Setting Our Stories Straight: The Myth of Progress

If there is a single theme that unites the Western imagination today, even within the severe political polarization, it is the idea of progress — that tomorrow will be better than today, that the future is bright, as long as we set our minds to it. What that future will look like, of course, varies widely from person to person, but that sense of progress, at least in potential, remains intact. And this despite the very real and even existential threats facing our civilization.

One might ask what could be wrong with a belief in progress. It is a great motivator for achievement and creativity, and, after all, the opposite of progress is stasis, or even regress, and who wants that? Moreover, it fits in well with at least popular ideas about evolution. But, like any big idea, progress has its shadow sides: It privileges the new over the old, the novel over the tried-and-true, and presupposes that more is always better than less. In the context of Modern Western history, it contributed to a widespread misunderstanding that saw humanity as the pinnacle of evolution, and white, European humanity as the pinnacle of human evolution. And this has had terrible consequences for the world and its peoples. And so today I’d like to interrogate the Myth of Progress to see how it holds up under investigation.

When European explorers, and the settlers that followed them, set foot in Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Islands of the Indian and Pacific, they encountered people, societies, and ways of being that were very different from their own. Armed as the Europeans were with a lot of dangerous presuppositions — that non-Christians had no legitimate claim to their land, that Christians were a Chosen People with a global destiny, and that whatever Christian rulers did was in accordance with God’s will, and that the furthering of Christian faith was legitimate grounds for violence — these encounters were unlikely to go well. But these presuppositions were also bolstered by what the Europeans saw as the clear superiority of their own material culture over that of these other cultures. To Western eyes, many of these cultures looked “primitive” and “uncivilized.” This assumption proved to be yet another weapon leveraged against the peoples of the world.

The Myth of Progress implies that what is ‘more advanced’ is always better than — and so will always replace — the ‘primitive.’ To the Western mind, it was simply common sense that the ‘primitive’ Indigenous peoples would give way to their own ‘advanced’ civilization. The removal of Indigenous peoples from their land to make way for European settlement might have been a sad fact of life (and indeed there was a lot of overly sentimental writing about this in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), but it was akin to the way developers think of tearing down a historic low-rise neighborhood to build giant glass condo towers: out with the old, in with the new; you can’t stop progress.

The Myth of Progress further led to a general attitude of paternalism that assumed Indigenous peoples were not capable of making their own decisions, that it was ‘our’ job as Westerners to educate them, guide and direct them to their own better future. This is the attitude that led to the Residential School system and its horrific results. And it’s sadly an attitude we still see at play in a lot of Canadian interactions with Indigenous peoples.

So what can we say about this from a Christian perspective?

The Myth of Progress had many sources, of which Christianity was likely only a minor player. It had far more to do with European optimism following the Renaissance and Enlightenment and all of the revolutionary scientific discoveries and political movements they spawned. But I do think Christianity contributed to it by providing the West with its understanding of time as linear rather than cyclical. Christians look to the future — to Christ’s return, to the New Jerusalem — for our ideal. There is no historical or mythical Golden Age to which we long to return or whose ways we are to follow, but a future to which we are oriented. We can see this sensibility in Martin Luther King Jr’s famous idea of the “arc of history,” or Fr. Alexander Men’s similar turn of phrase, “the Gospel arrow is aimed towards eternity.” In a lot of ways, I think this is a good, healthy, and true idea, but it can leave us prone to forgetting the wisdom of the past. If a cyclical understanding of history can be said to err because it disincentiveizes innovation and limits the possibility for improvement, the linear model promotes leaping without looking, and change for the sake of change. And, when coupled with the materialistic concerns of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, a focus on the possibilities of the future has brought forth some very bad fruit in the world.

There can be no doubt that Christianity is inherently optimistic about the human potential, “in Christ,” to change and to grow. This is in fact one of the major themes of this blog over the years, and I have discussed it in terms of Christian living, mysticism, and evolving consciousness. But, any time we talk about growth, we have to ask ourselves specifically what that means. What are we talking about when we talk about growth or progress? What is it for?

When the New Testament talks about growth, it is talking about growing into maturity, which it understands as living more and more like Jesus. It is not a growth in wealth, pride, or power, but a growth in grace, love, and justice. Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “arc of history” comment was about it “bend[ing] towards justice” and Fr. Men’s “Gospel arrow … aimed to eternity” is a reminder that “we are still neanderthals in spirit and morals.” It is spiritual and ethical progress, not technological or economic progress that Christianity has in mind. (And indeed, Christianity is generally very pessimistic about material wealth; as Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money.”).

The terrible irony is that often, by the very standards of the Gospel, the civilizations the West encountered were more “progressive” and “highly evolved” than the West’s. Take for example, the following report by US Senator Henry Dawes on the state of the Cherokees living in Oklahoma:

The head chief told us that there was not a family in the whole nation that had not a home of its own. There is not a pauper in that nation, and the nation does not owe a dollar. It built its own capital … and built its schools and hospitals. Yet the defect of the system was apparent. They have got as far as they can go, because they hold their land in common … There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilization. Till these people will consent to give up their lands, and dived them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much progress. (quoted in Shalom and the Community of Creation)

A community without poverty, homelessness, or debt, and which attends to the needs of its members without selfishness — this sounds pretty much like the biblical vision of a society working well, living into God’s peace that is the presence of justice and whole relationships. The fact that a self-consciously ‘Christian’ society was unable to see it as such is a great condemnation upon the West and its values.

All this is to say that the Myth of Progress became a myth because it had a too-narrow (and un-Christian!) understanding of what “civilization” and “progress” looked like. It focused on material culture — especially in terms of wealth, technology, and fire-power — to the complete exclusion of other, equally if not more important, aspects of life. It demanded more, more, more of everything material while pushing spiritual, moral, and ethical concerns to the sidelines. We have a word for this kind of uncontrolled, unbalanced and destructive growth: cancer.

This post has painted a bad picture of the idea of progress, and that picture has been intentionally one-sided. The West’s sense of progress has also born a lot of good fruit too — drastic decreases in infant mortality, hunger, and extreme poverty around the world, and the expansion of constitutional rights to more and more people over the centuries and decades. The fact that we are able to have these hard conversations about our past is itself a testament to the positive aspects of the idea of progress. We don’t believe we are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. But the good fruit doesn’t undo the bad, and so as we look forward to our future, we need to careful that our belief in the potential for progress doesn’t become a tool to justify the exploitation of others, that our understanding of progress is balanced and whole, and that it does not become a destructive cancer on our planet.

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