In 1517, Christianity and the whole world changed forever. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church of the Wittenberg Palace.
The main Lutheran thesis was the sola fide (sole faith): Man can only save himself through faith in Jesus, not by his works. Man can do nothing to save his soul but to believe in Christ.
And by reading the title, you may ask yourself, what does this have to do with cancel culture? Something very simple.
Contemporary progressivism has become a hollow sort of Protestantism precisely because man cannot redeem himself and Christ is not there to save him.
And a couple of situations last week reminded us of this. It doesn’t matter if you apologize or remain silent, as Don McNeil Jr. did, it does not matter if your great sin is a few exaggerated comparisons or atypical political positions, like Gina Carano. If the mob of Jerusalem screams “crucify him!” the via Crucis begins.
And it is a senseless via Crucis because there’s no resurrection. There’s no possible redemption. There is only a massa damnata (mass of the damned) of people that used the wrong words or spoke their minds… Too much.
Cancel culture usually affects ordinary people more than it does famous people. Those who support it often deny its existence by saying it only applies to people who have actually committed atrocities. After all, you won’t find many who believe that Kevin Spacey or Harvey Weinstein should regain their careers after what they did.
Nonetheless, the majority of canceled people are mid-range executives, college professors, and unknown people. A prime example is professor Greg Patton, who was placed on leave for saying the Chinese word “nèi ge” in a class, which means “that,” but unfortunately for professor Patton, it was too close to the “n-word.”
A radical group said he had offended all black students in his class and affected their mental health. The professor apologized but was not able to return to the course.
Meanwhile, a communications executive at Boeing had to resign due to an article he published in 1987 when he was a US Navy Lieutenant in the US Naval institute Magazine where he said that women should not be combat pilots. He apologized and said he had opened his eyes in these 33 years, but it was not enough.
The curious thing here is that the mob became a martial court that accuses sinners in a time when man does not believe in sin.
And it accuses them of sinners and not criminals because the criminal still has the possibility of redemption. The criminal can receive parole; the sinner is beyond any possible redemption. The criminal has damaged his soul; the sinner has murdered it.
And even if it seems a contradiction, precisely having stopped believing in sin led the cancel culture to point the accusing finger on the alleged sinner.
Deep inside the sola fide there’s the idea that human actions are indifferent. No matter what we do, only faith can save us. We cannot attain anything. Thus, sin, the voluntary offense toward God, is emptied because our nature, by itself, is beyond redemption. Our nature is a snow-covered dunghill, paraphrasing Luther.
And this is why Luther’s theological pessimism is, deep inside, a naïve optimism: no matter what you do, in the end, believing is enough.
This makes the notion of sin useless. And postmodernity twists its meaning once again: if you sinned, not even believing can save you because there’s nothing to believe in.
Luther’s sola fide was that only Christ could save man. The postmodern’s sola fide is that nothing can save man. Hence, cancel culture is born.
And in this time and age, we forgot that sin exists. Postmodernity is surprised at the fact of sin as a child is surprised at the fact that his parents’ money is not infinite. It is surprised by the fact that people are capable of making mistakes. The public forum has thus become the forum of alleged angels. The thing with this angels is that they don’t fly because they don’t know how to take themselves lightly (Chesterton dixit).
Speaking of Chesterton, as usual, he says all this better than me in Orthodoxy:
Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing.
Precisely because postmodernity forgot that sin exists, this culture of supposed morality is shocked when someone “sins,” or when someone transgresses the established order. And without a transcendent reference, there’s nothing to do besides scourging and crucifying. There’s no possible forgiveness because there’s no God that can forgive; there’s no possible redemption because there’s no God to believe in.
The woke vision of man is, paradoxically, too optimistic. It forgets the unavoidable reality that man is essentially a sinner. And, therefore, does not know how to react in the face of sin (true or supposed) more than spitting, kicking, and screaming.
Yet Catholic anthropology is way more realistic. It understands man’s existential ugliness but contemplates it with eyes of hope. As Oscar Wilde said, “The Roman Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” God created man good, but he is broken on the inside. No matter how tainted his soul is, no man is beyond redemption.
And this is because accepting the notion of sin consciously implies accepting the possibility of redemption. However, accepting it only unconsciously, as postmodernity does, does not imply anything.
In the postmodern Prodigal Son parable, the son returns home, but his father has died. The servants revile him: “the pain you caused your father killed him,” “he was never the same again,” “after some time, he started to hate you,” “since you left, he erased you from all family albums.” His brother looks at him and says, “I am the Lord of this house, and you do not deserve to bear my father’s name; you are no one here”. His mother, maybe a bit more comprehensive, only says, “My boy, if you had arrived sooner…”
Cancel culture is keeping the prodigal son’s sin without the redeeming embrace of the Father.