Tag Archives: autonomy

Progress? Whose Progress? To What End?

I want to take a week or two out from the 16-part series on the “God and the Modern Self” to address an issue that is on my mind. Recently, I seem to have heard an increased use of the idea of progress to justify certain moral, social and political changes. I don’t want to take up the specific changes that are being advocated, and I don’t do politics on this blog. But I do want to consider the rhetoric of progress because it seems completely confused and confusing. After all, this blog is about “thoughtfulness in religion.”

A few days ago I heard an advocate condemn his opponents because they are “on the wrong side of history.” And quite often lately I hear people speaking of making progress or suffering regress in certain moral areas. So let’s think about progress. It should be clear that there can be no progress unless there is a goal toward which one can move closer. If I am on a road trip from Los Angeles to New York City, my arrival in Kansas City clearly marks progress. I am getting closer to the destination. In general, then, progress is movement toward a goal. We consider progress good when the goal at which it is aimed is desirable. If the end is not desirable, we don’t usually consider movement toward it positive. For example, we speak of a person’s change toward worse health as regress or decline rather than progress toward death, though, if death were desirable, we might call movement toward it “progress”.

Now it is possible for one person to consider the end toward which things seem to be moving as good whereas another person considers it bad. Hence one person’s progress can be another’s regress or decline. My point is that we use the word progress for movement toward an end, and judgment about the quality of that movement depends on our judgment about the worthiness of the goal. There is nothing inherently good about “movement toward an end.” Everything depends on the nature of the end.

Since the Enlightenment, two main types of progress (“movement toward an end”) have been recognized as desirable: scientific progress and moral progress. Since the early 17th century, scientific progress has been measured by the extent of movement toward bringing nature under the control of humanity. Every scientific advance moves us closer toward complete understanding and therefore complete (or at least maximum) control. We want to subject nature to our wills and make it serve us and add to our comfort, health and happiness.

What passes for moral progress follows the same trajectory as scientific progress. Just as the goal of modern science and technology is liberation of human beings from servitude to the ordinary course of nature, the aim of modern moral progress is liberation of the individual from domination by political authority, oppressive social structures and divine and natural moral law. The unarticulated goal implicit in the modern understanding of moral progress is complete liberation the human self from all self-alienating forces into absolute self-determination and unfettered “pursuit of happiness”.

I emphasized the word “unarticulated” because the rhetoric of progress could not be as persuasive as it is if it stated this goal openly. Everyone knows that absolute independence is impossible for human beings, and anyone who claimed to have attained it would be dismissed as crazy. And yet total liberty and autonomy is the ideal by which all “oppressive” structures and forces are exposed and condemned as immoral and unjust.

Universal moral law, natural order or divine purposes are given no role in guiding and restraining the arbitrary, self-determining self. The reason for this exclusion is obvious. The rhetoric of progress views these guiding and restraining structures as oppressive by definition.

We can draw two conclusions at this point: (1) the modern rhetoric of progress aims at a goal impossible to attain, and (2) if it were attained, chaos, anarchy and nihilism would engulf the world. The rhetoric of progress works only so long as it hides its final goal and fails to attain it fully. How shall we judge a moral ideal that, were it attained, would destroy the world?

Allow me to point out one more contradiction in the modern idea of progress. As persuasive as the rhetoric of progress is, it has not been able to persuade everyone. Even though its ideal is total freedom from authority and oppressive structures, it seems to have no moral objection to using social and political power to destroy its enemies and coerce the unwilling to move on to the next phase of human liberation from oppression. The means (coercion) subverts the end (freedom). And since the end can never be attained, the means, which is the exercise of coercive power, replaces the end. The end becomes a mere moral justification for the means. (On second thought, perhaps using coercive power is not inconsistent with the end. If the ideal end consists in the individual self’s exercising power over itself, it makes sense for an individual in a position to do so to use coercive power to attain even more autonomy for the self.)

Conclusion: the fundamental problem with the modern idea of progress is that it measures progress as movement toward a bad end.

Next week: Movement toward what end could be considered “progress” from the perspective of Christian faith? What is the end and what kind of means of moving toward it are consistent with the end?

God and the Modern Self: The Me-Centered Self (Part 2: Is God the Enemy?)

As Part 1 made clear, the modern way of thinking about human identity places humanity and God in a tense relationship.  If being a real person means being independent, if happiness can be achieved only by following our desires, if authentic identity must be exclusively our own creation and if freedom equals doing what we want, how does God fit into such a life? Isn’t God GOD precisely because he doesn’t “fit in” to this agenda? As the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present Creator and Ruler of the world, doesn’t God demand that we fit into God’s world and play by God’s rules?  God and humanity seem to be on a collision course.

Hence for many of our contemporaries, God looms on the horizon as a threat to human freedom, dignity and happiness. In Parts 2-4, we will consider three common ways we are tempted to deal with this threat: We either (1) defy God or (2) submit to God out of fear or desire for reward or (3) attempt to put God out of our minds. These reactions can be designated, defiance, subservience and indifference. Today let’s think about defiance.

Defiance makes sense only as refusal to do the bidding of a higher authority or a greater power. You can’t defy a weaker power or a lower authority. Defiance provokes our disapproval when the defiant person refuses a just demand by a higher authority. But it evokes our admiration when it defies an unjust power or a tyrannical authority. Perhaps the two archetypical examples of defiance are Prometheus, the mythical character from Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Bound, and the Satan character in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Prometheus defied the will of Zeus by stealing divine fire and giving it to human beings. Zeus punished Prometheus by fastening him to a mountain and sending an eagle to eat out his liver every day. (It grew back at night!) Prometheus continues to defy Zeus because he is convinced that Zeus is unjust even though he is all-powerful. To those who urge him to submit to Zeus, Prometheus replies:

Go thou and worship; fold thy hands in prayer

And be the dog that licks the foot of power

Prometheus excites our admiration because, though weak, he has justice on his side and Zeus, though strong, is in the wrong. Even in defeat Prometheus refuses to be broken. Hence he has become a symbol of human freedom and dignity, which asserts its rights even in the face of overwhelming power.

In Paradise Lost, Milton allows Satan to express defiance of God even though Milton does not think Satan is in the right. Nevertheless, Satan’s heroic defiance possesses power to stir our admiration…as long as we also accept his view of God:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable Will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

That Glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power.

As I observed above, defiance strikes us as admirable only if the power we defy is unjust. For both Prometheus and Milton’s Satan, God is an unjust, arbitrary power. Their concept of God—their theology—views God as pure will, the will to dominate. Only one can rule all. But the modern self rests its freedom, dignity and hope of happiness in its autonomy, its power of self-determination. If God is the infinite will to determine all and our happiness depends on exercising our will for self-determination, our options are limited. In our terror we may submit, or we may try to forget God and our slighted dignity by submerging ourselves in sensuality. But we may also find it difficult to suppress the urge to defy, which is rooted in our ineradicable sense of dignity.

Surely something has gone wrong! Is the modern secular culture’s understanding human freedom, dignity and hope of happiness the only (or best) way to view them? Is God really pure, arbitrary will and power? Is God the enemy of humanity? 

Questions for Discussion

 1. Expand on the concept of defiance by discussing some examples of admirable defiance and some cases of deplorable defiance.

2. Why does Prometheus’s defiance of Zeus stir our admiration? Give examples of situations that awaken your urge to defy. What are some popular cultural images of defiance?

3. How do you think the urge to defy is related to humanity’s sense of its own dignity?

4. The essay pointed out the relationships between admirable defiance and unjust authority and between deplorable defiance and just authority. Following the previous analogy, what is the relationship between admirable defiance and our true dignity and deplorable defiance and our false dignity (i.e., pride)?

5. According the essay, Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God’s essence as pure, arbitrary will. In what ways do you think their theologies are defective?

6. To anticipate an important theme of the book and this series, given how Prometheus and Milton’s Satan view God, what relationship do you see between the way we view God and the way we view ourselves?

Note: This essay can also serve as a companion to Chapter 2 of my book, God, Freedom & Human Dignity.

Next week, we will examine the attitude of subservience or “the religion of idols, hypocrites and hirelings.”