Limits to Progress


Stephen W. Hiemstra, Simple Faith

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of progress arose out of the technological euphoria of the modern era and entered theology in the nineteenth century with the euphoria over the abolition of black slave trading and ownership. The idea that progress is an inevitable and irreversible force remains, however, economically and culturally tenuous. 

While the specific reasons for economic and cultural backsliding will always be unique, the general reason to be suspicious of economic and cultural progress is that progress is a cultural artifact that changes with circumstances.

If cultural progress an historical anomaly, especially in view of the economic stagnation that many Americans face, what conditions support it?

Economic Progress

Standards of living that were rising with the increasing rationalization of different industries and regions have come to an end with the construction of the interstate highway system, national media, national banking, and the internet.  In this context, rationalization means the opening up of local markets to competition from outside firms and the destruction of the local cultures through universal education consisting of both new knowledge and indoctrination.

If science can tame the natural world and put it to work in the service of humanity, then standards of living should rise. However, diminishing returns to new investment will be reached at some point as the cost of implementing new ideas rises. From that point forward, additional growth can only come from demographic growth and technological innovation. Falling fertility rates and poor choices with respect to education and public expenditures suggests that we are not focused on making public policy choices consistent with growth.

In an environment of slower growth, social groups will compete increasingly for limited resources and opportunities—this can get nasty, as we have seen. Outside of deliberate policies to focus economic resources on the most productive investments and to maintain equal opportunities for all groups, standards of living will decline for all but favored groups able to maintain and expand their relative position. This competition makes it increasingly unlikely that everyone will share in economic progress.

Cultural Progress

The abolition of black slavery in the nineteenth century is a source of pride for many people. In my case, I am named for my great, great grandfather, Stephen DeKock, who as a young man volunteered to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. Success in abolishing slavery motivated latter efforts to expand voting rights to women and minorities, to prohibit alcohol consumption, and to extend rights more recently to homosexuals. 

A byproduct of the Civil War seldom mentioned in this context was the development of large corporate firms that supplied Northern troops and major advances in weapons of mass destruction—iron clad ships, submarines, the gatling gun, and repeating rifles. Modern warfare (war on civilians) is said to have begun with Sherman’s march to the sea in Georgia that helped starve the Confederacy into submission. These innovations helped pave the way for the United States to become a super power (the American empire) over the decades that followed and, as a consequence, fueled the economic expansion that led to the economic and social progress than we enjoy as Americans.

The abolition of black slavery is unlikely to be reversed, but slavery itself has not so much gone away as been re-defined. Many former slaves in the rural South in American became share croppers who were technically free, but caught in debt to their former masters. During much of the twentieth century, American men were involuntarily drafted in the military and forced to fight in foreign wars from the First and Second World Wars to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. For women caught up in gangs, drugs, and prostitution, a different kind of slavery exists that never really went away.

While nasty institutions like slavery, debt-enslavement, and prostitution will probably continue to exist in the shadows of society, major reversals in the number of slaves occurred during the Second World War. Nazi Germany rounded up millions of Jews, political dissidents, and undesired groups and placed them in concentration camps where many were worked to death. Japan had similar policies and the U.S. had its own internment camps. Today such camps continue in communist countries, like North Korea.

The point of raising these examples is, not to throw salt in old wounds, but to highlight the tenuous nature historically of human rights and notions like progress. If progress is a cultural artifact and can be reversed by changing circumstances, it is not inevitable or irreversible. The key question is what foundation supports these rights and progress itself?

Cultural Reversal

For those who believe in progress, the biblical support is slim because of original sin and our fallen nature both individually and collectively. The most apt metaphor for progress is found in the Book of Genesis with the story of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), but other metaphors can be found. 

Although we are created in the image of God, original sin polluted both our hearts and minds instilling in us a rebellious spirit. Cain, best known for murdering his brother Abel, started the first city mentioned in the Bible (Gen 4:8, 17). Human sin, after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, grew to the point that God destroyed most of humanity with a flood (Gen 5:5). However, starting out fresh with a new family, Noah’s, proved not to improve the faithfulness of humanity after the original sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:6). Even Jacob’s sons, the fathers of the Nation of Israel, sinned in selling their brother, Joseph, as a slave to the Egyptians (Gen 37:28). 

What should we conclude from the witness of Genesis? The idea of adding fallen human beings together in forming a community will somehow result in progress towards righteousness is not to be expected. The biblical expectation cited earlier is the Deuteronomic cycle: doing evil, angering YHWH enough to produce historical subjugation, crying to the Lord in need, and raising up a deliverer (Deut 30; Brueggemann 2016, 59). This is not an endorsement of cultural progress, but rather of divine intervention in spite of the proclivity of human beings to sin.

From my earlier model of culture, reversal of progress is expected when any culture comes under stress. The dying culture then takes on more attributes of a traditional culture. These reversals normally occur on the outbreak of war or during economic crises. However, large corporations that now dominate markets throughout the world frequently have traditional cultures that profoundly influence their employees from morning to night. Democratic rights such as free speech are routinely denied corporate employees and even legislatively mandated employee rights, such as unionization rights and whistler-blower protections, are dead-letter for employees unable to afford legal counsel. Consequently, the inevitable, irreversible cultural progress is not expected and the progress that we have witnessed should be seen as a gift from God, not a natural right.

Christian Foundations

The only glimmer of hope cited in the Bible is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that led to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the church (Act 2:1-4). Yet, outside of faith even the church is a fallen institution as we read in the first three chapters of Revelation.

The warning in Revelation of special concern to the postmodern church is the letter to the church at Laodicea. John writes:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.” (Rev 3:15-17)

We could imagine the postmodern church sharing in tribulations similar to those articulated in Deuteronomic cycle that applied earlier to the Nation of Israel. More generally, Revelation talks about a great tribulation (Rev 7:14) that will occur before the second coming of Christ. This tribulation has all the markings of a reversal of cultural progress and should serve as a reminder that our only hope is in Christ.

Limits To Progress

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

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