Cultural Progress and the Gospel

Many years ago Herman Bavinck wrote that as culture is cultured there will inevitably bring a realization that the progress of culture making cannot resolve man’s fundamental problems. In fact, he writes, as culture develops the problems of the human heart are left unresolved and ever more exposed. “For while all culture satisfies needs,” he writes, “it also creates and arouses needs.” Of course this cultural regress in the midst of assumed cultural progress sets the stage for the advance of the gospel. I think this is an apt idea that is worthy of further consideration. Here’s the relevant section from Reformed Dogmatics 3:32­7–328:

…human beings have at their disposal many means to maintain themselves in the struggle of existence and to protect themselves against the forces of violence. They are not alone but live in communities. They can combine forces with others and seek strength in union. They have brains to think with, hands to work with, and can by labor and struggle conquer, establish, and expand a place for themselves in the world.

It is noteworthy, however, that all theses aids and supports are not enough for them. However much people may have achieved culturally, they are never satisfied with it and do not attain the redemption for which they are thirsting. For while all culture satisfies needs, it also creates and arouses needs. While, on the one hand, culture prompts them to take pride in the great progress they have made, on the other, it gives them a progressively clearer sense of the long road they still have to travel. To the degree people subdue the world under their feet, to that degree they feel more and more dependent on those heavenly forces against which, with their limited power and puny means, they avail nothing. To the extent they solve problems, to that extent they see the riddles of the world and of life multiply and increase in complexity.

As they dream of progress and civilization, they at the same time see opening up before them the instability and futility of the existing world. Culture has great, even incalculable, advantages but also brings with it its own peculiar drawbacks and dangers. “The more abundantly the benefits of civilization come streaming our way, the emptier our life becomes.”

This is why, in addition to culture, there has always been religion. Rather, religion preceded culture, and culture everywhere came to birth and maturity under the influence of religion. If the ills of humanity were caused by culture, they could certainly be cured in no way other than by culture. But the ills we have in mind are native to the human heart, which always remains the same, and culture only brings them out. With all its wealth and power, it only shows that the human heart, in which God has put eternity [Eccles. 3:11], is so huge that all the world is too small to satisfy it.

Human beings are in search of another and better redemption than culture can give them. They are looking for lasting happiness, an enduring eternal good. They are thirsting for a redemption that saves them physically as well as spiritually, for time but also for eternity. And this only religion, and nothing else, can give them. God alone can give it to them, not science or art, civilization or culture. For that reason redemption is a religious concept, is found in all religions, and is almost always coupled with the idea of reconciliation. For the redemption that humans seek and need is one in which they are lifted up above the whole world into communion with God. [text boldness is mine]

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