Wednesday, November 01, 2023

The Problem with Progress

The thesis of Glen Scrivener’s most recent book The Air We Breathe is that Western societies have absorbed Christian values by osmosis. He suggests that even if we haven’t noticed it yet, our collective convictions about the importance of equality, compassion, consent, enlightenment, science, freedom and progress all come originally from the Bible and are a radical departure from both pre-first century views and those of most non-Westerners today.

Few of us Westerners are Christians, yet the faith of our fathers has subversively Christianized society in some respects at least. Even those who object fervently to the Christian faith often object for reasons only the Christian faith itself could ever supply.

In yesterday’s post, we looked at Scrivener’s thoughts on the origin of our societies’ professed belief in equality. Much of Scrivener’s book is profitable and makes a valid point about the origins of uncritically held dogmas in the West. However, I just did not see the throughline from New Testament Christianity to modern egalitarianism. I think that comes from another source.

The Arc of History

Today, let’s look at his seventh value: progress. Like equality, holding up progress as a transcendent value derived from the teaching of the Bible is more than a little questionable.

Scrivener argues that the abolition of slavery and the struggle for civil rights have “made us all believe that perhaps the universe is moral, and perhaps it is progressing”. By “us all”, he means Christians and unbelievers alike, and he goes to some length to demonstrate this with reference to the publicly expressed opinions of Stephen Pinker, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, Darwin, Hegel, Freud and Marx. Biological progress. Historical progress. Psychological, economic, political and technological progress. (Yes, a few of these thinkers predate the civil rights struggle, but let’s not worry about that.)

Where Secularists and Christians Diverge

Thus far, nothing Scrivener is alleging about our culture’s conviction that history is moving us somewhere good is terribly contestable. Secular humanists believe in the “arc of history” almost universally, which is mind boggling when you consider the fact that most of them also believe in a random universe with no divine agency behind it. Such dogma requires blind faith in the benign intent of inanimate, mindless forces, not to mention an implicit denial of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

A faith of this sort is not rational, but it is certainly observable all around us; Scrivener’s not wrong about that. The problem comes when he tries to link this apparent default setting in the modern secular consciousness to the teaching of scripture.

Eschatological Views in Summary

Christians have a lot in common with one another with respect to faith and practice, but eschatology is one area in which we are radically divided, and almost surely will be until the Lord returns.

Consider the following chart summarizing the three main views of the future that Christians believe the very same Bible describes for us:

Dispensational Premillennialism* Amillennialism Postmillennialism
View of Israel / Church Two distinct movements in God’s symphony No distinction No distinction
Millennium Literal 1,000 years, future Figurative period currently in process Last 1,000 years of the present era or figurative period currently in process
Character of Millennium Believers and unbelievers on earth together, rule of Christ over the latter by force Living believers suffer in an incompletely Christianized world, dead believers “rule” with Christ from heaven A Christianized world created by persuasion rather than force
Rapture Distinct from Second Coming, usually 3.5 - 7 (or more) years earlier Simultaneous with Second Coming Simultaneous with Second Coming
Second Coming Before millennium After millennium After millennium
Christ’s reign Future, accomplished by his personal, physical return Present spiritually, consummation to come at Second Coming In process literally and spiritually, to be fully accomplished through the church preaching the gospel
View of
Revelation 4-22
Mostly future Mostly non-literal and agnostic about meaning Largely fulfilled in AD70

* For the sake of simplicity, I have omitted Historical Premillennialism, which also blurs Israel and the Church and moves the Rapture to the end of the great tribulation. To be fair, HP’s adherents are not overly numerous and their differences with their dispensational brothers and sisters not terribly radical.

The chart above is a sweeping generalization, of course. There are many other eschatological views and numerous minor and major variations on these three. Bear with me; the finer details are not the point of the exercise.

Purpose vs. Progress

Now, I am sure Christians of all three eschatological persuasions would agree that history has a purpose. That much is clear. That the Bible portrays a sovereign, eternal God moving history to its divinely predetermined conclusion is not up for debate. The question is whether we could call the human story a tale of “progress” in any legitimate sense of the word.

Progress suggests development, advancement or improvement, motion toward a destination. Historically speaking, secularists can offer us no evidence for a motive force behind human progress beyond their own dogmatic conviction that it has happened and is happening. The pragmatists among them attribute history’s perceived upward motion to themselves: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Is that what the Bible teaches? We can conflate faith in humanity with faith in God if we like, but it’s not the same thing at all.

Progress in the Old Testament

Christianity teaches mankind is fallen. All eschatological schools of thought agree about that, whatever their differences. Christ apart, Adam was the most perfect human being who ever lived. God “saw that it was good”. Even in a sin-sickened world, early man lived more than ten times longer than you and I do, so he was obviously healthier and more fitted to his environment. I bet he was a great deal smarter too. Everyone since Adam has been trending downhill, reverting toward depravity, imbecility and chaos at every opportunity unless God staged one of his frequent interventions.

Bible history is a record of God moving forward in his purposes for humanity, but rarely with any effective assistance from his creatures, and often meeting passive and/or active resistance from them along the way. It is exceedingly hard to see how anything about the Bible except perhaps a single stream of eschatological thinking points unambiguously in the direction of progress. What we see instead is a repeating cycle of divine intervention followed inevitably by moral decline.

We get “fill the earth and subdue it” followed only a few brief chapters later by “the wickedness of man was great in the earth”. We get Israel chosen, blessed with God’s law and given a home in Canaan, only to find every man doing what was right in his own eyes, raping and killing strangers instead of offering them hospitality. We get a kingdom that begins in failure, recovers briefly, and gets forcibly divided less than 150 years after it began, then both resulting nations falling into idolatry and being dispersed into exile. We get a return to Jerusalem that mingles tears of joy and sorrow, followed by the rejection of Messiah and a two thousand year dispersal across the world. We get a first century rabbinical understanding of the Law of Moses inferior to the understanding in Moses’ day. Far from gilding the lily, Jewish tradition had voided the Word.

No progress there. Just relentless failure that demonstrated a need for serious help from outside the human race. In the biblical view, we are not the ones we have been waiting for. To his credit, Scrivener grasps this. He writes, “The problem with ‘power to the people’ is … people.”

Progress in the Church

How about the church? See any consistent progress there? In case we are confused on that point, here’s what Paul tells Timothy to expect over time as the gospel reaches out to a fallen world and the church’s influence expands:

“In the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.”

Lest there be any doubt, the apostle is talking about church leadership here, not just the unregenerate world. Should we call that progress? You tell me. There is certainly the appearance of progress in certain respects from time to time, so long as God keeps stepping in and reviving that which would otherwise inevitably follow the universal trend toward entropy. But can we say with any confidence that we are morally improving on our ancestors?

Progress in the World

Despite all the creditable efforts of Christians toward the abolition of slavery, scholars estimate 40 million people live in slavery today worldwide, more than three times as many as all the slaves sold between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries combined. The Civil Rights Movement offered hope of reconciliation between blacks and whites couched in biblical language, but without the power of Christ behind it. A few brief decades later, #BlackLivesMatter reminded us the divide between cultures in America is all but irreconcilable no matter how much time passes. Four hundred years in Egypt did not turn Hebrews into Egyptians, and four hundred years in the New World has not turned Africans into Americans, no matter the lingo we use.

Progress? Perhaps the appearance of it temporarily, but certainly nothing that makes me brim with confidence about the human potential for change. We have better technology, certainly. We have health care that marginally increases the human lifespan. But nothing apart from the gospel has ever proved able to change the character of fallen man. Scripture reminds us that those who are being made over in Christ’s image have passed through the narrow gate that leads to life, not the broad way that leads to destruction. The latter gate is where all human “progress” is headed.

In short, then, every step forward man makes independent of God takes us three steps backwards and closer to the abyss.

Ending with a Bang

Two of the three most popular views of eschatology have the faithful suffering until Christ delivers us. Only one has Christians politely scouring the planet of sin for 1,000 years or more, then finally inviting the Lord Jesus to join us in our squeaky clean, Christianized environment. As much as it is a very popular view of Revelation 20 these days, postmillennialism has more in common with “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” than its adherents are willing to concede.

The biblical ending of this horror show in which all but the true, invisible church built by Christ are willing participants or passive enablers will not be a product of man’s ingenuity or some sort of natural benign force moving history in a mysterious and unlikely arc toward justice, nor will it be the end product of Christians conquering the world for Christ during his physical absence. Rather, the current world order will go from a uniformitarian slide down the slippery slope of the moral Second Law into final catastrophe. It turns out the narrative is not ours to write at all. God is the author, and our incessant failure is the proof he was right all along.

Moral Progress

Is that moral progress? Sure, of a sort, I suppose. But we get no credit for it. We are the living evidence that humanity needs God both within us individually and among us collectively to become or produce anything of value. One of these is not enough on its own. God must be all in all for the New Jerusalem to arrive. I suppose this is pretty much the conclusion Glen Scrivener comes to as well, albeit by a rather lengthy, elliptical trail with way too much about Adolf Hitler along the way, with the Nazis as the baddest of bad guys, and not a few missed points.

This we could have found out from any recent Hollywood release or from the incoherent mumblings of Joe Biden.

Call it progress if you must, but it bears little resemblance to the definition. From our perspective, history is an accident over which we have no control. From God’s, it was always inevitable. And the answer is always Christ. In person, to prove we can’t do without him.

Because … we can’t.

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