My dad was a steelworker in Pittsburgh. So was his father and his grandfather and, well, you get the picture. I worked in the steel mill for one summer and swore I would never go back. It wasn’t just the dirt or the heat. It was many of the millworkers themselves—their vacant conversation and dreamless lives. The culture seemed to suck the sweet center out of all aspiration, leaving it hollow and empty. That summer juiced my dreams. They got bigger and stronger in search of a different future, one that would never include open-hearth furnaces or steel-toed boots. I think for a lot of summer employees, the steel mill rescued their ambition.
Swapping Progress for Peace?
Believe it or not, postmodernity is like an ideological steel mill. What started as an architectural style has morphed into a worldview—a code for explaining contemporary western cultures. We may not see it, but we breathe it each day.
Postmodernity is fundamentally a reaction to the things modernity promised for nearly two centuries. If modernism can be thought of in terms of conquest and ambition, postmodernism is post-conquest and post-ambition. Progress is replaced by the pursuit of personal peace. Ambition, like 8 tracs and moon launches, is a fond memory from a by-gone era.
No Ambition Without Truth
But here’s the real rub: postmodernism is built upon a denial of objective truth. Groups asserting objective truth are seen at best as unenlightened, at worst as criminally intolerant. Postmodernism, at its heart, is a distrust of anyone who says “That’s the way it is” or “This is the truth.” In the postmodern world, truth is up for grabs, and there are few takers.
So how does postmodernity affect ambition? The same way the steel mill seemed to empty the future for so many hardworking people. It hijacks dreams, softens motivation, and renders us indifferent. By attacking objective truth, postmodernity erodes the ground needed for ambition. When people in a culture hold to the objectivity of knowledge, they grow optimistic regarding progress and human accomplishments. Truth is a worthy goal and an attainable quest. The journey towards a satisfying and achievable end produces individuals who are industrious and enterprising. Aspiration has a foundation and meaning. But where there is no ground and meaning—no greater truth in the world, nothing bigger that you are a part of—enterprise and ambition rust away in ruins.
But where knowable truth is denied, ambition suffocates. Meandering replaces meaning, confusion trumps conviction, ambivalence swallows aspiration. We become living symptoms of the last days, “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 3:7).
D. A. Carson describes the ambition void left when the moral, spiritual base of a culture gives way in the shifting sands of relativism:
“Individualism once allied with a societal assumption of objective truth and eternal verities could generate at least some men and women of courage, honor, vision; individualism allied with philosophical pluralism and the scarcely qualified relativism of post-modernity generates ‘a world without heroes.’”
Where is your ambition these days? Is it swallowed up in the weeds of neglect? Are you content to live in a world without heroes? Have you ever aspired to be a hero yourself—at least in the every day sense of vigorous commitment to living for the glory of God?
Christians exist in a postmodern world, but we live in an eternal kingdom. That alone makes true ambition possible. Once ambition is rescued, then heroes aren’t far behind. And whether you work in a pulpit, a cubicle or a steel mill, that’s good news.
1. Stephen Wellum, Reclaiming the Center, 163
2. D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God, 49