We don’t look to past wisdom to get the answers to the deep questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? How do we define what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful? We are people who are always looking for what is new. The new is where we are absorbed; it is what grabs our attention. We don’t want to learn what is old. We’re hoping that around the corner something new is going to give our lives meaning that it lacks today, when in reality, the deepest truths of life are already available to us.
Recently, I thought of a conversation I had with a friend some years ago. He told me about a discussion he had with some others. In our discussion, my friend mentioned that he had asked the question, “What do you think life will be like on this planet a thousand years from now?”
My friend and I began to speculate about the same question. We thought that maybe in fifty years there will be no more automobiles or highways. Instead, we will be able to move around with battery packs on our backs and fly through lanes in the air. We won’t worry about collisions, because we will have sophisticated collision avoidance systems.
Today, I don’t know if that prediction will come true, but I think that in future centuries people will certainly look back at the twenty-first century and feel sorrow for the tough life we have now. For example, when we get sick, we go to the hospital and have people cut us open with knives and do surgery, but in the years to come we will be treated in ways that are far less invasive. Just consider how things have rapidly changed in our own lifetimes. I’ve read that if you go to your local hardware store, 50 percent of the products that you find there were not in existence ten years ago. The changes are so quick and so startling and dramatic that it’s very difficult for us to keep pace.
When I think about the rapidity of change, I’m often disturbed by the arrogance we have with respect to our knowledge. Because of all of the tremendous discoveries and advancements, we think we are so much smarter than people who lived long ago. For some, in fact, natural science has become a god and the scientists are the new high priests. Thus, modern people so often look down upon those in the ancient world who believed in God. We think of them as primitive, naive, prescientific, and so on. Consider the man who, two thousand years ago, came to the edge of a forest. And walking through, he said, “Here is a forest made up of trees, some tall trees and some short, some green trees and some brown.” People in our day often will think this man unintelligent because he couldn’t identify the different species of trees, he didn’t understand how photosynthesis operates, he didn’t understand how water is drawn up through the root system and pumped up to the tallest extremities of the trees. We think he is unlearned because our knowledge has advanced so magnificently since that time two thousand years ago.
But are we really any smarter? All we have done is look more closely at what is. If you would have asked that traveler two thousand years ago, “Sir, why is there a forest here, rather than no forest?” he could have given an answer to that question as intelligent as the world’s greatest botanist could give today because the ultimate questions of life transcend superficial analysis. But we think that because we can look more deeply at the visible world that we have somehow gotten closer to the fundamental nature of reality. Yet, we haven’t gotten closer at all. If we measure Western culture by Scripture, society as a whole is further away from the fundamental nature of reality today than it was two thousand years ago. And that’s because even though the basic issues of life are the same today as they were then, we aren’t satisfied with the old, proven answers God has revealed.
We don’t look to past wisdom to get the answers to the deep questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? How do we define what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful? We are people who are always looking for what is new. The new is where we are absorbed; it is what grabs our attention. We don’t want to learn what is old. We’re hoping that around the corner something new is going to give our lives meaning that it lacks today, when in reality, the deepest truths of life are already available to us. We can learn so much from the history of the world, from church history, from economic history, and so on to help us in the present, but we don’t want to learn. We violate time and again proven principles in such areas as economics and ethics, and we think these violations are going to work even though they’ve never worked before. The reason we keep doing it is because we have ignored the past and we haven’t learned from those who have gone before us. We think they have nothing to say because they aren’t what is new, and yet when we as believers work to apply the old wisdom revealed by God, we find it is more current, more satisfying, and more effective than anything “new” being touted today.
There are new products and there are new people, new faces, new homes, and new this and new that. But the things that really grab us—relationships, behavioral patterns, the deepest yearnings in our heart—are the things that we find people killing over, fighting over, weeping over, and pleading over in antiquity. The real issues of life don’t change; only the context and the environment and the accoutrements change. Fundamentally, in terms of the depth dimension of human existence, there is nothing new. That’s what the Preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us, and it is a theme that is repeated throughout sacred Scripture.
Our calling as believers is to be thankful for the many technological and scientific advances that have come to us today, but at the same time we are not to be arrogant and think we have everything figured out whereas past generations were hopelessly lost. For God revealed Himself first to the ancients, and He has been working in history among His people to illumine their understanding of His truth. We ignore this wisdom at our peril when we run after what is “new” and ignore what is “old.”
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine. This article used with permission.