Progress: what is it and is it possible?

Children in carI’m doing a series of four talks on progress at St Brides Liverpool. The first was last Sunday. This is an edited version of the text. At the end there are questions for discussion, because this is what we do at St Brides.

The other three talks will be about the main ideas of progress today (mainly new technologies and economic growth); alternative theories of progress and the growth of scepticism; and finally how the Christian tradition can offer a positive account of it. Further details are in my new book Why Progressives Need God.

Progress means change for the better. We all have times when things seem to be getting better, for now, for us, but things are getting worse for other people and may later get worse for us. The big question is: could the future be better for everyone? Do we have good reason to hope for a better future all round?


It depends on your worldview, the basic assumptions about reality that most of us never think about. To illustrate how different they can be I’ll summarise Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

Aeschylus was a tragic poet writing in Athens in the 5th century BC. His play tells a traditional story. King Agamemnon has got his fleet together, he’s ready to sail across the sea to attack Troy and recapture Helen. He has to wait because there is a storm at sea. Why is there a storm at sea? Ask the priests. Answer: the goddess Artemis is causing the storm, and it isn’t going to stop until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter. So he does. The storm stops, he sails off to Troy and comes home victorious. Meanwhile his wife hasn’t forgiven him for killing their daughter. She kills him. They also had a son, who then gets his revenge by killing his mother.

This is a classic Athenian tragedy. Because of what the gods are like, one disaster leads to another.

It’s too easy for us to dismiss it as the superstition of an ignorant age. It is more significant than that. I do wish that goddess Artemis had been in the House of Commons that day when they voted to send the bombers to Syria. You may remember that day, when the media’s attention focused on Jeremy Corbyn opposing the bombing and Hilary Benn supporting it. Suppose Artemis had said to them what she said to Agamemnon: ‘Okay, you can vote to drop bombs on Syrian families and their children, but before you do you have to drop a bomb on one of your own children’. It would have helped them concentrate their minds.

Still, if the world was governed by gods like that, obviously there would be no possibility of long-term progress. Everything would depend on what mood the gods were in. When somebody offends them they get angry and there is tragedy; when everybody manages not to offend them, everything stays the same. It was a conservative attitude to life on earth.

From conservative to progressive

Going further back in time, our hunter-gatherer ancestors were equally conservative. They knew the forces of nature provided for them, but also sometimes threatened them. They did whatever they thought would keep the system going but without the bad bits. Change meant danger.

After they invented agriculture, things changed. Populations went up. In city life, most threats don’t come from the forces of nature. They come from other people: the government, the boss, the local burglar. So they conceived of the gods as different personalities, still maintaining the world but primarily related to each other, quarrelling with each other, having affairs with each other, like our soap operas. The ancient Greek gods, like Artemis, were like that.

Attitudes changed with what scholars call the ‘Axial Age’. The Axial Age was from around 800 to 300 BC.

The changes took place independently in four parts of the world: China, India, Judea and Greece. Individuals rejected the values of their own society, offered an alternative and gained a following.

This was the age of Confucius, Buddha, the prophets of Israel, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and probably Zoroaster.

Their messages had universal scope; they weren’t just concerned about their own society. They considered human life unsatisfactory and looked for something better.

There were three kinds of message. All three messages were promoted by early Christians.

The inner turn

One was to turn inwards. Turn your attention away from the big bad world, focus on inner peace.

This can be very individualistic: me and my private spirituality, ignoring everyone else. It can also be very dualistic: the physical world is evil, the spirit within is where redemption is to be found.

Among early Christians we get it in the Gospel of Thomas, which never made it into the Bible, and many Gnostic sects. Because the world is so evil it must have been made by evil or stupid gods. Gnostics appealed to some biblical texts in Paul and John.


The second kind of message was that the end is nigh. Soon there will be a sudden change and everything will be completely different. This has happened many times in history. When a culture feels things are getting worse, they may think: surely this won’t be allowed to carry on. Surely the gods will intervene to put a stop to it. Mark, the first person to write a gospel about Jesus, seems to have believed God was about to establish a new age on earth and abolish death, illness and sin.

Earthly progress

The third kind of message was to expect gradual progress through history. This makes better sense for people who believe the world is maintained by consistent forces that just go on and on without change. It developed first with the idea that there is just one god, who doesn’t make mistakes and is not threatened by other gods. So God’s plan, whatever it is, is going to carry on. If we are to hope for a better future, there must be a God-given way to live better.

Jesus and progress

Over the last forty years New Testament scholars have increasingly believed that the teaching of Jesus was of this type.

One of the main reasons is that Jesus was crucified. This shows that the Romans saw him as a political threat.

The logic is: if you believe in the inner turn you aren’t going to threaten anyone. If you believe the end is nigh, you just wait for it. Governments can ignore people like that. But if you believe in progress through history, you’ll get your hands dirty with political campaigning and demands for justice.

If this is what Jesus did – and these days many New Testament scholars think he did – it would explain why the Romans saw him as a threat.

The modern idea of progress has its historical roots in this movement. However, medieval Christianity largely abandoned it. Secular theory maintained it but took God out of it. I’ll describe these changes over the next two weeks.

For now, here are three core characteristics of the God-based idea of progress.

Good world with potential for improvement

First, a good world with potential for improvement. If it isn’t created good in the first place, we’re back to the world of Artemis and Agamemnon. Life is inevitably tragic. If there is no room for improvement, this is as good as it gets.

Unity of humanity

Second, the unity of humanity. We are all created by the same god and loved equally. Foreigners are God’s children, created to be blessed just like us. Progress is about a better world for all of us, not just us at the expense of other people.

Linear time

Third, linear time. The world order is going to carry on. It is not going to be interrupted. We take this for granted today. Modern science depends on it. It comes from the belief in a single god.

The content of progress

From this point of view the content of progress is spiritual and ethical. It’s about using our freedom to become more like the way God has designed us to live at our best.


1. What does progress mean to you? Do you want it?

2. When everything is going wrong, do you turn inward, hope for sudden change, or work towards long-term solutions?

3. Do you find it easier to believe in God when things are going well, or badly?

This entry was posted in Society, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Progress: what is it and is it possible?

  1. grandi grump says:

    1. Progress to me means the equalisation with all peoples that inhabit this planet. It would be unthinkable to say that we had reached the perfection until this had been achieved. Yes, I do try in my small way to share what I believe in whilst listening to and evaluating the benifiets of others opinion. I would like this to continue until a more equal attitude is shared by the whole world. it dosent have to be the same just equal.
    2. I think that the only inner turning and careful nurturing of ourselves to be the best we can be, can be beneficial to world equality. Remember, I did not say that everything need be the same, for in this striving to convert peoples into your type of world cognition, you may be acusesed of domination, and this will lead to actual or perceived inequality. Long term agreement and so long term solution can only come when their is equality.
    3. I do not find it easy to believe in any GOD, immaterial whether things are going well or not. I believe in PEOPLE, for they are the ones that will help us all achieve our own enlightenment on this earth or they will be the masters of our demise, when we accept our differences but look to equality in all things we can make our changes in the light of the world instead of struggling to overcome others in the shadows.

  2. This is the one I trusted completely, Jonathan:

    ‘Second, the unity of humanity. We are all created by the same god and loved equally. Foreigners are God’s children, created to be blessed just like us. Progress is about a better world for all of us, not just us at the expense of other people.’

    We were probably very smug: Pacifists all, we were quite sure that no wars would happen under our watch. Our humanism is stronger than our parents’ was: We don’t tell jokes at the expense of a race or ethnic group not our own, we condemn militarism, we travel far and wide, being cultural relativists who seek to know and appreciate, not to denigrate. We have our John Rawls social philosophy, the needs-based approach, so we understand basics such as that the entitlement to medicine is ill heath, and we know that distributive justice is the basis of the fair and just society. We live in democratic societies, and we enjoy human rights that guarantee our liberty and freedom of speech that entitles us to air our views. (‘I hate what you say,’ we intone, ‘but I shall defend to the death your right to say it’.) Truly, ours is the progressed society. We are really getting there.

    The shock that came was sudden, radical and dizzying:

    Thatcherism (‘there is no such thing as society’) happened, closely followed by hard drugs, globalism, and war after war that destroyed states and wiped out societies, and unleashed the invasion of Europe by the Third World. John Rawls is history now. Today’s orthodoxies are in the proscription of HOLOCAUST DENIAL, ANTISEMITISM, RACISM, HATE SPEECH. Pretty much all developed countries have in place laws that will see you imprisoned if you offend against these orthodoxies. Short of imprisonment, you will see your career or business scarpered, your livelihood destroyed, and your reputation shredded. Anyone who is interested in personal histories that prove this, look up: Nick Kollerstrom (UK), Jurgen Graf (Switzerland), Horst Mahler (Germany), Germar Rudolf (Germany), Ernst Zundel (Canada), Fredrick Toben (Australia and Germany), Norman Finkelstein (US), and Robert Faurisson (France).

    And it gets worse: Our world leaders have lied damnably to us. Not only our parents missed that terrible fact, but so did we. Many of us now know that the new orthodoxy is ‘left is good; all else is fascism and is to be stamped out’. All the people named above have written their protests, and all are suffering the consequences. Gerard Menuhin, son of the world-renown, late great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, has given us a comprehensive account of all this, detailing the world leaders’ lies since 1945, the stark events that were kept secret from us, the tragedies that unfolded and are still unfolding – the whole bang unconscionable, dirty lot: Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil, 2016, Castle Hill Publishers, UK.

    But why, the rational person must ask, would our leaders have lied to us so damnably? Because they are in pursuit of the World Government that is to enslave us, that’s why. And why would they want to do that? Try this for size: They are preparing to usher in the Antichrist who will bring on the Tribulation and prevent the return of Jesus Christ. Garbage? Well, try reading Zenith 2016, by Thomas Horn. I just have, and I’m pretty scared.

    So Jonathan, I’m sorry, but I conclude that progress is not possible. I have seen a rolling back of good progress in my own lifetime, and the rolling out of a pretty ugly regression. Can that be reversed? People who have tried (some prominent among them are listed above) are suffering badly. Do we encourage our children to join their ranks? Could a parent do that? No. But the alternative is? I so hope for your better judgment.

Comments are closed.