As we observed last week’s essay (“Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?”), modern culture aims toward the twin goals of mastery of nature through science and technology and mastery of the self through persuasion, social pressure and political coercion. What goals does Christianity set before us as objects of hope and guides for action?
As a first step in answering this question, I need to deal with a misunderstanding that plagues this discussion. It is often said that on certain moral issues the general culture has been out front of the church and has embodied Christian morality in a purer form than the institutional church. Sadly, there is some truth to this charge. Churches have not always lived up to the gospel. Perhaps you have heard this idea used by Christian speakers as an argument for reform of the church. The argument derives its power from the shame in the thought that the pagans are living the gospel better than the Christians are. But we ought not thoughtlessly to give this argument more weight than it deserves. Jesus used a form of it in his parable of the dishonest, shrewd manager (Luke 16:8). Paul used a similar argument against the Corinthians who were tolerating and even celebrating an incestuous relationship among two of their own (1 Cor 5:1). In neither case, however, were the pagans commended for genuine virtue. It was precisely their lack of virtue that made the comparison effective.
In what moral sectors has the culture supposedly attained a superior morality over the church? In every case the “superior” morality has to do with the progressive liberation of individuals from “oppressive” political, social and moral structures. In no instance have I ever heard the general culture proclaimed ahead of the church in embodying the law of God, holiness or any other characteristic that limits the immediate desires of individuals or calls into question their autonomy. It’s always about liberation.
In other words, the moral areas where the culture appears to be ahead of the church—if it really is—is an accidental overlap between the trajectory of modern progress and the Christian ethic of love and individual responsibility to God. The narrow road of the gospel heads upward while the broad way of the world heads downward. At a few points they appear to intersect but in reality they do not. Such overlap is like a false cognate, a word in one language that is spelled or sounds exactly like a word in another language but with a totally different meaning. My favorite German/English false cognate is the German word “Gift.” It means not a thoughtful gesture but poison.
In analogy to the false cognate problem, consider the way the word freedom is used in the two frameworks, Christian and the secular cultures. For contemporary culture “freedom” means the absence every external thing that keeps you from doing what you please. But for Christianity “freedom” means the absence of every internal thing that keeps you from loving God and doing his will. The only thing the two uses have in common is the declaration that something is absent.
What is progress in the Christian frame of reference? Progress, as I said in last week’s post, is movement toward a goal. What is the ultimate goal toward which progress must be measured? Almost every New Testament book sets the goal before us. But I will just mention two texts. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of the mystery that God “purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:9-10). And in that great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul speaks of Christ reigning until he has subjected every enemy, even death, to himself. Christ will at that time give the kingdom to God, so that “God may be all and in all” (15:27-28). The goal of creation and world history is union with and submission to God. The means of that unification is Jesus Christ. And the space where that union is now taking place is the church, “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23).
How do you measure progress toward the redemption of creation, toward the union of heaven and earth under Christ? I have to believe such progress is possible because I believe the goal will be achieved by God’s power. But I am extremely cautious about measuring progress toward that end. Surely growth in holiness, faith and love can be considered progress. But are we in a position to make a judgment about our growth in holiness, faith or love? Wouldn’t it be spiritually dangerous to do this? God alone is the judge of such matters. And wouldn’t the same caution be warranted in other areas too?
Here we see a dramatic difference between measuring progress toward a finite worldly goal and measuring progress toward the achievement of God’s plan. And this difference may be one source of the temptation for many contemporary Christians to identify progress in liberating individuals from oppression into autonomy with movement toward the time when “God will be all and in all.” I do not think this equation is sound.
The two goals we’ve discussing represent two kinds of salvation worked by two different saviors, the one human and the other divine. Hence, as far as I can tell, “faithfulness” not “progress” is the watchword for the Christian stance in this world.