Is progress a dangerous notion?

I keep returning to this problem in my head over and over. I wrote this essay as a reaction to our annual academic competitions at my college. The topic was “progress.” And yet, time and again, I didn’t see any students ever questioning the notion of progress itself (someone may have, but I didn’t see or hear of it). Most simply assumed that progress was a good thing in and of itself, at worst, or an unavoidable product of culture, at best. In despair, I wrote this essay for the college newspaper to provocatively raise the basic problems with certain metaphors of progress. This essay “Against Progress” originally appeared in the Empire State Tribune .

“Against Progress”

We cannot proclaim a concept called “progress” without admitting its inherent dangers of dishonoring folks who aren’t like us. Prominent notions of progress inappropriately map a “successful journey” metaphor onto history itself. The “successful journey” metaphor plots a particular course of human events along a path analogy where success is predefined and achievable once we have “arrived.” Science “progresses” when it produces technologies with more facility, higher speeds, and broader accessibility than ever before. But to say that science or engineering are progressing is to make an ethical claim: facility, speed, and accessibility are good goals in and of themselves. The history of science proves otherwise. The horrific crimes against humanity under the guise of scientific progress include Josef Mengele’s experiments, the Unit 731 Japanese experiments on POWs, and the Tuskegee experiments on black men, to name a few obvious horrors. 

What’s so dangerous about this view of progress? Claims such as “global communication should be diverse and robust,” “wages should be capped,” and “all women should have access to abortion” all trade in this notion of progress. But are these viable and basic goods? And should they be the metrics of progress?

A more pernicious outcome of these progress narratives manifests in our misunderstanding of ourselves. If human progress is measured willy-nilly by ideals such as “technological capability” or “health without suffering,” then the cultures that have progressed according to those measures are the “most advanced” cultures. Historically, this has led to self-styled sagas that plot history as “the West and the rest.” Sub-Saharan African tribes and equatorial Amazonian cultures are thus considered “backward” or “primitive.” The remedy then focuses on making them like us, sometimes through colonization, and shuts down our ability to listen to other cultures for how they can teach us God’s truth. 

Shusako Endo’s fictional novel Silence portrays this kind of progress-triumphalism in theological terms. The marooned, indigenous, Japanese Christians suffered greatly under Samurai rule. The modern Western Church believed that these Japanese Christians needed Western priests and rites to keep them secured in the faith. Yet it was the faith of the priests that collapsed under the gravity of persecution. Indigenous Japanese Christians endured that same persecution triumphally. 

The title Silence borders on irony. The faith and witness of the Indigenous Christians shouted over the moans of persecuted and perseverant saints. “Advanced” Western religion deafened the priests, who couldn’t hear the voices instructing them how to see the kingdom of God in the theological bog of a warlord-ruled Japan. 

The pattern repeats to this day. Even the twentieth-century anthropologists from the “civilized world” drank the Kool-Aid of “progress,” imposing their views on the so-called “primitive indigenous.” Under the banner of progress, eugenics, xenophobia, colonialism, and Jim Crow laws found common-sense appeal. (See Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air, Doubleday, 2019, for a sobering exposé.) It was Jewish, African American, and female scholars who argued that beliefs about the “natural inferiority” of non-white non-European peoples relied upon an unfounded progress narrative. These revolutionary anthropologists discerned profound knowledge traditions and forms of understanding that the civilized West desperately needed to learn. Though learning from people in other cultures seems commonplace to us now, it was unheard-of in the early twentieth century. 

Anthropologist Margaret Mead in New Guinea

Our progress narratives continue to distort our understanding of Scripture. The idea that Jesus and his apostles all performed animal sacrifices seems barbaric to many Christians today. Without a hint of irony, we chew on factory-roasted chicken while simultaneously spewing disgust for uncivilized religions that traded on animal sacrifice. We rail against ancient Semitic moral codes that required strict punishment for a range of offenses against creation and God that we do not even consider criminal today. We have progressed. The Scripture that Jesus taught and its rituals he practiced seem to us a form of barbarism. Marcionism creeps in. In ignorance, we espouse a God of love and grace, wrongly believing that both divine love and grace originate only in the New Testament texts. 

Waving the flag of progress, we assume that Christianity can have nothing to do with the bestial religion that Jesus Himself practiced and advocated.  We manufacture a theology that turns Jesus into the bridge out of such savagery. Though many of our cultural marks of morality uniquely originated in biblical thinking, we map these marks onto the “journey” metaphor of progress.  Our unmoored metrics become the ever-ambiguous “right side of history,” on which we always want to be. 

Is the idea of progress an outright sham? Maybe. I don’t know. More importantly, how does progress provide an accurate and sober view of ourselves, God, and His creation? I’m not sure we need progress, but I’m willing to be convinced otherwise if only to be on the right side of the Resurrection. Nevertheless, the horrifically storied track record of political and technological movements for the sake of progress should be enough to place the burden of proof on progress. Let those who love the notion of progress explain how it aids in chastening injustice and emboldening us to join a kingdom for every corner of creation. In the end, Scripture does not portray the New Heavens and New Earth as the civilized tribes, tongues, nations, “and the rest.” Rather, the distinct cultures of the earth are united in their diversity to flourish as The Redeemed. Ultimately, God ensures progress into His Kingdom, and we only have to faithfully push His justice out into our world. 

[Featured image for this post: John GastAmerican Progressc. 1872]

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