Reading between the lines: Progress

“Things can only get better.”

“The only way is up.”

“There’s no way but up from here…”

…just a few of the song lyrics that have been running around in my head as I’ve been thinking about today’s post.

Running alongside the general cynicism of British culture is an equal and opposite force.  It is completely at odds with cynicism, yet somehow the two seem to be held in tension together.  It is the myth of progress.

Despite our nostalgia for a simpler, happier time, when we had more freedom and less stress (albeit a time that, we admit, had its share of struggles, particularly for the lower end of society), when it comes down to it, we firmly believe that things are better now and getting better all the time.

We bemoan the lack of respect young people have for their elders, the lack of discipline in schools, the poor work-ethic leading to unemployment, the broken homes and teenage pregnancies… but try suggesting that we return to the moral standards of an earlier age, and you’ll be laughed out of court.

We’ve moved on, people think.  The world is gradually, but inexorably moving forward.  Year by year we are getting more enlightened, more intelligent, more technologically capable, closer, in fact, to perfection.

I heard a prize-winning philosopher recently talking about morality and expressing the optimistic belief that gradually the level of morality in the world is improving.  “We’re more respectful of each other today than we were hundreds of years ago,” he said, explaining that ethical standards were undergoing an evolution-like ‘survival of the fittest’.  Those moral standards which are best fitted for life on earth will survive, while those which do not promote human flourishing will die out.

Reluctant though I am to criticise such a renowned thinker, I have to say that I think he’s mistaken.

The overriding moral philosophy in the West at the moment is relativism. That might look like respecting the view points of others, but in fact it is abdicating responsibility from seeking and declaring the truth. 

In the past (and still today in other parts of the world) there were people who actually believed that there was a real, universal truth, and that human beings could discover it.  Of course, there were different opinions as to what that truth was, and people often killed each other over it instead of working together to learn from each other and discover what it was, but the process and attitude shouldn’t detract from the fact that objective truth was known to exist.  Pluralism and relativism haven’t solved any of the fighting, but have made it harder for any consensus over the right way to live ever to be reached.

The myth of progress is clearly illustrated in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).  Mankind thought he had grown so great he could reach the heavens.  Ironically, though, the higher he built, the further he grew from God.  He thought that in his own strength he could achieve perfection, but his attempts came to nothing, and God confused his language and scattered him far and wide.

Far from improving over time, everything on earth – even cheese and vintage wine – tends, eventually, to decay.  Astrophysicists will tell you that the universe itself is aging.  Our sun is getting old and burning out.  Despite the best efforts of medicine, our bodies age, decay and eventually die.

There is no evidence to suggest that, left to ourselves, we will gradually improve.

The Bible states that all creation groans because it knows that it was once perfect, and longs to be again, but cannot be under its own steam, or even under our careful guidance.  One day, though, it will be made new.  Everything will be returned to the state of perfection in which God made it in the beginning.

There is hope.  With the Spirit’s help, we can learn to grow more Christlike, and to live God’s way even on this fallen earth. In our own strength we will never achieve perfection, we’ll just find ourselves walking further and further out along a precarious ledge, but in Christ we can “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14)

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