DateDecember 31, 2015

Christians are Anti-Progress

ProgressB

Christians are often resistant to progress, sometimes when they shouldn’t be.  Christianity does not call us to be generally anti-progress.  But in one sense, we ought to be a little anti-progress.

The Good, traditionally understood, is in the transcendent category.  We are much more materialistic these days and, consequently, are suspicious of, or flatly reject, the category.

We haven’t lost the idea of “The Good,” but it has moved from a higher ideal to the material realm.  It now lives at the end of every line of progress, which we see everywhere, even when progress is an illusion.  The good is now “just what happens next.”

Progress Degrades Commitment

Pastor and blogger Toby Sumpter (“Committed as Christmas”) argues that living in this “evolutionary universe” erodes commitment.  The Biblical worldview emphasizes commitment–God is so committed to humanity that he would die for us.  People exhorted to be committed to God, parents, spouses, children, governments, neighbours, church and creation.  But, a commitment to commitments is out of step with the dominant culture.  Sumpter says that this “is why marriage . . .  is not merely an old fashion custom, it is positively anti-progress.”

Change and Permanence

It is not inappropriate to find pleasure in change.  We were created to desire change.  I love the changes between the seasons and, although I love steak and mashed potatoes, I don’t want to eat them two days in a row.  But we were also made to crave permanence.  The things that human beings love most are a balance between change and permanence:

Baseball always has four bases that are positioned 90 feet apart and there are always three outs per inning.  These permanent qualities are complemented with change, for no two games are alike.  In this blend of constancy and variety is the appeal of baseball.

The same is true of our fascination in watching a lava lamps, a campfire, or waves crashing onto the beach.  Our fascination is rooted in the balance between newness and change.

The problem arises, when we lose the balance between permanence and change.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis attributes our obsession with new experiences to demonic activity.

Now just as we [the tempters] pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.  This demand is entirely our workmanship. . . .  Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for the infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.

The task of the demons is made much easier by the evolutionary worldview, that progress is always good, that dominates popular thought in our culture.

Change is a good, but it is not The Good.  So in a sense, it is appropriate for Christians to be labelled inherently anti-progress.

 

The Myth Progress

 

Photo by Prateek Verma on Unsplash

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

This quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I don’t think it’s true. For one thing, I don’t think it is necessarily the most dangerous phrase — others are more dangerous. For instance, “because we’ve always done it this way, let’s try something else” would be more dangerous when applied to driving on the left or eating glass.  Sometimes the way we’ve always done things is the best way to do it.

That’s the way it is with sayings; they aren’t universally true, but they communicate a truth.

Hopper’s saying resonates particularly with Westerners because we love change. We tend to equate change with progress.  We believe that new ways are better than old ways.

Time and Decline

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. In one episode, Diomedes has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear throw that severs the braggart’s tongue. Aeneas attempts to recover Pandarus’ body, but has to face Diomedes who “picked up a stone, a massive rock which no two men now alive could lift. He threw it all by himself with ease.” The Greeks thought that the great men of old were better than the men alive in their time, and not only in terms of physical strength.

The book of Genesis in the Bible shows the same idea.  The first men lived far longer than we do today.  Adam 930 years and Methuselah made it to 1069.

Time and Progress

The Modern story, however, holds that our times are better than previous times. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the conversion of knowledge to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Check out this Radio Shack flyer from twenty-five years ago. The author of the accompanying article points out that the function of almost every item from the coolest page in the newspaper in 1990 is now on the phone in my pocket. If that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

It is progress, but only in two categories–scientific knowledge and technological sophistication.  This is not the same as cultural or moral development.  In these we’ve not progressed at all; human beings remain the same. The problem is that our scientific knowledge and technological power do not make us better, they only increase the effects of what we do–be that good or evil.

Human cultural and moral progress is a myth.

Chronological Snobbery

Agent Colson told us as much  in the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved.’

C. S. Lewis also argues that is that time is not structured by progress.

“The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. ”

— (“The World’s Last Night”)

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter, on how to undermine the faith of “the Patient” and thereby secure his soul for damnation. One of the diabolical strategies for populating hell, is to control how modern man understands the past.

Screwtape describes the “the intellectual climate which [the devils] have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe” (139). He jubilantly reports,

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done so by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. . . . To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is important to cut every generation off from all the others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. (139-140)

Lewis calls this view of history, “chronological snobbery,” and defines it as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy 167).

Blinded by our technology, we stubbornly cling to the Myth of Progress.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” –Malcolm Muggeridge

We are certainly progressing technologically, and we are moving steadily toward a more free, open, liberal or tolerant society. But make no mistake, humanity is making no progress culturally, politically or morally.  Nor will we–ever.

© 2019 crossing the line

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑