A few years ago, I heard an interview with a Christian college professor. Having logged three decades in the classroom, he was asked to compare college students today with those of the past. Decades ago, he indicated, incoming freshmen arrived sporting some serious aspiration. If asked, they could (and would!) become the leaders, innovators, and agents of change for industry, government, and commerce. Their ideas would influence society and determine the course of civilization. Yep, humility was weak but ambition ran strong and deep.
But over time the professor detected a shift. Where postmodernism flourished, ambition went AWOL. Students grew ambivalent. Gone were the dreams for making an impact. In their place was the ethos of “Whatever!”—student-speak for, “believe in nothing, care for nothing, interfere with nothing, and live for nothing.”
The professor knew something vital had been lost.
The Future Lost
Ambition cannot survive without dreams for the future. “To be ambitious,” notes author Joseph Epstein, “is to be future-minded (1).” But what happens when the future-minded energy of ambition meets the future-ambivalent morass of postmodernity? Ambition stalls. Life becomes the experience of perpetual randomness. We jettison ultimate truth unaware of its connection to hope and the capacity to dream.
But that’s not all. With the cultural dive into postmodernism, future-dependent values like courage, vision, and enterprise also take a hit. Progress and goals give way to indifference and immediate gratification.
We face a generation of young men and women missing a transcendent vision. The engine of ambition lies silent—a quaint artifact from a bygone era.
In The Social Worlds of Higher Education, Mark Edmundson observes this lack of transcendent vision: “It’s a lack of capacity for enthusiasm that defines what I’ve come to think of as the reigning generational style. Whether the students are sorority fraternity types, grunge aficionados, piercer/tattooers, black or white, rich or middle class, … they are, nearly across the board very, very, self-contained. On good days, they display a light, appealing glow; on bad days, shuffling disgruntlement. But there’s little fire, little passion to be found. . . . This is a culture intensely committed to a laid-back norm (2).”
Colleges are not the problem; they simply reflect the problem. Where postmodernism flourishes, passion never reaches above the level of critical anger at things that don’t seem right. Causes have momentum only to the extent that they have viral cache. And everything matters right now, only so far as it is right now. The future is not intentionally snuffed out. Postmodernism just hangs a “Do No Disturb” sign over doors of opportunity. Few risk the hassle of knocking. Fewer still exert the energy to walk expectantly through the door.
The Future Found
God wants to rescue ambition. But not to build future monuments to our own glory. I’m talking about an instinct that looks for new ways to glorify God through our dreams. Paul said, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13b–14).
Think about it: Paul’s got one thing in view. He wants to forget all that once defined him and press forward into future exploits. For Paul the future was so essential he pressed towards it with dreams and desires, with fiery ambition!
I want the kind of ambition he describes. What about you?
As Christians do we see the opportunity in postmodern culture for the life-transforming message of Jesus Christ? Is there anything more toxic to apathy than the heaven or hell implications of the Gospel? The more I study Scripture and the culture around me, the more I see a world of people who have not only run out of answers, they have run out of questions.
We need ambition—godly ambition that lives grateful for past success while stretching and straining forward to what lies ahead. An ambition that will not rest until more churches are planted, more marriages helped, more art created, more people reached, more businesses started, more disciples made. An ambition aware of postmodernity but living for eternity.
1. Joseph Epstein, Ambition (Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., Publisher; 1980), 5.
2. Bernice A. Pescosolido and Ronal Aminzade, ed., The Social Worlds of Higher Education, Mark Edmundson, “The Debate: On the Uses of a Liberal Education—As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students.” (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1999), 84-85.