. An empty sky of deep, cold space above us, and a world of merciless matter around us and within us are not only implausible but unbearable. People are coming increasingly to understand this. 

Jesus tells his disciples that “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). The truth that liberates is not in the great conversation of philosophy that begins with Socrates and ends with Nietzsche, as full and rich as it is. That freeing-truth is found only in discipleship to Christ and in the fruitful civilization built faithfully upon him. 

Image Credit: Unsplash

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David C. Innes

David C. Innes was for 18 years professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City and now serves as a minister at Calvin Presbyterian Church (OPC), Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of Christ and the Kingdoms of Men: Foundations of Political Life and Francis Bacon.

8 thoughts on “Empty Sky Liberalism and the Post-Christian World

  1. If anything, the above article points to a current arrogance in religiously conservative Christianity. For the article claims everything good in American society came from Christianity. And so Christianity is claiming credit for stuff that it’s not necessarily responsible for. In essence Innes’s claims about Christianity sounds like the alleged Al Gore claims about inventing the internet while running for President in 2000. In fact, Innes’s claims about Christianity sounds like the Presidential campaign claims of both Biden and Trump as both claim credit for stuff they never did.

    If Christendom was so great, why do we now have a post-Christian world? After all, why would 2 World Wars, imperialism, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, slavery, white supremacy, Jim Crow, anti-Semitism, human exploitation, sexism, classism, racism, exploitation of labor both foreign and domestic, and such dissuade people from following Christianity? Or perhaps the more telling question is this: How could those things occur if Christianity so emphasized equality during Christendom? Wasn’t it Hodge who believed in black inferiority because Christianity taught him to believe in hierarchy? In fact Jonathan Edwards owned slaves and Machen protested the immigration of Princeton’s dorms. From the beginning of our nation until just after the Civil War, only free whites could be citizens of our nation (see the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795). Women could not vote until 1920. Native Americans couldn’t become American citizens until 1924. And all of that occurred during Christendom, not during a Renn negative view of Christianity. Where was the Christian belief in human equality in the timing of all of those instances?

    And if religiously conservative Christianity is the true representation of Christianity, then how is it that the struggle for freedom and racial equality in our nation which started in the 1950s and 1960s was led by those who were not religiously conservative Christians? And what is being argued on this blog today? For where is equality in Christian Nationalism? Where is equality in seeking the re-marginalization of the LGBT community? Where is equality in demanding the return of the predominance of White Anglo Saxon Protestantism or for Christian Magistrates to rule over a pluralistic nation? What we see now on this website does not betray the worst of Christendom’s past, it seeks a sequel to at least part of it.

    Not only does the above article make hyperbolic claims about Christianity in relation to society, it denies much of Christianity’s own past and denies the ccntributions of non-Christians to society. We should note that Jefferson’s god was not God of the Bible. BTW, Jefferson had a significant admiration for Islam. Neither was Franklin’s god nor the god of a host of other Founding Fathers.

    And why does this article make its Al Goric claims about Christianity and equality? Isn’t it to argue for the return of Christendom here? It takes a significant amount of corporate narcissism to make the claims that the above article does about Christianity and equality while denying so much from our past and then demanding a return to the ‘good ole days.’ Narcissism. Perhaps that is the appeal that Trump makes to many of the evangelicals who flock to support him.

      1. Joshua,
        Plus, isn’t it inconsistent to quote that passage in a response to me but not to writer of the article when he used far more words than I did?

          1. Joshua,
            Actually, the articles I comment on come in spurts and, on average, I comment on half of the articles here.

            So here, you are not judging me on the content of my comments, but on the number of articles I am commenting on even though the number of articles I comment on implies nothing.

            I have a dream.

  2. Excellent article! Among the very best I have read which explains the post-Christian world.

    Moral relativism (subjectivism) is one of essential (false) values of this world. Moral relativism is an entirely self-negating idea. Every moral value which is regarded as “relative” means that it is relative to something else, it cannot stand on its own; ultimately it must be compared that which is absolute and unchanging. Moral relativists deny or ignore this logical truth, and in fact they hate it. Ironically (and hypocritically), they regard their principle of moral relativity as an absolute truth!

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