A new United Nations report, “State of the Future,” points to signs of progress across many measures of human development. The document concludes, “People around the world are becoming healthier, wealthier, better educated, more peaceful, more connected, and they are living longer.” According to an analysis by Stephen Moore:
World-wide illiteracy rates have fallen by half since 1970 and now stand at an all-time low of 18%. More people live in free countries than ever before. The average human being today will live 50% longer in 2025 than one born in 1955.
To what do we owe this improvement? Capitalism, according to the U.N. Free trade is rightly recognized as the engine of global prosperity in recent years. In 1981, 40% of the world’s population lived on less than $1 a day. Now that percentage is only 25%, adjusted for inflation. And at current rates of growth, “world poverty will be cut in half between 2000 and 2015”–which is arguably one of the greatest triumphs in human history. Trade and technology are closing the global “digital divide,” and the report notes hopefully that soon laptop computers will cost $100 and almost every schoolchild will be a mouse click away from the Internet (and, regrettably, those interminable computer games).
It also turns out that the Malthusians (who worried that we would overpopulate the planet) got the story wrong. Human beings aren’t reproducing like Norwegian field mice. Demographers now say that in the second half of this century, the human population will stabilize and then fall.
Yet despite all this progress, much of what hear these days in the mainstream media seems designed to scare us about global warming, environmental destruction, crumbling families, rampant crime, Islamofascism, and global terror. And while these dangers may (or may not) be real, certainly it can’t be un-Christian to give thanks to the One who rules unseen in the affairs of human beings, causing his rain to fall on the just and the unjust. Many of the causes of these good gifts result from the influernce of Christianity, including political freedom, economic growth, and the rise of modern science. Surely a person of faith can see the glass as half-full, at least sometimes. We don’t always have to claim the sky is falling.
Granted, the world still has major problems (such as the fact that more than a billion people subsist on a dollar a day or less). But what does Christianity, which calls the poor blessed and offers mankind real peace, have to say to a world that increasingly feels rich and unthreatened? What do Christians who seek to meet felt needs to introduce people to Christ do when people feel no needs? If your main appeal is helping people to feel better in the here and now, what do you say when they already feel good? And given the fact that the church often grows amid suffering, what happens when there is no suffering? Yes, the kindness of God is intended to lead us to repentance, but sometimes it seems as if few are so led.
Certainly felt needs do not always match real needs. And Christianity teaches that our real, most basic need (whether we know it or not) is forgiveness of our sins in order to have life with God. No matter how much comfort and convenience ths world offers, it cannot give us a relationship with God. Only Christ can do that. How do we communicate the Good News in this context? It hasn’t worked out too well in affluent Western Europe, has it?
One final thought: This talk of human progress and development is eerily reminiscent of talk a hundred or so years ago that the 20th century was to be the “Christian century.” Then came the Great War. Then Hitler. Then Stalin. What started so brightly turned to chaos in the space of a few years. It all reminds me of the Scripture that basically says, “They will be saying ‘Peace’ and ‘Safety,’ when sudden destruction will come upon them.”
With the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the decoding of the human genome (with all its potential for good and ill), may the same history not repeat itself in our day. But there are no guarantees.