It doesn’t take a theologian to see that the world as we know it is changing. Some argue that the rate of change has never been faster, and there’s no sign of slowing down. Not all change is bad! But all change is not good, either.
Think about how technology has changed in your lifetime. I’ve seen a humorous video clip on the Internet of teenagers unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to use a rotary telephone. Because of the spectacular advances in technology, crop yields today would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago. Diseases that were incurable are now much more routine and survivable. We like those kinds of changes.
But other change is more difficult to swallow. Retail shopping in town is undeniably different today than in yesteryear. Sears, K-Mart, and JC Penny are just three of the notable examples. Due to falling ad revenues and other factors, the Mitchell Daily Republic just announced that they would stop printing a Monday paper; Monday news will be online only. And on and on.
Highlighting the technological and economic changes in our world is easy. But those changes are just the tip of the ice-burg. We are standing far downstream a full, raging river of moral, theological, and social change. We “know” that as much as we “sense” it. Churches are no longer the social center of our culture. Increasingly, our young adults grow up and leave their churches as they leave their homes. Even among churchgoers, Biblical literacy almost could not be any lower.
One author identifies the cultural mindset that has captured us all like this: “Everyone has a right to develop their own form of life, grounded on their own sense of what is really important or of value. People are called upon to be true to themselves and to seek their own self-fulfillment. What this consists of, each must…determine for him- or herself. No one else can or should try to dictate its content.”
These changes didn’t just happen. Where we are today is the direct result of decisions made throughout the last 700 years(!). Clearly, there were no glory days. Sin has always abounded, and every age has had a surplus of morally lax people. Every age has seen people turn their backs on their neighbor and their god to serve themselves. But the unique thing about our age is that, as the same author above says, “today many people feel called to do this, feel they ought to do this, feel their lives would be somehow wasted or unfulfilled if they didn’t do it.”
In part 1 of this article, I would like to give a summary of some early developments in how we got to where we are. Later, I’ll bring these developments into the present day, and offer some thoughts on where we go from here.
Fourteenth Century: In the ancient world, God and creation were linked at the hip. Everything had a spiritual meaning, and everyone assumed God was behind everything. But war and plague brought questions to this understanding, and a new thought emerged: Nominalism.
In nominalism, objects lose spiritual, more profound meanings. Instead, people can assign any meaning they want. So a “table” is a table because we say it is. Really, it’s just bits of wood and glue and nails arranged in a certain way. One man’s dinner table is another man’s workbench or step stool or firewood. Nominalism is alive and well today, although it’s gone places unimaginable in the 14th century. Some easy examples in today’s world are marriage, sexuality, and even gender. Can you think of any others?
Fifteenth Century: This century was the dawn of the Renaissance, the “rebirth” of human thought and potential. Instead of looking up to God in heaven as the source of all meaning and purpose, our ancestor’s eyes turned earthward and began to see mankind as the measure of all things. This was a time of new optimism about human potential. Can you think of any examples of how our culture is more focused on what we can do for ourselves than what God can or has done for us?
Sixteenth Century: As centuries go, this one is huge. In large part following on the philosophical and cultural changes of the previous centuries, the 16th century was host to the Reformation of the Church. It took a while, but the religious unity of Europe was forever broken. The 500 years (and counting) that followed, all religious authority has been critically challenged. As Lutherans, we firmly believe that the religious authorities brought this on themselves. Indeed, such a correction was long overdue. The rank abuses of power and the church are too numerous and severe to list here, but they were unforgivable and in desperate need of change. It was the Renaissance that made it possible.
I hope you can see that with each cultural change has both strengths and weaknesses. Next month we’ll pick up with the rapid changes that bring us crashing into the present day.