“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”
— Ecclesiastes 1:9
I’m hoping it’s just a bad feeling that will pass, this sense that as a society we may be getting caught up in the false myth that technology will save the planet. I’m reading about the rise of just such a debilitating false belief that occurred at the turn of the century, and not with the positive results hoped for. Historian Joseph Laconte in his thought-provoking, “A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18,” reminds us of the false “myth of progress” that was demolished by the onset of World War I, which turned Europe into a wasteland.
“By the start of the 20th century, attitudes about war and what it could accomplish were bound up with a singular, overarching idea: the myth of progress … Scientists, educators, industrialists, salesmen, politicians, preachers — all agreed on the upward flight of humankind. Each breakthrough in medicine, science, and technology confirmed it. Every invention and innovation was offered up as evidence, from Marconi’s radio transmissions to the Maxim machine gun. Darwin’s theory about biological change had ripened into a social assumption — a dogma — about human improvement, even perfection ... ” [Laconte]
But the fruit of man’s efforts did not bring “peace on earth” or “good will toward men.” Rather, mankind’s genius was used to create new, more deadly, weapons of war. The world, in the aftermath of such unprecedented slaughter of human life, thus fell from a naïve state of false hope into a state of dismal global depression. The catastrophic crash-and-burn of the myth that was supposed to bring social and spiritual regeneration to mankind instead served up 45 million known casualties, plus a strong case of animus against everything the West was founded upon, to include the Christian faith and its moral principles, becoming, as Laconte puts it, “two more casualties of the war.” Enter atheistic Modernism from stage left, waltzing into the Western cultural zeitgeist masquerading as a substitute religion, and the defamation of “the values of the Old World, along with the religious doctrines that helped to underwrite them,” came into full swing.
Two Oxford scholars refused to cave-in to the hand-wringing cynicism of the day, generating “epic literature extolling valor and sacrifice in war…” and “rooted in a narrative of Christian redemption.” For Tolkien and Lewis, the horrors of WWI exposed the myth of human progress for what it truly was. Both served as officers in the British Expeditionary Force, both were casualties, and both witnessed unspeakable horrors. And yet, once back at Oxford, both “steadfastly rejected the sense of futility and agnosticism that infected so much of the output of their era.” Neither caved-in to the cynical assault on classical ideas of Heroism, Valor, and Virtue that atheistic Modernism was now selling to the masses. As a matter of fact, in the literary worlds of Tolkien and Lewis, those very things remained both essential, and hobbit-sized, all of their beloved characters fully conscious of “a higher Moral Law to which they must give account.” Lewis declared this to be, as a matter of fact, “the basis of the whole Tolkienian world.”
Is the West, even with its most recent dazzling advancements of science and technology, able to save itself from participating in its own demise, having turned its back on its own founding principles, betraying its own identity? As King Solomon wrote nearly three thousand years ago, nothing new has happened under the sun:“Whatever exists has already been named; and what humanity is, has been known ...”
Every hobbit knows that the One Ring met its doom by an act of grace, not the heroism of the hobbit. And perhaps we who reject the cynicism of postmodernism must relearn and advance the truth that this world will also only be redeemed by an act of grace. Grace from above.