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The ideology of progress

Earlier in the year, controversial broadcaster John Banks’ contract with a radio station was terminated, because he seemed to agree with a caller that Māori were from a stone-age culture. Many commentators were enraged by such an offensive comparison. People pointed to signs of sophistication in traditional Māori culture to show that the caller was wrong.

For me as an archaeologist the sad part was that “stone-age” was seen as offensive. For “stone-age” cultures around the world did have sophistication. Cultures throughout history had skills and knowledge that were not present in other times and cultures. Many insights and skills were lost in succeeding generations. Nevertheless, today we are dismissive of the stone-age, bronze age, iron age, and the medieval cultures (and many more). We label people from that past as primitive, brutish, backwards, and unsophisticated. Indeed, we use terminology that if applied to any living people group today would be called “racist”. It is astounding that often people who are particularly sensitive towards apparent racial discrimination are also patently dismissive of the past. I think that we should not only show respect towards other cultures, but also towards other times.

Too often people are trapped in an ideology of progress. We want to be modern, progressive, up with the times. But if that is the main standard by which we judge, we may well disregard the good, the beautiful and the true and embrace the evil, the ugly, and lies. The modern is not necessarily better.

Progress often is also used to determine our theology, church practice and morals. But we need to see further than that and see value in good things. Maybe it is also the role of the church to provide a different perspective in this future-orientated world.

Of course, there were attitudes, practices and ideas in the past that were bad. Of course, there is much good in our times, The accumulation of knowledge has helped us significantly and in many respects made life more comfortable and allowed us to make discoveries unheard of in the past. Nevertheless, even the best achievements are constantly threatened, if we do no longer care for them. The state of our water infrastructure is an example of the deterioration of one of modernity’s greatest achievements—sanitation (though as an archaeologist I can show you examples of good sanitation in various past cultures). It is similar with intangible ideas, such as respect, love and care for others. We need to cultivate them. And I think that faith never grows old.