Or, Temporal Provinicialists Gone Wild
We often pride ourselves on the knowledge that we have in comparison to the ancients in our day and age. We look at the way society has changed since the enlightenment and think of how advanced we are. We look at all the wonders of science that we have and how we have seen the edge of the universe as well as the nucleus of the cell. Impressive indeed we are! Yet are we too quick to forget where we came from and how we could fall if we forget that? Could it be that the ancients can still be our teachers and maybe that if we do not heed their words, we will suffer for it?
I believe that this is the case. I believe the ways we describe ourselves tend to elevate us against the rest of the people who have ever lived. We are forsaking what G.K. Chesterton called "The Democracy of the Dead." We are the modern people and everyone else is "pre-modern."
I would like to consider three beliefs in particular as examples. These three are the belief in a god of some sort, the belief in miracles, and the belief in objective morality as examples. It is often taken that if you are a truly modern and sophisticated intellectual, you know that science, sociology, psychology, and every other field has refuted these arguments.
Have they now?
In his work, "Surprised by Joy", C.S. Lewis gives us this caution in speaking about another person:
In the first place, he made short work of what I have called my "chronological snobbery," the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (And if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. (Surprised by Joy pp. 207-208)
This is the error that many Christians have made on these issues and even I have made in the past. We have assumed the defensive in that we have to give reasons why we believe God exists or that miracles or possible or that morality is objective. I would suggest that since this has been the worldview of history, it is up to the skeptic to argue his case. If we assume his case right off unless other evidence is contrary, then we are just as well assuming that the dead did not know what they were talking about and in light of modern evidence (Whatever that is which is what we want to know) we should pursue a different track.
Why give modernism that status? Were the ancients really all idiots? They might not have known all that we know today, but they sure knew a lot. We are in fact building on their foundation and it is not wise to destroy the foundations upon which your own house is built. No. It would do us good to read old books. I agree with JPH on reading up-to-date scholarship in the areas of history, yet I'm sure he'd agree with me as well that we need to read old books. My interest is philosophy, and I would tell people wanting to learn it to read the old ones. Read the Republic and the other Platonic dialogues. Read Aristotle. Read Augustine and Aquinas. You have much that you can learn from them.
Consider though how they are treated today? Have we ever considered that the Middle Ages are called the Dark Ages as well? What was dark about them? They did not have our enlightenment! What was middle about them? Well, middle means they are in between two things. These would be the early ages and our times which are "it." We are the people that have arrived and every generation before us is inferior.
Even in Christian circles, we are easily affected. Honestly think about when was the last time you just spent so much time in awe of the wonder and beauty of creation? We tend to live in an era where we bounce around from this to that in our interests and we find ourselves getting bored. We've never had more television stations and we've never had a more bored society. I work at a store where video games, DVDs, and music are sold. Yes. People are more and more having to buy new things because they think their old ones are boring.
Perchance we should consider what is happening here. Has creation lost its wonder or have we lost wonder with it? Why do we say a joke has grown old? Has it really progressed in time, or have we grown old with it? C.S. Lewis said we are far too easily pleased. I agree, but I would also say that we are far too easily bored.
What has happened to the wonder? I sit here in my own apartment, a shock to the ancients that I have natural supplies to give me heat and one like me who can't cook can put something in a microwave or toaster oven for X minutes and have a meal. I can turn on a box next to me and have images from around the world beamed in. I can turn on another box under it and have a character on that first box respond to buttons I push on a controller. I can turn on yet another box and put in a round disc and watch several other movies and programs. In the morning, I will get in a large chunk of plastic (I drive a Saturn) and cause this force that weighs much more than I do to go where I want it to. I could travel the distance of St. Paul if I had the time and money in a fraction of the time.
Where is my wonder?
What about our own Scriptures? We are truly to defend the historicity and truth of them, but do they really move us with wonder? Have we paused long enough to consider that the ancients would have been stunned by John writing "The Word became flesh"? Do we really realize that these events took place? A more pointed question might be, do our lives show the difference?
It's time for us to realize that the ancients did possess knowledge and we need to go back and read them to find that out. It is time to break the spell of modernism that has been cast over us and as Lewis would again recommend, do so by casting a more powerful spell. Enchantments are only broken by stronger enchantments and we need a stronger enchantment than that which modernity has cast on us.
From now on, don't let the skeptic put you in the defensive. Put them there where they belong to see who is really taking things on "faith." One good tactic is to consider the evidentialist position. Ask if every belief should be rejected that is not backed by evidence. Then simply ask if that test for truth is backed by evidence. There are some things we take as certain without evidence. We take the existence of the external world, our own personal existence, and chances are, you're not checking cereal boxes at the grocery store to see if they have what you want before you buy them. Why not include beliefs that have been held for centuries and never refuted?
When it is told that these ideas have been discarded, a fair question is to ask when? Who discovered what caused it to be discarded? How was this discovery made? We cannot reject an idea simply because it is old. There is only one ultimate reason to reject an idea. It's not true.
When discussing miracles, this is a time where we can have some fun. A personal favorite of mine in this area is the virgin birth. I like to ask skeptics when this great discovery was made that a man and woman must have sexual intercourse before a baby is made. There is a reason events in the Bible are considered miracles. People knew what naturally happened and they knew these events were not natural events.
My conclusion I wish to establish then? Christ said that the gates of Hell would not stand against the church. Gates are defensive. Paul described us in Ephesians 6 as soldiers in battle with swords for close combat. Let's break free of the modern spell and start putting the skeptic where they belong, in the defensive.