Wednesday, July 02, 2003

Been there, done that


See if this vision of history sounds familiar: civilization arises out of tribal life, where man was universally superstitious and suspicious of what was different. Over time, he overcomes his tribalism, and lives in cities. As time goes on, man grows in sophistication; practices that were forbidden by the tribe are seen as permissible. Thus, ancient prohibitions against casual sex, abortion, contraception, homosexual activity (it is a misnomer to call it "sex") are "outgrown." Progress universally means to accept what was once forbidden. Tolerance is the mark of a civilized society. We discover that In Diversity Is Our Strength!


Is this familiar? Have you heard this view in the news? I hear it all the time. History is viewed as a curve that starts in darkness and barbarism, but that eventually and slowly trends upward to the enlightened, tolerant state of today, as evidenced by recent Supreme Court decisions. Any progressive society will necessarily allow promiscuity, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, prostitution, and other such consensual activities. We've grown beyond prohibiting them, you see.


But this view of history is absolutely incorrect. None of these activities are new, and in fact, all of them were allowed and promoted in ancient times. In Greece there was a thriving homosexual culture--in fact, having sex with boys was the thing to do. The shocking thing about Socrates wasn't that he had a homosexual crush on Alcibiades, it is that he never acted on it. Promiscuity was the rule, not the exception in Rome--just read Ovid or the lives of the Caesars. Divorce was similarly common, and prostitution was organized, not by the government, but by religion: there were temple prostitutes. Abortion was practiced quite often, as was infanticide, and contraceptive drugs were also widespread. In fact, it is likely that when the New Testament condemns pharmakia (translated "sorcery"), it was condemning contraceptive or abortive potions.


The arc of history is not from restrictive to permissive, but from permissive to restrictive. In other words, the Greeks and Romans had a society where all these things were common, and it wasn't until Christ came along that they changed. We aren't progressing to a brave new future, but are instead regressing to a dead and well-abandoned past.


Did you ever wonder why Christianity spread so quickly? It wasn't because liberal Greeks and Romans were well-adjusted and happy. It was because they lived at "the end of the age." They could see that no wisdom lies at the end of the path of excess. Unfettered liberty is an express lane to suicide, and they could see that. Christianity spread because it offered hope in the face of this abyss of despair.


Why would we want to climb back down into that abyss? We've been there, and done that. Some of us even have T-shirts.

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