Our age is enamored of the new. There's an almost instinctive assumption among most of us that whatever is new is better. This presupposition, however, is of relatively recent origin. Most people, throughout most human history, have seen the world quite differently.
The idea of technological, social and moral "progress" — that human society is steadily advancing from brutish primitive antiquity to the modern Golden Age — originated only in the 19th century. Its origins can be linked in part to the fact that technological change is now progressing exponentially, so that a person born before radio, automobiles and airplanes can die in an age of personal computers, atomic weapons and space flight. Most earlier people would have lived their lives in precisely the same way their grandparents and great-grandparents had. Today we will all, in one lifetime, see the entire social and technological order utterly transformed not once, but several times.
Before the rise of this modern Cult of Progress, the standard assumption among almost all cultures was that God, in the primordial past, had established a pure, pristine set of beliefs and practices that had slowly degenerated over the centuries. The Golden Age of Mankind wasn't to be found in a future born of technological revolution, but in a dim, nearly forgotten past. This theory of "devolution" is reflected in the "Four Ages" or "Four Kingdoms" myth found throughout the world — among Persians, Aztecs, Indians and many others. In Greek mythology, to choose one illustration, the Four Ages are associated with the decreasingly valuable metals gold, silver, bronze and iron.
Much of the history of religion is intertwined with the search by great sages and prophets to rediscover and return to the primordial religion of the Golden Age. However revolutionary his ideas might have been in actual practice, for example, Confucius always claimed that he was simply reiterating the "Way of Heaven" which the ancient kings of China had understood and followed, but which rulers of his own age ignored. Similarly, Muhammad did not claim to create a new religion, but to restore authentic Islam —"submission" to God — the pristine religion of Abraham. In Arabic, "bid'a" means both "innovation" and "heresy."
The search for the primordial religion was also widespread in the West. The Protestant Reformers didn't aim at creating a new religion, but believed they were returning Christianity to its original form. Today, following orthodox secular interpretations, most people understand the European Renaissance as an age of the development of new ideas. But this view fundamentally distorts the self-understanding of the Renaissance. The term itself means "rebirth," referring to the belief of Renaissance thinkers that they were rediscovering the lost knowledge of the ancients. This rediscovery of primordial knowledge was not simply Greek and Roman classical thought. Rather, it included a search for the original Greek and Hebrew versions of the Bible (in place of the Vulgate, the standard Latin translation of the day). Many scholars in the West sought the "Prisca Theologia," the ancient theology revealed by God to the great prophets, sages and philosophers outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Paradoxically, what many seekers believed to be a rediscovery of that "Old Time Religion," often turned out in reality to be a misunderstanding of ancient ideas, reclothed in contemporary garb and read through contemporary assumptions and categories of thought. This was certainly the case for the scholars of the Renaissance. What was believed by them to be a restoration of the true primordial revelation turned out, in fact, to be something completely new.
While no one today can deny the astonishing scientific accomplishments of the modern world, many question whether these technological achievements are accompanied by parallel development in moral and religious thought. While new technology allows us to do more, it gives us no guidance as to what we should do with our marvelous new potential. Some — Islamic fundamentalists prominent among them, but far from alone — believe that the modern world has lost contact with the "sacred center" and has been set adrift, rudderless in an endless sea of relativism.
It's clear that, for many, the lure of the primordial religion continues still today, based on a sense that, despite its technological grandeur, something precious has been lost in the modern world — a pearl of great price that is worth selling all to obtain.
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