The best of Fred Hutchison
The spiritual suicide of Postmodernism
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
March 29, 2012

Originally published May 20, 2004

This essay begins with a brief outline of the rise and collapse of Modernism. In the aftermath of that collapse, a number of disillusioned modernists committed a peculiar form of spiritual suicide. This may be responsible for some of the odd qualities of contemporary postmodern liberalism. It has profound implications for the culture war, and for Christian apologetics and evangelism.

The rise of Modernism

From 1750 to 1970, the main spiritual rival of Christianity in the west was Modernism — or what we used to call "humanism." This was not a conflict of religion versus mere secularism. It was a rivalry of two spiritual forces — the worship of Christ versus the worship of Man. Modernism was a faith in Man and in the purely human powers to bring about a human utopia on earth — with God left out. There were several kinds of modernists, but they were all united by an inexplicable belief in the inevitability of "progress." The confidence in progress replaced Christian faith; the excitement with the unfolding innovations and improvements replaced Christian joy; and the vision of a future utopia replaced the Christian hope of heaven.

A decline of Christianity during the eighteenth century in various places left a spiritual vacuum — which was filled by Modernism. Modernism flourished in the nineteenth century. A revived Christianity competed with Modernism throughout the century and during the opening days of the twentieth century.

The crackup of Modernism

Throughout the twentieth century, Modernism suffered a series of severe shocks. The two world wars and the Cold War were essentially collisions between rival ideologies of Modernism. The modernist's dreams of progress were severely shaken by World War I. The first postmodern cultural monstrosities in art and music began to emerge in the time of bitter disillusionment after the war. Further blows followed via World War II, the Cold War, and its proxy battles in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the third world. Disillusionment with intractable social problems and failed government social programs and socialist agendas brought about a final disillusionment with Modernism in the late sixties. The campus protests of 1967–1971 were a mixture of a) the last outraged protest of a dying Modernism, like the supernova of a dying star, b) the birth of New Age narcissism, c) spiritual suicide, and d) nihilism.

By the early seventies, all talk about the inevitability of progress and future utopias had ceased — except in the magical thinking of infantile narcissism — which we like to call the New Age Movement. New Age became the ghost of a dead Modernism — still wandering and haunting the earth and luring men to destruction with its occult siren song: "Try our magic spells and you can have instant universal utopia — a mystical new age which is on the verge of dawning."

Christianity suffered severe shocks during the twentieth century but it had a resilience, a recuperative power, and staying power which Modernism lacks. After all — Christianity centers on the idea of crucifixion and resurrection. Christianity has suffered many death blows during the last 2,000 years but has always risen from the ashes — because the Crucified One still sits in His Resurrection Body on a throne in heaven.

After the crackup of Modernism, the disillusioned modernists went in three directions: 1) a return to Christianity, 2) the New Age Movement, and 3) Postmodernism. The New Age Movement involves an ersatz spirituality and is a spiritual rival of Christianity. Postmodernists sometimes adopt a superficial pose of religion — but are essentially atheistic and antireligious in attitude. Hostility of an atheistic type follows spiritual suicide. Postmodernists reject the hope of Modernism and the hope of Christianity. They reject the possibility of a spiritual life and the possibility of a transcendent spiritual ideal. The nature of the spiritual suicide is best understood when we consider "Petronian Man."

Petronian Man

R.R. Reno, in his remarkable book In the Ruins of the Church, calls Modernism "Promethean Humanism" in contrast to Postmodernism, which he calls "Petronian Humanism." Prometheus (a name meaning "fore-thinker") was a Titan god who defied the Olympian gods. He stole fire from heaven and gave it to man. Zeus punished Prometheus for this infidelity by chaining him to a rock so the birds could eat his liver.

Modernism was audacious and heroically defiant like Prometheus, stealing for man new powers and privileges without the permission of heaven. Modernism is spiritually ambitious with dreams of transforming human nature. Promethean ambition involves "the high labors of freedom, the noble quest for equality, the rigors of critical thought," as well as the democratic project, the burning light of social conscience, the restless search for technical and material improvements, and the dream of a New Man. Yes, boys and girls, in spite of its delusions and fallacies, the old humanism was not all bad.

"Man Makes Himself" (1936) by Gordon V. Child was the classic introduction to an early history of man, including the rise of civilization. The title is memorable because it so aptly summarizes what was the spirit of Modernism. It is all over now — but it had a long run. Apart from the cultists of the fading New Age ghost, we can never again believe that Man makes himself — or that "progress" — whatever that is — is inevitable.

Petronian Humanism (Postmodernism) lays aside the bold ambition and the epic drama of the Promethean adventure of Modernism. The Petronian syndrome involves a reaction against and retreat from the Romantic heroism of the Promethean spirit. The Petronian pretends he wants unlimited freedom so he can remake himself — like a good humanist or an existentialist. But this is merely a pretext for withdrawal into apathy — and staying the same. Reno styles the new syndrome after its eponymous father, Petronius Arbiter (d. AD 66).

Petronius Arbiter was an important player in Imperial Rome. The emperor Nero dubbed him with the title "Arbiter" to signify that he was to be the arbiter of aesthetic taste and literary style. He was the opposite of the Stoic Roman man of duty. He was an idle, complacent hedonist given to wild extravagance.

Petronius is remembered for his sneering satires, his sarcastic parodies, and his bitter irony — all in the detached mood of wry amusement. I am tempted to compare his rapier wit with that of Voltaire — but Voltaire was a special kind of Promethean spirit and was anything but complacent.

Reno is a college professor and feels that many of his college students embody a muted version of the Petronian attitude. They are outwardly conforming to the expectations of their teachers and their peers. They blandly mouth the conventional politically-correct platitudes. They are good parrots of the party line but it is a superficial mummery. They are incapable of the rage of the radical feminists and gays. They speak in dry, perfunctory tones of detachment and irony. Their detached apathetic insincerity is exactly the opposite of the 60's militants when existential sincerity, commitment, and involvement were everything. The Petronian student is self-contained and detached as he pragmatically does his homework and parrots the ideological cliches his professor wants to hear. He will pragmatically play the game in order to graduate and get a well-paying job — as he secretly sneers at the game. He is annoyed that he had to disturb his apathy to play the game.

In unguarded moments, the Petronian student may speak a word of subversive irony, sarcasm, and ridicule. His parents and comrades bear the bruises of his brusque sarcasm. He is like Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Seldom he smiles; and smiles in such a sort as if he mocked himself and scorned his spirit that he could be moved to smile at anything." Petronian detachment from life shows itself in a sullen face. You only see an occasional smile at an irony or when speaking in a mocking sardonic vein. Parents — don't let your daughter marry one of these sullen hollow shells. Instead of understanding and commitment, she will get sarcasm and retreat from involvement.

The Petronian student is detached from life because he has built layers of defenses to protect himself. Protect himself from what? Reno believes that underneath all this dry detachment there is a stifled panic and even a vein of hysteria. What is our Petronian student afraid of?

For one thing, he is afraid of changing inwardly. He is afraid that some challenge might penetrate his defenses, trouble his conscience, challenge him to change, and upset his complacency. For two hundred years, Promethean Modernists challenged man to change his nature. This is perceived by the Petronian as an old receding nightmare. He feels that the old liberalism was demanding the impossible. He is relieved that Prometheus is now chained to the rock. He is afraid of a deep relationship because it might penetrate his defenses and threaten to change him. Girls, don't expect this loser to change.

Prometheus is chained, but Christianity is not chained. This threatens the Petronian student with the possibility of a radical inward change through the supernatural powers of grace. These heavenly powers demand his obedience to a Holy God. Christians have a final authority concerning what is True and morally right. That authority is the scripture revelation. The Petronian student denies that there is such a thing as transcendent universal Truth or a universal Moral Law. He hates and fears the voice of authority concerning truth and morality, and stops his ears and stifles his conscience lest it be awakened.

In spite of his superficial pliability and cooperativeness, the mere thought of obedience or submission or commitment to a higher authority is intolerable to him. Petronian man is soft clay on the surface but hard stone underneath. The very idea of an authority about Truth and the Moral Law is a horror and an outrage to him and an affront to his diehard position of moral relativity and absolute individual self-determinism. If a Christian makes the merest mention of a moral law, he will cry, "quit shoving your religion down my throat." "Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not think about such things" (Blaise Pascal, Penses). But the presence of devout Christians in our midst makes it impossible not to think about such things. Therefore, Christians are hated.

Petronian man is determined to discredit and silence the voice of Christianity once and for all. This is the real motive for the judicial activism which seeks to remove all mention of God from the public square and all reference to a moral law from discussions of issues like sexual promiscuity, abortion, and homosexuality.

Postmodern ideas like tolerance and moral relativism are important to the Petronian student — not because he cares for ideas or reason. He does not. They are important as defenses against Christianity and are a free pass to sexual libertinism.

Petronius Arbiter was a Hedonist — a sexual libertine. The Petronian student is highly sexualized. Sexual license is critically important to him, but not for reasons of self-actualization as he claims. There are self-indulgent pleasures involved. But beyond mere pleasure, sexual promiscuity helps to maintain the self-enclosed narcissism of his life. Sexual energy used in a radically self-seeking mode keeps the balloon of solipsism pumped up. Without a regular fix of hyper-sex, the illusions that the self-contained world is all that matters might come crashing down. For the Petronian student, sex is a key defense against moral authority and its demands for obedience and self-denial. Petronian Hedonism is implacably hostile to sexual commitment, faithfulness, and chastity. This is why so many debates of the culture war are directly or indirectly about sex. When it comes to sex, the Christian and the Petronian are at war.

Evangelism and apologetics in a Petronian world

I am continually frustrated in my efforts to reason with Petronian men. This effort was based upon my mistaken assumption that they care about reason or the pursuit of truth. They do not. Reason and the pursuit of truth are a great threat to their detached complacency. To reason with them is to threaten them. If they find the truth, they might have to change. This might mean the end of promiscuous sex or the painful collapse of the illusions of narcissism.

When a Petronian man uses the tools of the intellect in debate — it is to discredit his opponent, ridicule authority, and reinforce his defenses. All his weapons of sneering sarcasm and insult will come forth in debate. He will simply refuse to follow a logical argument to its natural conclusions or allow his debating opponent to do so. His battle is defensive and subversive. He wages rhetorical guerilla warfare, instead of participating through logical engagement in the debate. Underneath his affable surface, he is antisocial, antirational, and passive-aggressive.

Many Christians make the mistake of softening the message to pander to the tender, politically-correct sensitivities of the easily offended Petronian. This is a mistake. As Reno explained, no amount of pandering and watering down the Christian message can prevent the raising of the Petronian's hair-trigger defenses. He is radically hostile to the slightest hint about authority, truth, morality, or spirituality. Even an opinion expressed with too much certitude will arouse his ire. He is hiding in a shadowy cave and is terrified by light, certainty, and reality. Our paranoid atmosphere is radically hostile to the Gospel and to Christian apologetics — not to mention the conservative position in the culture war.

What is we need is a clear and courageous testimony to precisely the things the Petronian does not want to hear — Truth, the Moral Law, Authority, Obedience, Submission, Repentance, Self-Denial, and Inner Transformation. The forces of evil desperately want to suppress these voices. Therefore, they must be spoken with ever greater clarity, decision, and firmness. They are afraid to hear it, but we must not be afraid to say it. We must be prepared to endure their insults and their slanders. But we must not leave them alone in their present state of ruin. We should not force the message upon them — as they falsely claim we do. But we must use such circumstantial opportunities as open to us to speak firmly and clearly. Almost every pastor will remind us to speak the truth in love. But the Petronian man is just as afraid of love as he is of truth. He will block love with his defensive shield. I fear that our efforts to show love to the hardened Petronians have only succeeded in equivocating and garbling the message. After all the misguided pandering and equivocating and manipulating, it comes as a relief when the Christian makes his stand: "After the hovering flight and nervous side-glances of Erasmus, it came as a psychological relief when Luther said, "Here I stand" (Kenneth Clark).

An exhausted civilization

Art historian Kenneth Clark speculated that the classical world collapsed because it was "exhausted." I have never understood what he meant — until now. I assumed his idea was a cliche. Not at all. His words were profound. He said these words in 1970 — the very moment when Promethean Modernism was exhausted and on the verge of collapse. When Clark was discussing the Renaissance ideal of "The Dignity of Man," he said, "these words die on our lips."

Nothing is more exhausting than trying to do heroic things because we think we are gods. Human strength is not adequate for a superhuman task. Christianity is spared this kind of exhaustion because the Christian knows there is a real God — and that man is certainly not a god. But when humanists are disillusioned about being gods, they lose hope and collapse into acedia — a spiritual exhaustion, apathy, listlessness, and sense of futility. To the fallen and exhausted god, all human efforts and hopes seem as "vanity and vexation of spirit" (Ecclesiastes1:11). The disappointed Modernist needs to find a better and truer God before hope and an energizing joy can return.

Spiritual suicide

Exhausted and disillusioned, the liberals have abandoned the old humanistic faith in Man and the vague and mythical ideal of "progress" (no matter their contradictory rhetoric). Although Modernism-Humanism was a false religion, it aroused the spiritual imagination and the conscience. It gave men high ideals to strive for and be committed to. When they turned away from Modernism and turned towards Postmodernism, they turned away from the idea of having high ideals and a spiritual life. They committed spiritual suicide. They are the living dead. That is why we cannot leave them alone in their misery. We must annoy them with the joyous news of eternal life — even though they want to be left alone.

Bringing new spiritual life to the living dead amounts to raising the dead. In this case the dead are fighting with a demonic intensity against being raised. They are anti-life because they do not wish to come out of their shells and live. The impartation of life to these stony dead hearts must be the work of God. Our task is to point to the One who breathes the breath of life and makes dead things live. "God is able of the stones to raise up children unto Abraham" (Matthew 3:9).

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31