Americans talk about progress with an odd kind of reverence. Progress is the unstoppable force pushing human affairs forward. And it’s a religion with a simple premise: Except for the random detour, civilization instinctively changes for the better. And it’s up to us to get on board or get out of the way; to be part of the change or to get run over by history if we try to obstruct it. Hence we Catholics are routinely warned that we’re on the wrong side of history.
This idea of progress does have its appeal. As the economist Sidney Pollard put it: “The world today believes in progress because the only alternative to the belief in progress would be total despair.” We might go a step further: Clinging to a belief in progress is actually a product of despair, generously seasoned by sloth. History is cruel, social change is difficult, and a relationship with God involves a lot of unpleasant truth-telling—especially about ourselves. Better to just shift the burden of living in a flawed world at an imperfect time onto some positive force that will bring about the change we want “some” day.
It’s a heartwarming delusion. But that’s all it is: a delusion. A brief glance at the twentieth century destroys the myth. In just a few decades, “progressive” regimes and ideas produced two savage world wars, multiple murder ideologies, and the highest body count in history. And yet, as Christopher Lasch noted, people still cling to the religion of progress long after the evidence wrecks their dream.
The cult of progress is the child not only of despair, but also of presumption. It’s a kind of Pelagianism, the early Christian heresy that presumed human beings could attain salvation by their own efforts without the constant help of grace. Hence the philosopher Hans Blumenberg says that what separates the progressive idea of history from the Christian one is “the assertion that the principle of historical change comes from within history and not from on high, and that man can achieve a better life ‘by the exertion of his own powers’ instead of counting on divine grace.”
While we can and should work for social improvement—an obviously worthy goal—we’re too riddled with sin to ever build paradise on earth. As Benedict XVI put it, authentic progress doesn’t come automatically. In every age, human freedom must be weaned over to the good.23 And because our freedom can be used for good or evil, progress is always ambiguous:
“Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (see Eph 3:16 and 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”
Ironically, it’s the religious subtext of progress that makes it so attractive. Again, as Friedrich Nietzsche and many others observed, progress is a kind of Christianity without Jesus and all the awkward baggage that he brings. The Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw this years ago when he wrote that “the idea of progress is possible only upon the ground of a Christian culture. It is a secularized version of Biblical apocalypse and of the Hebraic sense of a meaningful history, in contrast to the meaningless history of the Greeks.”
This contrast is crucial. Ancient peoples like the Greeks and Babylonians had a far darker view of history than Christians do. They saw humanity as controlled by fate, whose dictates could not be resisted. Greeks and Romans also had little hope of heaven. Many ancients believed that at death, human life ended. Hence the emperor Hadrian, one of Rome’s most cultivated and humane rulers, would write of his soul: “Poor ghost, my body’s friend and guest / Erewhile, thou leav’st thy home; / To what uncertain place of rest / A wanderer dost thou roam? / Pale, cold, and naked, henceforth to forgo / Thy jests among the sullen shades below.”
One of Christianity’s key contributions to Western civilization was to give men and women a sense of freedom from the whims of fate, a hope for life after death because of the victory of Jesus Christ. And over the centuries, that confidence in life beyond the grave has taken vivid form in the here and now.
THE CASTEL SANT’ANGELO IN Rome, the old papal fortress near the Vatican, is also the tomb of Hadrian. Visitors can find Hadrian’s poem about his soul on the wall. But walking eastward in Rome, the pilgrim will come to a very different meditation on death. The Capuchin Franciscans have an ordinary-looking church on the Via Veneto. But its crypt contains a series of rooms decorated with human bones—thousands of them.
The ceilings look like those of a baroque palace, except that they’re made of vertebrae. There’s a clock built of arm and finger bones. Skulls and femurs create decorative arches and columns. Through unbelieving eyes, it can easily seem ghoulish. It’s certainly a sobering encounter with our mortality. But it’s also very Franciscan. It takes death, that thing we fear most, and literally plays with it. And that couldn’t happen without a firm faith that Jesus Christ had crushed death, turning it from our ancient foe into what Saint Francis called “Sister Death,” the gateway to eternal life with God. The Capuchin bone crypt is uniquely Christian because beneath its somber appearance, it offers—for those who believe—a firm and joyful hope about what we find in Christ.
The Christian alternative to the cult of progress is not only hope, but the idea of providence. Providence is the understanding that God has a plan for each of our lives and for the whole world, and that for each of us, his plan is good. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Whereas progress might claim that history has an inevitable arc, faith in providence has confidence that the Lord of history will one day make all things right. …
Without a final vindication of right and wrong—and without a just judge to do the vindicating—we would live in a world where good and evil have no meaning.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is that just judge. He’s not only the guide of history, but its focal point.