The myth of progress and Christianity

Creepy animatronic dad, who looks frighteningly like Saturday Night Live's Will Forte, talks about how great life is in the 1940s. Never mind the Nazis, I guess.

In my sermon this past Sunday, I cast grave doubt on the idea that our world was becoming a better place. To be sure, science and technology advance, new political and economic solutions are implemented, and some people in in the world experience gains in their standards of living and life expectancy, but it’s not clear at all that we—as a species—are making “progress.” The success of the Enlightenment project over the past three centuries, with its emphasis on reason and science, is at best a mixed bag.

This may not be news to anyone, but it does go against the propaganda that we learned in school and was fed to us through popular culture. As I pointed out in my sermon, the implicit promise of Disney World’s “Carousel of Progress” never came to pass. Our world continues to be mired in sin and evil. Everything else may change, but humanity’s capacity for and inclination toward evil hasn’t.

Does this mean that Christianity failed—or the gospel of Jesus Christ failed?

By no means. First, as smarter and more knowledgeable thinkers than I have argued persuasively elsewhere, our world is better because of the Christian witness. In very practical terms, the vast majority of charity work and funding today comes from Christians and church-affiliated organizations. The Christian faith has shaped and continues to shape parts of the world, like secularized Western Europe, where church influence and attendance have been in sharp decline. The whole concept of “human rights,” for instance, as well as other aspects of social justice, emerge from categories of thought that were inconceivable prior to the Christian revolution of the first few centuries of the Christian era.

More importantly, individual lives throughout all parts of the world continue to be shaped and changed by the gospel. And let’s not forget that in the southern hemisphere Christianity is exploding in growth.

Regardless, the success of the gospel of Jesus Christ—never mind the truth of Christianity—is hardly at stake in the question of whether the world is becoming a better place. Indeed, the gospel that both Jesus and the early Church proclaimed was thoroughly eschatological—which means directed toward the end of the world as we know it. In other words, Jesus didn’t come simply to tell us how to live better lives, make the world a better place, or be more loving; or even that God was like a loving and forgiving Father who would receive us into a faraway heaven when we die.

Jesus announced that God’s kingdom was coming here, at the end of history as we know it, and that we believers in Jesus are to conduct our lives now as if that kingdom were already here in all its fullness. Although we can see advance signs of God’s coming kingdom—for instance, when people work for peace, reconciliation, and healing in this world—Jesus and the early Church were under no illusions that God’s kingdom could be ushered into this present world as is. It would take a major intervention at the end of history as we know it—what the Church understands as the Second Coming, final judgment, and resurrection of the dead.

The Church has sometimes gotten confused about this over the centuries. Two otherwise valuable theological movements over the past century—the “social gospel” of the early 20th century and “liberation theology” of the late—have often tended in the direction of a this-worldly gospel. I sometimes want to remind my liberation theologian brothers and sisters that even if the Church successfully made the world in the egalitarian image of, say, Sweden, people would still need Jesus! They would still need to be saved!

Another point I hope I made emphatically in my sermon is that life in this world is still pretty amazing, no matter how badly sin and evil mess it up. As Lou Reed rightly sang many years ago, “Life’s good, but not fair at all.” Our Christian hope is that that last part won’t always be true.

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