We are no better than our ancestors. I firmly believe this, although apparently many others do not. My disagreement with prevailing opinion concerns more than current academic arrogance and anachronism with respect to our ancestors. I’m opposed to the sweeping trends of popular attitude and public policy, with their figurative (and literal) removal of all memorials to the bad people and events of the past. The problem here goes beyond impoverishing historical memory, wiping away whole swaths of the past from our collective imagination. That is true only to a point, and in some cases the refashioning of distorted memory is overdue. I am concerned with deeper contemporary assumptions that motivate our attempts to erase the past, ones that touch upon the truth of human life. Our current attitude to our ancestors seems to grow out of a broad sense that today we know more, indeed, are morally better than yesterday; that today we are different, not just in our attitudes, but in our very selves.
I could not disagree more. In the most important ways, we remain the same as ever: We are born, we live a little, we die. We love, we work, we sorrow, and, of course, we sin. Yes, there are differences in circumstances. These tend to be what we measure when we talk about progress. Don’t get me wrong—circumstances matter. I’d rather live here than there, in the U.S. than in China, for instance. Or in the era of modern medicine, rather than in the era of bloodletting and lobotomies. (Well, the latter is rather recent, but happily now discredited.) Or in a culture without slavery, rather than in Roman North Africa. To consign these differences to “circumstance” is not to belittle them. But none of them represent fundamental differences in existence.
In any case, the great arguments about cultural or historical progress have been an elite affair. Historians speak of the great Battle of the Ancients and Moderns, the seventeenth-century literary conflict that pitted the likes of Fontenelle (modern) against Boileau (ancient), or the Royal Society (modern) against Swift (ancient). It was a debate about writing, art, and cultural insight. Are contemporary modes of discourse and philosophy superior, or are classical models better?
Like the contests rippling through today’s obscure academic journals, the Battle of the Ancients and Moderns exhausted itself on the scholarly margins of society. And in any event, the modern conceit of “progress” was still remote. There was only the vaguest sense that all of history might be at issue. Rather, given that some eras are often both better and worse than others, how are we to weigh pros and cons? That argument is one we can all engage. I think Handel (and his ilk) are just better than Led Zeppelin and theirs.
From Hesiod to Oswald Spengler, there have been efforts to mark out improvements in the human condition—barbarism to civilization, for instance; paganism to Christianity, even, as if these historical moments actually colored the nature of human character. Yet even in these schemes, the notion of progressive movement and steady improvement was missing (pace the brief Constantinian celebrations of history’s advance by a few Christian imperial cheerleaders like Eusebius). In fact, for the most part, until the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries in Europe, people tended to see history as a general decline, with, perhaps, a few swerves and interruptions on the way, with every successive “age” seen as moving on a downward slope from this or that “Golden Era.”
Christian thinking fits into this general pattern in an interesting way. The fact that there is a “New” Testament and divine Incarnation at “Year Zero” might make one think that things have taken a decisive turn for the better, and that Christian existence is indeed a progressive jump forward from pre-Christian existence. But in general, that was not the usual assumption that Christians themselves embraced. The march of time, even in the hands of comprehensive Christian theorists who liked to paint the past on the grandest scale possible, was a testimony to divine providence, not to the triumph of the modern project. Bossuet’s seventeenth-century “Universal History” offers a classic example. Empires come and go; civilizations flourish and wane—the issue is whether God is at work in them, not whether one is “better” than another, let alone whether the human species and its insights into reality have grown in depth. Put simply, Babylonians, Israelites, and Christians were all buried in the same graves.
Scripture suggests a view of history that offers little support for either declinist pessimism or progressive confidence. Things go from bad to worse in the first chapters of Genesis; and after the rather exhaustive divine destruction of the Flood, God’s promises are not that human life will improve as time goes on; only that God himself will not wipe humanity from the surface of the earth because of our unimpressive moral achievements. Maybe things were good for a few years under David or Solomon—that’s debatable on the basis of the biblical accounts—but overall, when it comes to the battle between “ancients” and “moderns,” the Scriptures offer little clarity. The “best” times for Israel, we are told on more than one occasion, were in the wilderness of Sinai. That’s not exactly a map for progress. Frankly, if it is a map at all, it traces post-biblical human life rather neatly, one where “love grows cold” as the universe expands (Matt. 24:12). We are heading toward final consummation in God’s love, yes, but the path has many twists and turns.
Because we are no better than our ancestors, a number of rather key realities obtain, ones that should shape our judgments, both of others and of ourselves; judgments from which our own culture could benefit, if not in terms of making life better, then at least in terms of making life more honest. Here are a few of such realities.
Whether we live three thousand years ago or today, here or there, we are creatures made by God and defined by the essential limits of our mortal frame. Both then and now, these limits impose immovable constraints on our knowledge and capacities. Both then and now, the reality of human sin—call it the Fall—turns the limits of created finitude into enemies of faithfulness and happiness. Our inbuilt ignorance, for instance, becomes a destructive antagonism toward God our maker, fueling our pursuit of idols.
Both then and now, the mercy of God is everlasting, and its power both commands and draws us to repentance, an honest reckoning of our needs, our failures, and our hopes. Both then and now, our oft-strangled thirst for redemption is granted a miraculous mitigation, in the cascading forms of divine grace that finally reach their abundant fullness in Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God. Both then and now, wherever we stand and whatever we have experienced, we are pressed back toward God through this grace, disarmed of our own resources and readied for God’s gifts.
Both then and now. The essential continuity of our life before God is why the now is always open to the witness, however limited and thus however close to us, of every then. When we stare into the past, we gaze into the mirror of our lives with God.
Christians are among the most distrusted groups among Canadians today, according to recent surveys. Younger people’s impatience and even disdain for Christian faith tracks a much deeper and more pervasive sense of the Church’s antiquarian irrelevance and moral stuntedness. Following the “modern” outlook of the seventeenth-century Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, young people (and many older folks, too) continue to believe that the present is a morally evolved moment that can evaluate the past from aposition of purified and enlightened vision.
In a way, this judgment, now so widespread, recapitulates the earlier European view that patronized so-called primitive peoples. Chauvinistic French and Englishmen in past centuries imagined distant cultures as cannibalistic simply because they lacked the pedagogy of the West. It was a pretension Montaigne brilliantly punctured, to little effect. Alas, our time is not one of enlightenment, but of dimmed flashlights. If only we had “moderns” as humane and capacious as Fontenelle! We need a new Montaigne in our day, but one whose relativizing of such self-serving assumptions can open up the breathtaking abysses of human life and its miraculous wonder and need, which stretch from generation to generation, from Adam to Adam.
When in our conceit we presume that we are better than our ancestors, the glory of divine creation and redemption is but a muted glimmer. We are no better than our ancestors; thanks be to God!
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.