Archangel Gabriel

This is the last of a series of four reflections on progress. The first was about the ancient idea that a supreme god maintains the universe with a long-term design.

The second and third were about the ideas of progress most common today, and what happens to it when it becomes a self-contained objective independent of God.

This final reflection looks more closely at a God-based theory of progress.

When God is taken out of the picture, there is no overall plan. The result is that we cannot agree about what progress would consist of. Even if we could, we have no reason to suppose it will ever actually happen.

Contrast with other schemes

The idea of progress began with the belief that the universe and our lives are intentionally designed for a purpose. This is clearly expressed in debates held by early Jews and Christians.

Some thought the world was badly made by evil gods. Others, like the second century bishop Irenaeus, believed it was well made by a good god. They explained the evils we experience as products of human behaviour. Human behaviour can change. The world is good, with potential for becoming even better.

Later, eastern and western Christianity went separate ways. Most western Europeans thought of history as distinct ages, with sudden jumps at the Creation, Fall, Redemption and Second Coming. Between these events, they thought, everything stays pretty much the same.

Many people still think this is standard Christian teaching. It isn’t what we normally mean by progress, and it doesn’t fit our modern understanding of history.


Eastern Christianity retained the progressive idea of thinkers like Irenaeus. As they saw it, humans are called to become more like God. They call it ‘deification’. If you are used to more negative versions of Christianity, that play on guilt, you may find it surprising that at first Christianity was much more hopeful, positive and progressive.

It depends on three theories which can’t be proved or disproved, but make a big difference to how we conceive of our lives.

1) Purpose

There is an intention behind the universe and our lives. When we think our lives have no meaning, that’s when people commit suicide. Most of us, when we think about it, feel our lives have meaning and value. Our sense of meaning and value tells us our lives have a purpose which is greater than ourselves. We are part of something bigger, we are on the way somewhere, even if we can’t see where. We might think of it as a long-term plan.

2) Good lives with potential for improvement

The lives we are given are fundamentally good, with potential to become even better. If life isn’t good in the first place it’s a tragedy. If there is no potential for improvement this is as good as it gets. When we believe progress is possible we have hope.

3) Improvement depends on use of freedom

If a perfect world would include perfect humans, to be perfect means being willing to sacrifice our own interests for the sake of the common good, when we could have looked after ourselves and ignored the effect on others.

The evolution of ethics

So progress is about becoming holy, and what makes this possible is freedom to choose between good and evil.

Evolutionary psychologists describe how our freedom developed. They do endless experiments on chimpanzees to see how relevant faculties evolved.

As our ancestors evolved from other forms of life, they inherited instincts. Some instincts are to look after ourselves and some are to help others.

At one stage our animal ancestors didn’t think about what they were doing. They just did it instinctively. They would do some self-centred things to protect themselves and produce children, but would also do some altruistic things to help others.

Later, they learned to attribute choices to other individuals. Researchers watch what happens when one chimpanzee hurts another. Does the victim blame the aggressor? Does the victim think the aggressor did it deliberately? So our distant ancestors attributed free choices to others.

The next stage is to attribute free choices to ourselves. Most of us still find it easier to pass judgement on other people’s actions than on our own.

When we have learned the idea that we ourselves have choices, we can then think about what we are about to do and ask ourselves whether we might do something else instead.

This is when freedom becomes possible. We stop being links in a fixed chain of cause and effect, and instead became able to choose between alternatives.

This means that we got our instincts long before we got the ability to override our instincts by thinking about the best thing to do.

What makes our freedom important is that what we want for ourselves often conflicts with the common good. When we are threatened we usually look after our own interests. When we are successful and confident it becomes easier to care about what other people need.

The task facing us is to care about the common good enough to put it before self-interest. As we practice the art of caring for the common good we may find ourselves able to make big sacrifices for the sake of others.

In this account, we are all somewhere on the way, in a long historical process, neither at the beginning nor at the end. At the beginning was the creation of the universe – perhaps the Big Bang. At the end is the prospect of becoming like God, holy. As we become more like God, we’re heading in the right direction. Progress.

Progress in faith traditions

What can we do about it? Every faith tradition teaches methods for reflecting on our own lifestyles and behaviour, and asking ourselves whether we can do better.

This is the stuff of praying, meditating, self-examination and confession. We know at first hand what we want, and we can usually extrapolate to what the people around us probably want. When we take time to think about how we affect other people and the world around us, we can ask ourselves whether we are wanting the right things. We can reflect on when and how our rational thought should override our self-centred instincts - whether our way of life could become more godly. When we make changes of this sort, it’s progress.

Irenaeus described it as well as anyone:

If, then, thou art God’s workmanship, await the hand of thy Maker which creates everything in due time; in due time as far as thou art concerned, whose creation is being carried out. Offer to Him thy heart in a soft and tractable state, and preserve the form in which the Creator has fashioned thee, having moisture in thyself, lest, by becoming hardened, thou lose the impressions of His finger. But by preserving the framework thou shalt ascend to that which is perfect, for the moist clay which is in thee is hidden there by the workmanship of God. He will cover thee over within and without with pure gold and silver.

1) Do you think it’s possible for humanity to have a better future?

2) What is it like when you feel most willing to help other people? What is it like when you mostly want to look after yourself?

3) Do you like the idea of becoming more like God?