The Myth of Progress

A friend recently lent me Tom Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” after a discussion about the second coming. A good read for a biblical understanding of heaven/the afterlife/the christian biblical hope of resurrection and the new heaven and the new earth.

Must admit I got sidetracked by the bishop’s comments on what he calls “The Myth of Progress”.

He defines it as:

“The idea that the human project, and indeed the cosmic project, could and would continue to grow and develop, producing unlimited human improvement and marching towards a Utopia, goes back to the Renaissance and was given its decisive push by the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment.

The full flowering of this belief took place in Europe in the nineteenth century, when the combination of scientific and economic advances on the one hand, and democratic freedoms and wider education on the other, produced a strong sense that history was accelerating towards a wonderful goal.

El Dorado was just round the corner, the millennium in which the world would live at peace. Prosperity would spread out from enlightened Europe and America, and embrace the world.

…liberal modernism has supposed that the world can become everything we could want it to be by working a bit harder [and better education] and helping forward the great march into the glorious future.” (pg 94-95)

“The real problem with the myth of progress is, as I just hinted, is that it cannot deal with evil. …..It cannot develop a strategy which addresses the severe problems of evil in the world. This is why all the evolutionary optimism of the last two hundred years remains helpless before world war, drug crime, Auschwitz, apartheid, child pornography and the other interesting sidelines that evolution has thrown up for our entertainment in the twentieth century.

We not only can’t explain them, given the myth of progress; we can’t eradicate them. Marx’s own agenda, not to explain the world but to change it, remains unfulfilled.” (pg 97)

“There is no observable reason, in science, philosophy, art or anywhere else to suppose that if we simply plough ahead with the Enlightenment dream these glitches will be ironed out and we’ll get to Utopia eventually.” (pg 98)

Where to from here?

The Bishop implies something like the purpose of politics is  to recognise and contain human destructiveness.  Utopia (through man’s efforts) ain’t gonna happen.

The biggest argument of his book ( I think. I must admit I haven’t read it cover to cover – the table of contents is so good it’s easy to skip to the bits you’re interested in) is that it is God that will act to bring in the new creation: a new heaven and a new earth.  He claims this is the biblical hope.  And I think he has a point.

In the meantime, we work  for the Kingdom of God. We do not bring it about. Subtle but important distinction? Raises ye old faith vs works false dichotomy?


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