Dealing with Our Culture 4: Progress

Over the course of time, humanity has made incredible progress.  Slavery was once a widespread and accepted institution, but it is almost universally outlawed today.  Workers’ rights, including child labor and equal opportunity employment, have made great strides in the last century.  The realm of medicine has made remarkable progress over the last couple of centuries due to advances in antibiotics and vaccines as well as improved diagnostic tools like x-ray and MRI machines.  Inventions like automobiles, washing machines, furnaces, and indoor plumbing have revolutionized civilization, automating basic tasks, and greatly improving the quality of life for countless people.  Looking over the eons of recorded history, it is hard not to believe in some sort of invisible force, moving us ever onward towards a better world.  Statements like “newer is better” or “they were so primitive” or “we don’t want to be on the wrong side of history” express this general idea of progress.  In fact, it’s hard to study history without encountering some practice or notion that the ancients accepted as normal, but appears utterly barbarous by modern standards.  Of course, I don’t deny these examples of progress, but at the same time, I’m hesitant to accept newer developments as obviously superior to what came before.  In what follows, I intend to consider the idea of progress, deconstruct it, and offer a critique from a Christian perspective.


Cultural Example 1: Biology

I will begin with two cultural examples.  Consider this Wikipedia entry on evolution:

Evolution by natural selection is a process demonstrated by the observation that more offspring are produced than can possibly survive, along with three facts about populations: 1) traits vary among individuals… 2) different traits confer different rates of survival and reproduction… 3) traits can be passed from generation to generation (heritability of fitness). Thus, in successive generations members of a population are replaced by progeny of parents better adapted to survive and reproduce in the biophysical environment in which natural selection takes place.

Is evolution anything more than the idea of progress applied to biology?  From amoeba to artichokes to aardvarks to Americans, evolution posits a gradual increase of complexity over time.  In fact, Charles Darwin, himself, lived during the Enlightenment period when optimism about progress had reached a fever pitch.  Here’s another cultural example, drawn from a recent public announcement.


Cultural Example 2: Morality

This is Bruce Springsteen’s official statement, explaining why he cancelled his recent concert in North Carolina:

As you, my fans, know I’m scheduled to play in Greensboro, North Carolina this Sunday. As we also know, North Carolina has just passed HB2, which the media are referring to as the “bathroom” law. HB2 — known officially as the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act — dictates which bathrooms transgender people are permitted to use. Just as important, the law also attacks the rights of LGBT citizens to sue when their human rights are violated in the workplace. No other group of North Carolinians faces such a burden. To my mind, it’s an attempt by people who cannot stand the progress our country has made in recognizing the human rights of all of our citizens to overturn that progress. Right now, there are many groups, businesses, and individuals in North Carolina working to oppose and overcome these negative developments. Taking all of this into account, I feel that this is a time for me and the band to show solidarity for those freedom fighters. As a result, and with deepest apologies to our dedicated fans in Greensboro, we have canceled our show scheduled for Sunday, April 10th. Some things are more important than a rock show and this fight against prejudice and bigotry — which is happening as I write — is one of them. It is the strongest means I have for raising my voice in opposition to those who continue to push us backwards instead of forwards.[1]

Springsteen here condemns the North Carolina law that forbids people to enter bathrooms of the opposite biological gender.  He calls this law a “negative development” that we must overcome so that our country can have “progress.”  He says those who fight against progress are backwards as if progress itself is a virtue.  Whether you agree with evolution or Springsteen’s statement is not my point here.  I’m merely illustrating the pervasiveness of this general notion of progressivism in the culture.  Now, before analyzing this principle closely, I want to review some benefits and detriments to this way of thinking.


Benefits of Progress

Believing that humanity is progressing has several interesting benefits.  It inspires optimism that, in turn, can help someone persevere through tough times.  Even if the situation is not going the way we’d like now, we know somewhere deep in our bones that even if the arc of the moral universe is long and we cannot see where it ends, at long last it bends towards justice.[2]  Such optimism not only benefits the individual, but it’s also contagious.  Secondly, an orientation towards progress encourages innovation and risk-taking as inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs contribute to a better tomorrow.  In contrast, societies that believe in a steady-state universe or the preservation of barriers between classes tend to stagnate while hindering equality.


Detriments of Progress

Always thinking the future will be better than the present can cause us to look down on the past.  We may think history has nothing to teach us.  Furthermore, adopting the progress mindset can contribute to a haughty attitude that can’t help but sneer at other primitive or backwards cultures.  For example, the Amish may be perfectly happy, but because of their apparent freeze on progress, we pity them at best and disparage them at worst.  Furthermore, when a segment of the population refuses to get with the times, we tend to coerce them using public shaming or legal intervention.  Another detriment of progressivism is apathy.  We can be so convinced that the world is going a certain way that we disengage completely and sit on the sideline.  Lastly, an optimistic view towards human history can lead to uncritically accepting whatever ideas are popular while leaving behind old ones that are out of date, regardless of their merit.


Deconstructing Progress

I’m convinced progress, like tolerance, is too neutral to adequately function as a moral principle.  First of all, the idea isn’t even true.  New technology is not always better.  For example, nuclear bombs are “better” than conventional bombs because they do more damage, but they are worse because of how they poison the landscape with radiation for decades to come.  Furthermore, as we saw in the Cold War, advances in weaponry can lead to an arms race that both siphons resources from improving the lives of citizens as well as the stockpiling of weapons, which could potentially lead to global destruction.  Another way that technology could cause regression rather than progression relates to terrorism.  Say, a city like New York automates its sewage system using computers.  Now suppose a terrorist organization hacks the system, disabling it.  What sort of health hazard would result with eight million people needing access to working toilets multiple times a day?  (See Ted Koppel’s book Lights Out for a realistic assessment of how vulnerable our power grids are to cyber-attack.)  In this case, progress in networking and automation could potentially lead to a major collapse in society.


Another major flaw in thinking about progress as a virtue is that it leads to ethnocentrism and arrogance.  We should be careful not to judge other cultures as unenlightened or backwards, simply because they choose to live differently than we do.  Such people may live longer, be happier, and have more meaningful relationships.  They may enjoy a more moral and stable society than ours, precisely because they reject the technology that exacerbates impatience in our “instant gratification” culture.  Furthermore, progressivism fuels the West’s idolization of youth, which can lead to marginalizing the elderly because they are out of touch with the latest advances.


Besides, newer is not always better.  For example, I have a 30 year old John Deer snow blower.  When I brought it in to get a tune up a couple of years ago, the mechanic mocked the brand name and said they don’t service them.  When I told him how old it was, he totally changed his tune.  He said, “So you’ve got one of the real John Deers?”  He gladly worked on it, marveling to me, “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.”  The machine is made of metal rather than plastic, and it can handle any kind of snow that upstate New York can throw at it.  Many consumer goods have diminished in durability over the last 25 years.  Perhaps companies don’t want to make products that last or are easy to repair, so we will throw them out and buy new ones.  Planned obsolescence works much better as a business model.  Consequently, we live in a disposable society.  Most electronics are not worth fixing, so we toss them, and they molder in a manmade mountain somewhere and pollute the environment.


Honestly, progress depends on the eye of the beholder.  For example, if someone thinks abortion is wrong, then passing laws restricting abortion in Texas is progress.  Or consider the alleged connection between the legalization of abortion in the 1970s and the decrease in crime in the 1990s that Steven Levitt put forward in Freakonomics.  He argues:

But because of Roe v. Wade, these [at risk] children weren’t being born.  This powerful cause would have a drastic, distant effect: years later, just as these unborn children would have entered their criminal primes, the rate of crime began to plummet.  It wasn’t gun control or a strong economy or new police strategies that finally blunted the American crime wave.  It was, among other factors, the reality that the pool of potential criminals had dramatically shrunk.[3]

Now, if you think abortion is ok, then this sounds like progress for society, but for those of us who believe it is wrong, we can’t help but think that killing millions of at-risk people just to reduce crime twenty years later is a severe regression towards barbarity, hearkening back to the eugenics policies of the early twentieth century.


Another major reason why progressivism doesn’t work relates to how we view history.  C. S. Lewis summarized the problem well:

[H]is counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.[4]

Progressivism confuses the accumulation of knowledge for actual intelligence.  People today are probably not much smarter or dumber than we were in the past.  We might have a more sophisticated and accurate view of reality, but that does not mean that individuals are getting smarter.  If you think ancient people lacked cognitive capacity, you haven’t read many of them.  Whether you pick up a book from the 1800s like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or one from the 300s BC like Plato’s Republic, you can’t help but feel intellectually inadequate.  We can easily amass further evidence against thinking humanity is smarter today by looking at any number of street interviews on shows like Jimmy Kimmel.


A Christian Perspective

Now that we’ve seen some inadequacies of progressivism, let’s take a look at how Christianity provides a more satisfying and realistic framework for thinking about history.  The Bible itself contains a progressive arc from the widespread chaotic violence of the antediluvian period to establishment of Israel as a Torah-centered society to the advent of Christ to teach us about love to the outpouring of the spirit to enable us to live out the new covenant.  Thus, as Christians we can clearly and unequivocally affirm the progressive nature of history of redemption.  However, the Bible does not anywhere explicitly endorse any kind of linear progressivism.  Rather, progress seems to come in stages, culminating with paradise on earth.  In the end, the Bible provides a stunning picture of what God plans to do with the world:

Revelation 21:3-4
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

As a result of Kingdom prophecies like this one, Christians cannot hope but embrace a robust optimism for how history will progress when Christ returns.


However, the Bible also contains realistic portrayals of human frailty and sinfulness.  Here is one of the most pessimistic statements found anywhere in Scripture:

Romans 3:10-18
As it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one."  "Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive." "The venom of asps is under their lips."  "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."  "Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known."  "There is no fear of God before their eyes."

The Apostle Paul stitched together this montage of quotations to make the point that we are all guilty before God, whether Jew or Gentile.  Although the psalmists who had penned these words died centuries earlier, Paul sees no need to modify them or ameliorate their force.  People in his time were still flawed and prone to curse, shed blood, and neglect God, and so they are in ours as well.


We do find some mentions in the Bible of how matters will get worse, especially towards the end.  Here is an example:

1 Timothy 4:1-5
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Owing to texts like these, many Christians embrace the opposite of progressivism: historical pessimism.  This is the idea that each successive generation grows more wicked than the last.  Typically historical pessimists appeal to the moral decay they’ve witnessed during their own lifetimes as evidence for a regressive view of history.  This may well be true, but the situation is a bit more complicated than that, since at the same time, pornography exploded on the scene so also did antibiotics.  While Hollywood slowly slid down the tubes, workplace conditions have improved.  Even as the American government has become more secular, racism has diminished.  Our society is always shifting up and down and side to side.  Some of what happens is good and much of it is bad.  What we know for sure from the Bible is that just before Christ comes to establish God’s Kingdom, the world will turn against Christians in a major way.  Nonetheless, we have no idea when that will happen (though some folks keep trying to predict it).  So, we should not just assert that each generation is worse than the last.  Diocletian used the full force of the Roman government to roundup, torture, and execute Christians in the fourth century.  How is 21st century America worse than that?


In the end, Christianity has a complicated relationship with progressivism.  We deny that there is an impersonal force moving humanity upwards over time, but we do believe God has worked and continues to work within history to bring about mighty improvements over time.  We put our trust in God’s promise about setting right everything wrong with the world in the Kingdom age, but simultaneously we recognize the horrifying depravity of the human soul.  Tim Keller said, “Christianity is at the same time both far more pessimistic about history and the human race than any other worldview and far more optimistic about the material world’s future than any other worldview.”[5]  So let’s celebrate it when our civilization makes progress and mourn when they move away from God without losing touch with the fact that our purpose is to reach individuals with the gospel message that alone can lead to regeneration in their hearts and lasting change.




[2] Several have expressed this mindset including Theodore Parker (1853), Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), and Barack Obama (2009).

[3] Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), pp. 4-5.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando: Harcourt, 1955), pp. 207-8.  See also Art Lindsley’s article, “C. S. Lewis on Chronological Snobbery.”

[5] Tim Keller, Preaching (New York: Viking, 2015), p. 154.

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