The Problem with Progress

The Christian story, with its call to repent, is radically different to the story of progress, with its call to control. Ultimately, as Matt Anslow reflects, the two stories cannot be reconciled. 

Can the Christian story be syncretised with the notion of “progress”? After all, let’s not be naïve about progress – it is a story in and of itself that has long captured the imaginations of those of us in the West.

The problem with progress is that it is a matter of perspective; what one person considers progress, another person may consider desolation. It has always been true that whatever “progress” transpires is the kind desired by those most powerful. Progress cannot be uncoupled from issues of control.

The Problem with Progress

In the West, the language of “progress” and “progressivism” is inseparably tied to the history of modernity (stemming from 18th Century enlightenment thinking), and that to invoke it is almost invariably to invoke this story, with all its history. 

My concern is with the story with which we identify, the narrative that guides our lives. The story of progress, in which humans apparently are to build a great history for themselves, may contain elements of good, but it will always result in coercion and violence as competing stories come into conflict and the narratives of the powerful subdue those of the weak.

The Christian story is rather different. In our story it is God who is guiding the course of history, not human actors, and God’s method is anything but coercive. As William Willimon has said,

The Christian story is not about humanity gradually, but surely, going onward and upward – Progressive Christianity! – but rather about a God who descends in the darkness to rescue humanity from its downward spiralling plight. (Willimon, Undone by Easter)

Christians are never commanded to progress the world. We are, however, called to repent, a word whose Hebrew root literally means "to turn around, return". Hardly a catchphrase for progressivism.

Nor are we called to take control of history, as in the story of Babel. We are called, like Christ, to selflessly participate in God’s restorative mission in the world. This is no doubt challenging for those of us raised in the midst of Western modernity. But by understanding our Christian story, we realise that we are free to lavishly love others, even our enemies, and selflessly work for their flourishing without the need to control or form them into our own image. 

Our citizenship is in a different kingdom, and we are shaped by a different story, loyal to a different lord, seeking a different future.

Matt Anslow is TEAR Australia’s Online Education Coordinator.


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