Those who describe themselves as “progressive” often have the upper hand in the church and culture because the label itself implies that making progress is a worthy goal. Progressives champion causes that would lead to a better state; they are progressing toward a better world. Anyone who opposes the cause of the “progressive” or raises concerns can quickly be cast as regressive, someone too comfortable in their ways or satisfied with the status quo. Progressives want change more than stability. Adaptation, evolution, forward momentum!
Who would stand in the way of progress? What nefarious motives would lead someone to be against progress? Don’t we all want to see progress?
Progress or Regress?
The problem, of course, is that not all progress is equal. A marriage can grow weaker over time and the couple progress toward the divorce court. The aging process of the body leads progressively to breakdown. Charting a society’s progress can reveal areas of societal decay. Is the progressive state of something a sign of evolution or devolution? This question seldom gets raised. Unless we settle on an ideal—an aspirational vision of some sort—we are unable to define something as “progress” or “regress.”
Another problem is that the standards of progress change more often than we realize. A century ago, progressives were at the vanguard of the Prohibition movement, following decades of women who smashed the windows of saloons and led the charge for temperance. Progressives were also champions of eugenics—the “scientific” solution that would weed out “inferiors” from the gene pool of future humanity. Neither of these causes would be considered “progressive” in any sense today.
Capital P Progress
And yet, for those who see themselves as “progressive,” progress only has one direction—up. It is progress in the right direction, a sign of moral and societal evolution. We might call this Progress with a capital P, since it stems from an ideology, rooted in the Enlightenment understanding that as human knowledge expands, the world will be increasingly marked by justice and fairness, peace and prosperity. We have shed the silly superstitions and mindless dogmas of the past as we move toward a science-based utopian state of individual freedom from anyone else’s moral constraints.
Seen in this light, if you question the path to Progress, you cast yourself with the forces of regression. If you dare to say that the proposed Utopia at the end of the path to Progress is actually a dystopian nightmare, or if you believe that the enduring moral flaws of humanity (sin, selfishness and the like) should chasten our expectations of establishing a perfect world, you betray the cause.
Progress sees the past as a problem from which we must escape, rather than a foundation upon which we build, or a fountain from which we receive wisdom. The past is full of ruins, the future is our heaven; therefore, the present must reject the past in order to embrace the future.
Problems with Progress
The problem with Progress is its link to pride. And pride always goes before destruction. Pride manifests itself in the actions of one generation that sees with absolute moral clarity all the sins of the past generation, leading to iconoclasm and destruction that trades one set of moral blinders for another. Though often correct in diagnosing the sins and failures of our forebears, the proud generation misses the point that future generations will one day diagnose ours.
Progress is devoted to fashions and fads, committed to seizing the “spirit of the age” and riding it to a better world, only to discover later that the spirit of the age is an enslaving spirit, a tyrant just as merciless toward us as the spirits that led our ancestors into error. This spirit is an ever-changing taskmaster, which is why those at the moral vanguard of Progress in one moment may soon find themselves hopelessly behind in another—unable to keep in step with the spirit of the age. The revolution eats its own. There is no real way to make up our minds and stick to our convictions because Progress so often demands we change our mind and replace our convictions.
The tyranny of Progress drives everyone into a herd and pushes us to run as fast as possible in a certain direction, self-righteously assured of our goals and the vision we have for the future, glancing back, not to learn from the past, but to sneer at all those who can’t keep up. We take pride in how fast we are running, when in reality we’re the character in Temple Run—being driven by a merciless spirit who is never satisfied.
What is the antidote to Progress? What constitutes true progress over against the ideology that seizes its name?
Progress with a Moral Vision
The answer can only be found in fixed ideals that are revealed not created. The kind of progress that counts aspires to a moral vision that is given to us, not one that we create for ourselves. It is a moral vision that requires both the past and the future to loom larger than our lives in the present.
Instead of seeing the future as a blank slate upon which we can pencil in our names in large letters and think of ourselves as more powerful and influential than we are, we look to the future as it has been revealed to us in Scripture. We know what Utopia is because we are familiar with the Eden of the past and the New Jerusalem of the future. We know what evil is because we are familiar with the fall and its horrifying effects in the past and its frightening possibilities in the future. We know what redemption is because we’ve seen people made new and societies transformed for good—a grace for those who fail to meet fixed and unchanging ideals revealed by God, yet who continue to uphold that standard of goodness as worthy of aspiration. The Christian story introduces us to the goodness of the ideal as well as the grace for those who don’t measure up. For this reason, we can look to the past with discernment and gratitude, neither worshiping nor condemning our forebears.
Émile Cammaerts wrote:
It is easier to erect a bungalow and call it an ‘ideal home’ than to restore a Gothic cathedral. If we were indeed the heirs of the past—as we pretend to be—our first duty should be to fulfill the ideals which our fathers did not succeed in fulfilling. It is easier to call them wrong and contemplate the ruins. The nineteenth century was perhaps too inclined to worship heroes, we seem only too ready to disparage them.
The ancient ideals that impressed and challenged our forebears are still there, along with all of their failures to reach them. Yet they still stand as a testament to their ambitions and drives. It is easier to shrink from the ideals of the past. It is easier to move away from the small p progress that has a fixed standard toward which we aspire and to fall in line with capital P progress that changes the standards and blasts the old ideals. It is easier to destroy what has been built than to contribute something new. For the next generation of the church to be salt and light, we will need to become builders—clear-eyed to the sins of past and the present, committed to grace, both receiving and showing, and opposed to any Progress that enslaves us to the spirit of the age.
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