If you paid any attention to the now, essentially-completed culture war over gay marriage (we did not win, by the way), a great fear has been landing on the “wrong side of history.” At one point, for instance, a woman who now self-identifies as a man forced a breastfeeding organization to change their bylaws so that “he” can be a member. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. On paper, anyway, men can now join an organization for learning how to breastfeed their babies. Otherwise, the organization conceded, they would have found themselves “on the wrong side of history.”
The concept is full of holes but that’s the subject of another post. What interests me is that it reveals a basic, foundational assumption we almost universally make—the idea that as a society and a culture, we are progressing. There is, of course, another pretty clear option: we might instead be stagnating or even digressing. Naturally enough, most of us would be blind to the question since our society has operated on the keynote of “human progress” our whole lives. But for as long as there are records, societies tend to vacillate between two extremes. In one era of Greek thought, for instance, the predominant motif was looking backwards to a past “golden age.” Similar attitudes arose in the decline of the Roman Empire and in the Rennaisance. The opposite assumption (that mankind is progressing) had its time just before each of these eras and again in the last few hundred years. It is perfectly plausible—even likely—that some future generation of humans will look backwards and wish that society would return to another bygone “golden age.” That this assertion might sound odd exposes how deeply our faulty assumption runs.
So why do we think we’re progressing?
- On one level it only makes sense. The last 200 years have witnessed the most rapid technological and developmental change in the history of mankind. Even more fascinating, a good part of that progress is concentrated in the last 25 years—the only period of time that some of us ever remember experiencing.
- It makes sense for another reason too. Ecclesiastes talks about the total power of the living over all that came before them (Eccl. 9:3-6). The dead don’t get to defend themselves. And so nearly every concurrent generation thinks they’re wiser than the ones that came before. You know the arrogant teenager who thinks he’s figured out life even though he’s only 16? We are all that teenager. We just got born the other day and we already think we’re smarter than thousands of years of humans that came before us.
So which is it?
And so we can return to the starting question—are we moving toward or away from the best of human society? Is the “golden age” before us or behind us?
The answer isn’t simple. There’s no question, after all, that our society has built on the insights of previous generations to go further and do more than any generation of humans before. The technologies that make it possible for you to read my thoughts in Manila; the flight that brought me here; even the infrastructure that brings food and water to a city of 25 million people every single day—all of these represent real progress. When God created man He told us to subdue the earth and have dominion. It’s as though even in spite of man’s sinful condition, he still can’t help but fulfill some of God’s good intentions.
But the intellectual trap is to blithely equate this kind of progress with completely different kinds of progress. It is entirely possible for a society to fray and fall apart in morals even as it progresses in scientific knowledge. Even now, a society where homosexual acts are illegal seems outmoded and a little repressive. Suddenly clearly articulating a biblical view on sexual ethics or the definition of marriage starts to sound provincial, puritanical and regressive. And to this the answer is quite clear. The standard of moral progress or digression is basic and unchanging. If it accords with God’s truth, it’s right. If not, it isn’t progress. Yes, technology shows man fulfilling God’s intentions in spite of himself, but our society’s moral decline shows the utter foolishness of sin (think breast-feeding organizations with male members or Romans 1:21-32).
The True Golden Age
And that points to a legitimate sense in which we ought to both look forward and backward at the same time. Because there are two periods in human history that are truly a “golden age.” The first happened in the beginning, before sin entered the world, when God declared that everything He had made was good. Everything since that day has been a long journey downward. Granted, it has had plenty of ups and downs—occasional times of hope and far more numerous nadir points where humanity expressed just how surprisingly deep its depravity can go.
But our hope and confidence is in another golden age to come—a day when Jesus rules over a restored earth. If answering the question of decline or progress isn’t simple right now, it will change. In that day all will be good. Completely, entirely, unqualifiedly good.
And from that perspective—the end and pinnacle of all history—I find myself ironically in agreement with the concern to be “on the right side of history.” Because the story of history is actually quite clear. Someday Jesus Christ will reign over a restored planet that will joyfully acknowledge His total authority. His word, His truth, His desire will be law (Psalm 2).
And in preparation for that great day, I place myself in submission to His rule, regardless of the dictates of my surrounding society. King Jesus is already my King; His word and His will must be the dicates of my life. All else is an aberration from life as it ought to be. Conformity to His dicates is the true meaning of progress.
Because for me and for you, the worst mistake we could possibly make would be to find ourselves on the wrong side of history.