I’m doing a series of four talks on progress at St Bride's Liverpool. The first was last Sunday. This is an edited version of the text. At the end there are questions for discussion, because this is what we do at St Bride's.
The other three talks will be about the main ideas of progress today (mainly new technologies and economic growth); alternative theories of progress and the growth of scepticism; and finally how the Christian tradition can offer a positive account of it. Further details are in my new book Why Progressives Need God.
Progress means change for the better. We all have times when things seem to be getting better, for now, for us, but things are getting worse for other people and may later get worse for us. The big question is: could the future be better for everyone? Do we have good reason to hope for a better future all round?
It depends on your worldview, the basic assumptions about reality that most of us never think about. To illustrate how different they can be I’ll summarise Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.
Aeschylus was a tragic poet writing in Athens in the 5th century BC. His play tells a traditional story. King Agamemnon has got his fleet together, he’s ready to sail across the sea to attack Troy and recapture Helen. He has to wait because there is a storm at sea. Why is there a storm at sea? Ask the priests. Answer: the goddess Artemis is causing the storm, and it isn’t going to stop until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. So he does. The storm stops, he sails off to Troy and comes home victorious. Meanwhile his wife hasn’t forgiven him for killing their daughter. She kills him. They also had a son, who then gets his revenge by killing his mother.
This is a classic Athenian tragedy. Because of what the gods are like, one disaster leads to another.
It’s too easy for us to dismiss it as the superstition of an ignorant age. It is more significant than that. I do wish that goddess Artemis had been in the House of Commons that day when they voted to send the bombers to Syria. You may remember that day, when the media’s attention focused on Jeremy Corbyn opposing the bombing and Hilary Benn supporting it. Suppose Artemis had said to them what she said to Agamemnon: ‘Okay, you can vote to drop bombs on Syrian families and their children, but before you do you have to drop a bomb on one of your own children’. It would have helped them concentrate their minds.
Still, if the world was governed by gods like that, obviously there would be no possibility of long-term progress. Everything would depend on what mood the gods were in. When somebody offends them they get angry and there is tragedy; when everybody manages not to offend them, everything stays the same. It was a conservative attitude to life on earth.
From conservative to progressive
Going further back in time, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were equally conservative. They knew the forces of nature provided for them, but also sometimes threatened them. They did whatever they thought would keep the system going but without the bad bits. Change meant danger.
After they invented agriculture, things changed. Populations went up. In city life, most threats don’t come from the forces of nature. They come from other people: the government, the boss, the local burglar. So they conceived of the gods as different personalities, still maintaining the world but primarily related to each other, quarrelling with each other, having affairs with each other, like our soap operas. The ancient Greek gods, like Artemis, were like that.
Attitudes changed with what scholars call the ‘Axial Age’. The Axial Age was from around 800 to 300 BC.
The changes took place independently in four parts of the world: China, India, Judea and Greece. Individuals rejected the values of their own society, offered an alternative and gained a following.
This was the age of Confucius, Buddha, the prophets of Israel, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and probably Zoroaster.
Their messages had universal scope; they weren’t just concerned about their own society. They considered human life unsatisfactory and looked for something better.
There were three kinds of message. All three messages were promoted by early Christians.
The inner turn
One was to turn inwards. Turn your attention away from the big bad world, focus on inner peace.
This can be very individualistic: me and my private spirituality, ignoring everyone else. It can also be very dualistic: the physical world is evil, the spirit within is where redemption is to be found.
Among early Christians we get it in the Gospel of Thomas, which never made it into the Bible, and many Gnostic sects. Because the world is so evil it must have been made by evil or stupid gods. Gnostics appealed to some biblical texts in Paul and John.
The second kind of message was that the end is nigh. Soon there will be a sudden change and everything will be completely different. This has happened many times in history. When a culture feels things are getting worse, they may think: surely this won’t be allowed to carry on. Surely the gods will intervene to put a stop to it. Mark, the first person to write a gospel about Jesus, seems to have believed God was about to establish a new age on earth and abolish death, illness and sin.
The third kind of message was to expect gradual progress through history. This makes better sense for people who believe the world is maintained by consistent forces that just go on and on without change. It developed first with the idea that there is just one god, who doesn’t make mistakes and is not threatened by other gods. So God’s plan, whatever it is, is going to carry on. If we are to hope for a better future, there must be a God-given way to live better.
Jesus and progress
Over the last forty years New Testament scholars have increasingly believed that the teaching of Jesus was of this type.
One of the main reasons is that Jesus was crucified. This shows that the Romans saw him as a political threat.
The logic is: if you believe in the inner turn you aren’t going to threaten anyone. If you believe the end is nigh, you just wait for it. Governments can ignore people like that. But if you believe in progress through history, you’ll get your hands dirty with political campaigning and demands for justice.
If this is what Jesus did – and these days many New Testament scholars think he did – it would explain why the Romans saw him as a threat.
The modern idea of progress has its historical roots in this movement. However, medieval Christianity largely abandoned it. Secular theory maintained it but took God out of it. I’ll describe these changes over the next two weeks.
For now, here are three core characteristics of the God-based idea of progress.
Good world with potential for improvement
First, a good world with potential for improvement. If it isn’t created good in the first place, we’re back to the world of Artemis and Agamemnon. Life is inevitably tragic. If there is no room for improvement, this is as good as it gets.
Unity of humanity
Second, the unity of humanity. We are all created by the same god and loved equally. Foreigners are God’s children, created to be blessed just like us. Progress is about a better world for all of us, not just us at the expense of other people.
Third, linear time. The world order is going to carry on. It is not going to be interrupted. We take this for granted today. Modern science depends on it. It comes from the belief in a single god.
The content of progress
From this point of view the content of progress is spiritual and ethical. It’s about using our freedom to become more like the way God has designed us to live at our best.
1. What does progress mean to you? Do you want it?
2. When everything is going wrong, do you turn inward, hope for sudden change, or work towards long-term solutions?
3. Do you find it easier to believe in God when things are going well, or badly?