True Progress

Simply, “progress” means to move forward. In that sense, a slug can progress from one end of the sidewalk to the other. But for us in twenty-first century America, progress means something else. For us, it is almost a synonym for goodness. The slug can only “progress” if the other end of the sidewalk is markedly better than this one. Thus, good people are called “progressive,” countries who try to address injustice are said to have made “progress,” and new forms of technology are signs that the world is “progressing.” Toward what, exactly? We’re not sure. But at least we’re moving forward.

But the destination is as important as the journey, as C. S. Lewis memorialized in his satirical “Evolutionary Hymn”: “Lead us, Evolution, lead us / Up the future’s endless stair!” It does no good to move forward unless you’re heading where you want to go. As Lewis says in Mere Christianity, sometimes progress means changing direction:

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.1

 

Lewis is absolutely right. We should spend more time than we do as a culture asking what the goal of all this progress is. But I want to focus on a slightly different aspect of the question: the idea that progress is inevitable. That all we have to do is sit quietly while the future rushes toward us, bearing all her gifts. Obviously, this is wrong. Hardly anyone would say that it is true if asked point-blank. And yet, many in our culture live under that assumption.

For one thing, consider evolution. Under that august philosophy, anything will become better (or, at least, more complex) given enough time. This sort of benevolent Darwinism drips into our culture in all kinds of ways. My favorite example is when someone appeals to the current date as a reason why a particular evil or annoyance should have been dealt with already. “Why are there still hungry children in the world? It’s 2018!” Or, “Why isn’t my wi-fi faster? It’s 2018!” It is as if the universe, like the little busy bee, “improves each shining hour,” so that the world at 12:03am on January 1, 2018, is marginally better than it was at 11:59pm on December 31st. It’s a miracle of evolution! What we are really saying when we cry “It’s 2018” is this: “I won’t do anything to help the situation, but surely someone somewhere in the world is working at all times for my benefit.”

Onward, progress! Here’s Lewis again:

Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature’s simple text;
He who runs can read it plainly,
‘Goodness = what comes next.’
By evolving, Life is solving
All the questions we perplexed.

Incidentally, this temptation may be uniquely suited to Americans. In 1831, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States and jotted down his observations. He noticed a peculiar American belief in “the infinite perfectibility of man.” Man can improve his lot, and he will. And as his lot improves, he throws the past away. Having climbed up onto the roof, he kicks the ladder away from the eaves. “I meet an American sailor,” De Tocqueville writes, “and I ask him why his country’s vessels are built to last a short time, and he replies to me without hesitation that the art of navigation makes such rapid progress daily that the most beautiful ship would soon become almost useless if its existence were prolonged beyond a few years.”2 Americans today see their electronics with the same critical eye. Computers are always getting better, are they not? What is the use of keeping the old? Why ride a horse when you can drive a car? Progress, progress, progress.

Poking fun at the worship of progress is a great use of your time (a way to truly “improve each shining hour”). But the silliness of worshiping progress disguises its ugliness. The flip side of believing that progress is inevitable is believing that everything that happens must be a step in the right direction. Of course, again, no one says this is true in the moment. Hardly anyone would point to the Black Death, the Holocaust, or a tsunami in southeast Asia and shout, “Progress!” The progress comes later, in the response to the event. The track is laid after the train has passed. The worship of progress has a slot for every event, good or bad. This is how we get useless phrases like “the right side of history.” We believe that, inevitably, good will prevail. After all, hasn’t it always done so? Look at where we are today—and we made it here all by ourselves, too.

The ugly side of progress is that it has no place for sin, and therefore, no place for forgiveness. In a world without sin and forgiveness, the bridge of progress will be built on a swamp of human misery. Maria Duffy, explicating the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, explains it thusly:

A reading of history based on the inevitability of historical and technical progress can only be an interpretation of events from the point of view of “victors” of that reading, and is based on the “concealment of the victims” which progress produces.3

In other words, interpreting history as the march of progress necessarily ignores major setbacks. If you use a purely secular lens, you can only say that history is progressive if you ignore those that have been crushed beneath its wheels. It is “survival of the fittest,” where the fittest create schools to justify their survival. This is how you get Aztec ziggurats—those pillars of civilization—with foundation stones bathed in blood.

Christians, too, can be tempted by this line of thinking. When churches are popping up left and right and Christian schools are bursting at the seams and pastors are quoted in the Washington Post, it is tempting to cry, “Progress!” It is tempting to quote Habakkuk 2:14 and look out the window for Jesus descending in the clouds. And then, when the church splits or the school folds or the pastor resigns, it is tempting to discount them as not the “real thing.” Jesus’ kingdom is unshakeable, after all, so anything that falls apart easily can’t be part of it.

Jim Jordan pointed out in a recent Theopolis podcast that we build the armies of God’s kingdom by faith, not by sight. Those armies consist of those who are discarded by the world: children, old folks, those in wheelchairs, those with sordid pasts who’ve been forgiven. God loves to use the unlovely to accomplish His purposes. His strength is made perfect in weakness. This means that, for the church, progress does not always look like cathedrals or Constantine. Sometimes it does, certainly. Sometimes the future glory of the kingdom shines through the fabric of history. We give thanks for those times. But we must be careful not to confuse the fabric with the light behind it. The pagan prefect of Rome once demanded that Saint Lawrence bring him all the riches of the church to pad his coffers. Lawrence said, “Give me three days.” Then he went out and gathered all the poor, the blind, and the lame, and brought them to the prefect. Lawrence was roasted to death for his impertinence. He has his reward in Heaven.

This is not to say that God does not bless us in the here and now. The world belongs to Jesus and history belongs to the church. The towering city that is our destination is visible in the distance. We should expect the gospel to transform families, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and nations. True progress is inevitable. But as the story of Israel teaches us, true progress comes through death and resurrection. The seed dies in the ground to produce new life. When we confuse God’s kingdom with its frail, earthly counterparts, we can easily lose heart when we are taken in chains to the land of Babylon. When we see with the eyes of faith, we recognize that exile is merely the prelude for exodus.

Look at the town you live in. One day, every person in that town will confess that Jesus is Lord. Work like you believe this is true. But what methods should you use to help this come to pass? Look to the weak, the downtrodden, and the ones who are cast out. Look to the widows, orphans, and unwed mothers. Look to those who suffer under any burden of sin and preach forgiveness.

A secular, godless view of history sees a city in the distance (one ruled by men) and confidently declares that every step will lead there. If, in hindsight, the step was a little crooked, it can be brushed aside, covered with the sands of time. No one will ever know. The march towards the city continues, though it never seems to get any nearer.

True progress can stomach no crooked steps, only crooked people, washed and walking straight.

Christian Leithart is a graduate student in English at Villanova University.

References   [ + ]

1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 28.
2. Jonathan Sterne, “Out with the Trash,” in Charles R. Acland, Residual Media (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 21.
3. Maria Duffy, Paul Ricoeur’s Pedagogy of Pardon (London: Continuum, 2009), 61.