History Demands Humility
To the extent that we understand both the breadth and the length of the story of humanity, we must draw back from the pride of the present. As humans, we naturally idolize the Now. I was recently at the ruins of ancient Jerash, a Roman city in modern-day Jordan. I walked down wide cobblestone streets which still clearly showed the marks of advanced masonry and stepped over a still-intact sewer drain; I looked over the walls of a small church to see the remarkably exquisite mosaic floor built so well that it remained today with hardly a tile missing; I stopped to gaze up at the broad arch of Hadrian that still heralded the emperor’s (possibly abortive) visit. An uncomfortable feeling of smallness began to envelop me as I realized that mine was not the only period of greatness.
Of course, at face value, this seems to be the most obvious of observations. But sometimes obvious truths suddenly make their mark on us emotionally long after we have mentally agreed with them. So it was with me, looking out between the broken pillars of a devastated-but-still-awe-inspiring civilization into the 21st-century city of Jerash. I suddenly realized how much arrogance I have in my world. I automatically view my time, the 2nd millennium AD, as somehow being culturally or even morally superior to all other time periods. I routinely laugh in embarrassment at the paternalistic things 18th and 19th-century people would say about women or about “the Negroes,” the latter being a word I can’t pronounce with a straight face. And how utterly unknowledgeable the average person used to be, compared to Now!
To be fair, there have been truly unprecedented advances in terms of knowledge and technology in the last 150 years. My grandma remembers traveling to the church in a horse-drawn vehicle of some sort. That is amazing to me: I don’t think of the automobile as a recent invention. The idea that we could travel across the world inside of a day would have been ludicrous to any person from even the 1800s. I can connect with anyone on the globe in a matter of seconds, provided I know their name and they are on Instagram, which again would be unfathomable to someone from any other age.
But despite all this, we are just humans, and that means that one day our civilization will also fall. Will it be because of some sort of AI apocalypse? Or because of a world war? Or perhaps an epidemic? I have no clue, but common sense tells us that our civilization will eventually collapse and join the rest of history. I looked out between those pillars and saw a modern-day city with its skyscrapers, powerlines, network towers, and apartment buildings and thought, There’s nothing more durable about our era’s architecture than the Roman buildings behind me! In another 200 years (a relatively short time period compared to the length of human history) what I’m seeing now could very well be reduced to ruins as well! It was a humbling moment. Our modern ways of building are not necessarily more durable than the chiseled stone used in so many Roman cities: steel rusts away and leaves little to nothing. Concrete disintegrates—fast. I recently was shocked by a ScienceMag article comparing our concrete unfavorably to Roman building products.¹ Roman concrete still graces thousands of bridges and piers across Europe today. How has it lasted for so many centuries? We still haven’t figured out how to incorporate their concrete-making process into ours!
Remember, merely one war (like the ongoing one in neighboring Syria) has the power to reduce a prosperous city (like Damascus) to piles of concrete and twisted steel. Our concrete can disintegrate in as little as 50 years. The legacy of our civilization is perhaps very tenuous! Will future generations and cultures find anything of the cheap housing and utilitarian buildings that we currently construct?
“Well,” some say, “the internet is our legacy: it’s eternal and built to weather time and conflict.” Just Google “How to break the internet” sometime. It’s a fascinating search, and it shows that the chances of a well-placed series of terrorist attacks taking it down are by no means prohibitive, even if it’s highly improbable.
Although we think—and let me kindly remind you that all former cultures including Ozymandias’s² believed this about themselves—that we are unlikely to disappear and cease to be the great flagship of humanity, we are in fact no different than the rest of human history, except that we aren’t, well, history yet. Like it or not, transience ultimately defines us.
When considering these things, I tend to begin feeling tense. I suppose that since I live in Now, I feel the need to defend it, to prove that it is as great as stated. But there is no need. I can live today with rest. It is not eternal, but it is today, so I can hold every moment with fascination and fear of God, connecting constantly to what is eternal to make sense of what is Now. And I can remember the sorrow of Jesus as he looked on a different unrepentant civilization and realized the delusion that short-sightedness brings. And from this vantage point, I suppose, I can even laugh with God at those who think that today is all there is.³ We got the memo; we know it’s not.
³ Psalm 37:13