How do we consider the difference between change and progress with our students and in our intellectual conversations?

While considering “change” considers the cause, nature and purpose of change in the world and in ourselves, progress is, if you agree with its suppositions, a more positive notion.  After all progress simply implies transformation that is positive in nature.  Knowing this, we then need to ask “what kind of change is positive?” and then the idea of progress becomes more complicated.

Personally, we change all the time.  We change our appearance, attitudes, jobs and homes.  But is this good change, is it “progress?”  In other words, what change is ultimately valuable, a progression from a less desirable state to a more desirable one?  The same goes for our communities and our daily living practices—when is change good?  Is there any change that is uniformly good or does every change imply both progression, in some ways, and new problems in other ways?

The Biblical Old Testament prophet Solomon wrestled with what changes, what remains the same, what is new and what is old.  In Ecclesiastes Solomon states: “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course” (Ecclesiastes 1:5-6).  Here is a good example of change without suggesting progress.

There is, for instance, change in our environment every day but it is neither good nor evil, progress or regression, evolution or devolution—it is simply change not progress.  But Solomon also writes: “All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:8-9).  In this famous line, Solomon begins to betray the meaning behind his ennui—while the environment seems to change all the time, we, as humans do not seem to progress at all.  So what, for Solomon, provokes or catalyzes genuine positive change, progress?  The answer is as simple as it is profound, according to Solomon—God.

This Judeo-Christian attitude towards progress is typical, the only valuable progression is a movement away from sin and back towards God and Love through forgiveness, mercy, grace and ultimately redemption.  Progress, then, for these monotheists, is the work of God to take our evil and transform it back into goodness.  “How do we get better?  Can we get better with time?”  These questions of personal and communal amelioration are tantamount when considering the Great Idea of progress.   Even if God is ultimately directing progression, there must still be something humans can do in order to make things better?  This important question divides many, even those in the same faith.  Some suggest that because of the stain of original sin we cannot do anything, no work at all, to make life or the world better.  Calvin and Luther, Reformation era thinkers, suggest this to be true.

On the other hand, those such as Augustine argue that progress is possible through a combination of faith in God (and his hand in all progress) and human works, our efforts to make things better.   This opens up the possibility that prayer and supplication, worship and adoration, sacraments, fasting and almsgiving, purification rites, and ethical codes for avoiding profanations and sacrileges might actually do something to progress us individually and spiritually and also perhaps communally as a group.

Outside of the religious debate on faith and works, and whether God alone or God and man can effect progress, there are other lines of thought—particularly Industrial Age notions that with the help of machines and the scientific method humans can provoke positive change in the world.   This view, that science and technology—the tools we create—are the mechanism by which progress is possible is widespread in the Industrial Age and persists today.  Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and others suggest in the 19th century that we are evolving, either through “natural selection” or by a slow but certain social betterment, into better people with better societies and brighter futures.  These attitudes are forwarded by a host of post-Enlightenment thinkers dedicated to Positivism and science.   Whether by a technological revolution, a social or political revolution or the biology of evolution, this group considers the mechanisms of human perfectibility by application of mathematics, observation, science and technology. Therefore, whether it is God or man, prayer or technology, progress is deeply hoped for by much of humanity.

Yet, sadly, there is also a third possibility—devolution.  As the effects of the Industrial Revolution become apparent in the polluted cities of Europe, full of over-crowding, dangerous working conditions, child labor, prostitution and nefarious nightlife are just the first indications that will receive their fullest support in World War I and World War II and the Holocaust.  It is chilling but necessary to also ponder the idea, like many artists and authors dedicated to modern nihilism, anxiety and despair, that things are getting worse all the time.    Muslim and Christian believers in the Apocalypse often express the same belief, with a twist: before things get perfect, saved by God, they need to get much, much worse.

Principle Questions Relating to the Great Idea

  • Assuming progress is possible, what kind of progress do we see through history? What kind of progress is impossible? Why?
  • What are the tools for personal and social amelioration? Do religious teachings (particularly prayer and supplication, worship and adoration, sacraments, fasting and almsgiving, purification rites, and ethical codes for avoiding profanations and sacrileges) help in our personal spiritual progression?  How and why?
  • Does science aid in the progress of our societies and lifestyles? How and why?
  • Are “things getting better all the time” or are “things getting worse every day” or does nothing really change? Why?