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A Rear View of History

A short decade ago, Russian cosmonaut Sergie Krikalev set the record for man’s space endurance at the time and needed more than smelling salts upon returning to Earth. Not only were the cosmonaut’s legs wobbly from his 10-month space mission, but he had to adjust to practically a new nation.

When he was launched into space, the hammer-and-sickle still flew proudly over the Kremlin and the Communist party still held power.

When he returned from what one newspaper called “a voyage through time,” all of this had changed, including the name of his hometown from Leningrad to St. Petersburg.

Most of us are never able to view history from such a unique perspective. Ordinarily, we are participants and conditioned to the changes, whether as victors or victims, depending on the outcome.

In fact, most everyone living during the last century has experienced more world-shaping change than any age in history since the fall of the Roman Empire. Seen from a historical perspective, we are living during a breathtaking spectacle.

Changes in technology alone are immense and have affected our lives profoundly. For example, most financial institutions were fearful that customers would not welcome drive-through automated services using a number, preferring instead a representative inside the bank who knew them by name. Today, however, most customers prefer those conveniences.

Comes now the “personal” computer, which has been made even more personal by the “laptop,” with features that allow shopping, banking, communicating from most any place in the world, and instantaneously.

This, in turn, has brought about changes in most every other area of our lives, including ethics, morality, social, racial, justice, politics, even national boundaries.

How, then, are we to interpret and respond to such rapid changes in our generation? A “rear view” may offer the best clues to what lies ahead.

In the book The Future; Opportunity Not Destiny, Bruce Bander of World Vision contributed a chapter “Endtime and Beyond.”

He noted that as the 20th century approached, serious thinkers of the age, celebrating the achievements of science and technology but less conscious of inward human values and well-being, believe that paradise on earth waited just around the corner of the next centennial.

“Machines would eliminate poverty, providing wealth and leisure for all. Immunizations and sanitation would put an end to disease. Education would enlighten and enable the masses,” Brander wrote. “The age of progress would even speed human evolution, with man advancing toward an angelic future as the fittest who survived also turned out to be the morally strongest and best.

World War I shattered the culture’s humanist dream of man’s march toward perfection in short order. The Holocaust, World War II, particularly the atomic bomb, wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf are indisputable evidence that science and technology do not always provide a solution to conflict and strife.

And the 21st century is off to a raging start with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, repercussions from the 9/11 attack, corporate corruption, poverty, dissolution of the family, AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse and lingering racial and cultural challenges. Even religion, the supposed bedrock of our society, seems to have come unglued with priests and ministers being found guilty of sexual abuse and continuing doctrinal disputes.

British historian Arnold Toynbee, who spent most of his working years as a declared agnostic, affirmed that what is needed is a spiritual redemption of souls. (Toynbee’s 12-volume, 3-million word masterwork, The Study of History, is the largest book written in the 20th century.) A society’s decline, he said, is nothing but a symptom of spiritual decline among its people.

“So the fate of the West will be decided not only by the course of man’s relationship with his fellows, but also by his relationship with himself, and above all, with his God,” Toynbee wrote. He urged people of his day to pray to God “in a humble spirit and with a contrite heart” for a reprieve from continued warfare and self-annihilation.

What, then, can a “rear view” of history reveal about the future? One is that while there will be change, not much will change as it relates to nature of mankind. We must remember, however, as Sonia Johnson has so aptly noted, “that one determined person can make a significant difference, and that a small group of determined people can change the course of history.”

Jack Brymer of Birmingham, Ala., recently retired from SamfordUniversity after a 30-year career as a Baptist journalist. This column appeared previously in the Anniston Star.