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Shaping Our Modern World

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Although the 20th century brought dramatic changes to our modern world, the ideas and beliefs that took root can trace their origins to centuries past. What are the consequences of mankind's most cherished beliefs? What is the truth, and where can it be found?

Why is our world the way it is today? And where is it headed? In the last 100 years, the world has experienced dizzying technological progress, yet age-old scourges of war, famine and disease continue to plague mankind. But paradoxically, it is the affluent and "progressive" countries that have often seen the most dramatic unraveling of the very social fabric.

While the 20th century was one of dramatic change, today's world has been shaped by much more than the events of the last century. The truth is that ideas have consequences. Beliefs will ultimately take people places. Sometimes, however, those places are quite unforeseen and quite unwelcome!

There can scarcely be anything more important than understanding what and why is man. Are we part of some great cosmic plan or, are we merely the result of random chance? Ideas about man—his origins, his nature, his purpose, and his destiny—have been discussed for centuries. Our modern world has been shaped by certain beliefs that have been responses to these questions.

What are those beliefs and from where have they come? Can you really prove and know the answers to questions such as these? It is important to examine the fundamental ideas and beliefs that underlie our modern world and find out what is true and what is not!

The Coming of the Modern

It was in the 1500s that the word "modern" found its way into the English language. The word originated as a late-Latin term meaning "of the present time." It was used to contrast the rapidly changing 16th century with both the ancient world and the one that stood between then and "now," the medieval world. The development of the modern world is really the story of how secularism has come to be substituted for superstition!

In popular histories, the medieval world is generally pictured as a God-centered world, contrasted with the human-centered modern world. This picture is distorted. The medieval-world was superstition-centered. It certainly was not centered on the God of the Bible. The early "Church Fathers" had embraced a combination of paganism and Christianity that produced a society far removed from the ideals that are envisioned in the pages of Scripture. Desiring to attract and hold the masses of people, they found that the easiest way was to adapt and adopt the popular pagan customs already practiced by the people. While some of the grosser features of these customs were gradually tamed, their continued practice served to obscure the biblical revelation of God's plan and purpose. In theology and doctrine, the Catholic Fathers were far more influenced in their thought by Plato and by the Gnostics than they were by Scripture. This combination of theology with popular pagan practices laid a foundation for the medieval world-view.

In conjunction with this, there was an economic and cultural collapse that accompanied the fall of the Roman Empire. Travel and commerce became virtually impossible in the wake of barbarian invasions and the subsequent pillaging and marauding that lasted for centuries. The infrastructure began to crumble throughout Europe, evidenced by the fact that there was no organized road building for over 1,000 years!

It was into this dark and constricted world that the Renaissance began to bring a little light. The Renaissance, or "rebirth," involved a rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman authors and their man-centered view of the world. The superstition that passed for organized religion had been used as a tool to control the masses of people. Later thinkers, supposing that the medieval world was in some way a reflection of the Bible, sought to build up a world that rejected divine revelation as the ultimate authority. They confused the superstitions and prejudices of the preceding age with the teachings of the Bible. They assumed that the dark medieval period was the outgrowth of taking the Bible and religion too seriously.

The printing press came into use less than 50 years before the dawn of the 16th century. The 1500s proved to be a time when man's knowledge of his world increased dramatically. It was the age of exploration as European navigators discovered new worlds. Knowledge of geography grew greatly as Spain, Portugal, France and England began adding new territory to their realms.

While the exploration of new lands had far-reaching consequences, events in Europe were setting the stage for even greater change. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the church door of the Wittenburg Cathedral, setting in motion the Protestant Reformation. It grew in scope until it totally changed the face of Europe. Breaking the monopoly of the Catholic Church, it introduced another way of thinking and looking at life, one that emphasized the importance of private opinion and belief.

The modern world differs greatly from the medieval one in many ways, but it simply offers another way of being wrong! What passes for modern thought is simply neo-paganism, as we shall see.

The Cult of Progress

Optimism was in the air when the 20th century dawned. It seemed self-evident that life was destined to grow better and easier. This had by no means always been so. The concept of progress had gradually gained a foothold in the 17th and 18th centuries and in the 19th century the idea of the inevitability of progress came to permeate society. It gave rise to countless utopian schemes based upon the idea of man's perfectibility. Many social experiments that began in the 19th century and continued into the 20th were the outgrowth of this way of thinking. We need to understand what happened.

As we have already seen, the 16th century was built upon that rebirth of learning called the Renaissance which had begun a century or so earlier. The rediscovery of ancient Latin and Greek authors began to expand the thinking of those who had been locked in the straightjacket of the medieval Catholic Church. Humanism, an approach to life concerned about man here and now, was rediscovered. Though temporarily sidelined by the Reformation, it rose eventually to become the dominant mode of thinking in the West.

With the 17th century began the period called the Enlightenment. It was a time of great scientific discovery. Remarkable progress was made in understanding the natural world because of the work of men such as Johannes Kepler, William Harvey, Galileo, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton. Advances in the science of optics led to telescopes and subsequent advances in astronomy. Rapid development in the fields of mathematics, anatomy and physics opened up whole new vistas to men. This century saw the increasing acceptance of the scientific method: the idea that knowledge was to be based upon observation and measurement. This was in contrast to ideas stemming back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle who believed that truth could be arrived at simply by proper logic and reasoning. Men no longer looked back to classical antiquity as the golden age, but rather they began to look to the future with the hope of progress.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the 17th century more than the mechanical clocks and watches that were developed during this period. In 1657 the first pendulum for clocks was designed and the following year, the balance spring for watches was invented. Increasingly, the universe itself began to be viewed in mechanical terms. As the design inherent in the natural world was increasingly uncovered, the initial result was an enhanced appreciation for the fact that it all pointed to a Master Designer and Lawgiver.

The following century, the 18th, is often called the Age of Reason. The thinkers of the day found themselves in increasing conflict with the claims of the established church. Assuming that the superstitious and unscientific past was the result of seeking to build a world upon biblical revelation, these new thinkers adopted a religion of Deism. They accepted the idea of a Creator, but rejected the Bible as the source of divine revelation. Their view of God was that He was the master watchmaker. He had created the universe, wound up "the great master clock," and then walked away. Everything in the world around followed divinely established laws and there was no place for supernatural intervention that suspended or contravened those laws.

This was largely a reaction against the superstition and corruption of the medieval church. Thoughtful people saw frauds being perpetrated on the ignorant and credulous, in the hope of keeping them under church control. As rational people rejected the fake "miracles" meant to keep the populace docile, they often wrongly rejected the entire idea of miracles. In doing so, they had to reject much of the Bible, which led to a "natural religion" based on observation and human reason. Faith too was rejected, considered illogical to the natural mind.

Further advances in applied science, particularly the invention of the steam engine and the development of interchangeable parts, set the stage for an industrial revolution. The end of the 18th century, however, saw the launching of an entirely different kind of revolution in a different sphere that was to have far-reaching implications.

The storming of the Bastille (a royal prison) by an angry Parisian mob on July 14, 1789 marked the onset of the French Revolution. There followed the guillotine, the Reign of Terror and 25 years of bloodshed and chaos that ended with Napoleon's defeat and exile. The French Revolution was inspired by ideology and it set in motion the chain of ideological revolutions that was the bane of the 20th century.

From the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 until the beginning of World War I was a century of social change and economic development. There was rapid progress in the industrialization of the western world. Along with growing material prosperity came new theories that sought to explain man and his society. Two men who influenced the 20th century more than virtually anyone else of their generation published books during this time. They were Karl Marx who published The Communist Manifesto in 1848 and Charles Darwin who published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

While the Deists of the Enlightenment had sought to rid themselves of the Bible and to construct a religion based upon logic and reason, Darwin enabled the intellectual community to go one step further. He proffered the idea of creation without a Creator! According to his theories, the world around us is not the result of an intelligent Designer and Lawgiver. Rather, it is the result of random chance, natural selection and survival of the fittest.

Marx's view of the world was very much in harmony with Darwin's. He was totally materialistic in his outlook and saw history as a struggle between classes. He propounded his economic theories as "scientific" and predicted the inevitability of class warfare and the final triumph of communism as the highest form of social development. Both Marx and Darwin propounded a worldview that saw life as a progressive evolutionary development. There was struggle and conflict to be sure, but there was also the inevitability of progress as the old gave way to the new. In the decades to come, other thinkers offered various modifications of this idea, but the basic thesis remained the same.

World War I marked a defining moment for the 20th century. In its aftermath, 19th century notions of the inevitability of progress and the gradual dawn of utopia lay interred at Verdun and in Flanders Field, at least for many Europeans. The carnage of that war far surpassed anything known before. Civilian casualties alone amounted to more than ten million. Much of what had seemed permanent was swept away in four short years. The decade following World War I was dominated by an unlikely amalgam of cultural nihilists, pacifist idealists and greedy materialists. Romantic notions of the 19th century were swept away by what passed as "realism." Then the decadence of the "Roaring Twenties" had strong brakes put on it by the Great Depression of the 1930s. World War II followed with its idealism and the Allies' concept of a crusade for freedom. Instead of world peace, however, World War II was followed by the Cold War. Just as European optimism had been dealt a severe blow on the killing fields of World War I, so American optimism and idealism were major casualties in the jungles of Vietnam.

Scholars have called the 20th century the "American Century." Yet as America sought to lead the world, something went dramatically wrong at home. The technological Disneyland that is modern America has become a house of horrors, in which human life has become cheap. Millions of unborn babies' lives are snuffed out every year, and many Americans live in constant fear of violence.

The moral consensus in the Western world has collapsed. We have polluted our physical environment and sown the seeds of unimaginable future catastrophes by our attempts at biological engineering. Our spiritual and cultural environment is increasingly toxic as well. The paradox is that with all of man's amazing progress in discovering laws of science and ushering in the greatest time of physical abundance and prosperity that has ever been known, there are so many personal problems. Empty, unfulfilled lives leave many in our modern western world wondering, "What's the use?" While there are plenty of social engineers who cling to the idea that they can "fix" everything and bring about a secular utopia, the results of their experimentation demand a contrary verdict!

What Are the Real Answers?

Why have man's best efforts failed? And given man's dismal record of failure, are we to conclude that there is no hope at all? The ancient Hebrew prophet Jeremiah wrote in Jeremiah 10:23, "O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps."

The conflict of opposing world-views is not unique to our modern world. The Bible reveals a story of conflicting approaches to life from the very beginning. One of these ways was characterized by the Tree of Life, and the opposing way by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to the biblical book of Genesis, both of these trees were located in the Garden of Eden where the Creator placed our first parents. The Tree of Life symbolized the way of obedience to God and His laws—a way of life based upon divine revelation and yielding self-will to the guidance of Almighty God—the way of love and of outgoing concern for others. The other tree represents a mixture of good and evil—knowledge acquired through experience and experiment, apart from God's revelation. Human society, and the culture that flows from it, is built upon this fatal mixture. Mankind has been struggling for almost 6,000 years of recorded history to solve his own problems his own way by following the way that seems right to himself.

At the dawn of the 21st century, we are fast approaching the time described in Matthew 24:22, when except for the intervention of the Creator there would be no flesh saved alive. Man's technological capacity has far outstripped his moral and spiritual capacity.

The conflicting world-views of the modern age do not represent a conflict between true science and the Bible. There is no such conflict, for the same One is the author of both! Rather, it is a conflict between the pagan superstitions of Egypt and Babylon that have given rise to most of organized religion on the one hand, and the secular man-centered view of the world that comes to us from ancient Greece on the other. They simply represent two different ways of being wrong.

Man is not the result of blind chance and natural selection of one species over another. Rather, the Creator formed man in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26) with the supreme destiny of ultimately being born into His very Family (1 John 3:1-2, Romans 8:16-17). He is in the process of "bringing many sons to glory" (Hebrews 2:10).

There is a great purpose being worked out here below. Our modern world has been shaped by mankind continuing to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The vast majority of human beings are destined to learn the hard way that while this fruit may initially be sweet to the taste, it is in reality a deadly poison that produces death. There is a better way!

While mankind as a whole will have to wait for the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God upon this earth, it is possible for you to reject right here and now the way that leads to death! After learning of your Creator and His ways, you can with His help, unconditionally surrender your life and will to Him, coming to truly know Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. This is a far cry from accepting the false Christ that the world talks about (Matthew 24:5). Far from being "unscientific," putting your trust in the invisible God is the most sensible choice that there is. The One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) has a plan for you. If you want to learn more of that plan and purpose, then write in for the Tomorrow's World Bible Study Course. It will help you to make sense of life and to understand your Maker's instruction book.

Ultimately the forces that have shaped our modern world are the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). These are what enticed Eve into the fatal experiment of eating the forbidden fruit. Genesis 3:6 tells us that it appeared "good for food" (lust of the flesh), "pleasant to the eyes" (lust of the eyes) and something to "be desired to make one wise" (pride of life). These are the values that have shaped our world, ancient and medieval as well as modern. This world and its lusts are going to be swept away in a few short years, but those who do the will of God will endure forever (1 John 2:17).

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