On Chronological Snobbery

cs-lewis2“Chronological snobbery: the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date.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.” –C. S. Lewis

Yes, this blog has been inactive for quite some time, but I like to wait until I have something to say which also needs more than a short paragraph for expression.  Recently, I posted the above quote on Facebook. My post immediately prior to this one (a few days earlier) was a quote from St. Anthony the Great:

“The time is coming when people will be insane, and when they see someone who is not insane, they will attack that person saying: You are insane because you are not like us.”

It was not a coincidence that these were consecutive posts. I think we are in a time which greatly resembles St. Anthony’s premonition and we may very well be on the threshold of a time which fits it perfectly. Certainly we know of rather insane societies in the past, but the world was not so connected and these were isolated within particular cultures. Modes of “thought” (more accurately fashions of opinion) now have the means to truly become worldwide phenomena. Additionally, cold hard reality, which distracted previous generations from their ideologies and often shattered illusions, confronts us far less often today.

No, I’m not about to get into a list of specific modern insanities from the realm of social and economic controversies, also known as politics. You probably have some in mind, but you are probably also unaware of some of the worst items because they lurk in your own mind, being a part of your own instinctual assumptions. What I want is for you to seriously ponder what Lewis said above. If we look back at various times and cultures, especially if we read books from those times, we detect certain oddities about their thoughts. However, this is not so much thought, but the instinctual assumptions (the axioms) on which thought and opinions were based. Every time and culture has it’s own “characteristic illusions,” as Lewis put it. These illusions, fashionable in their day, don’t fool us modern people and they tempt us to think of humans at those times as being rather stupid and inferior to modern humanity. Yielding to such temptation, which is very common, is actually quite stupid and thoughtless. We are the same species as those people and, due to the greater difficulty of life in those times, we should expect them to be less prone to illusion than we are. It might even be the case that they were on average smarter, more well-adjusted, and more responsible than people of our own time due to the much higher death rates selecting for the survival of those less prone to deadly mistakes.

Of course, they had their illusions, unnecessary wars, and atrocities, but they were unaware of their own illusions, just as we are unaware of ours. If you look back at the greatest follies and atrocities of history, you will find that the worst of them proceeded from something fashionable in the day. Some of these involved repugnant ideologies, but not all were inherently evil ideas and, at the very least, those espousing them sincerely believed they were right. Communism, for example, is an economic ideal and not inherently evil; the problem is making it work with the humans we have. Some of the worst things in history came out of an attempt to make real progress toward some utopian ideal. The problem is that people start believing strongly in a certain means of transforming society for the better, but they begin to believe, whether it is true or not, that certain kinds of people are standing in the way. If only they could eliminate or at least somehow silence or control those people, utopia could finally come. A fanatical belief in a certain way to bring in utopia, coupled with a rise to popularity and power, invariably leads to the justification of horribly evil means in order to gain the desired end.

Enough of history. Various cultures in history fell prey to illusions and they sometimes committed atrocities as a result. I’ll assume we all see this. To again quote Lewis, “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.” One illusion common to most every age is chronological snobbery and the pride of surpassing all those who came before us. This illusion is what led to some of the most widespread foolishness and, thus, to some of the worst resulting atrocities.

Now hear this: Our age is clearly more prone to chronological snobbery and illusion than any other. It is clear that we have achieved both technology and access to information far surpassing every other generation of humans. It is very easy to think of ourselves as superior, but I have a problem with that. There is no reason to think that our greater knowledge and technological prowess should positively correlate with greater wisdom or morality. On the contrary, I think we should expect the correlation to be negative. In prior generations, the greater difficulties of life had more power to shatter illusions, build character, and grow wisdom than our easy, relatively wealthy life of today. As for the quality of our thinking, it is lousy and quickly growing worse. I have begun to more frequently see reports of studies which show what technology addiction is doing to our minds, especially to those who grew up addicted to it, and it isn’t pretty. The primary thing is shallowness of thought, though it would perhaps be more accurate to describe it as an absence of thought. Many people now, even of my generation, are finding it difficult to actually read a book–the habit is skimming, not reading, and quickly moving on to skim something else or watch a video. On the morality side of things, the prospects are bleak as well: this shallowness of thought is joined by shallowness of interaction. There is much less face-to-face engagement and we allow ourselves to be frequently distracted (smartphones) from what little face time we have. In summary, technological habits are driving us toward the condition of narcissistic, amoral, thoughtless zombies.

If we must feel our time to be superior to earlier times, then let’s just say electricity, indoor plumbing, antibiotics, etc. are good things we wouldn’t want to give up, though a more natural life could be healthier. We should not delude ourselves that we are superior in intellect or moral character.

Now that I ponder the revival of this blog, I remember that, before my long hiatus, all my other posts openly rejoiced in the Orthodox Church. That wasn’t the plan here, but, now that I think of it, this discussion presents a great opportunity to do so. The first time I encountered Lewis’ thinking on this was back in 1990 when reading his introduction to On The Incarnation, buy St. Athanasius. You can find it, with his introduction here: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/history/ath-inc.htm .  In view of our lack of awareness concerning the illusions characteristic to our own age, his recommendation there is to read at least three very old books for every modern book. A good place to start is with the little book immediately following his introduction. Before I was Orthodox, the recommendation of Lewis seemed very unrealistic. Who in our culture even comes close to reading old things at 3 times the rate at which he reads modern things? Christianity is an ancient religion the scriptures of which were completed by the end of the first century. How many Christian bookstores will you have to look through before you find a book of ancient writings other than the Bible? Most of the books will have been written in the last decade and probably more than 90% in the last 30 years. At your church, what percentage of quotes in Sunday morning sermons come from people who lived more than 100 years ago? In the Orthodox Church, the answer would be nearly all of the quotes, but from my prior experience in Evangelical churches it would be less than 1%. Both liberal and conservative Protestants are focused on modern thinking and commentary. Catholics have a greater awareness of ancient Church Tradition, but their focus is still very much on more recent doctrinal declarations, commentary, and saints. The Orthodox Church is a unique exception in all of Christendom. The vast majority of quotes come from the early church fathers. Where would you look for biblical commentary on the letters of Paul, for example? I have no doubt that the answer from nearly all Protestants and Catholics would be a very recent source and, when in a small minority of cases it isn’t, it would probably go back a few hundred years only. When you ask an Orthodox Christian to recommend a commentary on Paul’s letters, you would most likely hear “St. John Chrysostom” who lived and wrote in the 4th century. His is really the first detailed commentary on Paul. He had the advantage of still speaking Koine Greek and living in a world quite similar to Paul’s own environment.

The Orthodox Church listens to theologians of every time, but there is a rather heavy focus on the 4th century. Why not earlier? Due to the lack of opportunity while living under intense persecution, there isn’t so much preserved from an earlier time and the Church couldn’t openly come together universally to discuss and show forth a consensus until Roman persecution was suddenly ended in 313. Why not focus on the later writings just as much? The later writings of the Orthodox Church actually focus on the earlier writings. When heresies or other questions and controversies arose within the Church, the Bishops came together from the entire Christian world and sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When a consensus concerning a religious question is reached, it is not unreasonable to consider it a miracle and there were times when this happened and was also received by the entire Church at large over a period of time. So, we look first to the earliest consensus when a question was first confronted, just as today Protestants might look to the very first Church council in Acts 15 when the Holy Spirit spoke concerning Judaizing, which has once again arisen in the “messianic churches” of our time. When such important questions first arose and, upon seeking guidance from God, a consensus was reached, we should trust this as much or more than any such consensus from our own time, unless we are chronological snobs who think prior generations were inferior. After all, when a child asks a question of his father and it is clearly answered, what does it say about the parent-child relationship when the child repeatedly comes back with the same question again rather than consulting his memory? Shouldn’t the Church consult its collective memory rather than coming with the same questions, perhaps even as individuals, during every generation and mistrusting all other Christians, especially those of a previous age? The individualistic approach so common in the American Christianity of our day is actually antithetical to genuine Christianity which is concerned with a oneness of believers and in considering others more important than myself. I appreciate that the Orthodox Church so vigorously opposes an individualistic approach to faith, though I confess it is still all too easy for me to lapse into such an approach. Some of you reading this may never come to be a part of the Orthodox Church, but I hope that, if you are a Christian, you will make an effort to pay attention to guys like St. Athanasius and give theologians of that time and others the respect they are due. However, I should warn you that becoming acquainted Church history and the early fathers is a large part of what eventually led me into Orthodoxy. Having been Orthodox for a few years, it has become very natural for me to have a broader perspective on history and to see our own time as just one of many periods with its own characteristic wisdom and its own characteristic foolishness. Both pride and self-esteem are still considered the most dangerous of sins in the Orthodox Church and we are frequently warned about them. This varies in other churches, but in dominant secular society, both of those things are considered very positive things and that seems to be an insanity very characteristic of our own age and culture.

Chesterton said tradition was letting your ancestors have a vote and this is quite reasonable. To not let ones ancestors have a vote is chronological snobbery and leaves oneself open to be a helpless victim of the characteristic illusions of our own age. Whether in religion or other matters, I believe our own age is actually the most dangerous in this regard.

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2 Responses to On Chronological Snobbery

  1. greg says:

    Great reminder and challenge here Edwin. I just wish your priests wouldn’t dress like they’re living in the 4th century! ha. I may try and get my hands on some of St. John Chrysostom. Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Ed Smith says:

      Our priests actually do dress like they are living in the 4th century. In part, it’s just the way folks got dressed up at that time, but there is a good bit of symbolism and imagery incorporated too, so it was never abandoned. The Orthodox are extremely resistant to change from way back. Attire, not being dogma, can be changed, but even that is not likely to look any different a thousand years from now.

      I should confess that I haven’t actually read much in the way of St. John’s commentaries, but it is on my list. You can read him and many other of the fathers for free on ccel.org. Thanks for stopping by!

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