Perspective for Our Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

So begins Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Our time is a mixture of good things and bad. In some ways we’re progressing, while in others we’re in decline. Some despair, but the trials of past generations were far worse than ours. As St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) observed:

“Is there any affliction now endured by mankind that was not endured by our fathers before us? What sufferings of ours even bears comparison with what we know of their sufferings? And yet you hear people complaining about this present day and age because things were so much better in former times. I wonder what would happen if they could be taken back to the days of their ancestors–would we not still hear them complaining?  You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.”

There has been no perfect “Golden Age” since Eden. We learn from the New Testament that even the first-century Christian communities had controversies within and persecutions from without. Yet pining for a romanticized past pairs with an opposite, pervasive error today: thinking that “old things” have nothing to teach or offer us. C.S. Lewis noted this modern disposition in 1955:

“…Chronological snobbery [is] the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

The ignorant dismissal of the past leads to foolishness today. All advocate for change, but not all change is progress. For example, naively tearing down the wrong fences can permit evils to get in. G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1929:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

We live in a time filled with serious problems and great blessings. We have grave reasons for concern, such as the present threats to religious liberty and the persistent Culture of Death, but we should not despair. Not only do we know Who wins in the end, but even today’s broken world has good things to offer. Computers are facilitating new technologies and improved communications. Healthcare advances are saving and enhancing lives. International economic development is helping billions rise from poverty. Imagine how these modern-day advances in communication, healthcare, economic wealth, and other fields could be utilized for the Kingdom of God. Jesus once asked his disciples:

“Do you understand all these things?” They answered, “Yes.” And he replied, “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Matthew 13:51-52)

To keep proper perspective today we must be neither naive nor despondent. We should be conscious of both the dangers and the opportunities around us. These present times will surely try us, but there has yet to be an era of the Church that has not tested the saints. Our generation is called to be faithful witnesses to Christ’s Church and Sacred Tradition. As Scripture says:

Anyone who is so ‘progressive’ as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; [but] whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son.”  (2nd John 1:9)

The world may refuse to heed us as it recklessly marches on but we can still benefit ourselves, for this life and the next, by holding on to  timeless truths. Our Church has persevered through controversies and persecutions from its beginning. It challenged the Roman culture while making use of the best things it had to offer to introduce and spread the Kingdom of God on earth. That Kingdom endures to our day. By keeping what is good and rejecting what is evil, let us remain ever-faithful to Jesus Christ in our times.

O Jerusalem by Greg Olsen

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