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.

Advent vs. Steven Pinker


Here is Fleming Rutledge, an author and Episcopal priest:

Across the Charles River from the Church of the Advent sits mighty Harvard. There, the famous psychology professor Steven Pinker thinks the world is getting better. In a recent interview, he makes the statement that, thanks to the Enlightenment and especially to science, life on earth is improving. He acknowledges that human beings “tend to backslide into irrationality,” but all in all, he thinks the data show that we’re making headway. Pinker is not ignorant about human evil, but he genuinely believes that human progress is unstoppable and that science and technology can solve our problems if we can only be rational, high-minded people—presumably, people like himself.

The Bible pushes back against the naive optimism of Pinker and many others like him. It is a story, not a scientific document or a collection of spiritual principles. It tells us how we came to be who we are in this world, how we fractured the image of God in ourselves by our rebellion, and how our creator came in his own person to transfigure us into the likeness of the son, who became incarnate in our human flesh. It tells us of the powers of sin and death and their hold on us.

The biblical story is rigorously unsentimental. It doesn’t offer optimism. It doesn’t offer “positive thinking.” It looks deeply into human misery, human folly, human pain, and plain old human disappointment. I like what the writer Lance Morrow said about the 20th century era of world wars and genocide: “Instead of a growing Enlightenment, it seems more like an Endarkenment.”

The Advent season, properly understood, is designed to help us understand this “Endarkenment.” It strengthens us for life in the real world, where there are malignant forces actively working against human well-being and the divine purposes of God. This is a world in which no one seems to know what to do about the catastrophic famine in Yemen. This is a world in which the promise of freedom and democracy in Poland and Hungary is shifting before the eyes of the world into oppression and autocracy. This is a world in which our very best intentions turn against us.

Read the rest at Christianity TodayI also recommend Rutledge’s book Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

What Will Future Historians Say About Abortion?


I hate the term “right side” and “wrong side” of history.  No historian should use these phrases. They are moral, not historical, phrases.  When people use them they are usually saying more about their own politics or religion than the patterns of history.  When Martin Luther King Jr. said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was making a theological statement.  It is a theological statement that I affirm because I am a Christian who hopes in a coming Kingdom where justice will prevail, and not because I wholeheartedly embrace the Enlightenment idea of progress.

Historians know that the story of humanity does not always bend toward justice.  Usually those who reference the right and wrong sides of history have a political axe to grind.  Historians, of course, are not prophets.  We cannot predict the direction history will move.  Christian historians should have eschatological hope, but we cannot pretend to claim that we know all that God is doing.  This is why we talk about humility and mystery.  We see through a glass darkly.

In her recent piece on abortion at VOX, evangelical feminist Karen Swallow Prior does not use the phrase “right side of history” or “wrong side of history,” but she does invoke a kind of ethical trajectory–a teleology if you will– that is born out of her Christian convictions and her belief in moral progress.  As a historian, I am trained to treat her predictions with caution.  As a Christian who believes we must reduce the number of abortions in the United States, I say let’s hope she is correct.

Here is a taste of her piece, “Abortion Will Be Considered Unthinkable 50 Years from Now.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that abortion hit its lowest rate since Roe v. Wade11.8 per 1,000 women ages 15-44, a dramatic decline from a peak in the early 1980s that approached 30 per 1,000 women. It’s unclear whether this decrease is owing to increased use of contraceptives; delayed sexual activity among young people; the declining number of doctors willing to participate in abortions; a growing inability to deny — thanks to ultrasound technology, prenatal surgical interventions, and extravagant gender reveal parties — the insuppressible personality of the child in the womb; or a combination of all these factors.

Whatever the cause, however, abortion is becoming less necessary and less desirable. Recent attempts in several states to expand access to late-term abortions in anticipation of the possible overturning of Roe not only violate the view of the majority (who support greater restrictions after the first trimester) but will be seen by future generations as a last, desperate show of stubbornness in the face of human progress.

Every age has its blinders, constructed, usually, through a combination of ignorance and self-interest. Many things such as bloodletting and wet nurses that are seen as good or indispensable in one age are unthinkable in another.

Our modern-day willingness to settle for sex apart from commitment, to accept the dereliction of duty by men who impregnate women (for men are the primary beneficiaries of liberal abortion laws), and to uphold the systematic suppression of sex’s creative energy and function are practices that people of other ages would have considered bizarre. As we enter late modernity and recognize the limits of the radical autonomy and individualism which have defined it, the pendulum will correct itself with a swing toward more communitarian and humane values that recognize the interdependency of all humans.

When we do, we will look back at elective abortion and wonder — as we do now with polluting and smoking — why we so wholeheartedly embraced it. We will look at those ultrasound images of 11-week old fetuses somersaulting in the waters of the womb and lack words to explain to our grandchildren why we ever defended their willful destruction in the name of personal choice and why we harmed so many women to do so.

Read the entire piece here.

This reminds me of what I wrote earlier this week about Jimmy Carter’s suggestion that the Democratic Party change its views on abortion:

I think there are a lot of pro-life Democrats out there who would agree with Carter, but they do not make their voices heard for several reasons:

  1. They do not want to be ostracized by the Democratic Party.
  2. They are afraid that if they defend the unborn they will be accused of not caring about women’s rights.  (This, I believe, is a false dichotomy).
  3. They do not want to be associated with the divisive and unhelpful “baby-killing” culture war rhetoric of the Right.
  4. They do not endorse the Christian Right/GOP playbook that teaches the only way to reduce abortions is to overturn Roe. v. Wade.

Michael Roth on Steven Pinker’s *Enlightenment Now*

EnlightenmentOver at Inside Higher Ed Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University and a strong defender of humanities and the liberal arts, reviews Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

A taste:

In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker expands his purview to include progress in everything from access to basic nourishment and health care to income and increased choices in how we spend our time. In every important area, Pinker sees robust improvement. The world is getting safer, more prosperous and less authoritarian. “Look at the data!” he cries again and again, and you will see that human beings have much to cheer about and much to look forward to. Evidence from surveys even suggests that we are happier — although not nearly as happy as we should be, given the progress we’ve made.

Pinker himself is not happy with colleges and universities, especially humanities programs, which, he claims, tend to emphasize the tragic, the negative, even the apocalyptic. He takes particular aim at Nietzsche and the streams of critical theory that flow from his thinking. Nietzsche’s antimodern polemics against smug, middle-class complacency especially rankle the Harvard University professor who can’t seem to imagine why anyone wouldn’t be grateful for the greater access to food, shelter and leisure that modernity has created.

There is plenty to criticize in Pinker’s historical portrait of triumphant modernity. He ignores any part of the Enlightenment legacy that doesn’t fit neatly into his neat, Popperian understanding of how scientific progress is made through disconfirming hypotheses. In describing progress in societies that behave more rationally, he says almost nothing about the social movements and struggles that forced those with power (and claims to rationality) to pay attention to political claims for justice. When science leads to bad things, like eugenics, he just dismisses the results as bad science. He criticizes those with whom he disagrees as being narrow-minded or tribalistic, but he seems to have no self-awareness of how his own thinking is plagued by parochialism. He writes that we have to cure “identity protective cognition,” but for him history is an effort to find figures like himself in the past so that he can write a story that culminates with people who have the same views as he. “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for human culture; the answer has to be today.” Maybe he thinks that the gesture of expecting an even better future is an expression of intellectual modesty.

But as much as Pinker’s self-congratulation may annoy anyone concerned with (or just curious about) the ways the achievements of modernity have been built through oppression, exploitation and violence, it would be a mistake to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments that he documents in Enlightenment Now. Take the astonishing reductions in poverty around the world. Over the last century, the portion of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 90 percent to under 10 percent. The acceleration of this progress in the last half century has been truly remarkable, and we can see similar good news in regard to decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy (to pick just two of the subjects Pinker covers).

And Pinker is right that many of us in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are loath simply to celebrate such gains when discussing the legacies of the Enlightenment or embracing contemporary critical thinking. Why? Part of the reason is that the story of those achievements should not be divorced from an account of how social injustice has made them possible. Humanists don’t dismiss the importance of reductions in poverty, but neither do they simply want to describe slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation as the price one has (always?) to pay for progress.

Read the entire review here.

Humanities: Liberal and Conservative


Check out Damon Linker’s piece at The Week: “The real reason there are so few conservatives on campus.” First, it is worth mentioning that Linker thinks the claims about the small numbers of conservatives on university campuses are overblown.  There are plenty of conservatives in professional schools, business schools, and even in the social sciences.

When people talk about the lack of conservatives on campus they are normally talking about the humanities: English, literature, philosophy, history, cultural studies, etc…

I teach at Christian college and I can think of less than a handful of humanities faculty who would identity as “conservative.”  (Though somewhat unrelated, I can only think of a handful of humanities faculty who would call themselves “evangelical.” If you read this blog, you know that I remain one of them.  When you put the self-identified “conservatives” together with the self-identified “evangelicals,” the number shrinks to maybe two or three faculty members at the most.  But I digress).

Linker believes that there are so few conservatives in the humanities because universities, especially larger research universities, tend to value progress.  Research agendas are usually about discovering something new about the world.  Conservatives do not always think about the humanities in this way.

I will let Linker explain.  Here is a taste:

Professors are trained as graduate students to become scholars — and scholarship in our time is defined as an effort to make progress in knowledge. The meaning of progress in the hard sciences is fairly obvious. But what does it mean to make progress in our knowledge of, say, English literature? One possibility is to find obscure, previously neglected authors and make a case for their importance. (This could be described as making progress in knowledge by way of expanding the canon.)

Another possibility is to bring new questions to bear on old, classic texts. But where will those new questions come from if not the concerns of the present? This is how professors end up publishing reams of studies (and teaching gobs of courses) on such topics as “Class in Shakespeare,” “Race in Shakespeare,” “Gender in Shakespeare,” “Transgender in Shakespeare,” “Intersectionality in Shakespeare,” and so forth. To tease out those themes in texts that have been read, studied, and debated for centuries certainly constitutes progress in knowledge, since those who publish the research have said something genuinely new about something old and familiar.

One reason why conservative scholars tend not to conduct this kind of research is that they’re not especially interested in questions of class, race, gender, and related issues. But that’s not because they’d prefer to achieve progress in knowledge by bringing a different, more politically conservative set of questions to bear on classic texts. (“Supply-Side Economics in Shakespeare”? “Hawkish Foreign Policy in Shakespeare”?) Rather, conservatives are usually drawn to the study of the humanities with a very different goal in mind — nothing less than pursuit of the timeless human wisdom they believe can be found in the great books of the past. What kind of research and teaching does this motivation produce? Studies of, and classes in, such topics as “Love in Shakespeare,” “Friendship in Shakespeare,” “Justice in Shakespeare,” “Death in Shakespeare,” and “God in Shakespeare.”

These are classical subjects that centuries of people have written and thought about while reading the great playwright and poet. What’s new to say about them? Probably nothing. Instead, reflecting on such themes entails a rediscovery of knowledge that past readers may have possessed but that must be reacquired by every reader, by every student, anew.

By definition, that’s not “progress in knowledge,” since it denies that a contemporary scholar necessarily knows more on the subject than a reader from a previous century. It presumes that the only form of “progress” is each individual’s advancement in coming to understand the perennial problems and puzzles of the human condition, and it looks to great writers of the past for help in acquiring that understanding.

Read the entire piece here. I think Linker is on to something.

How Do Historians Measure Racial Progress in America?

LaskiGreg Laski has a great piece on this issue a Black Perspectives.  He raises several good questions in the process of plugging his new book Untimely Democracy: The Politics of Progress after Slavery.

You can read the entire piece here, but I was especially taken with the way Laski frames his discussion:

If the November 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency provided an occasion to measure the distance the United States had traveled from its origins in slavery, then Donald Trump’s rise to the highest political office has presented a different historical calculus. Viewed through the lens of this racial history, the new administration reminds us that structures and practices of exclusion endure across time.

Just how to conjugate the relationship between past and present in each of these instances is open to debate. But lurking behind these contemporary case studies is a more basic conceptual dilemma: What is the political function of historical comparison when it comes to measuring “progress” toward liberty and equality for all? If Obama’s presidency allowed us to celebrate racial progress, that is, what happens to democracy now, when that distance seems to have narrowed? To pose the query most plainly, does democracy require progress? If so, whose? And why?

My forthcoming book, Untimely Democracy, narrates the nineteenth-century backstory of these questions by studying the work produced by African American authors and activists after the official end of Reconstruction—and after the abolitionist aims of the Civil War had faded.

Premillennialism as a Serious 20th-Century Option For Thinking About the Direction of Human History

SuttonOver at Syndicate, a theology website that has been churning out some very interesting commentary and conversation on new books, a symposium is underway exploring Matthew Sutton’s American  Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.

Daniel Steinmetz Jenkins, a doctoral student in intellectual history at Columbia University, edits the symposium that includes Fred Sanders, Janine Giordano Drake, Joel Carpenter, Rachel Schneider, and Joe Creech.

Here is a taste of Jenkins’s introduction to the symposium:

For many outside observers, the political ideology of conservative American evangelicalism is shrouded in mystery. Evangelicals, it is argued, see little or no inconsistency in embracing the free market while also demanding the state to regulate the personal morality of its citizens. In turn, critics of evangelicalism maintain that the convergence of limited government with restrictive public morals leads many evangelicals to support paradoxical political views. Liberal progressives, for instance, find it hypocritical that evangelicals vote for candidates who defend embryonic life, but refuse to apply the same principle—the right to lifesaving medical treatment—to Obamacare. On the opposite side, Libertarians, who agree with evangelicals’ defense of free market values, nevertheless deplore their intrusive moral agenda.

All signs indicate that conservative American evangelicals espouse a political outlook—a strange brew of liberal and illiberal principles—that is uniquely their own. But where did their particular blend of small government with traditional values come from, and what ideas and events inspired it? Matthew Avery Sutton’s ambitious new book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, offers a revealing answer to these questions: Evangelicals’ call for moral reform and small government is a byproduct of their longstanding anxieties over the imminent coming of the anti-Christ.

Fred Sanders’s opening review praises American Apocalypse, but he thinks that Sutton has missed an opportunity to explain “what is at stake for dispensationalists in their Bible interpretation.”  He adds, “we learn much about the end of the world but nearly nothing about the post-apocalyptic vision that would inspire characters to think this way.” Sanders, I might add, teaches at Biola University, a school that has deep roots in the premillennialist tradition that provides the subject of Sutton’s book.

Sanders chides Suttton for not taking seriously the various eschatological formulations that rivaled premillennialism in 20th century America.  He asks Sutton why he did not situate the history of American premillennialism in the context of these competing views about the direction of human history.  Sanders is not talking here about post-millennialism and amillennialism, the kind of stuff seminary students study in their eschatology courses.  No, Sanders suggests that communism, environmentalism, patriotism, and progressivism all offer their own eschatological vision.  Fundamentalist eschatology offered men and woman an alternative to these “isms.”  It is a fascinating critique.

Sutton seems to dismiss this argument without really addressing it.  (He titled his response “Those Wacky Premillenialists.” Since he identifies Biola as a premillennialist school, and Sanders teaches at Biola, it is hard not to read this as disparaging).  He writes: “But mine is a not a book about competing eschatologies.  It’s a book focused on the overwhelmingly dominant fundamentalist eschatology.”  Fair enough. But Sanders seems to rightly suggest that premillennialism and fundamentalism did not exist in a vacuum.  Those who upheld these views of the end of the world seemed to define their view of human history over and against other visions of human history.  From a historical perspective, premillennialism was a serious option for thinking about these things–one of many options available to those in the West.  Communism and Progressivism were just as “wacky” to fundamentalists and evangelicalism.

Great symposium.  I look forward to reading the other responses.



History and the Tragic Sense of Our Fallenness

I wish I had more time to engage with Peter Wirzbicki‘s excellent piece on historians and hope.  It is unfortunate that this was posted so close to Christmas because it is worth a full read.  

Andrew Hartman agrees with me:


Wirzbicki is responding to Ta-Nehsi Coates’s Atlantic piece, “Hope and the Historians.”  If you have been following The Way of Improvement Leads Home, you know that we have been discussing this piece as well.  See our comments here and here and here.

Here is a very small taste of Wirzbicki’s essay at the U.S. Intellectual History blog:

I found their arguments about the split between history and hope compelling and thought-provoking. I am especially convinced that there are triumphalist narratives of US history that must be combatted. But I also was concerned about where the logic of these essays seemed to go.  Many of us, after all, study social movements for lessons on how to recreate those successes. Or we study structures of oppression to find their weakness. Where does a history without hope leave us? More pernicious, I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism. There is a pessimism about mankind’s abilities in these narratives, a tragic sense of our fallenness 
found most often on the right. In many ways, I think, the fault lies with us historians, who have claimed that history should be our total guide to present political life.  Counter-intuitively, by seeking in the past a totalizing guide for present politics, we have sucked the air from our contemporary political imagination, leaving us necessarily disillusioned.  An overly-politicized past may inadvertently lead to an under-politicized present. A politics shaped solely by history is one that runs the risk of a pessimism, the denial of the human task of rebellion against the given, a rejection of the power of critical rationality to reshape.

A couple thoughts/questions:

1.  If I read him correctly, Wirzibicki has a hard time accepting a view of the past defined by human fallenness.  He “worries” that Coates’s narrative will inevitably lead to an “approach to politics” that “falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”  But does such realism about human nature always translate into a conservative political agenda?  I am thinking here of Reinhold Niebuhr, who has been described as a progressive who believed in original sin.  If Jim Kloppeberg is correct, one might also put Barack Obama in this category.

2.  Is it really fair to say that progressives have a corner on the market when it comes to “imagination” and “hope?”  Again, here is Wirzbicki, “I worry that this narrative conceals, surely unintentionally, an approach to politics itself that, by eliminating the place for imagination and hope, falls into a realism that borders on conservatism.”

OK–I realize I am nitpicking here.  On the other hand, the rest of Wirzbicki’s provocative argument builds off of the paragraph I pasted above.

Chalk One Up for Progress

On Wednesday Barack Obama extolled the virtues of progress at a White House press event.  Here is what he said:

The truth of the matter is that for all the challenges we face, all the problems that we have,…if you had to choose any moment to be born in human history, not knowing what your position was going to be, who you were going to be, you’d choose this time. The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed then it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been.
As a historian it is hard to argue with Obama here.  I wonder what Christopher Lasch would say?

Andrew Bacevich on the Millennial Generation

Andrew Bacevich

Bacevich, a professor of history and international affairs at Boston University, has nailed it once again.  In a recent post at The Front Porch Republic he chides Progressives, Baby Boomers, and Millennials for drinking too deeply from the wells of progress.  Here is a taste:

Fast forward a half-century and members of another notably self-assured generation of young people – my fellow Baby Boomers – discovered their own world bursting with new ideas, plans, and hopes.  In 1962, a Boomer manifesto laid out its blueprint for doing away with old and crusty things.  The authors of the Port Huron Statement envisioned “a world where hunger, poverty, disease, ignorance, violence, and exploitation are replaced as central features by abundance, reason, love, and international cooperation.”  Ours was the generation that would repair a broken world.
Yet several decades later progress toward fulfilling such grandiose aspirations remains fitful.  Boomer achievements have fallen well short of their own youthful expectations.  In practice, power harnessed to advance the common good took a backseat to power wielded to remove annoying curbs on personal behavior.  To navigate the path marked “liberation,” Boomers took their cues not from philosophers and priests, but from rockers, dopers, and other flouters of convention.
No doubt the Boomer triumvirate of radical autonomy, self-actualization, and contempt for authority, a. k. a., sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, has left an indelible mark on contemporary culture.  Even so, the old and crusty things against which they passionately inveighed persist, both at home and abroad.  Love and reason have not supplanted violence and exploitation.  Viewed in retrospect, the expectations that Boomers voiced back in the Sixties appear embarrassingly naïve and more than a little silly.
Now, with the passing of yet another half-century, another youthful cohort purports to see big change in the making.  With Progressives gone and forgotten and Boomers preparing to exit the stage, here come the so-called Millennials, bursting with their own ideas, plans, and hopes.  They too believe that the world was never so young (or so plastic) and they seem intent on making their own run at banishing all that is old and crusty.
Millennials boast their own triumvirate, this one consisting of personal electronic devices in combination with the internet and social media.  In addition to refashioning politics (the Progressives’ goal) and expanding personal choice (a Boomer priority), this new triumvirate offers much more.  It promises something akin to limitless, universal empowerment.
Today’s young welcome that prospect as an unvarnished good.  “You’re more powerful than you think,” Apple assures them.  “You have the power to create, shape, and share your life.  It’s right there in your hand.  Or bag.  Or pocket.  It’s your iPhone 5s.”
Here for Millennials is what distinguishes their generation from all those that have gone before.  Here is their Great Truth.  With all the gullibility of Progressives certain that Wilson’s Fourteen Points spelled an end to war and of Boomers who fancied that dropping acid promised a short cut to enlightenment, they embrace that truth as self-evident.  The power that they hold in their hand, carry in their bag, or stuff in the pocket of their jeans is transforming human existence.
To a historian, the credulity of the Millennials manages to be both touching and pathetic.  It is touching as a testimonial to an enduring faith in human ingenuity as panacea.  It is pathetic in its disregard for the actual legacy of human ingenuity, which is at best ambiguous.
In that regard, the so-called Information Age is unlikely to prove any different than, say, the Nuclear Age or the Industrial Age.  Touted as a vehicle for creating wealth, it increases the gap between haves and have-nots.  Promising greater consumer choice, it allows profit-minded corporations to shape the choices actually made.  While facilitating mass political action, it enhances the ability of the state to monitor and control citizens.  By making weapons more precise, it eases restraints on their use, contributing not to the abolition of war but to its proliferation.

Wilfred McClay on Medicine, Limits, and Death

You should be reading the stuff that Wilfred McClay writes.  He is one of the best cultural critics writing today.  If your new to McClay, start with his Merle Curti Award-winning book The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America.  You will not be disappointed.

Or check out McClay’s short piece at The Hedgehog Review, a journal published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.  Here is a taste of “Against Mastery“: 

How, for one, will we make sense of death if it comes to be viewed as something with no intrinsic meaning, but chiefly as a piece of bad luck, a matter of bad timing—the misfortune, for example, of contracting the disease before the march of inevitable medical progress had caught up with it? Or worse, how can we ever be reconciled to death when it becomes understood as something almost entirely accidental, and largely preventable?

Do we imagine that complete control over our biological fates will necessarily make us happier? Perhaps it will. But one can as easily imagine that there might be little room for uninhibited joy or exuberance in such a world. More likely it will be a tightly wound world, saturated with bitterness and anxiety and mutual suspicion, in which life and health will be guarded with all the ferocity of Ebenezer Scrooge guarding his money. Growing mastery means growing responsibility, and the need to assign blame, since nothing happens by chance. Some of the blame will be directed at the parents, politicians, doctors, and celebrities who make plausible villains, or conspiracy theories that explain why someone else is always at fault. But much of the blame will devolve upon ourselves, since in being set free to choose so much about our lives, we will have no one else to blame when we make a complete mess of things. 

Is it Possible to Be a "Progressive Catholic?"

Patrick Deneen does not think so.

The Georgetown University politics professor (soon to be a Notre Dame politics professor) believes that the phrase “progressive Catholic” does not make sense. He makes this argument in a very insightful piece that critiques his colleague E.J. Dionne’s use of terms such as “progressive Catholic” and “social justice Catholics.”

It seems that Deneen is right when he suggests that the social teaching of the Catholic Church does not “map” very well on our current political landscape.  I have always wondered about this–both as a former Catholic and as a student of American religion.

Why don’t I ever hear so-called “progressive” or “liberal” Catholics defend the Church’s teaching on abortion and gay marriage?  In the last year or so I have spent some time with administrators and professors at Catholic universities and colleges who sound no different on these moral questions than any liberal academic. They all talk a good game on the “social justice” front, but they are rarely proactive in discussing the Church’s position on some of the issues that have become talking points for political conservatives.

And why don’t I ever hear conservative Catholics, such as those of the First Things variety (where Deneen published his piece), talk about social justice issues.  Instead, they extoll the virtues of capitalism, defend a pro-life position on abortion, and rail against gay marriage and stem-cell research. I rarely  hear them speak about poverty, the role of government, or other issues that have become talking points for political liberals.

Deneen’s piece is helpful on this front.

A taste:

The labels themselves are inappropriate, particularly that of “progressive Catholic”—a combination that is fundamentally a contradiction in terms, yet a label that Dionne uses again and again to describe his approach to the Catholic faith. The Progressives were theologically millenarian, even Arian, believing that salvation could be achieved through human effort and especially through the twin avenues of science and politics. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Progressives such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and Walter Rauschenbusch were self-described critics of the past and hostile to tradition. John Dewey equated Christianity and democracy, believing that democracy had become the new means of ongoing revelation, and in which the teacher should seek to bring about the kingdom of God—progress advanced in the classroom could accelerate the coming of the millennium on earth.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” Catholicism is an accumulation of tradition, including a magisterium that does not waver from the fundamental truth as divulged in the teachings and life of Jesus. It is a faith that traces itself back through apostolic succession to its point of origin with Jesus’s commission to his apostles to go forth and spread the Word. It is a faith that is populated by constant remembrance of the cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints, who are remembered in every Mass during the Eucharistic prayer. While Catholics look forward to the future with hope, they do not invest their hopes in perfection of the City of Man. If Catholics are anything, they are not “progressives,” and to import the political term for the description of Catholics is to collapse the Church into a political program that cannot be reconciled to the Catholic worldview.

If less pernicious, Dionne’s other preferred form of self-description—“Social Justice Catholic”—appears only to endorse the Church’s charitable work on behalf of the poor, with a heavy preference for government’s role in that effort. But is the Church’s efforts on behalf of the dignity of every human life—born or unborn—any less a part of its commitment to social justice? Is not the defense and preservation of the family a central focus of social justice? Should not we understand the Bishop’s opposition to the HHS mandate, and preservation of the Church’s ministry without needless interference by the State, also to be a part of social justice? Dionne seems to define social justice to be activities that conform solely to the platform of the Democratic Party, but, here again, American partisan positions map poorly onto the Church’s rich tradition of Catholic Social Thought. His portrayal of “Social Justice Catholics” as distinct from “conservative Catholics” is a disfigurement of the fullness of Catholic teaching.

Andy Crouch on Steve Jobs

Andy Crouch’s Wall Street Journal essay, “Steve Jobs: The Secular Prophet,” is the best thing I have read thus far on the death of the founder of Apple Computers.  Take some time and read it.

Here is a snippet:

But the rest of us, as grateful as we are for his legacy, still have to decide whether technology’s promise is enough to take us to the promised land. Is technology enough? Has the curse truly been repealed? Is the troublesome world simply awaiting another Steve Jobs, the evangelist of our power to unfold our own possibilities?

And, correspondingly, was the hope beyond themselves, and beyond this life, that animated Dr. King and his companions merely superfluous to the success of their cause, an accident of religious history rather than a civic necessity?

For people of a secular age, Steve Jobs’s gospel may seem like all the good news we need. But people of another age would have considered it a set of beautifully polished empty promises, notwithstanding all its magical results. Indeed, they would have been suspicious of it precisely because of its magical results.

And that may be true of a future age as well. Our grandchildren may discover that technological progress, for all its gifts, is the exception rather than the rule. It works wonders within its own walled garden, but it falters when confronted with the worst of the world and the worst in ourselves. Indeed, it may be that rather than concealing difficulty and relieving burdens, the only way forward in the most tenacious human troubles is to embrace difficulty and take up burdens—in Dr. King’s words, to embrace a “dangerous unselfishness.”

Whatever the limits of Steve Jobs’s secular gospel, or for that matter of Dr. King’s Christian one, our keen sense of loss at his passing reminds us that the oxygen of human societies is hope. Steve Jobs kept hope alive. We will not soon see his like again. Let us hope that when we do, it is soon enough to help us deal with the troubles that this century, and every century, will bring.

What Might a Non-Progressive History of Western Civilization Look Like?

Twenty years ago the late Christopher Lasch chronicled America’s addiction to progress and provided an alternative vision of American life.  The book was called The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics.  It was a masterpiece of scholarship and cultural criticism and it got a lot of liberal progressives very angry.

I have read The True and Only Heaven several times.  It is a book I return to quite often.  In fact, a couple of things have come up in the last few days that have led me to once again reflect on Lasch’s prophetic tome.

Yesterday I posted about and endorsed Catholic University’s decision to ban co-ed dorms. I thought I would get some backlash from a few of my more progressive readers, but so far my e-mail account, Facebook wall, and blog comments page have been void of criticism–either of me or Catholic University.

But while my progressive readers have been quiet, most progressives in the blogosphere have not.  The Left’s outrage over this decision, and the attempt by a George Washington University law professor to sue Catholic University, are deeply rooted in a progressive vision of American history.  While some progressives might be upset with the whole concept of same-sex dorms, what is particularly scandalous to them is the fact that a university that had previously allowed co-ed dorms has now decided to eliminate them.  This is so scandalous because it is perceived as a step backward–an unenlightened decision that contradicts what some believe to be progress.  To suggest, based on religious tradition, that young men and women are different enough to be housed in separate spaces, or that their  moral convictions might be strengthened by such a move, is antithetical to a progressive mindset that perceives morality in less traditional ways.

I thought about Lasch again when I read William Lind and William Piper’s provocative essay in The American Conservative.  The authors lay out what they call an “alternative” history of the West.  What might the story of Western Civilization look like, they ask, if the narrative was driven by faith, reason, and the failure of progress, especially in the 20th century?

Lind and Piper’s “alternative history” is not without its problems, and Georgetown political philosopher Patrick Deneen notes a few of them, but I think such a historiographical project is worth doing and I am appreciative to Lind and Piper for giving it a shot.  Lasch would be happy.

The St. Louis Hegelians

Forget about Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. Well before the University of Wisconsin history professor suggested that the key to American identity was the settlement of the frontier, a group of Georg Hegel disciples were arguing that history had a direction, and it was all pointing to St. Louis.

Here is a taste of Kerry Howley’s article at The Daily:

In 1856, a Prussian immigrant named Henry Conrad Brokmeyer retreated deep into the Missouri woods with a gun, a dog and a copy of “Science of Logic,” a philosophical text by Georg Hegel. Alone with Hegel’s thoughts over the next two years, Brokmeyer became convinced that this abstruse work by a German 25 years dead could save the nation from the very divisions about to lead it into civil war. It didn’t, of course, and Missouri, a border state, would not escape a gruesome guerrilla war. But a decade later, Brokmeyer and a friend named William Torrey Harris convinced the elite of St. Louis that Hegel’s work was central to the recovery of their country, their city and their own lives. The Civil War, Brokmeyer said, was part of a dialectical process. In what turned out to be one of the oddest episodes in the history of American thought, a group of men known as the St. Louis Hegelians declared that the direction of history led to eastern Missouri.

Brokmeyer sold a warped Hegelianism just flattering enough to believe: History had a direction. That direction was west, from Europe to the United States. History would unfold in the direction of a world-historical city, culminating in a flowering of freedom under a rational state. While Hegel had assumed Europe to be the place to which all of history pointed — when he said “west,” he meant from Asia to Europe — Brokmeyer said history would keep on rolling across the Atlantic, toward the biggest American city west of the Mississippi: St. Louis.  

Read the rest here.

Defending Progressivism

Conor Williams, a graduate student in government at Georgetown University, offers a historical corrective to the recent disparagement of the Progressive Movement by conservatives.  Here is a snippet:

So what does American progressivism mean? Start with what it’s not. The Right has long claimed that the Left represents a radical departure from traditional American understandings of individualism, liberty, equality, and justice. Just as those at Tea Party protests demand their country back from usurping politicians, conservative intellectuals have taken to maintaining that American progressivism somehow betrays the American political experiment, feeding right-wing charges that progressives are unpatriotic or out of step with the rest of the nation.

This position rests upon poor intellectual history and strained interpretations of progressive principles. The most substantive of their charges are based on small or irrelevant moments in progressive thought or history taken out of context, while their wilder charges are based on pure rhetorical frustration. Simply put: progressives are not nihilists, nor are they opposed to the American Constitution, nor are they socialists with a utopian faith in inevitable progress. Nothing could be further from the case. Let us take up each of these charges in turn…

He continues: 

Hope for the future only suggests that the future may have something better in store. To be a progressive is to believe that we can address present difficulties, and that creatively facing them is preferable to resignation. To be a progressive is to admit that dogmatic certainty has no place in a complex world with many moving parts, and that the best we can offer each other is a commitment to engage, experiment, and reevaluate our choices. American progressives are committed to working within the American tradition to solve problems prompted by changes to the American community. They argue for political change on the grounds that it is suggested by core commitments from the American past. Progressives argue that what was once considered fair or just may no longer be honestly seen as such.

For example, during the civil rights movement, progressives claimed that equal political treatment of all Americans was a core principle in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution’s Preamble, and its fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, even if the United States had in practice allowed racial segregation. This was a rejoinder to those who believed that such political problems could be solved by applying inflexible rules or by blind adherence to antiquated interpretations of natural rights. It should come as no surprise, then, that Obama’s attempts to reform significant elements of the political status quo are prompting such feverish attacks from opponents. In essence, they want desperately to believe that new problems can be solved in old ways: without change, and certainly without innovation. The interconnectedness of America’s many political problems—extensive military commitments, a struggling economy, and a growing deficit, foremost among them—makes it clear that still more substantial political reform, and imaginative projection of national ideals, is needed.

Progressive politics are founded upon a commitment to the dialogue and debate necessary for constantly refining the national project. Progressives envision democratic politics as an ongoing and committed conversation, where policy choices must be defended with considered reasons and compelling proof. It is in this vein that President Obama provides an inspiring example; in the face of unabated criticism, extremist hatred, and obstructionism, he has remained committed to discussion of the facts most relevant to the issues of each day.

You can disagree with everything that the Progressive Movement stood for (and as readers of this blog know I have some serious issues with too much “progress.”  I am a bit of Laschian in this regard), but don’t demonize Progressivism until you fully understand it. As Williams shows, one could make a legitimate historical argument that progress is deeply rooted in the American tradition.

Progressives, Conservatives, and Porchers

Over at Front Porch Republic (FPR), Patrick Deneen defines these terms. Here is a taste:

A commenter on my most recent posting writes:

While there is much truth to what you write, in my experience as a pedestrian/bicycle/transit/sustainability advocate in the Madison, Wisconsin area, the people most inclined to have doubts about STEM are self-described liberals and progressives. When Wendell Berry spoke here last fall, the Overture Center was filled to overflowing with progressives – I doubt many Unitarians missed it.

It is the progressive types I know whose use of the word “community” most closely matches Berry’s definition of it. Meanwhile the notion that “community” requires respect for – and a return to – our better traditions seems to be sinking in among them (I would like to think I am assisting in this process.)

I’ve expressed my unhappiness with the term “Progressive” as a label used to describe a stance sympathetic with many of the positions embraced and advanced here on FPR. However, just as often I and many here write critically about so-called “conservatives” – particularly of the mainstream variety – whose embrace of corporatism, militarism, and cheerleading for unfettered economic growth is just as repugnant. These labels hinder often much more than they enlighten.

FPR, I think, seeks to appeal to dissidents in both camps – in no small part by pointing out the historic abuses of these labels. “Conservatives,” in many respects, are arguably as “progressive” as the Progressives of yesteryear. That is, there is little difference between those “conservatives” who cheerled “No Child Left Behind” and “progressive” advocates of centralized education; little distinction to be drawn between the embrace of “globalization” by denizens of the Left and “democratization” by the Bushies; little contrast between what is a widely shared encouragement to “equality of opportunity” and the promotion of the meritocracy by elites both Left and Right. Liberals and conservatives alike are often more similar in their fawning enthusiasm for STEM than liable to be in disagreement.

If I’m somewhat partial to the word “conservative” (and I say that never having voted Republican in my life), it’s because its etymological roots inescapably emphasize the concept of “conservation,” in contrast to the central emphasis of the word “progressive,” which is “progress” (i.e., the very opposite of “conserving”). It’s necessary to recall that it was 20th-century Progressives that actively sought the evisceration of local customs and folkways in the name of “rationalization” and scientific planning – among other things, through the advancement of the social sciences. Progressivism sought the replacement of “local knowledge” with “expertise”; its central emphasis was upon “growth” in every form (you can’t read a page of John Dewey without recognizing the emphasis upon “growth”); and, it was impatient with invocations of human falleness, sinfulness, and iniquity, instead preferring to re-describe human failings in therapeutic terms and recommending various therapies for their cure.

I am delighted that “progressives” in places like Madison, Wisconsin are flocking to hear Wendell Berry. I’d caution against embrace of that term, however (just as I mostly cringe when I hear the word “conservative” invoked). I’m open to another term – whether radical traditionalist or Jeffersonian republican or – hell – Porcher.

Dennen on the Liberal Arts

Over at The New Atlantis website, Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University has a wonderfully provocative and thoughtful essay about the ways in which the pursuit of “science” has caused the decline of the liberal arts and the humanities in American colleges and universities. Here is just a small snippet from a piece that needs to be read in its entirety:

In response to these tectonic shifts, the humanities began to question their place within the university. Their practitioners still studied the great texts, but if the practice remained the same, the purpose was increasingly unclear. Did it make sense any longer to teach young people the challenging lessons of how to use freedom well, when increasingly the scientific world seemed to make those lessons unnecessary? Could an approach based on culture and tradition remain relevant in an age that valued, above all, innovation and progress? How could the humanities prove their worth, in the eyes of administrators and the broader world?

These doubts within the humanities became the fertile seedbed for self-destructive tendencies. Informed by Heideggerian theories that placed primacy on the liberation of the will, first poststructuralism and then postmodernism took root. These and other approaches, while apparently hostile to the rationalist claims of the sciences, were embraced out of the need to conform to the academic demands being set by the natural sciences, especially for “progressive” knowledge. Faculty could demonstrate their progressiveness by showing the backwardness of the texts; they could “create knowledge” by showing their own superiority to the authors they studied; they could display their anti-traditionalism by attacking the very books that were the basis of their discipline. Philosophies that preached “the hermeneutics of mistrust,” that exulted in exposing the way texts were deeply informed by inegalitarian prejudices, and that even questioned the idea that texts contained a “teaching” at all, offered the humanities the possibility of proving themselves relevant in the terms set by the modern scientific approach. By adopting a jargon only comprehensible to a few “experts,” they could emulate the scientific priesthood — betraying the original mandate of the humanities to guide students through the cultural inheritance and teachings of the classic books. Professors in the humanities showed their worth by destroying the thing they studied.