The Arrogance of the Present
I believe it was C.S. Lewis who coined the phrase “chronological snobbery.” As I understand it, this is the attitude that the present generation has reached the pinnacle of wisdom and enlightenment, and thus has nothing to learn from the benighted voices of the past. It is essentially an adolescent outlook on life, one which we find in the stereotypical teenager who thinks her parents are totally clueless about almost everything, and thus that life would be so much better in both the home and in society if her parents and other ignorant adults would just embrace her point of view and govern life by her dictates.
As the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us, there is nothing new under the sun, and this would certainly include chronological snobbery. Every new generation has had the tendency to view itself as having attained to the pinnacle of wisdom and enlightenment, and thus has tended to smirk at the ideas and traditions of the past with a condescending arrogance. We focus on the sins and failings of past generations, but ignore the wisdom of the past and the blessings their hard work and sacrifices have brought to us. (Do we really think that future generations will not look back on us with a critical eye toward the sins and failings of our present generation?)
This arrogance of the present reaches its summit when institutions grounded in God’s creation order and received traditions that have stood the test of time are foolishly discarded by social engineers attempting to redefine reality in the name of “progress.”
For example, the 1981 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: New College Edition defines “marriage” as historically-understood in the following words: “The state of being husband and wife; wedlock”, and “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife” (p. 801). This definition of the institution of marriage is not only grounded in God’s created order as revealed in Holy Scripture (Gen. 2:21-24; Matt. 19:4-6). It is also grounded in millennia of universal human practice and tradition.
While there is no such thing as a perfect marriage, and while sinful humanity has distorted God’s good gift of marriage, just as it has distorted every other good gift of the Creator; at the same time the marriage institution, as defined above, has stood the test of time and has proven itself to be a vital, foundational institution of any stable social order, and a great source of human flourishing and blessing. But today’s adolescent-minded social engineers, manifesting the chronological snobbery of the present arrogance, have thought themselves wiser, smarter, and more enlightened than millennia of past generations, and thus have discarded this traditional, biblical definition of marriage by expanding its definition to include “gay marriage” between members of the same sex.
Another example of the arrogance of the present is the attempt by those who pride themselves on being “progressive” to redefine the basic gender categories of male and female – categories which are grounded in God’s creation order and settled scientific reality (i.e., basic biology, genetics, anatomy & physiology) – and to push an anti-realist ideology which absurdly claims that gender is “fluid” or a “spectrum,” and thus that one can “identify” one day as male and the next as female based purely on subjective factors. The social engineers pushing this ideology have the weight of Scripture, science, human history and everyday human experience marshaled against them. Nevertheless, they are undeterred in pushing their agenda (and requiring that you and I conform to it!), for they regard themselves as the smart ones, the enlightened ones, the elites, the wise ones who know far better than the foolish generations of the past or the knuckle-dragging neanderthals of the present who continue to cling to such outdated notions of gender.
It has been said that the one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. Yet, Holy Scripture is full of history – redemptive, real, space-time historical events – and God expects us to learn the lessons of biblical history, which is, after all, “His Story.” It is wisdom to study such history with reverence for the sovereign God of history. It is the height of folly to ignore such history and imagine that we know better than the peoples of the past.
None of this is to claim that we cannot be critical of past generations or point out their sins and failures. For example, I firmly believe it is right and moral to criticize the evils of the race-based, man-stealing institution of black slavery in America’s past. Slavery was a grievous national sin and a deep stain upon the noble history of the U.S.A. (It was also an evil institution that many white men in the Union army during the Civil War shed their blood and laid down their lives to abolish.) But it is to claim that, just as human beings after the fall are complicated mixtures of the remnants of original virtue combined with the radical corruption, depravity and vice of sin, so human history is a complicated, nuanced business. We can learn from both its positive and its negative examples. And in all of this the biblical Christian will measure everything by the ultimate standard of God’s infallible Word.
The bottom line is this: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7, ESV). “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble…Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (James 4:6, 10, ESV)
Before discarding the deeply-rooted traditions, ideas and institutions inherited from past generations in the name of “progress” (or simply because it has become trendy to do so), ask yourself: (1) Is it based in Scripture? (2) Has it stood the test of time, and if so, why? (3) Why have so many past generations observed or practiced them? And, (4) If it is right to reject them, what do we propose to put in their place, and what long-term effects will they have?
Let us avoid the arrogance of the present. Instead, let us critically and thoughtfully embrace the wisdom of the past, even as we press forward to the future. And in all things, let us strive to be faithful to God’s revealed Word. “Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV)