Sunday, July 20, 2014

Are We Getting Better … Or Worse?

by Norman Walford
This month I've been struggling through one of the so-called all-time greats of Christian literature—that is, “The City of God” by St Augustine of Hippo. Listening to it as an audiobook, I can just about keep going. If I had to read it in print, I wouldn't have a chance. It's very long and very pedantic. It starts out as total tedium, brightens up for a few chapters in the middle, and then the relapses back into total boredom. 

In spite of all this, it's a worthwhile experience, because it does give some insight in to the character of the writer; and since Augustine is, after Paul, arguably the most influential Christian writer of all time, that has to be of some value.
The book was written shortly after the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in A.D. 410. This was the event that marked the beginning of the final collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, and for most of us that's an almost unimaginably long time ago. A few years later, Augustine would be dying in his adopted city of Hippo in North Africa, even while another invading horde, this time the Vandals, were battering at the gates and laying siege to the city, which would shortly fall.
So Augustine lived in what we could now call "interesting times". All a very long time ago. For us it’s another world really. Yet in spite of all this, the tedium of the book, the foreignness of the culture, and so on, I find myself looking at Augustine and thinking, "Hey! He's just like us really!"
It’s easy to look at Augustine and other luminaries of the ancient Christian past, label them as “early church fathers", and then switch off. See them as inhabitants of another planet. But Augustine’s not like that at all. In many ways he's quite up-to-date in his thinking. In fact he has a level of rationality and objectivity that would put many modern day writers to shame. So why is the book so tedious? Well, I think he was just a really rather pompous and somewhat boring person. You get them now and you got them then. Nothing has changed.
And that's really what I want to talk about. Has anything actually changed over the interval of centuries? After all, most of us—though we may hate to admit it to ourselves— are deeply imbued with the kind of 20th/21st century humanist ideal that tells us that somehow, with the passage of time, things are gradually getting better. That this crisis is the last crisis, we’ve finally learnt the lesson. That this war (or maybe the next one) is the one that finally ushers in peace. Our theology may tell us that it's not, our observation may tell us that it’s not, but our humanist instinct tells us that it is.
This thinking is an example of what is known as "cognitive bias" that is, our innate inability as human beings to see things as they really are, but rather to systematically pervert our perception according to certain fairly well characterized rules.
Cognitive bias is one of the buzzwords of this decade. The shock of the 2008 financial crisis finally woke a lot of people up to the realisation that not only are human beings not particularly good at objective rational decision making; but that most of us are actually incapable of it. We try to make objective rational decisions, but in the end our brain is simply incapable of eliminating its own intrinsic biases. This is true in the world of finance, and it’s even more true in the realm of religion and thinking about God.
So … we find ourselves lulled into this strange sort of paradigm where we think that most of human history may indeed have been a total jungle, but happily now over the last hundred years or so, we’ve actually got ourselves together as a race, and finally we are on the road to getting to be truly ‘civilised’. It’s a comforting idea, and it’s not too difficult to find ways of backing it up and convincing ourselves.
What most of us are unaware of—and this is where people like Augustine come in useful—is that this thinking is not new. People have always thought this way. All through history people have tended to the view that things may have been bad up to now, but we’ve turned the corner and now they’re getting better. That’s why I call this kind of irrational optimism a cognitive bias, since it’s such a constant and enduring feature of human thinking. People have always thought this way and probably always will.

A fascinating example of this thinking comes from an ancient correspondence in the second century between the Roman Emperor Trajan and the Roman Governor of Bithynia, Pliny.  Pliny is asking advice about how to deal with the Christians in his province. He has been getting anonymous accusations coming in from the public about the Christian community, and he is asking advice as to how to deal with them. Trajan’s reply is worth quoting:
"But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age."
There you have it, written in about the year AD 112. For the Emperor Trajan anonymous accusations belong to the old barbarous days of the past, which we have left behind. Now, humanity has grown up a bit. We don't do that stuff anymore. We are living in a new age, with a new, more enlightened, spirit to go with it.
The confidence that Trajan shows here is touching, but perhaps naïve.  If he could have seen what was to come over the next 1900 years, he would have had a sad shock. Granted that he lived in an era when things were—temporarily—a bit better. The century between about AD 80 and 180 is sometimes called the golden age of the Roman Empire, an era of peace and stability with a series of relatively enlightened and public-spirited emperors. It was easy to think then that the world was on the mend. It didn’t last. The century that followed was one of chaos and civil war that presaged the final collapse of the empire and the centuries of anarchy that followed. The peace and stability was just an illusion, a mirage.
Those of us who grew up in the Western world during the late 20th century might likewise feel that we have grown up in a sort of golden age. Increasing prosperity, relatively comfortable lifestyles, steadily improving medical services, and no truly global wars, can easily give the impression of a world that is steadily better. But is it real or is it illusion?
I think it is illusion. Like the golden age of Rome things may well have got a bit better, temporarily, in some parts of the world. Our cognitive bias leads us to see the relative peace of our own little patch as the norm, and the chaos elsewhere as the aberration, rather than vice versa. We believe it because we want to believe it, because the alternative—that the future will contain as much horror, or even more, than the past—is too awful to contemplate.

For me the evidence is there that it’s unwinding already. The consensus of a Christian-based moral code is disintegrating, and with that the fabric of our society unravels. Are we looking to a new ‘dark age’? Not totally, probably—things like communication media are presumably here to stay. But morally, quite likely so. I hope not, but I wouldn’t discount it. Perhaps we’re there already but just can’t see from the inside what may be self-evident to future historians. I’m really not convinced that our current golden age has any more substance than those that have gone before.


  1. Augustine, yes a boring and difficult to read writer, but, as you note, very much like us. His world was falling apart before him, the empire that kept the peace was failing, and yet he kept his hope where it belonged, in the Savior. Amen.

  2. Augustine, yes a boring and difficult to read writer, but, as you note, very much like us. His world was falling apart before him, the empire that kept the peace was failing, and yet he kept his hope where it belonged, in the Savior. Amen.