What Was Then and What Is Now

COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’

If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Plato, Aquinas, or Aristotle?
If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Plato, Aquinas, or Aristotle? (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

When my mother, of blessed memory, reached the ripe old age of 100, the family arranged a gala in her honor. Being the eldest of her brood of three, it fell upon me to say a few words. A lot had transpired since 1904, the year of her birth, and I thought it might be interesting to family members and friends to inform them about what America was like 100 years ago.

In that long gone year, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. More than 95% of all births took place in the home. Ninety percent of all U.S. physicians had no college degree. Only 6% of all adults had graduated from high school. Two out of 10 adults could not read and only 14% of the homes had the luxury of a bathtub. By any standard, today’s figures, compared to those of 1904 are a clear indication of progress.

Nonetheless, we may be a bit hasty in employing that word. In the year 1904 there were roughly 230 murders reported. A century later, that number soared to 14,249. The Gun Violence Archive reports that in 2022, there were 44,310 deaths from gun violence. Americans purchased 16.5 million guns in that same year. The 2022 record also shows that there were 20,138 fire arm deaths, excluding suicide. To these figure, we may add the millions who have perished due to abortion.

It is a grave mistake to isolate what happened “then” and regard it is old-fashioned, while viewing what is happening “now” as representing progress. This unfortunate disjunction leads to a separation of progress from tradition. Yet, the figures show a mixture of good and bad. 

It is simplistic to relegate tradition to what happened “then” and progress to signify what is happening “now.” Tradition bears upon the future and its value cannot be erased. In fact, tradition is composed of many past progressions that gave tradition its importance. 

“Progress” and “tradition” are not mutually exclusive terms. Nonetheless a communication barrier has been established between those who believe that tradition is irrelevant and those who are mesmerized by innovations.

A number of influential thinkers have emphasized the importance of progress, while de-emphasizing the importance of tradition. Karl Marx spoke of progress toward a classless Utopia. Philosophers Alfred North Whitehead, Samuel Alexander, Teilhard de Chardin and others, along with Charles Darwin, argued that society, as well as life itself, is constantly evolving into something better. In this sense, progress means a break with the past. 

Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), in his book Introduction to Christianity, has called attention to this unfortunate elevation of the importance of progress and concomitant disregard of tradition: 

“Tradition appears as what has been laid aside, the merely out-of-date, so that man feels at home not in the realm of tradition, of the past, but in the realm of progress and the future.” 

The truth is that the “then” and the “now” are not antithetic. When progress breaks from tradition, the possibility arises that what is believed to be progress is regress. “We all want progress,” writes C.S. Lewis, “but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

Despite what Marx, Darwin and others have believed, progress is not written into the fabric of either history or life. “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable,” according to Martin Luther King Jr. “Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Inscribed on the façade of the U.S. Treasury Building are the words, “What Is Past Is Prologue.” The past prepares and anticipates the future. It cannot be disregarded. It is the platform for what follows. 

Scripture comes out of the past, but is not confined to it. Its influence on all the generations it preceded is inestimable. “Hold fast to the Bible,” wrote general and then President Ulysses S. Grant. “To the influence of this book we are indebted for all the progress made in true civilization and to this we must look as our guide in the future.”

Grant, of course, was not confining the notion of progress to technology. If we consider the arts, what present philosophers can rival Aristotle, Plato and Aquinas? What composers can rank with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms? What poets are the equal of Shakespeare, Dante and Milton? What painters can match the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael? And what novelists can compare with Dostoevsky, Tolstoi and Dickens? Winston Churchill, who was not taken in by the myth of progress, once remarked, “The Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of Science; and what might now shower immeasurable material blessings upon mankind may even bring about its total destruction.” Gen. Omar Bradley Bradley has stated that “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

The true Christian understands that tradition and progress are not antagonistic to each other. This is because Christ is the Everlasting Man. He is the past, present and future. He knows no such time barriers. He is for all people and for all time. 

If progress has any meaning for the Christian, is to become more Christlike. Accordingly, in 2 Peter 3:18, we are advised to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever!” 

In this case, “now” is not contrasted with “then” but belongs to all ages.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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