Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The End of Progress

A key part of the liberal Quaker tradition is the idea of 'continuing revelation'. The important insight behind this phrase is that God’s revelation to humanity did not stop with the New Testament. Instead the divine Spirit continues to guide and inform everyone who is attentive to it. This means that authentic religion is not simply a matter of interpreting and following historical texts, but more importantly, of reading and responding to the word of God as it is written on our hearts now. It suggests that we should expect to receive new insights, and that we should be continually open to changing our attitudes and actions in response to them.

But it is common for Quakers to assume that the revelation of the Spirit is not just continuing, but also progressive; that newer insights are always better than older ones, and that our spiritual understandings today are necessarily superior to those of former generations.

This is another version of faith in progress – the idea that human history has a built-in direction towards continual improvement. Belief in progress is a secular faith that has powered most of the ideologies of the last couple of centuries across much of the world. Faith in the inevitability of humanity’s social, moral, intellectual and technological advancement has been central to the worldviews of humanism, socialism, liberalism, colonialism and anti-colonialism, among many others. It has provided a powerful secular motivation for self-sacrifice, appearing to replace religious motives for virtuous behaviour with a rational faith in human destiny.

But the idea of progress is far from strictly rational. It is actually a lightly secularised version of mainstream Christian ‘salvation history’ – the religious narrative that presents all of human history as leading up to the second coming of Christ. According to this belief, Christ is due to return to earth at some point in the future to judge humanity and to abolish war, poverty and every other social and moral evil. In just the same way, many modern liberals, socialists and humanists have believed in a coming utopia, ruled by universal reason, where prejudice, war, poverty and inequality will be abolished. Over recent decades this faith has taken an increasingly technological direction, so that fantasies about colonising other planets, eliminating disease and mortality, and uploading human consciousness into omnipotent computers are treated as rational aims rather than unconscious retreads of traditional religious apocalyptic.

But this centuries’ old faith in human progress has worn increasingly thin as industrial civilisation has entered its long descent. The perennial appeal of fanaticism and xenophobia, the ever-more visible side-effects of unrestrained technology and unravelling ecosystems, have highlighted for growing numbers of people the absurdity of claims for the inevitability of progress.

I am not convinced that there is any progress in morality or religion. Societies do not inevitably become wiser or better, they do not evolve towards any particular state. Human cultures are always changing, sometimes drastically, but not necessarily or reliably in any particular direction. Any reduction in violence or gains in status by excluded groups are always contingent and vulnerable to reversals.

It may be that modern Quakers see some things more clearly than previous eras, for example our contemporary recognition of sexual and gender equality. But there are other moral issues where we seem to be far less perceptive than former generations, such as our relative indifference to lying compared to the scrupulous truthfulness of earlier Friends. It seems that sensitivity to particular ethical issues may be more a consequence of current social and political relationships, rather than any overall expansion of spiritual insight.

This suggests that greater humility is called for in relation to the religious teachings and traditions of the past, instead of simply dismissing them as 'out-dated'. Continuing revelation means that past insights are just as valid as our own. They have not been superseded; they simply offer alternative perspectives on the same reality. The question for us is not how ‘up to date’ we are, but how attentive and faithful to the Light that is, and always has been, continually available to all people.

Many of the first Quakers had a radically different vision of salvation history to the teaching of the official Church. They put their faith in a new revelation of the power and illumination of the ‘Inward Christ’, which they understood as the fulfilment of Christ’s promised return, expressed in the startling claim that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself’.

In other words, there is nothing to expect or wait for; this is it. If Christ has already come again in our bodies and spirits then there is no future utopia of peace and harmony waiting for us at the end of history. Instead, the Inward Spirit of Christ is working through us (and through all people who are receptive to their Inward Teacher) as a healing and reconciling presence within the world’s ever-continuing conflict, injustice and irrationality. There is no reason to expect that humanity will ever finally abolish war and inequality, or grow out of prejudice and bigotry. Perhaps our task as a People of God is not to build a perfect world, but to perfect our love for the world and humanity as it is. As we are led by the Spirit of peace, we aim to overcome violence and division wherever we find them, but we should not count on a future that is better or wiser than the past. God's reign of peace is not somewhere else at the end of history. It is present here and now, wherever enemies are reconciled and the poor and excluded regain their dignity. In Jesus' words, 'The kingdom of God is among you' (Luke 17:21)


  1. Yes yes. As ever, Craig, your words are thought-provoking, clear, and renewing. You must know the R.S.Thomas poem on this theme, but I think it's worth quoting here. It recurs in ministry in our Meeting at the moment.

    The Kingdom

    It's a long way off but inside it
    there are quite different things going on:
    festivals at which the poor man
    is king and the consumptive is
    healed; mirrors in which the blind look
    at themselves and love looks at them
    back; and industry is for mending
    the bent bones and the minds fractured
    by life. It's a long way off, but to get
    there takes no time and admission
    is free, if you will purge yourself
    of desire, and present yourself with
    your need only and the simple offering
    of your faith, green as a leaf.

  2. Hi Mary, Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful poem. I didn't know it, being woefully uneducated in poetry, so I really appreciate reading it here.
    In Friendship, Craig

  3. Wot no questions? I love the phrase "the kingdom is at hand" - it's just... If we...

  4. Given the context of the article, the King James translation of Luke 17:21 might be more accurate and appropriate: "The kingdom of God is within you."

  5. "Perhaps our task as a People of God is not to build a perfect world, but to perfect our love for the world and humanity as it is." Well, perhaps as Friends we and other of like mind might try to built the perfect world. It does give us a standard to walk by--like our corporate pacifism.

    God's reign of peace [nice term: I call it simply 'the Way' in my 'What Love Can Do"] is not somewhere else at the end of history. It is present here and now . . . [yes!] In Jesus' words, 'The kingdom of God is among you' (Luke 17:21) Speaking technically, can I suggest that the true translation--the early Quakers had it right--'is within'? Fitzmyer says that while Luke normally used "en mesō" for ‘among’ (e.g. Lk. 2: 46, 8: 7, 10: 3), the use of "entos" in 17: 21 is a rare occurrence; it appears only once elsewhere in the Gospels in Mt. 23: 26. Marcin also presents a convincing argument for ‘within you’ while Ramelli draws on classic Greek, Latin and Syriac sources (a form of Aramaic) to support her belief that entos means inside; she comments:

    The reason for the modern translation . . . ‘among you’, against most
    ancient and early modern versions and interpretations [e.g. the King
    James Bible], seems to be first of all the lack of consideration for the meaning of entos in the Bible and in Greek literature.

    Thank you very much for your excellent piece.

  6. Craig, this piece presents a valid critique of the secular doctrine of progressivism and offers many insightful observations, yet nevertheless retains a humanist perspective that is distant from the understanding of 17th c. Friends. It's apparent that virtue is an strong consideration for you, but it seems to be virtue derived from attentiveness to values, not the living Christ. Friends found faith to be a gift from God; it was a second birth and not a state materially given in the heart. (The image of God is the potential to receive Christ, not the condition of having received him.) Faith is something to expect and wait for. Reading Mk. 13:31-37 may be useful in conveying the otherness of Christ's coming; in fact, the whole chapter is an answer to the disciples puzzlement about what's to be expected.

    Reading and responding to historical texts in the same spirit in which they were written reveals their pertinence to the universal time-transcending human condition, and is not out-dated revelation. As Jesus says in v.31 "Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away."

    The thought in this essay that strikes me as offering the passageway between humanist virtue and the coming of the Lord is your mention of the "scrupulous truthfulness of earlier Friends": "there are other moral issues where we seem to be far less perceptive than former generations, such as our relative indifference to lying compared to the scrupulous truthfulness of earlier Friends." This honoring of truth strikes me as the key that moves us from the condition of virtuous humanism into a readiness to receive the faith that is testified to by Scriptures and Friends. Valuing the truth and not letting oneself be placated by human capacities—whether noble or ignoble—is the path set out for us.

  7. Progress was a key word for Quakers a hundred years ago and crops up in the Swarthmore Lectures, for example, T E Harvey's 1921 The Long Pilgrimage, an exposition of the idea and reality of human progress in the light of Christian hope, written (interestingly enough) after the First World War when one would have thought hope would have been in short supply.

    Progressivism is not ideological, it's pragmatic. It is what necessarily happens if wisdom, love and truth abound. (Quakers don't have a monopoly on concern for truth and justice and all those good things.). Progressivism isn't blind to the imperfections of the mankind and to environmental stress, but it isn't demoralised by them either.

    'Post-truth' is just another word for hoopla, blagging, bullying and rabble-rousing, a family of practices as old as mankind. The Old Testament prophets - generally, a curmudgeonly bunch - were masters of it. For example, read Jr: 27:1-15; 28:1-17 about Jeremiah and the prophet Hananiah.

    If you think that we are surrounded by fanaticism and xenophobia, you are probably paying too much attention to sensationalist media. Maybe race war is a daily occurrence in Sheffield but it isn't where I am, a diverse and peaceable suburb of London. Accordingly, I am puzzled why anyone should think there isn't moral or economic progress, because clearly there is. For starters, read "Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future" by Johan Norberg. The history of the fight against slavery, which continues to this day, is similarly illustrative. Also illustrative is the growth in international institutions (notwithstanding Brexit) called for in the Foundations of a True Social Order (QF&P 23.16)

    That being said, I agree progress is a continuum without an end-goal, which is reflected in the Christian idea, which you and others have mentioned, that the kingdom of God is as much now as in the future or the after-life. I find that a very invigorating, indeed therapeutic, idea and entirely consistent with a secular belief in progress.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)