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How Not To Be A Chronological Snob (Post 2)

We are all tempted to be chronological snobs, assuming what is fashionable to believe during our day and age must be right. This means we also assume those of previous times, who have different ideas and values, must be wrong. C.S. Lewis was able to resist this temptation. He stands as a model of how we might do the same, and how doing so will be a great benefit to us.

How To Resist The Temptation

Lewis suggested, when tempted to reject an idea simply because it is “old” (synonyms: archaic, medieval, outdated, passe, ancient), we stop and ask a few simple questions:

  • Why is it wrong? Old age doesn’t kill true ideas.

  • Has it been refuted? Who refuted it? How strongly? Often the answers to these questions surprise us as we find the idea never was refuted!

Lewis points out that when we run across “old” ideas, and realize they have not all been refuted, something interesting begins to happen. We begin to question some of our modern beliefs and values, which stand in stark contrast to some of these older ideas. If the old ideas aren’t necessarily false, then perhaps our modern ideas aren’t necessarily true. 

There are at least fifteen contrasts between “old” ideas (what those in the “pre-Modern” period believed and valued–from the Ancient Greeks through the mid-fifteenth century) and “new” ideas (what those in the  “Modern” period believed and valued–especially as the Enlightenment took hold in the early eighteenth century.) 

Recovering Chronological Snobs Can Learn A Lot!

As we recover from our chronological snobbery, we will understand these contrasts more clearly and understand some of the wisdom of pre-Modern authors. This, in turn, will help us identify some of our age’s misguided values. Learning from others in this way will result in us living more authentic and whole lives, better able to love God and others.

At some point, I collated or copied a list of fifteen contrasting values from the pre-Modern to the Modern period, as identified by Lewis in his writings. For the life of me, I can’t recall how I came to possess this list. I don’t want to claim it is mine if it is the work of someone else. So I’ll just say it is a list I have used for some time now, much to my benefit. (If anyone recognizes the source of this list, please let me know!) 

In a post of this length, I can only list each of these contrasts, and make a few brief comments of my own to clarify the contrast. In previous posts, I’ve discussed some of these ideas in more depth, so refer to those posts if any of this strikes a chord. 

  1. Supernaturalism vs. Naturalism. This is a fundamental shift from valuing the immaterial realm as just as real and important as the natural realm, to valuing only what we can see and touch. This results in the gospel shifting from being something we can know is true to being a “mere” belief. It led universities to shift from having Theology departments (which assume there is theological truth to be discovered) to Religion departments (which assume religious belief is nothing more than sociology). And it led to the rejection of Realism, because abstract objects (such as moral values, natures, and propositions) cannot objectively exist, for they would have to be immaterial. Nominalism became the assumed view of reality (the metaphysic of the age), and has implications in most if not all the other shifts in ideas and values to follow.

  2. Liberal Arts & Humanities vs. Pragmatism. The Humanities and Arts focus on the universal questions of what constitutes human flourishing. Pre-Moderns assumed there were objective answers to these questions, grounded in our shared nature as human beings. This made sense of there even being a field of studies called the “Human-ities.” But as nominalism took hold in the Modern era, it was no longer fashionable to believe anything was essentially human about us.  So these questions of human flourishing became questions of “What works best for you” and voila, we have Pragmatism. 

  3. Persons vs. Things. Again, the pre-Modern era understood people as having an essential, shared, and intrinsically valuable nature (in theological terms, having the image of God). Indeed, pre-Moderns viewed persons as the most valuable things in the world. The Modern era rejected the idea of a shared, intrinsically valuable nature (again, ultimately due to a metaphysic of naturalism and nominalism). So people become less valuable, and things become more valuable. Less and less do we “enjoy people and use things” and increasingly we begin to “use people and enjoy things.” 

  4. Truth vs. Pragmatism. Pre-Moderns assumed truth existed, and human flourishing and the Common Good is obtained only by knowing and living by what is true. But this was inconsistent with the new (Modern) assumptions of naturalism and nominalism. So the idea of there being objective, absolute, binding truth became less and less attractive. In its place was the value of what “works”–whatever helps a person accomplish his or her own goals. Again, Pragmatism.

  5. Beauty is Intrinsic to the Object/is Real vs. Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder. The earlier era believed that a sunset, flower, or newborn baby is intrinsically beautiful. If one disagreed, that person was simply wrong. Being unable to discern what is and is not objectively beautiful was seen as a deficiency, much like a person who cannot distinguish red from blue (one who is colorblind). But, again, if all that exists is matter (see 1 above), then there can be no such thing as “beauty” as an objective thing. Nor could beauty be “in” objects, for this “in” would need to be a non-spatial “in.” None of this fit with the materialism and nominalism of the new age. Therefore it became chic to say “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We have never looked back (though we still teach art appreciation classes and we all gather to watch sunsets rather than dumpsters, as if there actually is some objectivity to what is beautiful.) 

Conclusion

Five differences in values down and ten to go. Stay tuned! 

Until next week, grace and peace.

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