The Myth of Progress

That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

The past two hundred years have been a blur of technological development. Few are the aspects of life that have not been radically altered by recent innovations. Automobiles and airplanes have entirely changed how we transport ourselves and goods. The telephone, the computer, and the Internet have changed how we communicate with each other and how we are able to work. Heaters, air conditioners, stoves, ovens, microwaves, washers, dryers, and other forms of electronic equipment have made the daily activities of life that much more efficient. Advancements in medicine and science have led to better quality of life and a more enhanced understanding of the world (and the universe) around us.

When seen in terms of the whole of human history, all of these advancements have come in the blink of an eye. Ways of life that existed for hundreds or thousands of years have been irretrievably changed. These changes and advancements have led most in society to take an overly optimistic and rosy view of human potential. This has led to the myth of progress– the idea that our advancements in the arts and sciences are making us into wiser, better people than our ancestors.

In fact, we have become downright snobbish about ourselves. Consciously or unconsciously, we believe that we are superior to our ancestors. We judge all things by the standard of our own belief systems and cultural prejudices. We think and/or speak rather patronizingly about our ancestors: “they did not know any better.” “They did not have x or y technology that we have.” “We have come to a better understanding of these things.” In short, all of these statements betray the idea that we think we have progressed so far in the past few generations and thus we are superior. That which was accepted in earlier times was “primitive” or “old-fashioned,” and those terms are not used affectionately! How many young people out there believe that their parents are ignorant fossils– after all, isn’t 2009 so radically different and more advanced than, say, 1979 or 1989?

But there is an uncomfortable question we must consider: are we really progressing? There is no doubt that we are becoming more technologically sophisticated. No one will argue against the idea that our technology is allowing us to have a better understanding of the world around us. But does that mean that we as a species are really “moving forward”?

Despite all of this advancement over the past two hundred years, people in 2009 are still asking the same questions as their forefathers did in 1999, 1899, 1499, and 99. Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do with my life? Why do people suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does evil exist? You would think that if we have really advanced so much over the past few hundred years that we would have made some progress on these questions. Yet the range of answers given are little different from those presented by the Greeks 2400 years ago or the Israelites 3000 years ago.

Furthermore, what are the moral challenges of our day? They do not involve people engaging in “ancient superstitions” as much as the same moral hazards that humans have suffered for generations. Drunkenness remains as much a problem today as was in Solomon’s day (cf. Proverbs 20:1). The pain and misery that results from adultery and other forms of sexual immorality is acutely felt today as it was in previous days (cf. Proverbs 5:3-14, 6:23-35). Divorce ruins homes like it did in the past (Malachi 2:16, Matthew 19:9).

We may not want to admit it, but our technological advancements have not led to that many moral advancements. In fact, our technological advancements have highlighted human tendencies toward sin. Computer technology was harnessed early and often to peddle pornography. Advancements in healthcare give excuse for a lack of self-control and self-discipline in dietary habits. Humans still hate each other, desire to hurt each other, and kill each other, and now get to use more sophisticated technology to kill more people more effectively.

As it has been said, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” The Preacher is right: there is nothing new under the sun. He is not arguing that people cannot discover new technologies or learn new things. He is simply stating a truism: in matters of existence, each generation follows after the past generation, and there is little real advancement. We can see clearly that despite thousands of years of human wisdom accrued by experience, each generation still has to go out and make many of the same mistakes as their fathers. And just as their fathers pleaded with them and warned them, so they will plead with and warn their children, and will likely have the same result!

Ever since the Tower of Babel, humans have wanted to believe that they are going up (cf. Genesis 11:1-4). In reality, humans are the same as they have always been. They are the fallen creation of God who require His love and mercy to be esteemed (cf. Romans 5:1-18). Let us keep a proper view of ourselves, and look to God who knows best!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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