Everyone’s got an idealised time period in their minds. In theological scholarship, I find Reformed people often referring back to the period of high Reformed scholasticism – an appeal to said period was often seen to be sufficient to justify a particular theological claim. “Prof. So and So says this, but the Reformed in the past have said otherwise – here’s a quote from Muller!” and that was that. Others have also appealed to the times of Luther or Calvin – what a great thing it would be to have been in Calvin’s Geneva, or to have been there in that historic moment when Luther (maybe) nailed the theses on that door.
Still others recount the stories they’ve heard about the 20th or whatever century, where, perhaps, standards of beauty were different, where life was simpler, and technology wasn’t so dominating. Christians, again, have certainly appealed to the time of the Apostles or the time of Christ, as if their faith may be strengthened if they were just there.
As for me, I think the grass is always greener on the other side. If asked in what period would I have liked to live in, I would probably say now – this period. Now I can walk down my flat and go and get the medicine I needed in capsule form were I to be found sick. In nothing short of 20 hours I could be back home in Indonesia. Now, racism is widely decried as a heinous crime in a way that it was not just 80 years ago – and I am ever so thankful for clean water in the comfort of our homes, with functional plumbing for our sanitary needs!
As for theology, in many ways it has developed. The Reformed scholastics weren’t right on everything. Hindsight is clearer, the confessions are more elaborated, and the church has learned a lot from its past mistakes. I am not claiming that truth has evolved, but I am claiming that the church has gotten a lot of things wrong in the past, and have made better decisions in the present; we can perceive a lot of truth better now- we don’t burn heretics anymore (and that’s a good thing), and we have a long history of great thinkers from which we can draw for clarity and insight.
A lot of Christians (including myself) can lament at the fact of the secularization of our cities – Christianity is seen to be just one more valid opinion among a myriad of others. The law of tolerance has now (in a self-contradictory way, of course) imposed itself upon us in such a way that it is seen to be wrong for one to try to convince another person regarding what they think right. God is seen to be irrelevant, at best, and decried as a source of violence, at worst. These are all regrettable things, no doubt.
But I’d rather be living in a time where people are concerned about the voices of others, and that a diversity of opinions are respected in society and the academy. I’d rather be living in a time where religious violence is looked down upon, rather than in a time where heretics were being burned. I’d rather be living in a time where the Holocaust could remind us of the many horrors human depravity could conjure up. I’d rather be living in a time where “love” (as sentimentalized as it is in our contemporary context) is the primary idiom of culture. I am not saying that this period is flawless, or that any of these things are good in and of themselves; but no one period is, or has any of that. Christians are given ample opportunity now to engage culture in a way that is fresh – with ideas and with the pen, and not with a sword.
Which is why what is happening with ISIS is such a tragedy. There a particular state religion from the past is idealized. There, the “kingdom of god” so to speak, is regionalized and localized. There, things that we have genuinely learned about – because of mistakes of the past – are ignored. I long to be in a time where religious violence could be completely a thing of the past – but not so yet.
Perhaps this is again an enduring reminder: until the Lord Christ returns, human sin will repeat itself again and again. No matter how many times we learn, how many books we publish, and how many scientific accomplishments we have achieved, if sin is still present, no amount of external progress can curb it. Here we are only reminded: Lord have mercy on us, because the problem with us is not a lack of education, nor a lack of historical awareness. The problem is within us.