by Fr. Stephen Freeman
I have written previously about various aspects of the “Modern Project.” It is the world we live in. Its ideas and assumptions enter our thoughts with no critical inspection or hesitancy. We are modern.
However, the gospel is not modern and many ideas of Modernity are contrary to the gospel. It is necessary, therefore, as a simple matter of discernment to question and examine the assumptions of our world.
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:2 NKJ)
The Modern Project believes in progress. It believes and is utterly committed to the idea that things move forward and improve. Just as microchips get smaller, faster and cheaper, so, too, the world gets better, more advanced, more civilized, more free, more fair, richer, healthier, smarter and wiser. We assume that we know more and understand more than those who came before us. We are the goal of everything that has come before.
I am certain that many readers are already taking exception to some of the assumptions described above. But even though we might agree that some of these things are simply not true (we are not wiser, for example), we still think they should be! Modern political discussions are almost entirely about competing plans for a better world. No one suggests that a better world is a false idea.
A better world is not only a false idea – it is rooted in heresy.
You will search in vain for the notion of making a better world prior to the 16th century. Though there are visions of the “New Jerusalem” within the New Testament, it is a “heavenly city” and not a model for an earthly goal. The Kingdom of God is not “of this world,” nor is it something that people work for or “build up.” The Kingdom of God is God’s gift, is already coming into the world and cannot be stopped. But the Kingdom is not measured by social progress or the betterment of humanity – it is measured only by the crucified and risen Christ. He is the first instance of the Kingdom and is the sole defining mark of its character. That which is not yet crucified and risen is not yet the Kingdom.
So from where did the Modern Project derive its notion of progress?
The Reformation probably sowed the seeds of the myth of progress. The drive to reform the Church gave birth to similar ideas across the whole of society. There were occasional outbreaks of radical reform that included political and social upheavals. The most enduring such reform was the Puritan movement in England that carried its vision to America. There the Plymouth Bay Colony was said to be a “City on a Hill,” an American vision that continues to fuel the imagination.
In the first half of the 19th century, powerful religious movements swept away the institution of slavery (with a Civil War to boot in America) and began to lay the foundations for the prohibition of alcohol and women’s suffrage. The success of the first issue fed the imaginations of those who dreamed of the marriage of the Christian gospel and modern technology. As various Christian revivalist movements arose, so too did the notion of a progress towards the Kingdom of God.
The classical statements of these ideas can be found among the Fabian Socialists in England and in the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. The echoes of those movements have not disappeared. In some cases they have passed into the common language so profoundly to be an inherent part of the modern worldview.
But, in truth, we have never had such control of the world that we could “build it” or permanently “change” it. We only live here – we do not own the place.
Stanley Hauerwas has famously noted that whenever Christians agree to take charge of the outcome of history, they have agreed to do violence. He therefore labels violence as “idolatry,” an attempt not to obey God’s commandments, but to assume the place of God.
Perhaps the most tragic instance of this hubris was the Treaty of Versailles and its accompanying effects. Following the tragedy of the Great War (World War I), the Allied Powers established themselves as the arbiters of the shape of the world to come. They drew boundaries, created countries, and designed our modern world. The result has been the bloodiest century of war in history. Everything from World War II to the continuing bloodshed in the Near East, indeed almost every civil war the world has seen since, has come as a result of the plans and decisions of that fateful “peace.”
Its most immediate effect was the disastrous handling of the Balkans, the establishment of modern Turkey with the deportation of half its population (the Christian half) and the Armenian genocide. Across the globe the colonial powers reinvented the world without regard for geography, race, or religion. It was a modern world. If history can be a judge, then we must declare modernity to be a failure.
But the myth of progress is written deep into our culture. We do not care for the poor – we have a “war on poverty” with the result of poverty’s institutionalization. Many massive government schemes in the name of a better world have yielded deeply flawed results and even worse unintended consequences. These failures are often met not with repentance for their fundamental errors, but simply with calls for more money and more planning. The bureaucracy of the better world has become the single largest consumer of the world’s resources. Progress is becoming unaffordable.
None of this speaks ill of the commandments of God. To share what we have with others is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. All the good that a society does – health, education, etc., are proper and can be described as God-given duties. But there is a subtle and radical difference between such duty and the notion of progress and the outcome of history.
Technology has been a great boon to humanity on the whole. It has increased productivity to levels that create unimaginable wealth. However, it is also clear that we are no closer to solving the problem of the distribution of wealth now than we were two thousand years ago. Justice, within the human heart, is not subject to evolution or progress.
There are narratives used by many to spin the myth of progress. Most of the narratives are self-serving of the various constituencies that invoke them. Those who own the largest and loudest media also own the loudest versions of the narratives. And their progressivist accounts of modernity are made to seem both obvious and undeniable.
But there is no promise nor account of progress within the Scriptures. It is an idea that is heretical in its roots. For it is a distortion of the apocalyptic hopes of Christianity, written into a political and economic story. It is the secularization of the Kingdom of God.
I recently did a search across the web for the phrase “building the Kingdom of God,” and was dismayed at how common it was. Even within Evangelical sites of good repute, the notion received large play. One site argued that our present efforts for the good would somehow be received and incorporated into the Kingdom, and would thus be eternal. It’s an interesting claim, but without neither any warrant in Scripture nor a basis within the Christian tradition. It is simple heresy. We do not build the Kingdom. We do not add to it, nor can we diminish it. It is the work of God.
There is no building of the Kingdom, because it is already complete. It is theologically without meaning to speak of the Kingdom in a manner that is less than complete. The phrase, “Thy Kingdom Come,” is rightly understood as a prayer for the inbreaking of the End of All Things. For the End that shall be, already is. And that End is already beginning to be manifest in our world. But where it is manifest, it is truly present. It is not manifest and unbuilt, or a work-in-progress. This is its mystical reality. Those who have no understanding of the sacramental, mystical nature of the Christian faith easily misunderstand such things and reduce them to yet another human project.
If Christ tarries, delays His return, then it is certain that the present world order will cease to exist. The land that I live in will collapse as surely as all others before it have. It is the way of earthly kingdoms to come and to go. And what we might accomplish in our lifetimes will have perished as well. The myths and the narratives of the present will be forgotten with the past. The Modern Project will be seen to have failed (“Babylon the great has fallen”).
By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Heb 11:9-10 NKJ)
We do well to work and wait, observing the commandments of God, renouncing the arrogance of Modernity.