“This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1Thess. 4:3)
In the years preceding the great world wars, a cardinal tenet with many writers, statesmen, publicists and other leaders of public opinion was the upward trend of civilisation and the essentially progressive nature of the human race. To dispute the proposition would have exposed anyone so daring to the charge of abysmal ignorance, or still worse, of standing in the light of day a confessed advocate of obscurantism and reaction. The mighty events through which we have passed since then have administered a rude shock to these overconfident assertions.
Events which administered a rude shock to overconfident assertions regarding human progress
A host of publications, proceeding from very different sources, have appeared since, in which the statement is directly traversed that the march of mankind through time is one of continuous ascent, an uninterrupted passage from the stage of savagery to higher and higher levels of culture, until we perhaps reach the conditions contemplated by Nietzsche in his “Superman”. These more modern writers have come to the conclusion, based on fairly obvious generalisations from history, that human progress is an achievement which can and does suffer checks and may at times be overwhelmed and actually obliterated.
A continuous ascent?
It is a stream that has its backwaters and the course of which may, at some point, be altogether diverted or even reversed. The annals of mankind are one long record of the rise and fall of empires and dynasties, of civilisation flourishing for a time, then being submerged and succeeded, perhaps after lengthy periods of intervening chaos and anarchy, by others of a totally different character. And we have no valid reason for presuming that our European society of to-day may not share in its turn the fate of these ancient empires. It has been shaken to its foundations in the welter of wars more horrifying and destructive than any the world has yet witnessed. The present order of things then, may be uprooted, just as the Barbarian tide once laid waste and washed away in its waters the mighty fabric of the Roman Empire, with all its power, its worldwide dominions, and far-flung civilisation.
The idea of human progress has, until now, been identified with the development of material resources of the Universe
The divergence of views just outlined arises from the fact that, until now, the idea of human progress has been to a great extent identified with the development of the material resources of the Universe. If by progress we mean the printing-press, the steam engines, motor cars, aeroplanes, the application of electricity, the wireless, the industrial system, the perfecting of the instruments of war, then without a doubt we live in a progressive age, and such progress is likely to endure, and even make further strides in the future. It is inconceivable that mankind should go back on the achievements of our modern era. What has been discovered has been discovered once and for all time, and in these respects each generation is destined to build on the shoulders of the preceding one.
What, actually, is human “progress”?
But can this material advance be really considered as indicating a true progress in man himself, whether we take him individually or socially?
Is he, for instance, happier, more contented now than he was, say, in the middle ages? Has he learned to perfect his moral nature, to live up to his idea of duty with greater consistency? Does he curb and restrain his animal passions the more efficaciously for having conquered the forces of nature? Is he less a slave to anger, hatred, jealousy, covetousness, list, intemperance, than were his forefathers of ruder days?
And in the social sphere a modern writer has asked very pertinently, “Are kingdoms and nations welded together in closer unity? Have statesmen notably improved in the methods of governing a people, or have they added anything of consequence to the political concepts elaborated by Plato and Aristotelean?
In the domain of the of the mind and the arts, does man at this day use his reasoning powers to better effect than the philosophers of old? Does his statuary surpass that of the ancient Greeks, or his painting that of the Renaissance? Does his architecture stand on a level with that of the Egyptian Pharaohs or the Cathedral builders, or do his poets and writers outstrip in genius, in versatility, in elegance of style, the classical authors of the great period in the history of literature?
Evolution on these lines would imply a true advance of man as man; but in point of fact his intellectual stature, like his bodily, appears in the main to be stationary; the Piltdown skull is even that of man to-day.”
A few considerations
Such in brief are some of the considerations which have led many to revise and recast former teachings concerning a continuous upward tendency of civilised mankind. The ordeal of war has shattered many illusions and forced us to realise that mechanical inventions and scientific discoveries have little to do with the control of elemental instincts, or the general bettering of our race as a whole.
True culture, it has taught us, does not consist merely in book knowledge but much more in the harmonious training and shaping and developing our intellectual and especially our moral faculties. Now, this moral uplifting of the soul cannot be conceived apart from the right ordering of its essential relations to the First Cause of our being, namely God. But on the other hand our recognition of God, our interior and exterior worship of Him, our submission to His behests, our love of Him as our chief good, constitute an attitude of mind which is termed religion, and which becomes sanctity when it is carried to a certain degree of excellence. Sanctity then is the culminating point towards which the soul must tend, if it is to make any true spiritual advance. And it is a point at which all Catholics, with all the supernatural aids at their disposal, are bound to aim. As St Paul put it to the Thessalonian converts, “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” And it is a goal that has been reached by that great army of saints who have gone before us and whom the Church has raised to her altars. In them we feel man has progressed further and more truly than by reason of any of the discoveries of science, for the saints are the salt of the earth, the flower and the glory of our race, of whom indeed, as is said in the epistle to the Hebrews (2:38), “the world is not worthy”. Their spirit we can imbibe and cherish even though we never reach to their achievements.
Is God more feared, better served, more filially loved?
In a certain large sense, we may allow that there has been an evolutionary progress in the religious world as well as in the material. The paganism of antiquity has yielded to a nobler and more spiritual conception of the Godhead. Christianity itself may be considered as being evolved from Judaism. The saints again, though always in a very small minority, have been increasing in number with the growth of the population and the spread of the Gospel. Thus we are gradually being lifted into clearer spiritual regions where we view things from a higher standpoint and can better appreciate what are the true values.
We ask ourselves what can be the thoughts of those blessed spirits, as they look down upon this poor earth, scarred and disfigured as it is by sin and the consequences of sin, on this earth where once they lived and fought and suffered? How paltry and insignificant it must all appear to their eyes; how trivial and unimportant most of our plans, endeavours, discoveries, our politics, our domestic dissentions, our international rivalries; how short-lived our joys and our sorrows, how vain our solicitudes, how deceptive the baubles upon we set our hearts.
In their sight human progress resolves itself into the question: Is religion striking deeper roots? Is God more feared, better served, more filially loved? All else is of this earth, an iridescent bubble that bursts in a moment and leaves but vacuity behind. Holiness alone is abiding. Not only does it raise and ennoble a man here below, but it accompanies him to that land beyond the stars where progress is unknown, for the ideal has been reached and the possession thereof is eternal.
The redemptive work of Christ goes on
These terrible wars with their aftermath of worldwide suffering have brought home to us most convincingly that the answer to the question we have put above is an emphatic negative. The world, in getting rid or rather striving to get rid of God and religion, has by an inevitable nemesis brought upon itself all its present horrors, miseries, and sufferings. It is of such a godless world that St John warned us when he said,
Love not the world nor the things that are in the world… for all that is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life (1John 2:15-16).
Men in neglecting and forgetting God have lived for time and not for eternity, and time has betrayed them even to their temporal and, it may be, alas, in some cases, to their eternal ruin.
But the redemptive work of Christ goes on; and we Catholics, even though of the laity, are all His apostles, working in our own individual sphere of life, and are bound to take part in bringing others to the light of Faith and to their eventual salvation. We can unite our prayers, our labours and our sufferings, be they great or small, with those of the Crucified Lord. These will be of efficacy and value only in the degree in which we sanctify ourselves and become, as did the saints, wholly devoted to the great cause of Christ to which, as members of His Mystical Body, we are pledged.
True progress in practice
We should be spiritually insensitive, indeed, if this time of unspeakable sorrow and calamity has not impressed upon us ever more deeply the glaring truth that the next world is the only one worth living and striving for, that Christ is the only sure leader, worthy of our whole love and allegiance, and that our one supreme ambition must be to fulfil God’s will. Again to quote St Paul – “This is the will of God, your sanctification.”
It is in sanctifying ourselves that we shall find our true consolation and joy which nothing in this world, however trying and difficult, will take from us.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949