Chesterton on Progress

Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.

One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.

A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:

As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.