C.S. Lewis commented once that the present is, historically speaking, a “period.” This may seem too obvious to point out, but there will come a time when what is currently happening will no longer be happening. Several centuries into the future, various schoolchildren will be sweating out the details of our century as they frantically try to sort things out before the test. “Which came first? The Vietnam War or the Spanish/American War?” Those controversies which roil our culture now will have gone the way of every controversy which has preceded us and which we have now forgotten.
This is not to say that such controversies are necessarily trivial or unimportant. We should still be grateful today for the outcome of the Battle of Marathon, just as we are grateful for the outcome of the Battle of Midway. But the outcome and importance of each was in the hands of God, and the participants at the time did not have control over the place of their struggle in the rest of history. In the providence of God, certain events do become the hinge upon which subsequent history turns. Other events and times, which are equally in the hands of God, do not have that same importance. Our temptation, and the temptation of every generation, is to think that each and every crisis which we face must necessarily be such a hinge. “Of course this is pivotal. It is happening to us, isn’t it?” It would be a difficult historical assignment indeed to find a nation or people convinced that they did not live in an important time.
Of course, in another sense, whether men and women serve God or not always has eternal ramifications . . . for them as individuals. We are beings who live, each of us, on the brink of eternity. In this sense, “right now counts forever” in a most profound sense. But in a broader cultural sense, this is not necessarily the case. In the biblical worldview, each life has eternal implications. But every event and every life does not necessarily have profound historical or cultural implications. Before the seat of God’s judgment, we will find that there is no partiality. But in the rough and tumble of historical cultural development, some are big and some are small. Only the egotism of the baby-boomers could identify the shenanigans of the Rolling Stones as culturally significant.
So as Christians seek to relate their faith to the broader culture around them, we must remember the words of the preacher. What goes around comes around, and there is nothing new under the sun. Look at it. It has been done before, and it will be done again. It has been forgotten by many before, and it will be forgotten by many again. The work of Christians in the advancement of His kingdom is done before the Lord, and so it should never be done in a panic. We have a duty to be found faithful at our post; it is no part of our duty to assign to ourselves the role of “linch-pin in the crisis of the ages.” But as modern Christians look at the unbelieving culture around them, the temptation is often overwhelming to say of the forces of darkness that “this is their hour.” We must stand against them now, we think, or everything is lost. We often see ourselves as manning the walls of some spiritual Alamo, and think our loss will be the loss of all. But we must remember historical humility. In the providence of God, we may be fighting at the center of the battle . . . or we may not be. The determination of which is to be the case is not our duty. We are not captains of our fate, we are not masters of our souls.
The perspective we need on the present is found in the past. As we undertake the work of cultural analysis, we need the perspective provided by old books which contain the last remains of the various older controversies. The fact that a teacher is now dead does not prevent him from speaking cogently to the controversies of our day. In fact, because he was limited in his comments to the controversies of his day, he is able to provide us with much-needed perspective. The blood of Abel still speaks today (Heb. 11:4), as does, in a similar way, the written life-blood of Augustine and Athanasius, Tyndale and Wycliffe, Edwards and Calvin. From them and others we may learn the wisdom of the warning given by R.L. Dabney who said that we should be sure the old issues are dead before we bury them. As we look at the eternal antithesis between right and wrong as it looked when clothed in the details of another time, we will be equipped to see what can never be buried and what should be. We will see ideological fads and fashions, as well as the permanent things.
We will also begin to see our own leaders and thinkers in perspective. This will not lessen our appreciation of them, but rather increase it in an appropriate way. Charles de Gaulle once said that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. As we read the works of our fathers in the faith, we will see how God has never left Himself without a witness. He is not going to start now.
When we pass on, wisdom will not die with us.