Monday, August 01, 2022

The Myth of Progress


The term 'progressive,' as a modifier linked with 'Christianity', is misleading, even false.

“Progressive” is not a word that fits into a Christian eschatological worldview.

Humanity, throughout history, has not morally and spiritually progressed.

The term "progressive" implies some kind of advancing, a moving forward towards some goal. My understanding of Christianity is that, while individuals and even communities can improve morally and spiritually (= Christ's character being formed in them), there will be nothing morally new under the sun until Christ returns.

This is because of the human sin problem. Every new generation has to deal with this. The next generation, and the generations beyond that, will not have progressed beyond this. (Note: I read one self-identifying progressive who thought humanity has progressed and will further advance so much that we can question whether or not we even need a Savior.)

Let's look more closely at the idea of "progress." Progress only makes sense in relation to a "goal." Such as: "I have made progress in my weight loss strategy. I am closer to my goal weight of 180 pounds." 

There are countless examples of this kind of progress. Someone’s goal is to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen. They take lessons. They practice. They are improving. They are making progress towards this goal.

“Progressive” implies “advancement”; “moving forward.” Towards some goal.

Someone else is constructing a house. Today they began digging the foundation. Next week they pour the cement. They are making progress toward the goal of building a house. That can be good. (It depends on what the house is used for.)

But "progress," in itself, is not always good. For example, I am overweight. My doctor has advised me to lose twenty pounds. But instead, my goal is to gain even more weight. This morning I step on the scale, and see I gained ten pounds over the holidays. Progress! Let us all cheer, and celebrate and affirm John's story! But, arguably, that’s not a progressive story to be celebrated. (FYI – I did not gain ten pounds over the holidays!)

Someone else researches the internet. Their goal is to build a bomb that will destroy buildings in downtown Nashville. Today they began constructing the bomb. They are making progress. They are moving forward. They are advancing toward their goal. Remember that 'forward' and 'backward' only make sense in relation to a goal.

What is the goal of progressive Christianity? And who sets this goal? In reading the literature of those who self-identify as progressive Christians, it’s not always clear to me that it is Christ. Perhaps, the goal for humanity is Love? For a Jesus-follower, it’s true that love is great, and greater than faith and hope. But I see the goal of history as Christ, not Love. Love is not greater than Christ. (See here.) 

My understanding of Christianity is that, in the lifetime of every person, the goal is the formation of the character of Christ in us, individually and collectively. As I read and talk with some who refer to themselves as progressive Christians, I hear them elevating Love and Desire-fulfillment to heights that should be reserved only for Christ. (For Desire-fulfillment as a "progressive" idea, and how this has come about historically, see especially Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.)

I see every generation of humanity as having a sin problem, which can only be addressed by the cross of Christ. My studies and observations indicate that humanity has not progressed, and will not progress, beyond that. And, my sense is that some progressive Christians are not thrilled about talking of sin. Affirmation? Yes! Desire-fulfillment? Yes! Sin? Meh...

I do not see the word 'progressive' as being part of what N.T. Wright describes as the "five act play" that is the Bible. Yes, in eternity we shall be like Jesus. But, in this present age, we are not progressing morally and spiritually. I view it as phenomenally difficult to demonstrate moral progress, over the years. Have we gotten better? Are we getting better?  The term “progressive” implies that we are. 

Yes, I know that Steven Pinker thinks that humanity, over time, has gotten kinder and gentler. I, and many others who have reacted to Pinker, do not. (See here.) Violence has declined, says Pinker, because humanity is getting less and less violent. 

This reminds me of what was perhaps the height of progressive optimism, in the early twentieth century. The Enlightenment belief was that human reason was now progressing to make a better world. And then came World War 1. And theologian Karl Barth was moved to write his commentary on Romans, with its teaching that all humanity sins and falls short of the glory of God. And then, Germany changed (progressed?) from a democratic republic in 1932 to a racist tyranny in 1934. And then, according atheist and scholar David Berlinski, the 20th century progressed into being the most murderous, violent in human history. (See Berlinski, The Devil’s Disciple: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. See also footnote [1] below.)

But… we have massively progressed technologically, right? Correct. But it is still humans who use and wield technological artifacts. A hammer is a piece of technology. Its appearance advanced us, assisting in doing things like building furniture and ships and homes and you name it. But the human being holding the hammer could also use it to hurt and destroy. I see morally unadvanced, non-progressed humanity as still doing that, only with greatly advanced artifacts with massive destructive capabilities.

I don’t think progress is necessarily good, in itself. When you hear the word "progressive" you should not automatically think "positive." Yes, we seem programmed to think that way. But truthfully, it all depends on the goal. And here is where the word “progressive” is of no help to me, because it functions as a euphemism that should not be attached as a modifier to the term 'Christianity'.  

I know the word "progressive" is politically popular. But I don't like it, because I see it as mythical at best. Jeffrey Burton Russell, in Exposing Myths About Christianity, writes:

“The predominant superstition of our times is Progress. Belief in lower-case ‘progress’ is reasonable, for progress can be made toward definable goals in specific fields, such as electrical engineering, plumbing or surgery. But people often believe in upper-case Progress, as in “The Progress of Humanity.” This is a superstition. Upper-case Progress implies moving toward an undefined capital-G Goal.”

One of the myths about Christianity that Russell exposes is that progress was something Jesus was trying to bring about. Scholar Terry Eagelton calls this the “ideology of Progress.” Russell writes that “the natural goodness of humanity is an illusion based neither in history nor biology, and the empty center of most Progressivism is the delusion that radical evil does not exist. Progressivism can become utopianism, which always sacrifices liberty for its ends, as Stalin did. Those who deny evil will be overtaken by it.”

Ahhh... the natural goodness of humanity. What an anti-Hobbes idea! What an anti-Freud idea! And, what an anti-Christ belief. From such a belief comes the ideology of affirmation. But, I ask, who in their right Christological mind could believe that Christ came, not to rescue us out of bondage to sin, but to affirm us?

Progressive Christianity is too utopian for me. Many, including me, believe that we are “regressing” in our humanity. To call progressive Christianity too utopian is to locate its roots in Hegel and Marx, who both thought humanity was inexorably progressing, but who disagreed on the engine driving the progression, as well as the goal or outcome.  Anyone want to join me in a "Regressive Christianity" movement?

Again, if the goal of life is to embrace the Lordship of Christ and have his character formed in us, I think one can view our time as one of regression, division, and polarization. In fact, I, and many others, see progressive Christianity as divisive (e.g., I am aware of some young people who identify as progressive Christians and tie this in with their newfound belief that the Old Testament is just a bunch of made-up stories. I'll say more about this in my third post.) 

Is humanity progressing? Or regressing? Or decadent and stagnant? (See New York Times writer Ross Douthat's recent The Decadent Society.) You need to know this has always been a topic of discussion among scholars. The answers are not obvious. If we are talking about moral and spiritual development or regression, it is far from obvious that some kind of progressive movement is actually happening. I submit to you that it is not. And I can see, without much effort, that progressive Christianity is aiding the regression. (See footnote [2] below.)

In all this I am saying that I could never refer to myself as a progressive Christian because it commits a mistake… a category mistake… when the two words are placed next to each other. This is not a matter of mere semantics. The kingdom of God, said Jesus, was "not of this world." Therefore, the kingdom of God was not the end-result of an ever-progressive earthly kingdom.

I have a suggestion. I began following Jim Wallis in the early 1970s, when he began publishing what was to become the magazine Sojourners. Wallis is one who is often cited as a "progressive" Christian. But in the Times interview, Wallace says he would rather be called a "follower of Jesus."

Me too.

It's time to get rid of the term "progressive Christianity." And self-refer as "follower of Jesus." This would lead to interesting discussions, to include the morality of Jesus (see here, e.g.) and the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament. Some progressive Christians, many of them unthinkingly, are on the "dismiss the Old Testament" bandwagon. Let's just focus on Jesus." The problem is, when you focus on Jesus, you see Jesus as not dismissing an authoritative Old Testament.  

Finally, in the term “progressive Christianity,” the word ‘progressive’ is a modifier. It modifies the word ‘Christianity.’ ‘Progressive’ is a euphemism. It puts a happy spin on Christianity. It also feels like a judgment on those who are not “progressive.” which provides another reason as to why I could never call myself a progressive Christian.

(For more, see my book Deconstructing Progressive Christianity, chapter 13.)

[1] On atheism (esp. atheistic existentialism) there is no goal in life. Thus, humanity is not progressing towards anything, nor is it regressing away from anything. Nor is it decadent. This leads to things like Theatre of the Absurd, and Camus’s Sysiphus, and Becket’s Waiting for Godot.

[2] For an interesting, illuminating article on whether or not humanity is "progressing," see atheist John Gray's excellent review of The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory, by Alan Buchanon and Russell Powell.