One of the most important yet also most vacuous term used by modern Western people is “progress.” This term is bantered about in popular writing as well as by academics in the Universities and even by judges in the United States courts. It is used in an ambiguously positive sense to apply to everything from the continuing expansion of knowledge based on scientific study, to shifting moods regarding moral standards (on various subjects), to changes to the law (whether by legislation or the courts or executive fiat) or to shifting views among historic Christian churches on doctrinal and moral questions. Like all terms we human beings employ it is critical that we understand what it means and how to think rightly about it. This will be helpful particularly for us Christians because we can gain clarity about the foundation for true progress.
Theologians and Christian philosophers far more intelligent and more learned than myself have made the argument that modern Western culture’s values are an extension of Christian values. The reason for this is because of the fact that Europe was dominated by Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity and thus European culture owes much to Christianity. The practical import of this fact is that the values of the Western tradition have been profoundly shaped by Christian values.
Christian values have of course been rooted in the theological Tradition of the Church and ultimately tied back to the Bible. Thus one of the most ironic and intriguing facets of the Western elite’s rejection of historic Christianity is this: That they have desperately tried to hold onto the values derived from Christian theological convictions while simultaneously undermining and dismissing the authority of Christian Tradition and of the Scriptures. Those among the governing, literary and academic elites in Western countries have tried to systematically dissect from Christianity the values they want to retain and discard all they find repugnant.
I would argue that they cannot have it both ways without destroying themselves in the end. The honest European atheistic philosophers knew this and said so—thus they said out loud what most others feared to even think in their minds. (I am here thinking of Satre and Neitzsche.)
The situation today is that we live in a time when truth and facts do not matter—power plays to gain or retain political power in the name of ideology is all that matters. Thus, for example, we fight over politics with willful disregard for civility, honor and even basic respect for those who disagree about policy; instead of respecting constitutional order some people talk openly of revolution and half-jokingly speak of the death of current political leaders. Or, to give another example, this generation of elites is willing to exalt the ideas of the new Darwinists, who gleefully hunt down any and all forms of supernatural belief in order to kill it with their arrows of rationalism and scientism. And again, we have those presenting arguments for why Christian moral convictions regarding human sexuality are not merely naïve or out of sync with the times but actually pernicious and harmful to people. And it should be noted, many making such critical arguments regarding traditional Christian moral convictions, identify themselves as Christians.
That brings me back to this notion of “progress.” For this, I contend, is the root heresy which underlies the critiques and the outright attacks by people upon both historic Christian doctrine but also moral convictions. We as modern people in the Western world, having jettisoned any meaningful authority for religion or commonly understood grounding for discerning truth and making determinations about what is or is not moral (for personal decisions and for law) have grasped a hold of “progress” as a center for our thought. The notion of what is for the general “good” is debated but regardless of which side of the political divide one stands upon, the core measurement is, “Are we making progress?” or “Are we improving as a society?”
Yet the problem with utilizing this measuring stick is simply that no one has a true center point to look to in order to know what exactly constitutes “progress.” What are we to “progress” toward or away from? What is the basis for making these necessary moral distinctions and valuations? The modern person, having for all practical purposes discarded Christian faith, stands on shaky ground and cannot give a clear answer—to say nothing of coming to a consensus with others. And thus the elites seek to impose their own confused will upon other people and conflict ensues.
The brilliant and witty G.K. Chesterton, in his book Heretics, commented on this phenomena.
“Nobody has any business to use the word ‘progress’ unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that has less right to use the word ‘progress’ than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree.” (Chesterton, Heretics, “On the Negative Spirit”; cited from G.K Chesterton Collected Works, Volume 1 [Ignatius Press:1986], p. 53)
I think that the muddled thinking and moral laxness of contemporary Western Christian communities can be attributed to the embrace of this modern (and practically meaningless) notion of “progress.” For example, sociologists studying trends among Americans in regard to religion have noted that while self-identified Christians have dramatically changed in their awareness of and concern for broader social issues they have also continued to be biblically illiterate. What does this indicate? That while American Christians are changing their views, for the better in many cases to be sure, these changes are not based upon a commitment to discern truth rooted in Scripture. If we Christians change for the better but for the wrong reasons what have we gained?
I would contend that the foundation for true progress is only to be found in relationship with the living God through his Anointed One and in humble submission to his written Word.
To do this means that one will have definite doctrinal views and solid moral convictions. The Christian Church has demonstrated the necessity of both in its history. For this two-fold stance, in dynamic relationship with God, in the community of the Christ, has been the launching point for lasting and positive social reforms in multiple generations. Those in our times who think Christianity (or at least traditional forms of Christianity) is an enemy of social reform and the pursuit of the vague “progress” they so desperately want are ironically confirming this statement. Why else do they hate historic Christian faith but that it requires having definite doctrinal beliefs and moral convictions which lead people to embrace a way of life which they consider a threat to them?
Again, Chesterton comments upon the strange interchange of the convinced and rooted Christian with those in the world.
“The truth is, that it is quite an error to suppose that absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility. A man who believes something is ready and witty, because he has all his weapons about him. He can apply his test [of realism about life] in an instant. . . . Moreover, a man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed into a fixed star, and the earth whizzes below him like a zoetrope. Millions of mild black-coated men call themselves sane and sensible merely because they always catch the fashionable insanity, because they are hurried into madness after madness by the maelstrom of the world. . . . [In contrast, even a man who is not a Christian like Bernard Shaw] appears eccentric and grotesque because he will not accept the general belief that white is yellow. He has based all his brilliancy and solidity upon the hackneyed, but yet forgotten, fact that truth is stranger than fiction. Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.” (Chesterton, Heretics; G.K. Chesterton Collected Works, Vol. 1, pp.65-66)
The Christian conviction has always been that God has revealed the truth in the Person of the Lord Jesus—the Anointed One promised by God in the Scriptures. His word gives us a sure and steady point of reference for discerning what is right, true and beautiful precisely because we did not make it up nor fashion it to our own liking. For in him we find not only the articulation of true words about God and the meaning of the Scripture but the living example of practicing truth in love of God.
Those who have pursued the Lord by faith as his disciples have always stood out because of their steadfastness in living according to the Truth—gladly doing so at the cost of their very lives. They defied the conventions of the people in their own cultures and times precisely because they sought to live by God’s commandments. In this they had discovered the foundation for true progress—not only in regard to personal life, family, financial decisions but also broader questions of justice and equity.
The critique of this essay, as I have presented it thus far, I expect will be that Christians have historically botched the practice of faith and used religion as a tool for oppression and the maintaining of power over others. I do not deny the validity of this charge and I think it is correct in many cases throughout the past two thousand years. However, to acknowledge that does not mean one has disproved the central assertion of historic Christian faith. And it certainly does not mean that one can dismiss Chesterton’s critique of the vacuous worship of “progress” and its disastrous consequences for individuals, families and social structures.
I would rather have a notably flawed community of believers than a vacuous philosophy of meaningless “progress.” For at least with the community of faith I can identify what God’s authoritative commands are and then seek to discern how they should be put into practice. Then I can assess not only the Christian church, whether ancient or modern, but also the society in which I was born into. The written word, as it is accurately taught, instructs me about the foundation for true progress (see 1 Timothy 3:15) and thus gives me a grid for understanding truth amidst the various and conflicting voices of the blind who are leading the blind.
The Person of Jesus Christ, stands forever at the center for faith (personal) as well as the embodied example for what human beings should be progressing toward. If he is removed from the center then, as Chesterton rightly noted, people will scatter in all different directions and be completely at odds with each other about what “progress” toward the good is. Modern Western culture is like this today because the Christian faith has been relegated to a place of practical uselessness in all but personal piety for a few.
The examples of this are many and would require multiple essays or whole books to describe in detail. For me the most important point I want to state is that Christians themselves have led the way in relegating their own faith, in a functional atheism, and thus they have abandoned the foundation for true progress. I know too much about the sinful tendencies toward repression of truth and corruption among human beings to place my hope in military, legal or political solutions. No, my hope is in Father God who promises to judge the household of God (see 1 Peter 4:12-19) and make of us depraved creatures, through the power of the blood of Christ, obedient sons and daughters in the power of the Holy Spirit. The reality of the new creation in God’s people will become the foundation for true progress because they will know and reflect together the living God in their persons for eternity.