History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 2)

In the last post of this series, we examined the nature of social progress, and where that leaves us in the course of history. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. In the future, it will continue to bend towards perfection - and away from our current state. The march of social progress is certain to make moral monsters of us all. When look back one human lifetime - 80 years - we rightly condemn their thoughts and attitudes on topics like race relations, gender roles, totalitarian communism, and eugenics. The future generations will rightly condemn us in the same way.

So, what are we to do?

First, this gives us some insight into the fallen state of human nature. If you ever doubted the doctrine of the fall - if you've ever thought that you're a "good person" whom God would approve of - this argument makes your delusion clear. Before you can dream of claiming "I'm a good person" before God, you ought first to be able to do so before future generations - and we already know, from past history, how that'll turn out.

This line of thinking also gives us a way to evaluate some common moral arguments. In particular, I speak of those arguments that use words like "in this day and age", or "we're in the 21st century", or "you're on the wrong side of history". Understanding the arc of the moral universe - together with its course and scope - reveals these words to be the provincial, narrow-minded products coming from a limited perspective. Remember that "This day and age"  and the "21st century" is not a special time. In fact we know with near-certainty that our day and age will become obsolete, as did all the ages before ours. Whenever I hear those words in a moral argument, I mentally replace them with "in this day and age in the 12th century". If the argument doesn't make any sense under that transformation, it cannot have any deep, time-invariant truth to it.

As for the "wrong side of history", remember that the moral arc of the universe is LONG. It generally takes about one full human lifetime to clearly see how it bends. But whenever I hear someone arguing for the "right side of history", they're referring to events on a far shorter timescale. Remember that eugenics and communism were also supposed to be the latest, most progressive thing that was on the "right side of history". Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, speaking for a single-party communist system against Western capitalism and democracy, thought that "history is on our side. We will bury you". All of these are examples of people speaking too soon by failing to understand the moral arc of the universe.

Okay, so how can we escape these errors? How can we look beyond the narrow-minded thinking that now - "the 21st century" or "this day and age" - is a special time in history? How can we distinguish between the latest random societal change and the actual bend in the arc of the moral universe?

Remember that the moral universes moves in an ARC. An arc, as opposed to just a random squiggle, is defined by having some constant parameters, some unchanging rule that it follows. That's what we should look for - some unchanging, time-invariant rules of morality that underlies and drives the bending of the arc. In fact, we already know what many of these are: love the LORD your God. Speak truth to one another. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Love your neighbors. Do not steal. So on and so forth. We champion these truths against the temporal variance of any one specific place and time.

This way of thinking also helps us to interpret the Bible. The Bible is thousands of years old. If we read it simplistically, looking at its instructions in complete isolation without taking into account its historical context, we'll only see a lot of outdated practices. We do not have animal sacrifices or avengers of blood anymore. But the Bible is not meant to be read that way: it teaches us principles, not particulars. It gives us invariant truths, not specific social agendas.

When a teacher shows his students how to do an example problem, he's teaching a solution that depends on the understanding of deep principles at work in that problem. Now, some terrible students will only remember that "the answer is C", then complain on the test because the "C" turned out to be the wrong answer to an analogous problem. We must not to be like that student.

And in this way, the Bible is the perfect instructor: thousands of years of history means that its characters are deeply flawed and sinful - something the Bible itself readily acknowledges - because the moral arc has progressed past them for all that time. We therefore cannot simply copy and paste their actions into our lives today, as if they existed without any external context. But that same thousands of years of history is perfect for illustrating the unchanging principles at the heart of the moral arc. These principles are the same yesterday, today, and forever, because their Author is timeless and eternal. So, what the Bible's critics assume is one if its greatest weaknesses ("it's thousands of years old") turns out to be one if its major strengths. You just have to not read it like a terrible student would.

But in the end, we come back to our fallen nature. The curve of the moral arc reveals all of us to be moral monsters, depraved and fallen. Even if we can discern some of the principles behind its turning, we cannot work out all the specifics. We cannot predict the future turnings of the arc. So it is that God has placed eternity in the hearts of man, yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

But God has given us Christ. And through him, God gives us salvation from our fallen depravity. Through him, we will reach the end of the moral arc, for he himself is the perfection that the arc is bending towards.


You may next want to read:
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)
I am a sinner.
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

No comments :

Post a Comment