The Question of Progress

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.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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5 Responses to The Question of Progress

  1. paulvk says:

    On CRC Voices (where I often post my blog stuff for discussion) the issue of acceptance of same sex relationships on a par with traditional marriage came up. The question I was wrestling with in the piece is whether church acceptance of gay marriage is of a kind with church abolition of slavery and church acceptance of women in office. Ironically this is where the pro-gay-marriage side agrees with the anti-WICO side. Both link these two movements together, one welcomes it as progress, the other rejects it as devolution. I don’t think there is any doubt that culturally they are seen as a pair. I wonder, however, how much of that is in fact a bias created by the myth of progress or a myth of devolution.

    As I said before the side that promotes equal acceptance of gay marriage within the church would have an easier time of it if the historical record were more varied, as it is on the subject of women’s leadership in the church. Granted, there have been varied practical, cultural and formal prohibitions on women’s formal service in church leadership in many places and times, but there is also a well established record of women doing just about everything men have done in the church throughout the history of the church and them do so fruitfully.

    The same can’t be said of a record of acceptance of gay marriage within the church. We don’t examples of other church communities within the history of the church where acceptance of gay partnerships have been accepted with a full diversity of other theological positions and options within the church. Again, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a first, but it does in my opinion give weight to the question of whether acceptance of gay marriage is simply an element of the cultural package of our time, rather than a universal minority legitimate Christian option for social arrangements.

    As I said in my piece before if I saw equal acceptance of gay partnerships distributed among a variety of communities with an economy of cultural and theological positions it would add strength to the assertion that gay partnerships are simply another valid option, but we don’t find that. At this point we find the embrace of gay partnerships to be almost exclusively within one package of cultural and theological assertions. Again, this isn’t a defeater argument. Someone always has to be first and the same could be said in the NT church of the removal of circumcision as a requirement for baptism, but given the church’s 2000 year run now one would imagine we would have seen this before.

    We could argue that that this is a new thing brought to us by God. Again, I would feel better about this if it wasn’t surrounded by a lot of other new things that tend to follow the same culturally pantheistic track. pvk

  2. paulvk says:

    Those who wish to advocate for the acceptance of same-sex-sexual partnerships to marriage seem to go two ways:

    1. The Bible isn’t authoritative or knowable in any serious way on this matter so what it says on the subject is irrelevant. We argue for the embrace of this practice from other bases.

    2. The Bible has been read a particular way throughout church history but we believe the church has been in error on the subject. The texts that describe all homosexual sexual activity as sin were not addressing sexual activity within a monogamous commitment therefore the prohibition against same-sex partnerships ought to be set aside, but this does not really change any of the traditional teachings of Christianity on other subjects.

    I can’t accept #1 for numerous reasons. Those who do embrace it are coming at the matter from a very different perspective than I am and our difference of opinion on the subject is therefore very understandable. Our difference is similar to the difference between myself and a Muslim for example. We had different bases for understanding the world.

    My point in the piece was that if you want to argue for #2, you would in fact expect the rest of Christian doctrine to remain undisturbed. The church could simply revise its understanding of this one particular piece of sexual ethics (if that is possible) (as some might assert has happened in the area of divorce and remarriage) and simply move forward with life. My argument is that if this were the case we might expect to see a number of things:
    a. other examples within Christian history of Christian communities setting aside restrictions on homosexual couples.
    b. A diversity of other doctrinal positions often found within diverse Christian traditions. IOW conservatives who embrace this positions and liberals, adult vs. children’s baptism, all kinds of other things.

    What we find, at least so far, is that the vast majority of those who embrace acceptance of same sex couples as equal to heterosexual couples also tend to have other common theological habits as well.

    Now it is still early in the movement so one could argue that diversity will eventually follow, that we’ll find Anglicans who believe this and southern Baptists, and Roman Catholics and Pentecostals and they will all be pretty much identical to others within their traditions EXCEPT for their position on this subject. AND the position won’t be easily understandable via one particular individual experience, IOW there will be a sub-community within a diversity of traditions that will embrace this.

    I also see that there are a number of other weaknesses and vulnerabilities to this argument on a few fronts, but I had never heard this argument put forward before, so I thought I’d put it out there.

  3. paulvk says:

    There are obviously more arguments.

    Lew Smedes of course sees gay marriage as “the best we can do for a hard situation” along the lines of divorce and remarriage.

    All of this arose out of the Anglican church discussion and liberalism being death to the churches. If you embrace gay marriage within the church AND you wish to use the Bible as something more than a collection of texts that have some liturgical value for emotional therapy you’ve got to wrestle with the data. Same is true for WICO of course.

    Right now there is a tendency to say “well we could understand away the prohibition on WICO can’t we simply do the same with the gay texts?” Conservatives say “yep, that’s what you did and now you’re sliding down that slippery slope. We told you so.” Liberals say “the whole project of using the Bible in this way is a fool’s errand.” Once you’re there how much of a church have you left?

    Unless we can hear the Bible’s “no” we have difficulty knowing that we are hearing anything at all through it besides the workings of our own desires.

  4. paulvk says:

    Like I said before I like it when Bill gets feisty because good things happen.

    What you’ve stated well is of course the experience that is driving this massive re-evaluation of the subject. What the traditional church position asks/requires of gay people seems so incredibly disproportionate when there is such a clear and obvious solution available. Simply accept gay partnerships as dynamic equivalences to heterosexual partnerships. It’s a no brainer and anyone who can’t accept this is being stupid or cruel.

    The power of this is overwhelming. When I look at the gay and lesbian singles, couples and families I know I have absolutely no interest in telling them how to run their lives. I have no interest in erecting barricades and roadblocks in pursuing whatever it is that they want to pursue. I would not welcome anyone doing that kind of thing to me.

    So what’s the big fuss? Why don’t I simply join the chorus of all the politicians around me and many of the Episcopal and other mainline denominations in calling the traditional position of the church bigotry and be done with it. Then I can stop feeling like a jerk every time one of my neighbors or friends is reminded that I am a pastor of one of THOSE KIND of churches that maintains bigotry against GLBT people. I’m one of those knuckle dragging Neanderthals who want to take rights away from kind and good people who are simply asking to live their lives, seek love, raise a family, leave an inheritance, contribute to the community, etc. I wince when I hear the words “prop 8” because I’m lumped in with haters, fundamentalists, Mormons and white supremacists. Trust me when I say that where I live all the “cool people” are one side of the issue and they’re not amused if they wander over to the CRC website to discover our position on the subject.

    So what’s stopping me? A generation ago my parents were on the CRC “vanguard” of equal rights for women in the church. I grew up in a racial reconciliation church long before “diversity” was the established priority of the denomination. Why shouldn’t I make this struggle my fight? Everyone says that 50 years from now this will be settled and just like how many in the past on the wrong side of the race or women’s issue look terribly will I want to have all my Voices e-mails dragged up and paraded about demonstrating that Paul Vander Klay was unenlightened, late to the game, bigoted of heart, lacking the common sense to quickly join the obviously winning side? Did Paul lack moral courage to buck the natural conservatism of his church and embrace the obvious and just revision and reform? Who wants to be the George Wallace of the CRC?

    Maybe my grandchildren will lovingly chuckle about the silly convictions of their grandfather the way we sometimes chuckle about views held by our grandparents. “Oh they meant well and were good hearted but they just didn’t have the life experience to come to the proper conclusions regarding __________.”

    There continues to be a number of factors that give me pause on this subject, some of which I’ve already brought up in this thread and others.

    The Jane Eyre piece speaks to me in terms of resisting the obvious and pragmatic solutions. Jane desperately wanted to be the wife of Rochester, and if she couldn’t be so legally she certainly could have been so practically. Rochester’s crazy wife was functionally little more than an animal locked up in some room scratching at the walls. “Closed minded traditional religious legalism” was such that he couldn’t just put her away, the obvious solution was apparent and desirable to Rochester. Take Jane as his wife, even if she couldn’t legally be, what would be the harm? Besides, Jacob was a polygamist, why not Rochester? Jane was just stupid in resisting him and appealing to the law. She was a legalist, a Pharisee filled with self-righteousness and this caused the misery of all. Right? I’m not so sure.

    I think about “The Last Temptation of Christ” where Jesus is offered an alternative life of having a wife and settling down to raise a family. There is nothing in the law against such a thing, why not?

    I think about the passage I’m preaching on this week that I wrote about yesterday. What’s the harm of a little bit of anxiety about money and a bit of chasing after what I will eat and what I will wear?

    I’m libertarian enough (I can’t believe I just wrote that!) to know that I’m not about to try to talk gay people out of their gayness. That would be a fool’s errand. I’m not going to try to guilt them away from looking for a partner and setting up a life. The position of the church isn’t up to me either so there would obviously be conflicts between the church and them and most of the gays who have come through this church have either left the faith or left the church for other places where there are no restrictions. There are enough of those in Sacramento that they don’t have to look very hard or far.

    I do know enough to know that what I can say to them about this pursuit isn’t much different from what I can say to heterosexuals pursing similar things along “acceptable” lines for this conservative church community. “Be careful what you’re looking for and how you think you’re going to get it.” pvk

  5. paulvk says:

    Henri Nouwen. It’s public knowledge that Henri was gay. I don’t know that Henri could have written and contributed all that he did if it weren’t for the two facts of his homosexuality AND the positions of the RC church. The details of Henri Nouwen’s “moral performance” with regard to his how sexual nature are private. Did he have lovers? Did he have flings? Did he have one or two long term relationships? There is no public evidence one way or the other in this regard and I hope there never is. I frankly don’t care. That’s the business of Henri and his spiritual directors, confessors, friends. I do know that God did wonderful things through Henri that I doubt could have been accomplished if he were not gay. I don’t know the same could have been accomplished if the RC position on the subject had been different.

    Which brings me to my second point. All of our sexuality is broken and for those in Christ it will all be redeemed. I believe in the age to come those who are gay in this age will carry with them, as I believe Henri Nouwen does, something positive and special from the fact that they are gay in this age. Paul S is quite right that the Shakers and the Gnostics have it wrong. We may live like the angels with regard to marriage (marriage as we know it is of this age, “till death do us part”) but there is no reason to believe that our sexual identity will be erased. I have every reason to believe that the age to come will be richer because homosexuality exists in this age.

    Some may be disturbed by this and accuse me of abandoning the traditional position on the matter. Not so. Our sufferings produce an eternal weight of glory which means that God uses even our sin for greater glory in the age to come. So he uses our strengths and our gifts and our sins. In the “gay debate” some will say that gayness is strength, others will say it is sin. Have that debate, but keep in mind that strengths, gifts, and sins are redeemed by the blood of the lamb and produce a harvest of glory the likes of which we cannot imagine. How do I know this? Because it was our sin in the execution of Jesus Christ that brought all the glory of the resurrection and he bears the scars of our sin still, not as scars as we know them, but as emblems of love and power.

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