By Mark T. Clark
Anyone who has lived at least a couple of decades has witnessed technological breakthroughs that have transformed society. Many people hold the ideas of “progress” and “progressive” in high regard. Who could be opposed to making progress toward a better future? As we consider an answer, this question raises another: To what end shall we make progress?
In chapter 9 of their book, Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism, Fazale Rana and Kenneth Samples show that transhumanism holds great faith in progress. They note that transhumanism “relies on advances in technology to improve the human condition, bring an end to pain and suffering, usher in a utopian future, and even attain human immortality . . .” (p. 206). They also argue that “Transhumanism plays an eschatological role for people who embrace an atheistic, materialistic worldview.”1 But the authors also note that advances in science and technology lead to unease about the unintended consequences of such advances. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, progress can bring about both good things and bad.2
Origin of Secular Faith
Modern hope in the future and faith in progress come from nineteenth century political theories that largely remain with us today. In particular, a school of political thought called progressivism (which gave rise to our modern sense of the term) influenced American educational institutions. Progressivism is steeped in the philosophies of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, who theorized that history unfolds in certain (progressive) directions and a robust faith in science and technology will aid in that progress.3 Progressivism came to the US by way of the many Americans who studied in German universities in the nineteenth century. They brought their training back to American higher education, influencing students and future policymakers. As these progressives fanned out into American higher education, they formed various academic associations late in the century that remain the premier associations of the social sciences to this day.4
Progressive intellectuals’ impact was achieved in successive waves through the elections of three presidential administrations. The first was Woodrow Wilson; the second, Franklin Roosevelt; and the third, Lyndon Johnson. All three presidents implemented important elements of the progressive agenda that have changed the American form of government to more administrative agencies (read: bureaucracies) that cover everything from health, housing, education, social safety nets, and the like.
The newer, more radical, and postmodern form of progressivism today has emerged from the older one and differs in significant ways—though it, too, holds to a faith in progress. Modern progressivism’s most important belief is an abiding faith in history unfolding favorably in the direction of progress.
For modern progressives, the salient question is, To what end is history progressing? They affirm that historical progress has been leading toward a form of democracy to be headed by nonpolitical administrators, both here and abroad. The administrative state is to be staffed with “neutral” scientists who can solve society’s ills apart from the normal political process. At the same time, progressives hold “a pervasive distrust of private associations (family, church, business, fraternities, clubs, political parties, and lobbyists) and a corresponding confidence in the capacity of public officials to direct the lives of the people.”5
This is their eschatology (ultimate destiny of humanity), the democratization of the world through administration. As far back as 1888, for example, Woodrow Wilson asserted that the question of the best type of government (democracy) was settled by history.6 Despite setbacks during the twentieth century wars, both hot and cold, the faith (in progress) of progressives continues today. At the end of the Cold War, political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “The End of History,” the triumph of western liberalism over all other viable political systems.7 This triumph is upheld in the theory of democratic peace which arose after the Cold War, the idea that democracies do not fight other democracies.8
Thus, progressives view the democratization of the world as a worthy objective. Such a goal has led the US to promote “democracy” abroad while overthrowing or shaming authoritarian regimes. The unintended consequence of this strategy has resulted in increased resistance from illiberal (more authoritarian) regimes (e.g., China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea) and the emergence of a new nationalism throughout the world.9
Utopia or Redemption?
Perhaps progressives have too much faith in their views. Everyone should be cautious about an unrealistic hope in the future. Unbridled faith in the ability of some people to direct the progress of history toward their idea of the good can lead to unhealthy idolatry and unintended consequences.
When we think about the progressive view of the utopian future, we would do well to recall the irony in Sir Thomas More’s political thesis, Utopia (1516). In it, he compared the then-current social and economic conditions in Europe with an ideal, fictional society off the coast of the Americas. It was a useful way to highlight the appalling conditions of his time. However, More was a realist. He created the title from the Greek ou (meaning “no” or “not”) and topos (meaning “place”). Utopia literally means “nowhere.”
Christian realists do not dismiss that progress can be for the betterment of humanity, but we also caution that things can (and often do) get worse. Christianity has historically supported charities that alleviate hunger and suffering, helped the poor, provided medical relief, and defended the weak, and continues to do so today. The work of Christian missionaries in the developing world has led to the development of more stable, liberal (free) democratic societies in many of these countries.10 They brought about such changes by caring for the people they ministered to, not through regime change.
Thus, Christians can partner with some ideas of the modern progressive agenda but should be cautious about its potential for idolatry and a utopian future. Christians believe that history is unfolding in a different way; namely, it directs people at all times toward a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:24–27). The real future “good” will be the redemption of human beings from sin, a process that God must do through the work of Jesus Christ and not a political system.