During our message on Sunday, I made mention of the problems with the modern age:
I am so tired of people telling me that the modern world is better than the ancient world. In the modern world, we have modern science; and we have modern medicine; and we have archaeology; and we have all this stuff. And in our modern world, we have killed people on a scale that the ancient world could not have fathomed. We have killed more people with our modern technology and our modern world views and our modern perspectives than the ancient Romans could have ever dreamed of killing. We want to say we are better than the early church? We want to say we understand the world better than Jesus’ first followers did?
I have discussed this theme many times, but it is worth revisiting. The idea of a “Modern Age” is a fabrication created by writers in the Renaissance who wished to reconnect themselves with the ancient Greco-Roman world and bypass their own history. As early as 1469, people began referring to the period from the fall of Rome until their own day as media tempestas or “middle times” which implied that there was the ancient world, the middle age, and the new era in which they lived.
This was amplified by Enlightenment philosophers who dubbed their own time the Modern Age, borrowing the term modern which originally meant “the present” and charging it with a sense of superiority to previous ages. This flowed out of a 17th century controversy in French academia called “The Quarrel Ancients and the Moderns.” The Moderns maintained that present philosophy was superior to the ancient philosophies, and as such, all ancient thought should be rejected. The ancients on the other hand held that true wisdom embraces all ages.
There are some merits to the Modern Age (especially when the word is used in the current sense to mean “the present”.) We have developed tools that allow us to understand our universe in more detail, but one could debate whether the understanding we develop is in any way “superior” to that held by the ancients.
At the core of my criticism of the idea that our Modern Age is superior to those that came before is my belief that human intellect has not changed. Tools and technology change, but human beings are not smarter or better in our ancient world. Our ancient counterparts used their technology to kill each other, and we do the same.
Ultimately, humanity in all our modernist glory is still paleolithic. We still burn stuff and spin wheels. What is really the difference between a campfire, a medieval fireplace, a steam engine and a Saturn V rocket? They are all still fire in a controlled environment doing work. Even the power of the atom is used in power plants simply to boil water. (Most people are shocked to discover that the actual nuclear fission does not produce electricity in power plants. The reaction simply gives off tremendous energy, which is converted to heat to boil water, producing steam that spins turbines.)
Modernity has not given us a better understanding of anything. It has just helped us do the same stuff quicker. We generate heat quicker; we disseminate information quicker; and we can kill each other quicker; but we are not inherently superior to the ancients. All of our modern medicine still cannot halt death. All of our modern science has still left us befuddled as to how the universe works. We can quantify more of the activity, but we cannot define why it is active in the first place or how that activity occurs.So there it is. Modern human beings are still human beings.
Our modern faith is in no way superior to the ancient faith, and in many ways, I think it is crowded by all the excess stuff our modern world has created. Tools are great; but they’re ultimately just tools; and we’re ultimately the same race of beings we were 2,000 years ago. We have not evolved to be better. We have simply developed better ways to do essentially the same stuff.