The Paradox of Progress

Len WilsonChurch, Culture, SemioticsLeave a Comment

The following is chapter 5 of my recently published dissertation, Rising to Heaven: The Ideology of Progress and the Semiotics of Church Growth. At the end of the article, see a link to the entire dissertation.

A defining theme of the still young century is the imminent demise of Western civilization. The public polling firm Rasmussen has weekly monitored the question if America is “headed in the right direction” since 2009. In no single week of ten years of polling have the majority of Americans answered this question in the affirmative.[1]

Prior to the 2016 presidential election, New York Times columnist David Brooks commented that pessimism was “just en vogue.”[2] Political theorist Matthew Slaboch notes that “Obama ran on a traditional message that America is progressing and pushed that it isn’t in decline.”[3] On the eve of the election, Obama told a crowd in Michigan that “tomorrow, you will choose whether we continue this journey of progress, or whether it all goes out the window.”[4]Clearly, this message did not resonate, and in electing Trump, American voters seemed to repudiate progress—or at least Obama’s vision of it. Slaboch writes, “America … is a country founded at the height of the Enlightenment and imbued with a faith in progress. Now that the vast majority of its citizens are discontented and have a pessimistic view of the future, this presents a striking state of affairs.”[5]

Existential angst is rising, with the threat of climate change, the rise in global population, ongoing frustrations about equality, and other seemingly intractable problems facing Western society. The data is grim, with “two diverging trend lines: one upward-sloping, for people, and one sloping downward, for everything else.”[6] Signs of nihilism and even anti-natalism are emerging. A New York Times editorial suggests that human extinction might not be such a bad thing.[7] Business periodical Fast Company published the thoughts of Paola Antonelli, a curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who suggests that the “human species is hurtling toward extinction” and the best we can do at this point is “design an elegant ending.”[8] A movement called “Birthstrike” advocates that women not have children because of the dangers of climate change.[9] Others suggest that not only is it preferable to not bring new humans into the world, it is better to not even be alive.[10] Such death wishes might seem like the ravings of the emotionally unstable, yet they even come from United States congressional representatives.[11] When American politicians swap from championing great societies to inferring the end of society within a half century, it would seem we have removed some proverbial finger in the dike keeping culture from collapse.

Progress, along with scholar Stephen Pinker’s other three pillars of Enlightenment philosophy—reason, science, and humanism—all seem to be under attack. For example, even sacrosanct evolutionary theory is no longer a distinct ontology according to journalist A.W. Wilson, who suggests that Darwinism is “not in fact scientific at all, but expressions of opinion. Metaphysical opinion at that.”[12] Beyond a renewed controversy over Darwinism, however, what does this “rhetoric of collapse” in public discourse signify? Does it represent a repudiation of progress, or perhaps specific political, social, or economic versions of it? Is progress at the end of the line? Let us look at the state of progress today.


A simple answer for the cracks appearing in progress and in the larger closed dome of Enlightenment thought is that not everyone has benefitted. For many groups, the shape of history as an incline has not sufficiently alleviated suffering. Some scholars insist that what we call progress is merely justification for “cultural hegemony,”[13] a term for the dissemination of the dominant ideology of ruling nation(s). Millions of contemporary Americans, for example, because of race, gender, class, or simple ill-fortune, do not participate in or benefit from the seemingly inexorable advancement of progress.

This is true historically, as well. In the last 200 years of data cited by progress proponents, many groups have failed to enjoy the benefits of social-technological improvement. For example, as Lord Byron noted in his defense of the legendary Ned Ludd, an early nineteenth century weaver who was put out of work by mechanized production and who gave us the anti-technology axiom “luddite”[14], with every technological advancement in society, jobs emerge and jobs fade away. Lives improve and lives suffer; some unwillingly sacrifice in order that others would benefit. The data of societal advancement cited by progress proponents advocate, such as the increase in literacy, life expectancy and standard of living, are clean in aggregate but complicated in detail.

Progress had been a teleological force behind many of the waves of Enlightenment political revolution. Kant wrote that republican governments will bring about perpetual peace and progress humankind “toward the better.”[15]Since war is the greatest obstacle to morality, political progress would thus lead to moral progress. But this view has proven problematic, to say the least, specifically as Slaboch notes “with regard to the cosmopolitan aim of universal history.” For example, consider the “evolution” of a philosophy of progress: while Kant championed that all people would eventually participate in progress, he saw European state powers as having a stronger role than other cultures and groups. Kant’s euro-centric view of progress had some effect on Fichte, who believed humankind is progressing through five epochs, from instinct to complete self-organization through the development of reason.[16] He saw the German people as leading these advancements. Fichte in turn influenced Hegel, for whom progress was not shared by all humanity but gave authority to certain superior groups, such as Nazi Germany. Slaboch writes,

Kant, Fichte, and Hegel each offered optimistic philosophies of history. Having provided visions of a better future, these philosophers—or their popularizers—naturally desired some entity to bring about that earthy Elysium; almost inevitably, the deity to which the worshippers of progress prostrated themselves to was the state.[17]

A state-driven ideal promised equality for all but was to be administered by a ruling party, according to a ruling party’s rules. As Lenin famously summarized (and prophesied) regarding the progressive political ideal, “who? whom?”[18]—in other words, who overtakes whom in order to achieve “equality for all”?

Christians should be cautious about breezy support of authoritarian, utilitarian approaches to societal advancement, in which benefits to the majority outweigh losses to a sometimes significant minority, or one in which we use the levers of politics to remove power from some and give to others in a zero-sum attempt to engineer a more humane, “kingdom” society. James C. Scott critiques “the imperialism of high modernist, planned social order”[19] which seeks to organize society according to scientific principles and ignores local, contextualized knowledge and relationships. Centrally managed social planning fails, Scott argues, when it imposes inadequate schematic visions that do violence to complex local and relational dependencies that cannot be fully understood.[20] As French political philosopher Margaret Majumdar writes, “even those who believed in the generally progressive march of history, such as Karl Marx, had been forced to concede that there could be losers as well as winners in the actual processes involved in economic and social change.”[21] The case studies of 20th-century national politics have obviously demonstrated that the ability to engineer a more perfect solution, as we are still prone to do in society and in church, is vastly overstated.

Social and Technological

Or consider the state of education in America, both public and private. Mobile devices are easily one of the most invasive new technological innovations of 21st century Western culture.[22] The predominant age when children receive a smartphone with a service plan is now age 10,[23] which is old news to anyone with school-aged children. The result has been a battle in the classroom over use of devices, and the teachers are losing. While advocates may make arguments that mobile technology is improving society in the aggregate, what is it doing to those students for whom the additional distraction in the classroom is harming their ability to receive the education they will need later in life? The connected world is living out a real-time experiment, and the returns are not looking favorable, as a growing body of research suggests that “smartphones are causing real damage to our minds and relationships.”[24] 1990s concern over the rise of a “digital divide” giving privileged groups unfair access to the Internet has inverted:

The real digital divide in this country is not between children who have access to the internet and those who don’t. It’s between children whose parents know that they have to restrict screen time and those whose parents have been sold a bill of goods by schools and politicians that more screens are a key to success.[25]

Issues of race also render an ideology of progress problematic. In 2008, as the economy of the United States was about to collapse, a sermon by Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ damaged the candidacy of Barack Obama for its willingness to question the “American Dream,” a Depression-era phrase that sought to hold on to the ideal of progress in light of the worst economic circumstances in American history. As pastor, African American scholar, and Wright protégé Frank Thomas observes, the American Dream has largely been “a ritual of benefit for a certain class of people,”[26] a class that has largely excluded people of color. Wright’s prophetic sermon generated controversy for both its rhetoric and for the realization from both the political left and right that segments of the population dared to question the ideal of progress. 

Further, while many like to correlate the Enlightenment with abolitionism and a rise in the autonomy of all persons, the majority of all African slaves shipped to the New World were transported during the period now recognized as the height of the Enlightenment.[27] As cultural historian David Brion Davis writes, “enslavement has usually been seen by the enslavers as a form of human progress.”[28] This has created deep ambivalence for people of color, as well as a variety of responses. Some people of color re-appropriated progress in light of justice. For example, Martin Luther King Jr., famously paraphrased nineteenth century abolitionist Theodore Parker, who had preached

You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.[29]

While Obama followed King’s lead, his mentor Jeremiah Wright did not share his optimism. Neither does next generation Democratic congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who “depicts American history less as an arc of progress than as a circle, in which America repeats—rather than rises above—its past.”[30] This profound shift in rhetoric, from incline to circle, is both recent and notable.

Even the reams of statistics which defenders of Enlightenment philosophy employ are worth further examination. For example, while it is true that standards of living have dramatically increased since the beginning of the nineteenth century, any analysis of the past 150 years is remiss to ignore the introduction of “total war” with the Guns of August in 1914, a level of warfare unmatched in human history. By any measure, the wars of the twentieth century, in aggregate, are the deadliest catastrophes in human history. By the end of The Great War in 1918, so crushed was the nineteenth century romantic ideal that an entire generation became known as “lost” for the profound epistemological disconnection between the ideals of their Enlightenment education and their first-hand experience of war. Further, it may be argued that the wars of the twentieth century ruined the progress ideal entirely where the scars of bombs are deepest, such as in western Europe, and that the version of progress that survived adopted American emphases on technology and material gain. 

In light of war and other atrocities, what remains is both a love of technological progress and fear regarding a loss of control of technological progress. Since the early twentieth century, millions of people have flocked to epic displays of new technology, and have appropriated them en masse into daily living, while at the same time artists imagine dystopian futures which ask deep, epistemic questions about the dangers of technology serving evil masters.

Equal and Opposite

Consider this anecdotal chart, compiled by two of my teenaged children, on their perceptions of things that are better and things that are worse, on aggregate, in the past one hundred years:

Since 100 Years Ago
Health CareCivility
Life ExpectancyLanguage
Standard of LivingCulture

Of course, one could argue some of these choices, but the point remains. Some things improve; others worsen. As sociologist Robert Wright notes, 

Pinker attributes too much of our past progress to Enlightenment thought (giving short shrift, for example, to the role of Christian thinkers and activists in ending slavery); his faith in science and reason is naive, given how often they’ve been misused; his assumption that scientifically powered progress will bring happiness betrays a misunderstanding of our deepest needs; his apparent belief that secular humanism can fill the spiritual void left by rationalism’s erosion of religion only underscores that misunderstanding.[31]

Most importantly, as Gregory notes, progress tends to be self-fulfilling. Long-term historical narratives “presuppose a supersessionist model of historical change … [in which] mere temporal succession … is insufficiently distinguished from historical explanation, as if chronos automatically produced Zeitgeist.”[32] Leaning on the promises of progress seems naive at best and more likely dangerous when it ignores history, displaces people, engenders violence, and endangers children. Progress increases knowledge with little thought of wisdom. It empowers individuals with little thought to community. 

As philosopher John Gray writes, “Nothing is more commonplace than to lament that moral progress has failed to keep pace with scientific knowledge.”[33] In response, social commentary blog Farnam Street writes that Gray’s real problem with the idea of moral progress, technical progress, and scientific progress is that, even were they real, they would be unending: “In the modern conception of the world, unlike the ancient past where everything was seen as cyclical, growth has no natural stop-point. It’s just an infinite path to the heavens.”[34]

Progress, of course, does not just suggest technological advancement, but concomitant humanism, or increasing individual autonomy, in all of our diversity. But policies and ethics that celebrate individual autonomy sometimes create unexpected collisions, for example in the tension between sexual freedom and rape culture. In our eagerness to expand the umbrella of progress, we forget Newton’s Third Law. We strive for “equal” but get “equal and opposite.” Contrary to the ideal of progress, if technology has done anything for us, it has magnified human tendencies, for better or for worse. As Ronald Wright observes, we become victims of our own success, and every time history repeats itself, the cost increases.[35]

Even medicine, which as noted improved radically through the application of empiricism, is not immune to the tendency to be equal and opposite. In our sanitizer culture, increases in standards of living through decline in bacterial disease[36] are offset with an alarming rise in new, infectious diseases.[37]

If only we were more intelligent or more moral, we might use technology for purely benign ends. As has been oft noted, when it comes to technological advancement, the fault is not in our tools, but ourselves. In one sense, this is true. Progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately, this problem appears to be scientifically intractable.

The Sine Wave

Perhaps we should not be surprised at the turns of Western culture in the second decade of the 21st century. Enlightenment ideals notwithstanding, a long look back belies any facile sense of onward and upward historical or deterministic development. For example, recounting the history of Christianity in Cambridge, Ian Cooper notes periods of rising and waning Christian influence over 1,600 years of British history, juxtaposed in varying degrees with periods of waxing and waning cultural flourishing.[38] Or consider the silk road, which carried both valuable trade and deadly bubonic plague.[39] It is hard to read any Christian or cultural history and retain confidence in a grand ascension to heaven. Indeed, the current pessimistic zeitgeist seems to be dragging down the ascendancy of progress, as well as the entire Enlightenment experiment.[40] Majumdar writes,

Faith in progress as an unstoppable historical certainty has been shattered by real historical developments such as the growth of fascism and Nazism, the two world wars and the barbarity associated with them. There has been a recognition that history can go backwards as well as forwards, that there can be regressive as well as progressive phases.[41]

Of particular interest in understanding progress in relationship to the American church is Henry Adams, grandson of president John Quincy Adams. Considering his social standing and intellectual heritage, if anyone should have believed in progress, it would have been such a figure. Yet the younger Adams had seen enough corruption form in Washington, D.C. over the course of his lifetime to adopt a different view.[42] Whereas Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill, two others who were cognizant of democracy’s shortcomings, thought the deficiencies of the political system in America were ameliorable, Adams did not share their optimism. Late in his life, Adams wrote A History of the United States, a nine-volume study of early nineteenth century America commonly regarded as one of the great written histories. In it he drew from philosophers such as Hegel and Schopenhauer and wrote that, even when evidence showed the contrary, most published histories tended to stress an ideology of progress, which was characteristic of the late-19th century intellectual environment in which Adams lived. Yet as Slaboch writes, “In the eyes of Henry Adams, immutable laws degraded every sphere of human existence, the political realm not excepted.”[43] In an age when his contemporaries saw upward progress, Adams saw the downward turn of an epochal circle, a declining societal wheel, which must reach a bottom before an eventual rebirth could occur.

Considering the limitations of the circle, straight line, and upward slope, the one historiographical shape that seems most evident is a sine wave, a repeating pattern of ups and downs, in which periods of rise are followed by periods of fall, with human events invariably triggering a societal regression toward the mean. Is the true shape of history a sine wave, a synthesis of the circle with the straight line and a secularization of a meaningful understanding of history coupled with a rejection of any sort of eschaton or transformative end?

Cultural embrace of a sine wave—and, perhaps, our current spot on the downhill slope—may be contributing to the rhetoric of collapse, of a loss of teleology and even human agency in relationship to the future end of history. This is not new. Even at the height of the Enlightenment, some struggled to reconcile belief in linear history with disbelief in a transformed end. 

In his study of select thinkers who rejected the Enlightenment ideal of progress, political historian Slaboch identified some who understood history as a downward slope to disintegration and collapse; others who saw some form of cycle, with hills and dales; and still others who saw nothing but chaos and randomness.[44] Among philosophers and writers who viewed history as a “bumpy but straight road to nowhere” include Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Adams, Solzhenitsyn and Lasch. Schopenhauer argued that “constructive histories, guided by a shallow optimism, always ultimately end in a comfortable fat, substantial State” and that “almost inevitably, the deity to which the worshippers of progress prostrated themselves to was the state.”[45] In War and Peace, published over 400 years after the emergence of the printing press, Tolstoy writes that “the most powerful of ignorance’s weapons” is “the dissemination of printed matter.”[46] To Adams, “immutable laws degraded every sphere of human existence, the political realm not excepted.”[47] Addressing the virtues of progress, Solzhenitsyn said, ““we all have lived through the twentieth-century, a century of terror, the chilling culmination of that progress about which so many dreamed in the eighteenth century.”[48]Lasch suggests that we have reached “the exhaustion of the progressive tradition,” but carry it forward for lack of a better alternative.[49] Perhaps these philosophers were just grumpy. Yet, their positions seem prescient today.


Generational theory constitutes a more recent attempt to contextualize the seemingly random rises and falls of culture. The seminal work on a philosophy of history as seen through the lens of generational sociology comes from a Karl Mannheim essay on generations, in 1923. Picking up on Augustine’s metaphor of the development of a single human life to describe the course of history, but with no evidence he knew this, Mannheim notes that the Positivists “all were anxious to find a general law to express the rhythm of historical development” and that

the aim was to understand the changing patterns of intellectual and social currents directly in biological terms, to construct the curve of progress of the human species in terms of its vital substructure. In the process, everything, so far as possible, was simplified: a schematic psychology provided that the parents should always be the conservative force. Presented in this light, the history of ideas appears reduced to a chronological table.[50]

Despite praise for Mannheim’s essay, sociologist Jane Pilcher notes that “scant attention” of the impact of autonomous generational cohorts on society remained largely underdeveloped for decades, “despite the notion of generation being widespread in everyday language as a way of understanding differences between age groups and as a means of locating individuals and groups within historical time.”[51] Generational theory began to gain traction in the popular press by the 1990s, driven in part by corporate demographic studies. Schlesinger, Jr., noted the relationship between these cycles of history and the influence of generational cohorts: “there is no mystery about the periodicity” of cycles of negative and affirmative government – they happen at roughly the span of a generation, and “the generational succession has been the mainspring of the cycle.”[52] Strauss and Howe combine generational sociological theory with cyclical historical theory and claim that, rather than a progressive upward slope, a better metaphor for history is that of a repeating cycle of “systole and diastole,” with each cycle spanning roughly 80 years, or one human life.[53] The sine wave embraces Augustine’s view of history as human development but includes the rest of the metaphor of a human life: decline and death. (Here, the follower of Jesus may see a glimpse at a possible post-progress view of the future. We will return to this image later.)

In their 1991 book, Generations, contemporary pop philosophers Strauss and Howe suggest that American culture and even all of Western culture can be understood as a series of repeating, 80-year cycles.[54] Their book became controversial for its appearance in the hands of President Donald Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon shortly after Trump’s election in 2016.[55]  Between the book’s publication and its popularity spike, Strauss and Howe established market credibility for their demographic analysis of audiences, and are credited with coining the term “Millennial” to refer to the cohort of people in the American market born between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. Strauss and Howe advocate a circular view of history built around an 80-year cycle, as well, which they describe using the term, “saeculum,” (Latin for a single, long human life, and also metaphysical term in early Christian thought for the secular, pre-kingdom age). They suggest that history repeats itself in definable 80 year cycles, which may be broken down into 20-year segments: a “High,” an outer world period of peak structure and order, which is akin to spring; an “Awakening,” a period of cultural flourishing, akin to summer;  an “Unraveling,” a period, akin to fall, in which we retreat from the outer world to the inner world; collapse, and finally a “Crisis,” akin to winter, in which we collectively emerge from our inner worlds and rebuild a new outer world.[56] Howe claims we are currently living through a “crisis” period—which is of course good for book sales.

Others have employed scientific approaches to support claims of cyclical patterns in history. Data scientist Peter Turchin applied algorithms developed to track predator–prey cycles in forest ecosystems to the understanding of human history and came up with what he calls “cliodynamics,” a pattern of cyclical patterns occurring every 50 years—which as with Strauss and Howe, means the next ominous reset is immanent.[57]

Notably, each of the modern theorists listed has used cyclical theory to call for a form of political nationalism to emerge in order to forestall inevitable decline and disintegration.[58]

A Material World

Perhaps profit remains the one irresistible proof of progress in America. The material desire and need to generate quarterly shareholder return may be the most dominant iteration of the ideology of progress in America today. “Progress is now often defined solely in terms of quantifiable economic growth, linked to the global extension of a particular economic system,”[59] best captured by the image of the Dow Jones index, which rises and falls over time, but with an aggregate upward slope. It is hard to argue against the value of progress when standards of living increase and people continue to immigrate to the United States from around the world for the potential of economic betterment. 

Earlier, I outlined the influence of Frederick Winslow Taylor as the first corporate efficiency specialist, and the benefits of a focus on improving production. However, the emphasis on efficiency, manifested by an increasing focus on quarterly shareholder return, has proven problematic. Immediate gain narrows the focus of “improvement”; values efficiency over risk, much less over what is good; paints a false picture of growth that can mask long term atrophy; and turns business into a game of survival, based on fear of loss over joy of gain. Economist Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for naming and drawing attention to this fear: Prospect Theory, in which people tend to fear losses disproportionately more than they value equivalent gains.[60] When we are forced to return a profit every three months, there is no room for error. As a society, we have tried to remove risk-taking. Quarterly profit models favor “failure prevention”, yet “the more comfortable you are with looseness and uncertainty, the less fragile your environment is … complex systems are weakened, even killed, when deprived of stressors.”[61]

It is a myth to believe we can manage the error out of complex systems, whether in corporate settings or in personal relationships. When the highest value is failure prevention, one little problem can ruin everything, as noted in Malcolm Gladwell’s story of the O-ring failure that caused the space shuttle Challenger to explode.[62]

The focus on efficiency and resulting fear of failure is indicative of a loss in creative thinking. Risk is a prerequisite for creativity, which is a prerequisite for true growth. “Economic growth and innovation rely on the emergence of new startups and entrepreneurs with disruptive ideas,” yet “when the gale of creative destruction stops blowing, industries stagnate.”[63] In other words, our modern economic system’s demand for growth without uncertainty is self-defeating. 

Evidence is bearing this out. For the first time in 60 years of comparison, Americans younger than 35 now have less economic optimism for the future than Americans 55 and older.[64] People are less enamored with things, and long for experiences.[65] The lie is that economic gain is sustainable, anyway, as cultures around the world have known for generations. 

An old Scottish proverb states, “The father buys, the son builds, the grandson sells, and his son begs.” Japanese culture’s version: “rice paddy to rice paddy in three generations.” Modern American data’s discovery: somewhere between 70%[66] and 90%[67] of rich families lose their wealth by the third generation. We are addicted to growth and need “economies that make us thrive whether or not they grow.”[68] Other cultures have similar sayings for the tendency of history to repeat itself in the rising and falling fortunes of family wealth. We apply a linear view of time to our economic models, but the reality is not perpetual upward progress—data shows that is more like a circle that draws back on itself, over and over.

The focus on material gain through shared self-interest echoes the work of Ayn Rand. Material growth reframes progress as profit and minimizes human relationships at the expense of gain. We have played nice in the shared sands of self-gain, as long as we see quarterly shareholder returns, but the epistemologies of efficient production are weakening.

With an increasing realization that we cannot strip the planet of resources indefinitely, the result is an increasing call by some to abandon economic and material growth,[69] and by others to redefine economic growth according to slower, more sustainable models.[70] Of course the hard part is convincing every nation to go along.

If material growth is no longer viable, what viable models are left? At each stage, meaning has been stripped from philosophies of history. Is it not possible to rise to heaven? In lieu of ultimate meaning, political purpose, or material gain, does history have any reason at all? Or is history a perpetual cycle of wandering in the wilderness, searching in vain for a lost land of milk and honey?

Nihilism and Power

For some contemporary philosophers, the answer is nothingness. In rejecting the philosophy of progress, John Gray reduces humankind to the state of animals.[71] Since progress is a delusion, humanity is actually “on a road to nowhere,” to quote lyricist David Byrne.[72] “Indeed, “no” + “place” is the original etymology of “utopia” (ou-topos), a word invented by English humanist Sir Thomas More[73] and the term used in much contemporary technology advertising to describe our shared future destination. 

To the biblically informed reader, such aimlessness may sound familiar. The book of Ecclesiastes is famous for its laments about meaning: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) Such desperation, then, is nothing new. 

The Psalmist captures the seeming randomness of both gain and loss: “They sowed fields and planted vineyards that yielded a fruitful harvest; he blessed them, and their numbers greatly increased, and he did not let their herds diminish. Then their numbers decreased, and they were humbled by oppression, calamity and sorrow; he who pours contempt on nobles made them wander in a trackless waste.” (Psalm 107:37-40)

Into this nihilistic vacuum steps human will to power. Power is the one immutable truth of George R. R. Martin’s epic tale, “Game of Thrones,” one of the dominant cultural phenomena of the 2010s, which presents a world in which there is no good or bad, only an ever-changing sequence of alliances and conquests. Without the common cause and purpose provided by science and progress, humankind quickly devolves into an endless struggle for power.

Because of his rejection of an ontological historical structure, yet inability to completely reject a straight-line view of history, Schopenhauer reverted to the human will as the only guiding force of history. In spite of all of the upsets and upheavals historians have recorded, he wrote, “we yet always have before us only the same, identical, unchangeable essence”[74]: the human will, which is the guiding force of the world (as opposed to the will of any sort of deity). He compared life’s ups and downs to the thread of a needle running through an embroidery, guided by a proverbial single, human hand: “Life could be compared to an embroidery, of which we see the right side during the first side of life, but the back during the latter half. The backside is less scintillating but more instructive; it reveals the interpatterning of threads.”[75] Ironically, though he distrusted the state, Schopenhauer’s orientation toward sole authority residing in the human will was a significant contributing factor in the late 19th century rise of nationalism through Europe,[76] which in turn motivated the consummate progress-denying event, World War I. 

If we are not rising to heaven through political and social development, and material gain is not only meaningless but unsustainable, we are left with one end: that human will to power is the logical conclusion of the ideology of progress. 

Part Two Summary

The story of the ironically named country of Liberia illustrates the end conclusion of human will to power. 

Liberia was founded in the mid-19th century by former African American slaves, in a coming home emigration. Tragically, rather than establish an alternative republic based on the virtues to which the American experiment aspired, they instead established a plantation style system of domination and subjugation of the native people of the region, based on the actual values they had experienced first-hand in America. Their life and worldview had been shaped by power, so when they acquired their own freedom, they used that power to in turn subjugate others. 

Today, Liberia is one of the least developed countries in the world. It was ground zero for the biggest global health scare to date of the 21st century, the Ebola virus. That such a virus would come from such a country is not a theological surprise. Liberia epitomizes the broken human condition, and the zero-sum limitation of a worldview, no matter how well-intentioned, based in power. 

Power is zero-sum because it assumes that there needs to be winners and losers. For all of the good that theologies of progress have done to draw awareness and improve social conditions of oppressed peoples, it has taught its adherents to consider human agency according to rules of power.

Like so many military leaders before and after him, Roman governor Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “what is truth?”. He knew no other way. At least Pilate was honest in his assessment and question. A broken world knows no other answer than the drive for ever-increasing power as a ward for death, which in the end comes anyway.

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[1] “Right Direction or Wrong Track”, Rasmussen Reports, April 1, 2019,

[2] PBS NewsHour, “Shields and Brooks on Obama’s NewsHour interview, presidential legacy,” June 1, 2016,

[3] Matthew W. Slaboch, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 2.

[4] Slaboch.

[5] Slaboch, 111.

[6] Elizabeth Kolbert, “Climate Change and the New Age of Extinction,” New Yorker, May 13, 2019,

[7] Todd May, “Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?” New York Times, December 17, 2018,

[8] Suzanne Labarre, “MoMA curator: ‘[Humanity] will become extinct. We need to design an elegant ending’”, Fast Company, January 8, 2019,

[9] Adele Peters, “Meet the women deciding not to have kids because of climate change,” Fast Company, March 7, 2019,

[10] Joshua Rothman, “The Case for Not Being Born.” New Yorker, November 27, 2017,

[11] Jack Crowe, “AOC: ‘Is It Still Okay to Have Children’ in the Age of Climate Change,” National Review, February 25, 2019,

[12] A. N. Wilson, Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017), loc. 577.

[13] Lempert.

[14] Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 9.

[15] Slaboch, 15.

[16] Slaboch, 16.

[17] Slaboch, 17.

[18] Leon Trotsky, “Towards Capitalism or Towards Socialism?” The Labour Monthly 7 no. 11 (November 1925): 659-666.

[19] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 6.

[20] Scott, 310.

[21] Scott., 603.

[22] Computer Business Review lists the iPhone as one of the top 5, along with Facebook, Skype, Bluetooth, and IBM Watson. I would have made it a top two list. Tom Ball, “Top 5 Technological Advances of the 21st Century,” Computer Business Review, February 8, 2018, accessed April 21, 2018,

[23] “Mobile Kids: The Parent, The Child, and The Smartphone,” Nielsen, February 28, 2017, accessed April 21, 2018,–the-parent-the-child-and-the-smartphone.html

[24] Eric Andrew-Gee, “Your Smartphone is Making You Stupid, Antisocial and Unhealthy. So Why Can’t You Put It Down?” The Globe and Mail, January 6, 2018,

[25] Naomi Schaefer Riley, “America’s Real Digital Divide”, New York Times, February 11, 2018,

[26] Frank A. Thomas, American Dream 2.0: A Christian Way Out of the Great Recession (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2012), xii.

[27] David Brion Davis, “Slavery and the Idea of Progress,” The Journal of Southern Religion 14 (2012): 9, accessed April 5, 2018,

[28] Davis.

[29] Theodore Parker, Ten Sermons of Religion (Boston MA: Crosby, Nichols and Company, 1853), 84.

[30] Peter Beinart, “The Left and the Right Have Abandoned American Exceptionalism,” The Atlantic, July 4, 2018,

[31] Robert Wright, “Why Pure Reason Won’t End American Tribalism,” Wired, April 9, 2018, accessed April 22, 2018,

[32] Gregory, 11.

[33] John Gray, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007), 15.

[34] Farnam Street (blog), “John Gray: Is Human Progress an Illusion?” Farnam Street (blog), February 2017,

[35] Ronald Wright, 74.

[36] Juliana Jaramillo-Echeverri, Adolfo Meisel-Roca, and María Ramírez-Giraldo, “More than 100 Years of Improvements in Living Standards: The Case of Colombia,” Cliometrica 13, no. 3 (2019): 323.

[37] World Health Organization, “The World Health Report 2007: A Safer Future: Global Public Health Security in the 21st Century” (Geneva: World Health, 2007),

[38] Ian Cooper, The Cambridge Story: The Impact of Christianity in England (Cambridge, UK: Christian Heritage, 2014), 4.

[39] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 206.

[40] David Brooks, “The Enlightenment Project,” New York Times, February 28, 2017,

[41] Margaret A. Majumdar and Tony Chafer, “Progress: Its Visionaries and Its Malcontents,” Interventions 19, no. 5 (July 4, 2017): 599–608,

[42] Slaboch, 77.

[43] Slaboch, 89.

[44] Slaboch, 111.

[45] Slaboch.

[46] Mitchell Stephens, The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 43.

[47] Slaboch, 89.

[48] Slaboch.

[49] Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 532.

[50] Karl Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations,” in Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge: Collected Works, Volume 5, ed. Paul Kecskemeti (New York, NY: Routledge, 1952), 278.

[51] Jane Pilcher, “Mannheim’s Sociology of Generations: An Undervalued Legacy,” British Journal of Sociology 44, no. 3 (1994), 481.

[52] Albert M. Schlesinger, Jr. The Cycles of American History (Wilmington, MA: Mariner, 1999), vii.

[53] Brett McKay, What the Generational Cycle Theory Can Tell Us About Our Present Age, MP3, The Art of Manliness, September 20, 2016, Accessed October 27, 2017,

[54] William Strauss and Neil Howe, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069 (New York, NY: Quill), 1992.

[55] Linette Lopez, “Steve Bannon’s obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome,” Business Insider, February 2, 2017,

[56] Strauss and Howe.

[57] Laura Spinney, “Human Cycles: History as Science.” Nature, August 1, 2012,

[58] Slaboch, 112.

[59] Majumdar, 599.

[60] Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk” (1979) Econometrica: 47 (2): 263–291. doi:10.2307/1914185.

[61] Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (New York, NY: Random House, 2012), 5.

[62] Malcolm Gladwell, “Blow Up,” New Yorker, January 22, 1996, 32.

[63] “Winner Takes It All: How Markets Favor the Few at the Expense of the Many,” Farnam Street (blog), September 2018,

[64] Quentin Fottrell, “For The First Time, Young Americans Have Less Optimism Than Those Aged 55 and Older,” Market Watch, April 3, 2018,

[65] James Hamblin, “Buy Experiences, Not Things,” The Atlantic, October 7, 2014,

[66] Chris Taylor, “70% of Rich Families Lose Their Wealth by the Second Generation,” Money, June 17, 2015,

[67] Missy Sullivan, “Lost Inheritance,” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2013,

[68] Eillie Anzilotti, “It’s Time To Abandon Economic Growth As The Only Indicator Of Success,” Fast Company, April 12, 2018,

[69] Anzilotti.

[70] Noah Smith (@noahpinion), “1/OK, here’s a thread about economic growth, technological progress, environmental sustainability, and political unrest!” Twitter, July 28, 2019, 9:28a.m.,

[71] Gray, 5.

[72] Talking Heads, “Road to Nowhere,” by David Byrne, recorded October 1984, on Little Creatures, Sire, 33 ⅓ rpm.

[73] Sir Thomas More, Libellus Vere Aureus, Nec Minus Salutaris Quam Festivus, de Optimo Rei Publicae Statu Deque Nova Insula Utopia, 1516.

[74] Slaboch, 18.

[75] As quoted by Austrian neurologist Franz Seitelbeger (1915-2007), “Lebensstadien des Gehirns” in Die Menschlichen Lebensalter, ed. Leopold Rosenmayr (Munich, 1978), 215.

[76] Slaboch.

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