Novelty and change, not moral wisdom and eternal verities, are its consuming passions

It has become common sport in the “post-modern” world to berate other civilizations for their resistance to change. Most post-moderns—apart from a few who are presumed to be romantics, reactionaries, and die-hards—see the domination of traditionalistic elements as the fatal flaw in previous eras: the nineteenth century, the Middle Ages, classical antiquity, and others. The authentic man of today is portrayed as having broken the shackles of provincialism and emerged from the prison-house of conservatism into the full light of honesty, objectivity, and freedom. He imagines himself to be creating, if not a Great Society, at least a brave new world.

This in itself is not a novel theme. It is the perennial cry of adolescence and justification of revolution. Certainly Renaissance man, Enlightenment man, and Utopian man of the late Victorian period have all had their part in the formation of the post-modern attitude. What is new is the extent to which this view has come to pervade our self-understanding. It has evolved from a consciously articulated ideology into an unconscious philosophy of life. It is now more a common prejudice than a credo.

Despite the tragic disillusionments of the twentieth century, despite the message of the preachers of alienation and the prophets of despair, the basic presupposition of our culture seems firmly entrenched: the newest is the truest and the latest is the best. Change has become practically synonymous with progress, and age signifies obsolescence. For anything to remain essentially unaltered over long periods of time does not suggest, as it once did, intimations of immortality; it suggests sterility and death. As a symbol of eternity post-modern man would choose not the circle but the fossil.

If other ears and cultures accepted too uncritically traditional and seemingly time-tested values, post-modernity rejects values precisely because they are traditional and therefore “dated.” Avant-gardism is the new creed, whether in art, literature, drama, music, philosophy, politics, or religion. The desirability of novelty and change has become the working hypothesis of our culture.

The New as Locus of Authority

We have therefore created a religious situation without parallel in the history of man. In primitive societies the focal point of authority was located in the past, and truth was practically synonymous with age. The wisdom that was to be learned by generation after generation was the wisdom of the past, indeed of the primordial past. Out of the time of the beginnings came the archetypes by which all subsequent existence was defined; the mythical illud tempus provided the definitive pattern for every significant venture. Education was a matter of learning what had always been known, or rediscovering what had been forgotten.

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In antiquity, though new and more sophisticated formulations of knowledge emerged, the concern still existed to authenticate these through an appeal to the past, through a demonstration that the new perceptions and articulations were present, at least germinally, in the old. This is apparent in the works of Plato and Aristotle. Even the Greek Sophists, for all their skepticism and iconoclasm, were anxious to show the continuity of their teaching with the wisdom of previous generations.

Ancient man assumed that the oldest repositories of knowledge were the most authoritative. But post-modern man adopts the opposite assumption the older the source, the less its authority. The new is the locus of authority.

This is more than adolescent rebellion and a demand for freedom and autonomy; the problems of adolescence are, in fact, exaggerated by it. And it is more than the result of the increasing predominance of those under twenty-five in the population—though this undoubtedly lends support to the post-modern credo. The principal reason for the phenomenon is the rapid rise of science and technology, and of the knowledge this has brought. In science it is fairly safe to assume that the newest is the truest and the latest is the best; there is good reason to equate change with progress. But what has happened is that this assumption that is reasonable in science and technology has unjustifiably been extended to other fields, including religion and ethics.

The A-historical Mood

The ironic result of all this is that, at the very time when man has achieved the greatest knowledge of and perspective on history, he seems to have become a-historical. Post-modern man is involved in an annulment of history, not through a continuous repetition of mythical archetypes, nor through a mystical transcendence of time, but through an ignoring of history, a repudiation of prior forms, a denial of the present relevance of the past. Today, to preface a plea with a reference to “our forefathers” is disastrous. Even if we accept the greatness of past persons or eras, we question their relevance. With an attitude whose egoism is exceeded only by its parochialism, we elevate the present to a position of uniqueness and enlightenment that requires its own autonomous creations of meaning and value.

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Relevance, furthermore, is often immediate relevance, and post-modern man tends to ignore the future also. He defines and determines relevance by the moment, rather than locating the moment within an overall perspective that defines and determines relevance. It is no coincidence that the post-modern era is the era of the “happening.” The happening just happens—without past or future, without precedent or structure, without plan or rule, without meaning or purpose.

The term “avant-garde,” with its suggestion of being on the frontier, in touch with the latest advances, provides the certification of novelty and change that postmodern man so desperately needs. He must surround himself with the newest artifacts of his civilization, whether the more tangible creations—the latest inventions, designs, styles—or the intangible ones—the latest ideas, values, or aesthetic forms. If ancient man had an ontological thirst for Being, post-modern man seems to have developed an ontological thirst for Becoming. The restlessness that seeks the eternal (Augustine) has been channeled into a search for unending change. No one asks seriously whether the new is an improvement over the old; that is easily taken for granted. The labeling of an idea or movement “avant-garde”—that is, “fore-guard,” ahead of the “old guard” and the “rear guard”—in itself implies an advance. We are carried halfway by the terminology alone. We see ourselves standing heroically on the new frontier of man, the threshold of the future.

Related to this is the near total absence in contemporary culture of a body of practical moral wisdom. Other generations had a large oral tradition that presented a guide to everyday life in the form of pithy, easily remembered maxims. Often part of it was from the Bible. But today proverbial wisdom has fallen into disuse and disrepute. Maxims are quoted only rarely—and then often in jest.

The problem all this poses for a scripturally oriented Christianity is obvious. What happens to the Bible? How does it speak with challenge and authority to the man who is conditioned by his culture to reject anything that antedates the immediate era? How does one speak of the relevance of ancient Israel or of a first-century Nazarene when the relevance of the past is precisely what is in question?

What happens to the Church? Where does all this place an institution that speaks of someone born not sixty-seven years ago but 1,967 years ago; that talks about an ancient heritage and preserves traditions; that performs long-established rituals and rites; that sings of the “faith of our fathers”? The suggestion seems inevitable that the Church is the caretaker of the past, the perpetuator of archaic forms, an organization with vested interests in the established order—indeed, the institutional embodiment of grey hair.

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The philosophy of post-modern man is the Sartrian dictum that “existence precedes essence.” A free and genuine existence is not one that looks to pre-existent norms for a determination of its essence; it is one in which each man creates his own essence. The relation of the individual to prior forms must, in effect, be one of creation ex nihilo; the past must be treated as the nothingness out of which each man is to structure his own identity. Authenticity is achieved only if one creates his own values, ideals, morals, and relationships—through which he creates himself and his world. To rely upon past judgments and actions is to evade responsibility. To permit the past to define one’s humanity is to forfeit personal freedom.

The Biblical Perspective

The post-modern appreciation of the new and insistence upon change certainly contains truth. In fact, it stems ultimately from the biblical faith. The biblical writers, though they valued history, were not attached to the old. In Scripture God is seen as the Lord of history, who calls to change and who is the author of change, who is not a static but a living God. The Bible talks about the new things God has done, is doing, and will do. The temporal plane is seen as a series of divine epiphanies, none of which is a mere repetition of the former, and none of which can be anticipated. In the words of Isaiah, “From this time forth I make you hear new things, hidden things which you have not known. They are created now, not long ago; before today you have never heard of them” (Isa. 48:6b, 7).

Novelty and change are not only made possible in the biblical view; they are valued. As a result, the biblical outlook turns not only to the past but also to the present and the future in exhortation, warning, and urgency, in faith, striving, and expectancy. There is the element of anticipation and destiny, the vision of movement and special fulfillment in history. Its orientation is not in the primordial, nor in mythical archetypes, but in the present moment of divine revelation and activity, set in a historical context of such moments in the past and looking ahead to such moments yet to come.

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The prophets in particular were those who called the people to new things, who challenged existing practices, who were the recipients of new moral and spiritual visions. In a sense they were avant-garde of God in Israel. They were hardly defenders of the status quo; they spoke out courageously and relentlessly against “the establishment” and the injustice and immorality of the day.

On the other hand, in the Bible the new never annuls the old. It arises out of the past; it presupposes a certain continuity with the past; it brings prior beliefs and structures to fulfillment. The new has nothing to do with a rebellion against the past, or the rejection of prior authority, or an attempt to achieve individual freedom and autonomy. Its motivation is not the anxious desire to be avant-garde and to display a dynamic image, or the fiction that existence precedes essence. Jesus makes this outlook plain:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17–20).

Similarly Jesus says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23).

In the Bible the ultimate concern is neither with the old nor with the new, neither with the past nor with the present, but with the Word of God, which “abides for ever” (1 Pet. 1:25). The question of truth and goodness is wholly bound up with the Will of God. Man achieves true freedom, responsibility, and reality only when his being rests in the Being of God. Authentic existence is not something man creates for himself; it is created and re-created without him. The newness and change needed in every age is the New Birth, the New Creation. The essential novelty is that of the New Spirit and the New Man. Just as the new revelation and redemption that the prophet heralds is not something he gives but the divine act and promise to which he gives himself, so any moral and spiritual progress, any amelioration of evil and injustice, is not something man presents to himself, posits for himself, determines by himself; it is granted by God—“lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9).

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The New Heavens and the New Earth are not the invention of avant-gardism, or the creation of a Sartrian “authenticity.” They are the work of Him who is eternally the same, the Alpha and the Omega of all things.

The Pendulum

He was a man of great extremes.

The pendulum of his days swung from the quietness of Zarephath to the tumult of Mount Carmel. From life for the widow’s son to death for the prophets of Baal.

From feeling greatly impressed by his own worthiness:

“I have been very jealous for the Lord God …

I, even I only, am left” …

To feeling equally depressed by his own unworthiness:

“It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.

For I am not better than my fathers!”

Who was he? Elijah was his name. But who was he?

“A human being with a nature such as we have. With feelings, affections and constitution as ourselves” (Jas. 5:17, Amplified).

He was a man “subject to like passions as we are.”

.… Only more so!

Not all of us cut as wide a swath as Elijah, either in our service for God or in our emotions. Most of us are not called to so dramatic a ministry, nor do we experience such great stress.

But to one degree or another, we all tend to swing toward self-exaltation or self-abasement. According to our individual temperament, each of us is inclined to magnify or minimize his true self.

Since this is so, under great pressure we are apt to swing to extremes. We may view ourselves as absolutely indispensable to the work of the Lord …

Or totally useless!

Being very human, we may also complicate matters further by comparing ourselves with other servants of God. When we do this, our pendulum naturally jerks violently …

And, like Elijah, we suffer an emotional whiplash!

Now, about these “like passions” …

What are we to do with them?

What shall we do with these very human traits that tend to cripple our effectiveness as servants of the Lord?

Shall we deny that they exist? Hide them under a cloak of false humility? Allow them to bring us to a crashing halt?

No! None of these things.

We need only apply the principle of the pendulum:

For just as the pendulum moves back toward center without losing momentum because it is hung from a fixed point …

We will come back into fellowship with God as we find our worth in the fixed point of all Christian ministry:

“I am thy servant!”

—VIRGINIA CORFIELD, West Covina, California.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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