A Re-Evaluation of That Profane Word ‘Progress’

By Nancy Ritter & Benjamin Kafferlin

“Progress,” “progressive,” “progressing.”

These words make many Christians a little nervous. They conjure up images of sunny idealism, blithe confidence in humanity’s abilities to create a utopia not unlike the description of Babel. To some, it implies a rejection of original sin in favor of an arrogant view of man’s capabilities—a view in which one generation says to the others: “Let us make man in our own image, in our own likeness.”

Admittedly, this anxiety is not ungrounded: those with shaky theology have often co-opted ‘progress’ in an attempt to further a specific vision or even political agenda. But it’s not an irredeemable word.

Christians can and should embrace progress—provided ‘progress’ is correctly understood. It is not progress for progress’ sake. (Indeed, progress for progress’ sake is just as foolish as tradition for tradition’s sake.) The right kind of progress is a measured, steady movement towards a fixed goal. The etymology of the word implies this: it stems from the Latin “progrendi,” pro meaning “forward,” and “grendi” meaning a step.

But what is that fixed goal? The answer varies dramatically for different people and times, and answers are just as varied within the Christian tradition. What all Christian answers share, however, is a concern with progress not just on a material level, but on a moral plane as well.

Starting in Scripture itself, Paul urged Timothy to “Be diligent in these matters [of speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity]; give yourself wholly to them so that everyone may see your progress.” During the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas argued that man’s telos, or chief end, was beatitudo, the blessed happiness that comes from knowing God fully—a knowledge that can only through with virtuous behavior. Puritan author John Bunyan dramatized moral progress through images of a physical journey in his classic allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.

In the modern era, C.S. Lewis addressed the question in his 1958 essay “Is Progress Possible?,” which is worthwhile, deep reading. For Lewis, as he summarized in Mere Christianity, “progress” means identifying the correct road, and knowing that “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road, and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” More recently, Richard John Neuhaus, founding editor of First Things, made a case for “the phenomenon known as moral progress” as distinct from “medical, economic, and technological progress.” According to him, the 20th century West has made massive strides in this regard: ending legalized segregation, ceasing to fight wars over religion, and preventing the collectivization of private property.

“But,” objects the Christian, “how can you say that meaningful progress exists when 55 million babies have been aborted in the past 40 years, or when the pornography industry thrives, and when slavery and poverty destroy millions of lives?”

Indeed. In light of these sobering facts, claims of progress can seem downright ludicrous. But admitting that our attempts at progress are feeble does not mean we must surrender the use of the word, or cease to celebrate the small steps. On the contrary, we might continue to fight for progress on both a moral and material plane. If we truly believe that Christ the incarnate Word redeems all things, including language, we can courageously use that dirty word, and apply it to ourselves and the world around us.

Knowing this, we wholeheartedly embrace the word progress. Indeed, we consider ourselves the progressives in a sense -- because we recognize that progress is both physical and spiritual, moral and material. Progress spurs us to be active on all fronts, combating physical poverty in Africa with the ONE campaign and fighting spiritual poverty by championing good, true, and beautiful art. We fight for progress, celebrate progress, and hope to redeem the word progress.

FeaturedMark Rodgers