Christians and progress

In the Christian view of things, experience both personal and social is cruciform; it is the way of the cross. At the same time, the cross is not the final word. There is resurrection, and it is both resurrection in history and resurrection of history. It is first the resurrection of the history of Jesus – and that is the foretaste, or preview, or promise of the resurrection of all things. That is surely the import of St. Paul’s great cosmic hymns in, for instance, the first chapters of Ephesians and Colossians. To the Ephesians Paul writes, “For [God] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This vision is inseparable from an emphatically Jewish understanding of the Messianic Age. The chief difference between Jews and Christians is over if, or in what way, that Messianic Age is anticipated in the person of Jesus whom Christians call the Christ. For both Christians and Jews, past and present time participate in what Paul calls “the fullness of time.” In the call of Abraham, the election of Israel, the promises given through the prophets, and (for Christians) the coming of the Christ, the plan of history is being fulfilled. Jews disagree with Jews and Christians disagree with Christians over the eschatological scenarios and apocalyptic details by which “the fullness of time” will be achieved, but all are agreed that history is not, in the words of the cynic, just one damn thing after another; history will be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. [Reinhold] Niebuhr is undoubtedly right to say that “history is not its own redeemer.” But the biblical view – a view that is utterly formative for Western culture in both its religious and secular expressions – is that history does have a Redeemer, and that the Redeemer is, however veiled and sometimes hidden, present and active in history itself. . . .

This is surely an audacious vision, but is it a doctrine of progress? The answer is no and yes. If by progress we mean a smooth, incremental, and almost automatic movement in time from worse to better, from ignorance to enlightenment, the answer is certainly no. If, however, by progress we mean that human beings are free agents who are capable of participating in the transcendent purpose that is immanent in history and holds the certain promise of vindicating all that is true, good, and beautiful, then the answer is certainly yes.