“Progressive” has become a buzzword. Conservatives use it in a negative context and in such a way that it seems to have replaced the word “liberal.” I’ve been teaching for years about the fact that “progress” was one of the cornerstones of Enlightenment thinking. Since it has been around in its most recent incarnation, (it actually goes back to the Fall*) for going on four hundred years, I am a bit mystified as to what has caused people to begin spouting it as a cross between an incantation and a curse. Here are a few thoughts on the idea progress and being progressive.
Progress can be good. If I want to get from ‘point a’ to ‘point b’, progress is the ticket, but progress can also be bad. When I was being treated for cancer I had regular scans. What I wanted to hear when my phone rang with news after each scan was that the cancer cells were retreating. I prayed that my cancer would not progress, but that it would, well, die. We, as modern human beings living in a world that moves so fast we don’t have time to take a breath, are addicted to progress. We like for things to happen. We like everything instant, pre-prepared and ready-made. We have no patience. Pity the poor person who gets engaged in conversation with a passenger at a red light and does not notice that the light has turned green. He will know very soon that he is impeding the progress of those behind him. No one likes to sit still; in fact “progress” has become synonymous with “movement;” as Dory the fish says, “Just keep swimming.”
The problem is, movement is only helpful if it has a purpose and direction. It is possible to keep moving but make no real progress because the movement may be in the wrong direction. I could never in a billion years express this as well as C.S. Lewis, so I won’t try. Here’s the truth:
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if this is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.” (The Case for Christianity, 1942)
Progress is not bad in and of itself. The problem comes when we progress simply for the sake of progressing. I think the people to whom the term “Progressive” can rightly be applied, are anything BUT aimless. What we must examine is the intended destination of “Progressives.” I think we will find that they are very familiar.
*Satan: “You won’t die! He knows this will make you like Him. (PROGRESS!)”