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Time rolls on. Compared with this time last year we are all a year older. We have grown too big for our old shoes, or started a new school or job, gained or lost income, acquired another child or grandchild, come a year closer to retirement, buried one or both parents, been put on more tablets to keep us alive a little longer. What’s the point? If there is a point, are we nearly there yet?

Different societies have conceived of time in different ways. Mircea Eliade describes how archaic societies very often believe in two kinds of time. There is the original time, when the gods set up the world the way it is now. This is sacred time. Then there is the present age, which carries on unchanging year after year. Meaningful activities like hunting, eating and sex are given significance by relating them, through ritual, to their origins in sacred time. In this way sacred time becomes present again and makes the present sacred.

Anything outside the framework of these meaningful actions, having no superhuman model, has neither name nor value.1

Before the Axial Age (c. 800-300 BCE) the emphasis was on preserving society as it was: change was danger, meaning was backward-looking. There are plenty of modern parallels, like the Christian idea of the Eucharist as a re-enactment of the Last Supper.

Thus, though it may seem paradoxical, what we may call the “history” of primitive societies consists solely of the mythical events which took place in illo tempore [at that time] and have been unceasingly repeated from that day to this. All that the modern thinks of as truly “historic”, that is, as unique and done once and for all, is held by the primitive to be quite devoid of importance as having no mythico-historic precedent.2

The Axial Age introduced, among other things, awareness that changes have taken place within history, and desire for further change. The ancient Greeks proposed a variety of historical patterns: alternation between a golden age and a dark age, gradual decline through golden, silver and bronze ages, repetition of history over the thousands of years, perhaps with exact repetitions of who does what. Each theory would be explained by the intentions of one god or another.

Compared with these, we can see why it was Jewish monotheism that laid the foundations for the idea of progress we have today. In the divine world there is no longer either conflict or changes of plan. Instead one God is working on one plan. This makes possible both appeal to the original creation as a guide for present action, and appeal to the greater objective lying in the future.

Not that the Old Testament offers a theory of time – what we get there is prophetic hopes that God’s good purposes will eventually be carried out – but the essential foundations are laid. It was in Christianity, when monotheism was liberated from its national exclusivity, that we got one god with one plan for the whole world. Anyone in the world could in theory make their own contribution, big or little, to the working out of God’s plan.

Not all Christians bought it. Medieval Christianity was dominated by Augustine’s return to a staged history with, once again a static setting for life on Earth, this time punctuated by the original creation, the Fall, Christ’s saving acts and the future Second Coming.

It was the Enlightenment that reaffirmed belief in progress through gradual change over time. It did so by repudiating much of medieval Christianity. Today secular defenders of the Enlightenment treat the idea progress as anti-religious, and some postmodern Christian theologians agree.

It is interesting to see the record put straight by John Gray, an opponent of both progress and Christianity.

Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice… Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds.3

The Enlightenment’s optimistic accounts of progress, Gray argues, were inherited from Christianity and are indefensible without it.

The Christian inheritance to the Enlightenment was a combination of two elements, neither of which can be found in pre-Christian European thought – the affirmation that the hope of salvation belongs to all humans, and the belief that the salvation of the species is worked out in history. Taken together, these Christian notions produced the idea of progress.4

Shorn of its Christian underpinnings, Enlightenment progress depends on the belief that greater knowledge helps us to advance. However, Gray argues, ‘Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly.’5 It does not even lead to a consensus on values.6 Humanity is a species of animal, and no species acts in concert to control its fate.7 ‘There can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans.’8

 

If Gray is right, there is no point in wishing each other a happy new year. Happy for some, perhaps, unhappy for others, just like every year past and future. History grinds on heading nowhere.

I think Gray is right to perceive that no amount of human knowledge can produce real progress. On this point Augustine was certainly right: improvement comes through changing what we want, not what we know.

How, then, to change what we want? Every religious tradition is full of methods: meditation, private prayer, reflection on canonical scriptures and art, public worship. In these ways we acknowledge the presence of a wanting better than our wanting, a goodness better than our goodness, a hope better than our hopes. We open up our minds and desires in the presence of this transcendent holiness and invite it to change us for the better. If this kind of change is possible, we have good reason to wish each other a happy new year.

Notes

1 Eliade, Mircea, Patterns in Comparative Religion, London & New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958, p. 396.

2 Patterns in Comparative Religion, pp. 396-7.

3 Gray, John, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, London: Granta, 2002, pp. 47-48.

4 Gifford, Paul et al, Eds, 2000 Years and Beyond: Faith, Identity and the ‘Common Era’, pp. 41-42.

5 Straw Dogs, p. xiv.

6 2000 Years and Beyond, pp. 46-50.

7 Straw Dogs, p. 3.

8 Straw Dogs, p. 48.