Friday, April 12, 2019

"C'mon, It's 2019"

If you spend much time on the internet, there is a good chance you have heard a comment like the one in the title of this article. It is among the most common, and sadly, most effective forms of criticism in secular culture. If you espouse a classical (especially a Christian) morality, then you stand a chance of being told this.



Its power lies in our culture’s fixation on freshness. Having to be told what year it is implies that you are acting as though you do not know. You are stuck in the past, and you are being chided for not keeping up with the times. That, of course, is a very judgmental attitude, but it is not what I want to look at here. Rather, it is the fact that this statement is assumed to convey something without going the extra step of being persuasive.

Force of the Argument

How does it actually argue for anything? On its own, clearly not at all. It has just as much force as saying, “It’s Tuesday” or, “It’s August.” The suggestion inherent in it is that we have moved past a retrograde way of viewing the world and Christians need to catch up. But morality has to do with truth. What does time have to do with truth? What does it being 2019 have to do with, say, whether slavery is right or wrong? Obviously, I am not arguing for a return to slavery. I am saying that the year tells us nothing.

Well, almost nothing. Because when someone uses this criticism, it tells us something about them. We can know that they have bought into the notion that the latest is the greatest. But why should that be true? Push them on it, and they are not likely to have an answer. It is a culture cue that they follow, not a substantive position.

Source of the Argument

I do happen to know something about where this attitude came from, though. The idea that “New=Good” is, broadly speaking, the result of the collision of three philosophical trends. Well, a lot more than that, but the first one is a combination. Throughout the 19th Century, and essentially beginning with the work of G.W.F Hegel, there developed the belief that history was a force moving us toward constant improvement. Combined with the theory of evolution, this resulted in the concept of Social Darwinism in which the strongest succeeded, the weak ought to perish (or at least be managed), and later civilizations were more advanced and therefore superior to earlier ones simply because of their place in time. It could be called “cultural survival of the fittest,” and was a driving force behind Communism, Nazism, and the eugenics movement.

In American politics, this has more lately taken the form of Progressivism. It is not as extreme as Social Darwinism, but still shares a number of the hallmarks inherited from Hegelianism. Progress is the greatest good. The struggles of the past, once overcome, no longer have to be feared. And history is not merely the record of the victors. Rather, the victors are determined by history. Winning makes you right, and there is never a reason to move back.

[As an aside, that is why Progressives generally push for increased government power. It is an “old fashioned” idea to fear abuse by the state. We have moved past the point when the government could tyrannize us, they essentially say, and therefore it ought to proactively assist citizens.]

The second stream of thought to consider here is scientism. This is the belief that because science has helped us better understand the “how” of life, it is capable of explaining the “why” of life. Another way to say it is that they believe science teaches us truth, not just facts.

Science has given us a number of comforts, especially over the last century. We live in what could easily be considered a golden age, at least as far as the ease of life is concerned. This has elevated the cultural position of science nearly to that of deity, as though meaning and purpose can be discovered through empirical observation. And, in conjunction with Hegel and his children, science has been seen as a gift of the times. Because we are better off than our ancestors, we are automatically better than our ancestors. Superiority can be plotted on a timeline.

Lastly, the overconfidence of the previous two streams resulted in the third of postmodernism. This one has the least to do with time. Stated at the most basic level, it is the belief that nothing is true, or at least that truth cannot be understood. Existence is random and all values are relative. What matters most is power. If you have power, you impose your meaning on life. If you lack power, you seek to gain it by tearing down the old structures. If anything matters, that is it.

Time still comes somewhat into play even here. If you are outside a culture’s norms, it is not because you are wrong. It is because you are oppressed. Old ideas have power through longevity and privilege. Their settlement needs to be upset in order for oppressed groups to gain ascendency. The ideas of the oppressed are not necessarily new, but they are different, and that is all they need to be.

These three systems of thought vary at important points, and none of them is internally consistent. The way our culture gets around this is by amalgamating them. History cannot tell you the difference between right and wrong? Well, we can trust science because it has done us so much good. Science can also do evil? Well, there really is no such thing as right and wrong. Postmodernism cannot give the meaning necessary to and evident in life? Well, We’ve come too far to look back to old ideas.

See what happens? We go in a circle, and the objections are never answered by the philosophy in which they started. You just move to the next one, even though they are not really consistent with each other, either. Few people are actually devoted to Progressivism, scientism, or postmodernism. They follow a pop-culture mixture of the three, and then smugly look down on those who cannot or will not keep up.

A statement like “It’s 2019” conveys this confusion, as well as the na├»ve confidence that produces it. It tells us nothing, other than that they think today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today. Why that should be so is left totally unanswered.

Truth Surpasses the Moment

In Christian thought, time is secondary to truth. We have recognized more of the latter through the passing of the former, but it did not come from the passage. It came from God. Because it is found in Him, it was true before we knew it and it will continue to be true even if we try to forget it.

Interestingly, Hegel was very fond of a particular set of verses in the Bible. Gal. 4:4–5 says,

When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (NKJV). 

But Hegel missed the point. He made the object of this statement “the fullness of time.” His focus became a moment in history when something momentous happened, rather than the momentous thing itself. As the Apostle Paul makes clear to those willing to actually pay attention, the real object of wonder is the Son of God. Jesus offers us redemption that we cannot hope to purchase for ourselves. That is the most important fact of all history, and history did not make it so. God did. And as Paul makes clear elsewhere, God’s purpose was always the same even before His plan came to fruition (2 Tim. 1:9–10). The truth did not change with the time. It only became better known, until it was totally revealed in the one who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).

This is the point we need to cling to. God’s will does not change just because it is 2019. His holiness does not shift with the coming of each new January, and His justice and judgment do not fade with every day that goes by. He “is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8). When you get called out on the basis of time, remember that you stand on the foundation of the eternal. Know what you believe, and know why you believe it. You’ll be standing firm then, and in a position to show your critics the shaky ground they’re on.

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