A Historian and a Theologian on History and Progress

HuntFrom the middle of the 1800s to the middle of the 1900s, more or less, the search for exemplars gave way to the second approach to history: the projection of progress.  History came to be seen as a single linear progress encompassing every region of the globe.  The future came to stand for improvement, rather than degeneration from a previous golden age or simply a product of inevitable cycles of rise and fall.  As a consequence, the past could no longer serve as an infallible guide to the present; it had to be overcome, even rejected.  Historians now viewed modern peoples as superior to the ancients, and, as corollary, portrayed Western Europe and eventually the West as superior to the rest of the world.  The belief in progress–validated by the triumph of reason and science–helped solidify the Western sense of ascendancy over other regions…If history is not a progression toward freedom, then what meaning does it have?  Is it about the rise of capitalism, the spread of modernity, the increase of globalization, the growing power of centralizing states–all these or something else?  Would a non-teleological history, a history without an inner impulse , even be interesting.

This comes from Lynn Hunt’s helpful little book History: Why it Matters. 94, 96.

I realize that the study of history has changed a great deal since the mid-20th century.  But has such a progressive view of history really died? Isn’t it alive and well among the majority of historians affiliated with the American Historical Association?

On the same day I read Hunt’s book, I read some interesting passages from N.T. Wright‘s 2018 Gifford Lectures, published as History and Eschatology: The Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology(I should add that the index for this book is awful).

Here are those passages:

p. 24: The idea of progress was, then, in part a secularisation of the Christian optimism (itself fueled by Jewish eschatology) evident in the early eighteenth century, and with that, an older doctrine of Providence…Its central claim, which took root in European thought, was that the old order was being swept away and that new and better days were not just happening but that they were, in some sense, happening automatically. All one had to do was get on board (and push aside any who didn’t see the point).

p.24: For right-wing Hegelians…”progress” was to be a smooth evolution.  From this there emerged the social and cultural implication that within progress’ lay hidden the steady advance of the kingdom of God itself.Wright Eschatology

p.25: By the end of the nineteenth century it was widely assumed, in Britain and Germany at least, the the spectacular achievements and advances of Western civilisation were part of what Jesus must have meant when he said that “the kingdom of God” was at hand.  This was “natural theology” made easy: look at our wonderful civilisation and see the handiwork of God!

p.25-26: Likewise, the idea (particularly invoking developments in medicine) that science and technology are making the world a better place is more than a little ambiguous.  Industrial pollution, atom bombs and gas chambers tell a different story.  At the popular level, however, the ideology of progress simply ignores these counter-examples.

p.27: The movements hailed as “postmodernity” in the later years of the twentieth century were, among other things, direct challenges to the narrative of progress.  Wisdom, many insisted, does not advance chronologically.  But even with the horrors of the twentieth century to brandish as counter-examples, the postmodern protest hasn’t made much headway.  The idea of progress has embodied its own principle: it has just gone ahead, pushing everything else of the way.  Sustained in its optimism by the exciting fruits of science (not least in medicine) and technology, it has been assumed more and more widely.  It has applied, to the future as a whole, the principle that had already been applied to politics, science, eeconomics, history and even Jesus: rethink them all without an external divine figure directing the traffic.  We can do it all ourselves.  Providence without God.

p.27: There is also, indeed, the myth of scholarship, that scholars build firmly on the solid foundation of their predecessors, so that the subject automatically “advances.”  Folly indeed.

p. 27 …those who advocate the “progress” ideology today seem to assume that every passing decade will see moral, social, and cultural “advance” to match the technological “advances” of smart phones, driverless cars and, not least, high-tech weaponry.

A lot to think about here.  Stay tuned.