God of Progress, Slow Us Down

The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors […]

CJ Green / 11.12.19

The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future. – Frank Herbert, Dune

In his essay “After the Storm,” author Ben Ehrenreich investigates the concept of progress. It’s in the air, he argues, so elemental we don’t always know we’re breathing it. “We are in thrall,” he writes, “to the fetish of progress: the belief that history has a direction and a purpose, the faith that humankind is ascending a steady if circuitous route to greater and greater perfection.” Most of us believe this will happen slowly, over the course of history, one good policy or innovation at a time. On the concept’s origins, he explains:

Progress described for Europeans their past, their position on the path that carried them into the future, and their relation to everyone else on the planet. It created an easy hierarchy into which every time, every place, and every people could be slotted. By the mid-nineteenth century, faith in progress was already so ubiquitous as to be largely invisible to its adherents, whether they counted themselves revolutionaries or traditionalists and whether they lived in Europe itself, in the rapidly expanding settlements in the Americas and Australia, or in colonial outposts in Africa and Asia. To question it with any seriousness was to marginalize yourself as a crank, a heretic, or a fool. In the European imagination — which increasingly operated in racial terms, understanding itself as white — progress defined the world.

It’s a delicate topic. We all need the assurance that today could be better than yesterday. Questioning that can seem pessimistic, even cruel. But Ehrenreich finds the opposite. Historically speaking, he says, progress meant forging ahead and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces the supposed frontrunners had left in their wake. “Before it was anything else,” he concludes, “progress was a doctrine of supremacy — a fresh new faith for a rising era of unchallenged European dominance…” Today’s “progress” seems likewise too concerned with a regressive hunger for superiority to offer anything like true redemption.

Moreover, actual progress is as unprovable as any supernatural thing. Whether you believe in it depends, in large part, on your metric. You might point out handy innovations. Definitely, there is a lot to celebrate — washing machines, sat navs, indoor showers and hot water, the TVs on gas station pumps informing you where to install fire alarms. (In my town, there is an annual innovation festival.)

But as grateful as we might be for Alexander Graham Bell and the other benevolent inventors, we might be less so for the creators of the dark web, the assault rifle, the nuclear warhead. We might look at so-called developed nations but turn away from the detritus of colonialism. Today’s most entrenched innovations, computers and the networks connecting them, were designed as instruments of war, so naturally average people now live as if in combat, online, collecting information and deploying stats like little missiles. As a measure for progress, innovation is at best up-in-the-air. Alexa says nothing of who we are.

Unsurprisingly, the god of progress especially compels those who believe they are manifesting it. On the right side of history, they will enjoy the privilege of participating in the world’s eventual perfection, or at least they will not be obstructing it like the rest of us. In this sense, progress promises more than wellbeing; it is ultimately what Ehrenreich calls “a demented quest for historical purity.”

Which brings us to Christianity, where the circuitous arc of human progress is not so important. Overall we don’t get better, or worse. We continue as ever, and there is an apocalypse. That may sound archaic, even dramatic, but given the state of things, real hope would require some drama. Beneath the clouds of thunder lies a beautiful promise, that evil will be vanquished, and every tear will be wiped away, “and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” Even today’s atheist myths (this progress myth included) hold out for this: that eventually Good will overcome Evil, and human existence will be redeemed.

Usually when we hear about progress, it is something to hustle for. You must get on its side, invest early, or be left behind. But in Christianity, everything has been given; anyone who wants it can have it. There are no more sides. When Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he was less interested in dominion and more in sharing this good news with everyone. Despite appearances, differences in culture, personal histories, no matter who you were, the gospel was for you. Forgiveness, grace, mercy — hard-won for all.

The catch is, we earn none of it, and we would all prefer to earn. We would all prefer to fight toward progress rather than accept it, when it comes to us, as a gift. As Archibald MacLeish once wrote, “The world was always yours; you would not take it.” To take it, in this case, as experience shows, we have to be stripped of pretense, give up our crusades for control. We have to get kicked in the butt. Real progress, in other words, often feels like regress. Not something you hustle for, but something you fall into.