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Christians are Anti-Progress

In Time on December 31, 2015 at 5:44 am

ProgressBChristians are often resistant to progress, sometimes when they shouldn’t be.  I am resistant to the label because I don’t think, in many respects, Christianity calls us to be inherently anti-progress.  But in one sense, I am OK with this label.

The Good was traditionally understood to fall into the transcendent category.  We are much more materialistic these days and, consequently, are suspicious of, or flatly reject, the category.  We haven’t lost the idea of good, but it has moved from a higher ideal to the material realm.  It now lives at the end of every line of progress, which we see everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist.  The good is now “just what happens next.”  Pastor and blogger Toby Sumpter (“Committed as Christmas”) argues that living in this “evolutionary universe” erodes commitment.

The Biblical worldview emphasizes commitment–God is so committed to humanity that he would die for us.  People exhorted to be committed to God, parents, spouses, children, governments, neighbours, church and creation.  A commitment to commitments is out of step with the dominant culture.  Sumpter says that this “is why marriage . . .  is not merely an old fashion custom, it is positively anti-progress.”

It is not inappropriate to find pleasure in change.  We were created to desire change.  I love the changes between the seasons and, although I love steak and mashed potatoes, I don’t want to eat them two days in a row.  But we were also made to crave permanence.  The things that human beings love most are a balance between change and permanence:

Baseball always has four bases that are positioned 90 feet apart and there are always three outs per inning.  These permanent qualities are complemented with change, for no two games are alike.  In this blend of constancy and variety is the appeal of baseball.

The same is true of our fascination in watching a lava lamps, a campfire, or waves crashing onto the beach.  Our fascination is rooted in the balance between newness and change.

The problem arises, when we lose the balance between permanence and change.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis attributes our obsession with new experiences to demonic activity.

Now just as we [the tempters] pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.  This demand is entirely our workmanship. . . .  Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for the infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.

The task of the demons is made much easier by the evolutionary worldview that dominates popular thought in our culture.  Change is a good, but it is not The Good.  So in a sense, it is appropriate for Christians to be labelled inherently anti-progress.

 

The Myth Progress

In Time on December 31, 2015 at 4:33 am

The above quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I don’t think it’s true. For one thing, I don’t think it is necessarily the most dangerous phrase — others are more dangerous. For instance, “because we’ve always done it this way, let’s try something else” would be more dangerous when applied to driving on the left or eating glass.  Sometimes the way we’ve always done things is the best way to do it.

That’s the way it is with sayings; they aren’t universally true, but they communicate a truth.

Hopper’s saying resonates particularly with Westerners because we love change. We tend to equate change with progress.  We believe that new ways are better than old ways.

We believe time is structured by progress.

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. In one episode, Diomedes has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear throw that severs the braggart’s tongue. Aeneas attempts to recover Pandarus’ body, but has to face Diomedes who “picked up a stone, a massive rock which no two men now alive could lift. He threw it all by himself with ease.” The Greeks thought that the great men of old were better than the men alive in their time, and not only in terms of physical strength.

The modern story, however, believes that our times are better than previous times. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the conversion of knowledge to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Check out this Radio Shack flyer from twenty-five years ago. The author of the accompanying article points out that the function of almost every item from the coolest page in the newspaper in 1990 is now on the phone in my pocket. If that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

It is progress, but only in two categories.  Progress in scientific knowledge and technological power is not the same as cultural or moral development.  In these we’ve not progressed at all; human beings remain the same. The problem is that our scientific knowledge and technological power do not make us better, they only increase the effects of what we do–whether that be good or evil.

Human cultural and moral progress is a myth.

People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved.’

The nugget of truth in this saying, uttered by Agent Colson, in the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D., is that time is not structured by progress.  C. S. Lewis agrees:

“The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. ”

— (“The World’s Last Night”)

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter, on how to undermine the faith of “the Patient” and thereby secure his soul for damnation. One of the diabolical strategies for populating hell, is to control how modern man understands the past.

Screwtape describes the “the intellectual climate which [the demons] have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe” (139). He jubilantly reports,

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done so by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. . . . To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is important to cut every generation off from all the others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. (139-140)

Lewis calls this view of history, “chronological snobbery,” and defines it as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy 167).

We are certainly progressing technologically, and we are moving steadily toward a more free, open, liberal or tolerant society. But make no mistake, humanity is making no progress culturally, politically or morally.  Nor will we–ever.

An Inventory of Moments

In Time on December 22, 2015 at 11:11 pm

lava lampMoment 1: I was about 6 years old when we moved from Montana to Michigan.  I was brought to my new school and left in the charge of Mrs. Smith, my new grade 1 teacher.  I sat alone in the classroom waiting for something to happen.  I imagine I was scared, but I don’t remember.  What I do remember is a blonde head popping up in the outside window, shrieking with excitement–“It’s a new boy!”

This was one of the moments from my life.  Objectively, time is composed of a series of identical units, but our subjective experience is that time is not homogeneous–time is less like a clock than a lava lamp.

In an attempt to understand time in this more subjective way, I have here described a few of the events that constitute a very large inventory of moments.

Moment 2: I was high up in the Canadian Rockies, far off any road–we had travelled up a frozen river bed till we could go no further.  It was too late to build a lean-to, and too cold, so we decided to sleep in the truck. It was too cold to sleep in the truck.  So at 3am we started climbing higher into the mountains and watched the sunrise from the top of the world.  At about noon I saw a huge mountain muley careening down the opposite slope.  Then he disappeared in the brush.  I waited.  He appeared in a small stand of trees to my left.  That’s when time almost stopped.  I didn’t even feel the recoil of my 30-06.  I didn’t hear the gun’s report.  All I saw was the deer turn and run back the way he had come.  He didn’t make it thirty feet.  A perfect shot.

Moment 3:  Dread poured from my chest into my belly.  I turned and ran home crying.  I had forgotten my cotton balls AGAIN!    I think we were going to make cotton ball igloos on construction paper and snow was impossible to represent without cotton balls.  I had forgotten to bring them several days in a row.  I still think this is way too much responsibility for a 5 year old and why the heck didn’t the school provide the necessary materials for our kindergarten projects.  I remember returning to school with a green Dippity Doo jar full of cotton balls.

Moment 4 occurred on May 20, 1980.  It was raining mud.  I was out in a field south of Olympia, WA at about 8:30 in the morning.  I was turning off water pumps because we didn’t move irrigation lines on Sundays.  When I was finished, I got into my truck and I couldn’t see through the windshield.  The wipers smeared grey mud.  Church was cancelled that morning because of volcanic eruption.  That was Mt. Helen’s first, one of the later ones happened on a beautiful clear day and I watched the ash bloom from the same field (another moment).

Moment 5: I was on the Oregon coast with my daughters in August 2008.  My sons weren’t there because of summer jobs.  My wife was leaving me so she didn’t come; it wasn’t a very happy holiday.  This had been my point of view for the previous 18 months–I had no happiness, nor any hope for future happiness.  I was watching my girls and the waves crash onto the beach; I sighed and said to my self, “So this is how live is going to be from now on.”  Then it hit me–I was in this incredible place with people I adored and we were going out for clam chowder later.  I said it again with an entirely different view of the world, “So this is how life is going to be from now on.”

Moment 6: Joe Carter’s homerun in 1993.

Moment 7:  In 1996 we bought a farm, a pigeon farm (we raised squab for the fancy Chinese restaurants in Vancouver and the other markets across North America).  One day we took possession I went for a walk by the barns.  I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  I knew little about raising squab and the flock was in bad shape; there was a lot of disease and very poor production.  It was a scary moment and I’ll never forget it.  10 years later I could diagnose diseases by smell and production was increased 20 times.

Moment 8 was at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp outside of Munich.  I’ve always been interested in World War Two.  I took classes on it in both high school and university, read many books, and watched every documentary I could.  The Holocaust was particularly intriguing and baffling for me–how could people do this to each other, and on such a scale?  In spite of all I read, perhaps because of it, the Holocaust and Nazism were abstract concepts to me.  The incredible thing about Dachau was the realization that the Holocaust was made out of concrete, wood and barbed wire.  There was a road outside the barbed wire–if you were standing on that road in 1944 you were not in the camp, 20ft. over and you were in the camp.  That 20 feet made all the difference.  It was in that moment that I became aware of the spatial and material reality of the Final Solution.  Evil is not just a vague idea, it is a concrete reality.

Moment 9: Every time I’ve watched “The Sound of Music.”

Time is made up of such moments; they surge around us and engulf us and lift us and then dissipate–like a lava lamp.

 

Time is Like a Lava Lamp

In Time on December 15, 2015 at 7:24 pm

Lava LampI don’t know why we think that every minute is like every other minute; we certainly don’t experience time in this way.

Shakespeare knew it.  I was teaching Romeo and Juliet in my grade 9 class and noted several comments on the flexibility of time.  Among them:

Sad hours seem long. — Romeo

In a minute there are many days. — Juliet

Cervantes records the same experience.  I just finished reading Don Quixote where I found the famous knight finds time moving slowly.

Night, longed for by Don Quixote with the greatest anxiety in the world, came at last, though it seemed to him that the wheels of Apollo’s car had broken down, and that the day was drawing itself out longer than usual, just as is the case with lovers, who never make the reckoning of their desires agree with time.

These great works of literature present time as we experience it ourselves. When drawing I lose all sense of time, but when cooking it moves quickly, often too quickly for me to get the potatoes mashed.  When sitting in a Christmas concert presented by young children with bells in their hands, time rasps slowly along, but it moves with even more heaviness in a hospital waiting room.

The trend in Western society is towards homogenizing experience–we’ve attempted to do the same with time.

I think our understanding of time is greatly influenced by the devices we use to mark it–they have become the metaphor by which we understand time.  Our modern clocks–both analogue and digital varieties–divide the day into homogenous hours, minutes and seconds.  Even old-fashioned hourglass divided time up into identical grains of sand.

We need another metaphor for time as we actually experience it so that we can begin to think about it differently.

The lava lamp!

Sometimes time moves slowly, other times quickly; the goo in lava lamps moves up and down in various speeds.  We experience time, not only as minutes, but moments; lava lamps have these moments.  That’s why we like to watch them; we are anticipating the next moment.  The moments we experience surge around us and engulf us and lift us and then they dissipate.  Moments of Joy and Sorrow and Grace move through our experience as rising and falling blobs of iridescent lava.

Not only is this a much richer way to think of time, it is much more descriptive of our experience that the mechanical tick-tock-tick-tock of the ubiquitous wall clock.