The world is firmly convinced that man is progressing. As the years go by, mankind becomes better than he was, improves, is constantly climbing to higher heights. The world condescends to the beliefs of previous generations, understanding (with haughty magnanimity) why our grandparents believed in “God,” but dismissing the view as outdated and now superseded by the improved view of the universe, namely, that we are the result of the random biological chance known as evolution.
Progressive. Man loves thinking of himself as progressive. Man loves being progressive, because man is proud. He wants to be the pinnacle of existence. Holding to a progressive view of man allows him to see himself as the glorious end product of all the preceding ages. If mankind is getting worse, what does that make us? Inferior to our ancestors? Lesser men? “Perish the thought!” the world says. “Onward and upward!”
God talks about the “progress” of mankind. It is written in 2 Timothy 3:13, “evil people and impostors will progress from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” We are corrupt because of sin. We are not naturally “progressing,” not in any good sense. The only true progress for which we can hope is the progress wrought by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God as we live lives of repentance and faith. All other progress is retrogression; indeed, it is to dig down and discover untold depths of depravity.
Interestingly, the ancient pagans were more honest about man than the pagans of our day. The ancient pagans believed man wasn’t what he once was, but had degraded. They believed that there were generations of heroes in the past who had been the pinnacle of mankind. That peak had passed, so they thought they did well to admire their ancestors and seek to emulate them, as much as it lay in their power to do so.
The Iliad, which some of our upper level students are reading, has some good quotes about man’s “progress.” “Look at yourself,” one fighter says to another. “How short you fall of the fighters sired by Zeus in the generations long before us!” (The Iliad, Bk. V.731-732). Or this: “Aeneas hefted a boulder in his hands, a tremendous feat—no two men could hoist it, weak as men are now, but all on his own he raised it high with ease” (The Iliad, Bk. XX.327-330).” “Weak as men are now.” There’s a pin for the hot air balloon of progressivism.
Brushing the obvious paganism aside, those old pagans could teach some good lessons to our “progressive” pagans. I would love to hear a conversation between Homer and Richard Dawkins. Homer would have a thing or two to say about the idiocy of atheism and would laugh to scorn the idea that man is ever progressing.
Not surprisingly, a progressive view of man kills the concept of having heroes, for why would we want to be like those who are chronologically inferior to us? But if we’re honest that the golden age of man on earth has passed, and we temper that rather depressing fact with the hope of the true golden age of eternity with our Lord, then heroes don’t seem so ridiculous. I can admire a theologian like Martin Luther, or think of an Early Church Father like Athanasius as a true spiritual father. I can aspire to write like William Shakespeare in the humbling knowledge that I am a lesser writer than he. I am not the pinnacle of mankind. Jesus is. And that’s a freeing thought. I will gladly be inferior to Christ, inferior to my heroes. Then I might learn something instead of being the fabulous frog that tried to puff himself up as big as an ox, to his own destruction.
The world refuses to be less
Than any generation,
And always thinks it can progress,
But only goes from mess to mess,
And merits condemnation.
O Lord, I am not very high,
And Thou wert far above me,
But in Thy mercy Thou drew nigh.
Now by Thy Word and Spirit I
Progress to Thee who love me.
Quotes from The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles