Change And Progress

by Rick Shrader

In regard to culture, theories that hate beauty and order have undermined meaning, value, and conscience. Whether it is popular culture or high culture, they have led to ever stranger sins and more startling obscenities. Each year requires more baroque perversions to provoke society’s jaded capacity for outrage.         Cal Thomas

Cal Thomas was writing about the Sixties’ mentality when he wrote those words. The sixties’ experiment of indulgence with no restraint has proved to be a dismal failure in every regard. Every category of social structure has failed to produce the utopia promised by the sixties’ freedom from morality. And why is that? It is because the basic premise was wrong. Instead of man being his own god in a relativistic universe, he is made in God’s image in a moralistic universe. A fish can’t fly and a bird can’t live under water and a man can’t function properly in this world without God.

You might say that the Hippies/Boomers/Yuppies brought about change but not progress. Now, in the nineties, we are having to undo the change and refix the foundation so that true progress can be made.  We have become fond of the word ‘‘modernity’’ in the nineties as if it were equal to progress but, of course, it is not. Os Guinness says modernity ‘‘refers to the character and system of the world produced by the forces of modernization and development.’’ But such change toward modernity may or may not be toward the good. Neil Postman called this ‘‘Technopoly–the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.’’

But is this progress? In the nineteenth century Tocqueville said, ‘‘The American lives in a land of wonders. Everything around him is in constant movement, and every movement seems an advance. Consequently, in his mind the idea of newness is closely linked with that of improvement.’’ But even techniques that have made businesses more productive (like tele-marketing) have not necessarily made an improvement on our quality of living. Many, of course, have (like modern medical techniques) but it is certainly not conclusive that just because something is different it is better.

Just after the sixties Francis Schaeffer warned evangelical Christianity of the coming problem of fitting a constant truth (all truth is!) into a changing culture. He said, ‘‘If our reflex action is always accommodation regardless of the centrality of the truth involved, there is something wrong.’’ Also, ‘‘The culture is to be constantly judged by the Bible, rather than the Bible being bent to conform to the surrounding culture.’’ More recently, Os Guinness said it this way, ‘‘Failing to think Christianly, evangelicals have been forced into the role of cultural imitators and adapters rather than originators. In biblical terms, it is to be worldly and conformist, not decisively Christian.’’

In the 1940’s, C.S. Lewis asked the question, ‘‘How can an unchanging system survive the continual increase of knowledge?’’ He answered by using the illustration of the alphabet. A five year old boy may be memorizing twenty-six letters of the alphabet upon which he will later build a store of knowledge. At the same time a mature scholar may be reading metaphysics from Plato and noting the literary beauty and its place in history. But the scholar is dependent upon what the boy is still learning. If those twenty-six letters aren’t properly learned and their meaning properly preserved, Plato cannot make sense. The fundamental pieces must stay intact. ‘‘If that goes,’’ says Lewis, ‘‘then there has been no progress, but only mere change. For change is not progress unless the core remains the same.’’ The same would be true of our first numbers to the application of algebra or our first grade-school science experiment to rocketry.

Similarly the only way Christianity can make sense and pass on truth to any culture is to keep intact the most basic and fundamental pieces of its tradition. Schaeffer said, ‘‘The Reformation did this in its day in relation to the culture coming at the end of the Middle Ages. And we must never forget that all the great revivalists did this concerning the surrounding culture of their day. And the Christian church did this at every one of its great points of history.’’ Calvin said, ‘‘The more determined men become to despise the teaching of Christ, the more zealous should godly ministers be to assert it and the more strenuous their efforts to preserve it entire, and more than that, by their diligence to ward off Satan’s attacks.’’

If we think we have seen the end of Satan’s attempts to change the alphabet of our culture, we are blind guides indeed. In 1970 H.R. Rookmaaker, Professor of Art at the Free University of Amsterdam, observed, ‘‘Perhaps a new culture is growing that can come into being only when the old civilization is completely destroyed. But if things continue the way they do the new culture will be neither humanistic nor Christian.’’ In 1994, Gene Veith, Professor of English at Concordia University, Wisconsin, answered, ‘‘Many people today are sensing that the modern era is over. As we enter the twenty-first century, it seems clear that Western culture is entering a new phase which scholars are calling ‘postmmodernism.’’’ He says, ‘‘Postmodernism dismisses ‘foundationalism,’ defined as ‘the idea that knowledge is the reflection of truth and that we can discover a stable foundation for it in God, History or Reason.’’’

We who name the name of Christ and who hold high the ‘‘Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth,’’ must realize that every culture is an expression of a belief system whether it be in art, music, fashion, theater or medicine. Neither should we underestimate the power and craftiness of the god of this world and his ability to ‘‘change’’ the alphabet. The writer of Hebrews, in chapter six, admonished believers to leave the basic principles and go on to perfection, not laying again foundational things. He did not, of course, advocate changing those foundational things. Rather, he meant to build upon those things more complete and mature things.  Leave the alphabet and go on to Plato, so to speak. Real ‘‘progress’’ is more than ‘‘change’’ especially in the Christian walk.

Lewis wrote of the changes in life, ‘‘Humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.’’ It would be foolish for an Oak to despise acorns or grandpas to despise grandchildren or humans to despise DNA. It is also foolish for moderns to despise their own traditions. All the tradition that was really true is still part of us and vitally connected to us. It is change for change’s sake, the kind that wants to separate us from our roots, for which we must be cautious. At the same time, no one wants to stay with the alphabet or have only acorns or be only a child. But the difference is progress, not merely change.