This gets into lots of interesting and fun discussions. Does “progress” actually exist? Can we recognize it when it does? How does that relate to the Christian narrative? How do we know when something is progress and when something is regress?
It’s hard to argue against a notion of progress from within a Christian worldview. In the Reformed camp we’ve long held to a belief in “progressive revelation” that God through time reveals himself more fully in Jesus Christ than he did in the Old Testament law for example. In my work through the book of Revelation it’s clear that God moves history towards a climax. Given this, however, it isn’t always easy to pick out trends. Many Christians assume history will deteriorate before the climax, others see more of a gentle slope up, others assert a more steady state or agnostic assumption. Our culture is mixed on the subject in imagining often because of technology that improvement will continue while at other times when some atrocity happens we utter phrases like “now-a-days…”
When it comes to social history many in our society are clear professors of progress. The big examples are slaves, race, women and gays. It’s simply so obvious anyone who doesn’t see it is having moral or psychological failure. Attached to it are a variety of other social obviousnesses surrounding divorce, abortion, substance abuse, gender roles, etc.
When we deconstruct religions and superstitions one of the things we immediately target is a selective approach to the data. I suspect our myth of progress (I’m using myth here as worldview, not in the pejorative sense) despite its compelling popularity might suffer from some of this weakness as well. One of the largest ones being that the myth relies upon a naked assertion about the future that is just as dogmatic as any religion’s naked assertions including Christianity.
Let’s begin win an easy one, slavery. The narrative states that slavery was abolished throughout most of the (enlightened) world (one assumption has already crept in) during the 19th century abolitionist movement and that we’ve gone beyond all that. We know that some slavery still exists in African and Muslim nations and in other places “less advanced and enlightened” but for the most part we as a species have grown beyond the idea that we can own another person and use them for our economic and personal benefit and pleasure. Or have we? It doesn’t take too much historical observation to recognize that African-race based colonial slavery, especially as it came to be practiced in the American south was not exactly the same as traditional slavery that had been practiced nearly everywhere around the world. If your people or village was conquered (read the Old Testament for example) you and your people could very well become slaves, not by virtue of your race but by virtue of your political/ethnic/military condition. In Roman times one could simply become a slave by virtue of debt. Slaves were not necessarily uneducated field workers but could be trusted, learned and skilled managers and stewards empowered with significant responsibility and given great respect and value.
The motivation behind abolition in the American experience was hardly monolithic. California for example was a free state not because the enlightened people of the Golden State were charitable towards the descendents of those stolen from Africa, but because they saw the ownership of free labor an unfair competitive advantage of 49ers coming to harvest gold from the South. Also many in the North saw slaves as a threat to income levels as the nation continued to industrialize. Others now also look back and note that it could be economically advantageous to pay wages to factory workers that could be fired when hurt, maimed or disabled on the job rather than having to extend towards a person the broader responsibility and cost of housing, feeding and clothing that investment in a slave required. In fact many argue that if it had not been for the invention of the cotton gin that slavery (as some imagine the founding father’s assumed) would have died out for economic reasons because cotton was costly to process by hand. Does our assumption of progress with regard to slavery require some identification in the definition of the term where the progress is only seen if you keep the definition narrow?
Today in fact we see once again a revival of the term now applied to a variety of social situations. We regularly see news reports of “slavery” in the sex trade. We see the word pop up when nothing practices of child domestic help common in places like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, India, China and sometimes new stories of these practices being transplanted here to North America. We see economic practices of debt and labor that imprison people. We might say “oh but it isn’t generational”. I’m not so sure. The left has long noted that even those who were emancipated in the 19th century have suffered generational bondage and disadvantage even decades past Jim Crow. We may have abolished what we called “slavery” but have the mechanisms by which we trap, own and use others for our own economic, sexual and personal benefit and pleasure really ceased? Will it in fact ever cease in this world?
What about race? We imagine that our culture has “moved beyond” bias with regard to race. We strive to no longer discriminate on the basis of skin color. I certainly don’t want to say that we haven’t made “progress” in this area but I wonder again, as with slavery, how much progress we have made or are we just playing games with categories. Our view of ourselves is greatly impacted by the history of race based slavery but if you pull the camera back and look at more of world history you’ll see that as a species we’ve been incredibly adaptive at grouping people in different ways based on culture or kinship often based on competition and rivalry. In the patchwork of “white” Europe class developed, as it did in India with notions of caste. Today we group up based on politics, culture, religion, economics and in fact embracing the seemingly progressed notions of “enlightened” people and cultures and nations, those no longer bound to prejudice and ignorance we in fact simply change the language to classify some as better performers on whatever moral, religious, worldview or cultural scale than others. Whether its liberals or fundamentalists or haters or rainbow people our ability to group to prefer has not diminished. Will it every? Can it ever? When Jesus says “the meek will inherit the earth” he is grouping to prefer. It may not be skin color, but I’m frankly not sure skin color has always been such a big deal in every place and every time in world history. That frankly is our filter from our context that we celebrate we’ve overcome but of course frowning on those who have not joined us in that great crusade. We despise Hitler’s embrace of eugenics but fail to realize that we substituted out “genetic” selection for educational, social, cultural and religious. The nasty truth is that if you picked a partner based on beauty, size, strength, healthful appearance, symmetry of features as all the discovery programs say we do for our selection of mating process then we’ve got a nasty bit of eugenics based bias built into us all.
What about women? Certainly the suffrage movement is significant but really only in terms of the development of representative democracy. Hillary Clinton’s cheer inducing line about millions of cracks in that glass ceiling really only refers to one small segment of world governance called modern representative democracy. If Hillary had won would her power have really rivaled the power wielded by the queens of England or Egypt? The myth of progress narrative says that now only powered by our system of enlightened ideas ending bias and discrimination can women truly achieve their potential by climbing to the heights of wealth and power like never before. That only works if “never before” is given a pretty brief definition. A not too difficult survey of history will of course show that women have been disadvantaged time and time again throughout history, but that in fact they have also and often risen to the heights of power and wealth throughout history. If you select for all kinds of other aspects of humanity you can in fact find just about every grouping of people have been disadvantaged. I’m not saying its all fair and even, just present.
When it comes to place in the church of course there is no doubt that men have held predominance in positions of power throughout its history. There have also been women who have played prominent roles in nearly every aspect of leadership especially if you recognize “Junia” from Romans 16:7 as a female apostle. Again, I’m not saying that bias against women has not existed in the church, what I am saying is that this narrative of progress that is professed requires its own set of selectivity with regards to the data to maintain.
All of this is to say that the question of progress for me is a tricky one. For me it is easy to see that the issues involved in slavery, racial bias, and gender bias have been with human civilization and with the church from the beginning. These are hard wired into us by our sinful natures and they manifest themselves in varying ways and with varying labels throughout human history. I’d assert in fact that all of them are likely a function of our competitive contexts where we seek to advantage ourselves at the expense of anyone else we can for our own preservation, advancement and pleasure.