The Story of the West: I – The Idea of Progress

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2006

We all live today in a climate of crisis. For us Catholics there is a particular crisis in our own church in Ireland, in Europe and North America (‘the West’) – raising deep questions about its future in this part of the world.

And our internal Irish and western Catholic crisis is being exploited by those who believe that all religion is a barrier to progress. Only irreligious secularism, they believe – a total focus on the here-and-now and a rejection of any idea of God – has any future.

But secularism now has its own deep crisis. The original secularists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century never foresaw problems like global warming or global terrorism or mass addiction or the use of automatic weapons by teenagers in schools.

Thoughtful secularists are aware of this crisis of secularism. Perceiving a decline in community values throughout the west they now ask where such values come from, and how they are to be communicated to younger generations. Paradoxically, they often find that Church schools seem to be most effective in this regard. This leads some to look for dialogue and a fruitful relationship with the churches.

This series of articles will argue that a fruitful dialogue can indeed take place between Christianity and secularism. There are key attitudes we share – and one of these is a belief (despite the present crisis) in the possibility of human progress. Because we often understand the term very differently we need urgently to discuss what we mean by ‘progress’ – but to do this fruitfully we need to understand where that idea comes from in the first place.

The story of the West – the societies fringing the North Atlantic – is a story of unprecedented progress – an economic, scientific and technical progress that has precipitated the great global environmental and human crisis of our own time. If we are to deal together with that crisis we need to reach a common understanding of where that idea of progress comes from, and what it must mean for all of us today.

Progress and the Ancient World

We all tend to simplify the past – to bend it into a simple narrative or story that we can carry about in our heads as easily as possible.

Jesus Christ and Christianity are central to that story for us Catholics. Our map of the past will often tend to emphasise the violence and brutality of the ancient world, the goodness of Christ, and the relative peacefulness of Christian Europe before the extraordinary violence of modern times. We will tend to locate the origins of our present world crisis in the decline of Christian faith in recent centuries. Our hope for the future will be very much bound up with our hope for a revival of that faith.

The secularist map of the past will be very different. It will tend to emphasise the importance of reason and science in history. It will tend to credit the ancient Greeks with laying the foundation for a victory of reason and science over faith. It will blame Christianity for the Inquisition and other intolerances of the Middle Ages, and even for the aggressiveness of the Bush administration in Iraq. It will credit the secular ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century with restoring the importance of reason and with advancing the scientific and technological revolutions of our own time. It will place all of its hope for the future in reason and science also.

When John Paul II clashed in his last years with those drawing up a constitution for European Union, he held in his head the Christian map of the history of the West. Those who refused to include any mention of God or Christianity in that constitution had in their heads this second secularist map. These two clashing views of the past couldn’t agree.

But there is nevertheless a core shared idea in both maps, both ‘stories’ of the past – the idea of progress itself. Westerners all tend to believe, or want to believe, that history is going somewhere, not simply repeating itself endlessly.

What Christians need to be aware of is that the more positive aspects of the story of the west do indeed have to do with a victory of reason (however incomplete).

What secularists need to be aware of is that the idea of progress itself did not come from the ancient Greeks, or from any ancient civilisation, but from the people of Jesus – the Jews – and from Jesus himself.

Not even the most advanced of the ancient Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed in progress. They held that even though there might be temporary improvement in the technology or prosperity of a society over short periods, everything happened in cycles. Decay would inevitably follow any temporary improvement, and nothing dramatically new or different could ever happen. History was essentially cyclical, not progressive. No ancient Greek predicted the modern world or the scientific and technical revolutions that produced it.

The intelligentsia of Ancient China were more secular than religious, but believed essentially the same thing – that the wisdom of the ancients would never be improved upon. So China never developed a belief in progress, or in a progressive science, until awoken by the West in modern times.

Abraham had an entirely different vision of the future – of his descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and of God being with this people throughout their history. Moses and Jesus shared that vision – and it permeates the whole of the Bible.

The idea that history is essentially linear – moving towards a destination – and not cyclical (endlessly repeating itself) – comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. So does the essentially hopeful element in that worldview – that there can be a ‘New Creation‘. St Paul centred his belief in a ‘New Creation’ upon the redeeming life of Christ.

Christians need to know this because all beliefs we share with secularists are a starting-point for discussion. Our idea of progress must always, of course, be centred on the primacy of our relationship with Christ. We must continue to question a notion of progress that is entirely material and external – focused upon technology and science.

And we should notice something else: many entirely secular people today are now focused upon something that isn’t completely material either: self-improvement. As the crisis of secularism grows, self-improvement literature has almost taken over from Christian literature in our secular bookstores. Books such as The Power of Positive ThinkingThe Road Less Travelled and The Power of Now are often avidly read by the most secularised modern people. The best of this literature can be a pathway away from materialism and into a worldview that Christians can agree with – especially the realisation that wisdom is more important than knowledge.

True, St Augustine would probably say that much of today’s secular self-improvement literature is ‘Pelagian’ – that is, that it exaggerates our power to improve ourselves without God’s grace, which we cannot control or acquire simply by willing it. Christians will never forget their need for relationship with God, from whom all grace flows. We can also take the opportunity to point out that the problem of addiction in modern culture tends to support this point of view.

Addiction is now as pervasive a part of our modern crisis as technology. And the most universally attested method of self-help for every kind of addiction is the ‘Twelve Step’ process. And the first of the twelve steps, the step that every addict is advised to repeat every day – is an acknowledgement of his own inability to control his addiction. The second flows from it: the decision to commit himself to the care and support of a ‘higher power’.

The most strident secularists – apparently committed to driving Christian faith back into the catacombs – seem not to have noticed this. The Twelve Step process, originated by two US Baptists in the 1930s, is the most powerful evidence in the western world today of our deep-seated need to be in relationship with a power outside ourselves – a power that wishes us well, that seeks to enlighten us, and that does not desert us even when we flee from it.

For, co-operating with that power, there is indeed such a thing as progress, and technological progress is part of it. But personal progress must always take priority, and personal progress can only take place in relationship.

And the amassing of material wealth – the origin of today’s environmental and human crisis – is merely another form of addiction. Many honest secularists are recognising this as well.

So, the key to the future lies indeed in clinging to a belief in progress, despite all current difficulties. And the concerns of Christians are now beginning to converge with the concerns of thoughtful secularists – especially the concern to pass on a viable shared sense of values to rising generations.

Progress is therefore indeed a Christian idea – but Christians must not be triumphalist about this, or about anything else. The irony is that in unconsciously adopting Christian ideas, secular culture has often employed them more effectively than the churches themselves. This series of articles will examine this cross-fertilisation of ideas, and outline a possible future based upon the translation of the Christian ideas of redemption and salvation into terminology that secularists will be able to make sense of, without distorting their meaning.

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