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Is mankind progressing?
Posted By Eric Sammons On July 12, 2010 @ 8:15 am In Spirituality,Technology,The Church | Comments Disabled
One of the fundamental doctrines of the Enlightenment is that mankind is improving through time. As the centuries progress, man also progresses – intellectually, morally and even biologically. We are on our way to becoming a race of “super-men” who will dwarf previous generations in every way. Even though this belief cooled somewhat in the wake of the horrific 20th century, it is still an underlying presupposition of the Western world. Yet Scripture and Tradition tell us that before the End of Time and the Second Coming of Christ, great evils will occur, the world will face terrible cataclysms and the Church will be mercilessly persecuted.
So which is it? Is mankind getting better or worse over time? I think we need to break down our analysis into three separate categories: technological, theological and moral.
I think there is no question that technology has advanced incredibly over the years. Man has learned to manipulate nature in ways unimaginable in previous generations. If a man from the 10th century were to visit modern-day America, he would think we were all magicians with incredible powers (and he might also wonder why we talk into tiny boxes pressed to our ears all day). God gave man a wondrous intellect and he has used that power to achieve some unbelievable things.
This one is not so clear-cut. As a strong defender of the belief that the Church’s understanding of revelation over time develops, one might assume that I believe that mankind is progressing theologically. And in one sense, I do. Two thousand years after Christ the Church has had the opportunity to reflect on the deposit of faith given to us by our Lord and understand it better. So in that sense we have progressed. But it would be a mistake to think therefore that we 21st century Christians are “better” followers of Christ than those in the 1st or 5th century. The sources of holiness – primarily the sacraments – have not changed over time and they will not change until the End of Time. The graces we can receive through Baptism or the Eucharist are no different from the graces the first Christians received through these mysteries. Whereas the means to holiness for mankind made an infinite leap with the coming of Christ, it has not changed since his Ascension. So in one sense we have progressed theologically, but in another we have not.
This is the category which I believe we can unequivocally say that mankind has not progressed. The great promise of the Enlightenment was that once people became smarter they would also become good. History has shown this to be an empty promise. The last century mankind completed was the bloodiest of all time, with horrific wars, ethnic holocausts and the slaughter of millions of unborn children. Yes, in many ways society has improved as well; for example, the discrimination against African-Americans here in the United States has lessened dramatically in the past 100 years. But I cannot see how anyone can say that on a whole mankind has morally progressed. What seems to happen is that the victims of our moral failures shift from one group to another over time. But there are always victims of our immorality. This should not surprise us, as the doctrine of Original Sin tells us that all men are born in sin, and as every society consists of sinful men, it too will be sinful.
So, by my count, it appears to be a tie: 1.5 for progressing, and 1.5 against. But let us look more closely at these categories. The fact that we are progressing technologically but not progressing morally is potentially a terrible thing. Is it really progress that we can now obliterate an entire city with one bomb, but at the same time we have not become more moral? One hundred years ago, getting an abortion was a lot of work, now it is practically a trip to the drug store. So it is clear that, unlike Enlightenment thinkers, one should not equate technological and intellectual progress with moral progress. We might be smarter, but that only means that we can be more effective doing evil. It seems like the apocalyptic evils mentioned in Scripture are becoming less and less fantastical.
All of this is not reason for pessimism, however. We do not know the hour of the final days: it may be next week; it may be in 4,000 years. But we do know this: God continues to shower His grace upon us, and we will always be able to grow in holiness and thus personally progress in the spiritual life.
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