Bishop's Message

Two steps forward, three steps back

IS SOCIETY making progress? Do we feel the wind on our faces as we are rushed into the future?

There are people who assume that this is so. It is evident in the many discussions on changes taking place in society. The contributors to the discussion are divided into “progressives” and “conservatives”. The progressives are said to promote social progress and development while the conservatives are seen as putting obstacles in their path.
This view seems to be dominant in various circles, including the media. For example, a Straits Times editorial, while reflecting on the recent changes in censorship laws, observes that the liberalisation of censorship laws is “a necessary part of the maturing of society”. It further laments that the changes were not bold enough and that we are “very much stuck in the past”.
Others have argued that such changes are inevitable and that conservatives can only slow down but not stop the process of radical change in social values and lifestyles. Conservatives, on their part, see some of the key changes and trends emerging in society as representing not progress but decay.

The rapid and spectacular growth of modern science and technology following the Enlightenment three centuries ago brought about ideas that improvement and progress are inbuilt mechanisms in history. This seems to be fairly true as far as technology is concerned. Our modes of transport and communications, for instance, have certainly progressed by leaps and bounds. We see the same in computers. Every innovation is welcome as it shows that the new is better than the old.

What may be true in technology has been applied as a universal principle in other areas of life. Hence, Charles Darwin revolutionised biology with his notions of the evolutionary progress of life. This evolutionary principle has been further applied in social history and even religion. However, such views are like buckets with a lot of holes in them. They cannot hold water when put to the test.

There was great faith in human progress, in some circles, towards the end of the 19th century. The path forward looked bright. Everything was seen as improvement, a bold step forward. This included social values, political systems and economic development. Some in the church even spoke of a “social gospel”, wanting to ride the wave of confidence and notions of progress.

Such confidence was severely shattered by the two world wars of the 20th century. Is the world getting better or is it getting worse? That was the question in many a thoughtful person’s mind.

Nevertheless, decades of prosperity and eventful changes in technology have revived the ideas of the relentless evolutionary progress of society. Can heaven be built on earth?

The Bible clearly diagnoses the human condition. All have caught the deadly disease of sin (Rom 3:23). At the heart of human society is the human heart, and at the centre of the human heart is sin. The human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt” (Jer. 17:9). There is a sinful human tendency to want to build a world without God, to want heaven without God (cf. Gen 11).

THE award-winning British author Philip Pullman has written a trilogy entitled His Dark Materials. The three books are written for children and contain a fantasy tale in the same genre as the works of C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien. However, Pullman’s books, which are used in Singapore schools, seek to “undo the damage done by C. S. Lewis” by promoting an opposing worldview for children to imbibe.

His story begins in the Garden of Eden but sees the transgression of Adam and Eve as not resulting in the Fall of humankind but as the first step of human liberation. It is therefore not surprising that in the battle that follows, the church is written off as a bad mistake in history, and God is portrayed as weak and ineffectual and is finally disposed of. It is very telling that the last words in Pullman’s third book, The Amber Spyglass, are “the republic of heaven”. The sinful human desire to want heaven without God is as old as the human race.

Any step forward without God cannot be described with words such as “progress” or “mature”. In fact, the opposite words have to be used. The Bible takes a very realistic view of history and speaks often not of the evolutionary progress of society but of the inevitable decay of a world that dreams of a “republic of heaven” without God. Thus in 2 Tim. 3:1-5 we read,

Don’t be naïve. There are difficult times ahead. As the end approaches, people are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. (The Message)

Such words will challenge any notion that every innovation in society is a step of progress.

Those who argue that society should not take certain paths that are deemed to be progressive should not be written off as irrelevant conservatives. Their opponents should note that it is dangerous to take an observation in the world of technology and machines (that things are getting better) and make it into a universal worldview for all of life.

What can you do as a Christian amid all the sweeping changes in life taking place around you?

Firstly, draw close to God. Wanting heaven without God is an old sinful human desire. You will see signs of it all around you. The only way to prevent yourself being swept away by it is to let God reign in you. As the great 19th century Christian writer P. T. Forsyth said, “Unless there is within us that which is above us, we shall soon yield to that which is about us.”

Secondly, we must unmask the underlying assumptions behind every argument (2 Cor. 10:5). Everyone has faith in something, whether he expresses it or not. We have seen how it is possible that the notion of inevitable social progress can be built on shaky ground.

Thirdly, we must pray. God loves the people of the world though the human race has taken the path of disobedience and decay. And because of this we must not disengage ourselves from the world but in all its woes and follies, we must live compassionately and prophetically as salt and light.