It is common to look on other cultures, and especially past generations with some disdain. This is almost a requirement for anyone who thinks of themselves as a “modern” person. We see their flaws so clearly, and congratulate ourselves for our clear vision in areas where they were so blind. How could they have missed it?
But to a thoughtful observer, this experience should be a little terrifying. What if I am not so very different from those barbarians? What if history repeats itself? What if my children will have the same critical thoughts about me that I have about my parents and grandparents? What if my own bias makes me blind to my own moral failings? And above all, what if God sees it all very clearly? Then what?
This was the argument of the Apostle Paul in Romans Chapter 2. He said, “you who condemn another do you not condemn yourself?” It is too easy to limit the idea of condemnation to moralists. Our generation readily condemns those guilty of greed, racism, environmental irresponsibility, sexism, etc. And we do this most readily when looking at past generations. But when we make these kinds of judgments we are unwittingly conceding that there is a standard that transcends generations and cultures. That there is a standard that is not relative, and that applies even when we don’t see it or know it. And when we are honest, we will have to admit that this law stands over us as well.
CS Lewis ruminated on this 75 years ago:
“If, then, you are ever tempted to think that we modern Western Europeans cannot really be so very bad because we are, comparatively speaking, humane—if, in other words, you think God might be content with us on that ground—ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity. You will see at once that this is an impossibility. From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God.”
-CS Lewis, from “The Problem of Pain”