Christian Theology in a Progress-Driven World

Modern attitudes toward progress share many characteristics with traditional Christian theology.

| December 2015

  • Progress in the Western world has been driven by vast use of resources and the same faith in the essential 'goodness' of progress once common in Christian theology.
    Photo by Fotolia/vladimirfloyd
  • “After Progress,” by John Michael Greer, addresses the looming paradigm shift in Western culture as progress grinds to a halt in the face of finite planetary limits.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

Progress as we know it has been entirely dependent on the breakneck exploitation of half a billion years of stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels. In After Progress (New Society Publishers, 2015), John Michael Greer addresses the impending paradigm shift as the Western world adjusts to the finite reality of resources on earth. The following excerpt is from chapter one, “The Noise of the Gravediggers.”

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There are any number of ways we could talk about the religious dimensions of the crisis of our time. The mainstream religions of today’s industrial societies offer one set of starting points, while my own Druid faith, which is very nearly as far from the mainstream as you can get, offers another set. Then, of course, there’s the religion that nobody talks about and most people in the industrial world believe in, the religion of progress, which will be central to the discussion ahead and which has its own noticeably dogmatic way of addressing such issues.

Still, a starting point a little less obvious than any of these may be better suited to the exploration I have in mind, so we will begin in the Italian city of Turin, on an otherwise ordinary January day in 1889. Over on one side of the Piazza Carlo Alberto, a teamster was beating one of his horses savagely with a stick, and his curses and the horse’s terrified cries could be heard over the traffic noise. Finally, the horse collapsed; as it hit the pavement, a middle-aged man with a handlebar mustache came sprinting across the plaza, dropped to his knees beside the horse and flung his arms around its neck, weeping hysterically. His name was Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, and he had just gone hopelessly insane.

At that time, Nietzsche was almost completely unknown in the worlds of European philosophy and culture. His career had a brilliant beginning — he was hired straight out of college in 1868 to teach classical philology at the University of Basel, and published his first significant work, The Birth of Tragedy, four years later — but he strayed thereafter into territory few academics in his time dared to touch. When he gave up his position in 1879 due to health problems, the university was glad to see him go. His major philosophical works saw print in small editions, mostly paid for by Nietzsche himself, and were roundly ignored by everybody. There were excellent reasons for this, as what Nietzsche was saying in these books was the last thing that anybody in Europe at that time wanted to hear.

God Is Dead

Given Nietzsche’s fate, there’s a fierce irony in the fact that his most famous statement of the core of his teaching is put in the mouth of a madman. Here’s the passage in question, from The Gay Science (1882): “Have you not heard of the madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly, ‘I seek God! I seek God!’ As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they shouted and laughed.

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