This morning, as I rushed about preparing as I sometimes do, I was paused by a conversation with a friend of mine that brought to mind a common dilemma faced by people and societies and institutions. Depending on which aspect of my life is being viewed and what the audience is that is viewing my beliefs and behavior, I find myself considered to be across a wide spectrum of space between reactionary and radical progressive . As my own place in this world is somewhat complicated and certainly not straightforward, I often find myself caught between the tension of the pull to move on and overcome the limitations of the past while also being pulled to recover and preserve the best of what mankind has achieved in the past. No doubt many others are similarly caught between these contrasting pulls, at least those of us who are neither blind to the darkness of the past nor to its splendors, and those who remain critical of the way things are without having a naive belief that things will always be better in the future.
There are many ways where people and institutions can go wrong. We know this to be true because there are many ways in which we go wrong, if we are sensitive enough to know how often we fall short of the standards we would like to attain. We know this is true because even if we are not very sensitive and observant about our own faults and folly, we are very well attuned to the folly and error around us. Among the many ways that people and institutions can go wrong there are several families of problems that appear over and over again and generally create a great deal of conflict. Again, this is conflict that we see between husbands and wives, between generations of the same family, between companies, between political parties, and especially in institutions like churches and governments. I have witnessed and fiercely participated in such matters myself. Today I would like to confine my view of this sprawling and complicated subject to an examination of the perils of not progressing and the perils of not maintaining, and will likely confine the discussion still further to keep it within the scope of time I have to operate in, which is not as much as I would prefer.
The perils of not progressing and not maintaining are familiar in the realm of work to many of us, myself included. Our expectation is that with loyal and productive service to our employers that we will be able to maintain or even improve our standard of living over time. We expect promotions and/or wage and salary increases to this end. All too often these reasonable expectations are not met. On the other side, there are expectations that we will increase our skills, which often requires a commitment to lifetime learning of new programs and the development of new skills and the honing of existing skills to higher levels. Often these expectations are not met because of the complacency of people. We therefore have a tension between companies which demand more and more from their employees and employees which demand more and more from their employers and neither side is as willing to offer what is demanded as to demand what is not offered.
We find the same peril in the political world when we pay attention to it. We find ourselves with a tension between a desire to resolve longstanding injustices or inconsistencies within society and a desire to regain or retain those aspects of our history that are viewed as noble. What people value the most places them in conflict with those who would threaten those values in order to obtain other values, and the lack of agreement about the objective worth of these subjective determinations places a great deal of pressure on those institutions within our governments where there is negotiation and mediation and arbitration of competing claims. The rise of tensions and the feeling that resources are limited increases the strain these institutions face and lowers the feeling of comfort and peace within those institutions. We see the results of this feeling of scarcity of time, money, patience, and goodwill all around us in many countries of the world and many levels of government.
It should not be any surprise as well that we see these problems with regards to religious beliefs all too often. Here again we see a familiar tension. On the one hand, we are called to develop over time into more godly believers in whom the image and likeness of our Heavenly Father may be seen, as the younger brothers and sisters of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. This requires a great deal of difficult and demanding progress, and there are many people who are complacent about where they are, thinking themselves close enough to where God wants us to be even where that is far from the case. We think we are more righteous than we are, that we know more than we do, and that our understanding of the bigger picture is complete when it is woefully inadequate. On the other hand, though, we face the peril of not maintaining, as many of us know all too well that many of those people who are the fiercest about the demand to make progress in one area or another are not always as focused on maintaining and holding on to what has already been learned and applied. Some people neglect the potential for the good of the actual, and some people take for granted the good of the actual in exchange for the uncertainty of potential.
How are these tensions to be resolved? The only legitimate ground on which resolution of these issues can be resolved wherever they are found is for us to realize that the tension between progress and maintenance requires that we hold on to both sides. Yes, we need to progress, but yes, we also need to maintain and even to recover what has been lost from the past. The answer to the debate is not one or the other, but both. Assuming that our body of knowledge and understanding is generally sound, if occasionally inconsistent, any new truths that we uncover will be elaborations of what we know rather than drastic replacements of it. Likewise, even in those cases where there is a dramatic recasting of truth, a genuine advance in knowledge will contain with it the previous empirically-based understanding of the world as a simplification of the more complex reality under normal circumstances. The unfamiliar new, in other words, is something that was hidden in what we already knew, but that required deeper study and investigation in order to recover. Likewise, that new truth puts together and makes sense of mysteries that we had between different and seemingly contrary elements of the existing reality that we were already familiar with. If we are operating rightly, the new springs from the old and our appreciation of the new comes from an understanding of the old, and is therefore less alien, and the old takes on new worth when viewed from the perspective of the new. Whether or not we operate rightly in these matters depends on us.
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