Are we making progress?
Are we making progress? I don’t have in mind technology here, although progress in technology makes an interesting test case for the assumptions we make about progress generally. Nor do I have in mind scientific knowledge. Even there the case is more complicated than one might think. But what of moral progress? Or theological progress? And not in what we actually do, human behavior, but how we think about these things. Our moral and theological ideas. In just those areas, are we making any progress?
Perhaps it would help if I told you what brought this question to my mind. My wife and I recently spent some time in Spain. While there, we visited Pamplona—Pamplona of the running with the bulls fame. Each day, from July 7-July 14 during the Festival of San Fermi̒n, six bulls and six steers (to guide the bulls) are released from a corral into a narrow-walled street. Thousands of runners gather a bit farther up the street. When the bulls are released, they run in front of the bulls for as long they can, sometimes falling under the bulls and sometimes gored by them. The running course leads to a bull fighting ring. It takes the bulls three minutes or so to reach the ring. There they are held there until evening. In the evening, spectators gather in the arena, and bull fighters in the way of bull fighters taunt and eventually kill the bulls. This passes for sport.
Considering all this, one cannot help but reflect that we don’t do this. I recognize that saying this opens me to the charge of hypocrisy. We still have rodeos with their own cruelty to animals, not that I would attend one. And most of us eat beef, the animals killed conveniently out of our sight in slaughterhouses. But we don’t kill them—or run with them when they are in full panic—for sport. Am I wrong in thinking that this seems like some kind of progress? We are less casual about cruelty to animals than people were in earlier generations.
Even in Pamplona, where the running with the bulls has brought fame and fortune to the city, there is a palpable unease about it. Our local guide walked us around the running course, explaining what happens each year, and even took us to a private collection of bull fighting paraphernalia, which included mounted on the walls several huge heads of famous bulls. But he effected throughout the walk a tone of gentle, perhaps even affectionate, irony. He admitted in private that he thought running with the bulls idiotic and bull fighting barbaric. He seemed to signal that one day, perhaps not all that far in the future, the bulls would stop running.
He told us the delightful story of a bull named Lucky who ran after the other bulls to the place where the human runners gather each morning and then did what no other bull had done before, turned and ran back to the corral. No one knew what to do. When the bulls arrived at the bull ring, only five showed up, five bulls condemned to die that evening. Lucky, back in the corral, was pardoned. Later that night we drank to Lucky who had the good sense not to participate in that particular human barbarism.
Does this represent a kind of moral progress? Have we moved on from celebrating bull fighting (ala Hemingway) to celebrating Lucky? And have we done so in other areas of human life? Capital punishment, for example? Of the 193 member nations in the United Nations, 54 still retain the death penalty in both law and practice. The number is going down. Is this, as it seems, progress?
I could go with other examples. One of interest to the readers of this blog would be the gradual acceptance in law and practice of various forms of sexual expression. In my lifetime, the US has gone from wholesale condemnation of homosexuality to writing same sex marriage into law. Or, to name another example, race. Not that racism is gone or that race does not remain insinuated in a thousand different ways into our culture, but now even racists claim not to be racists. Is this progress, however slight?
Or the rights of women, to name one more example. Is it a measure of some sort of moral progress that Greta Gerwig in her Barbie movie can make a joke of patriarchy? That we laugh as Ken tries to explain patriarchy, noting that it seems to have something to do with horses?
Not that in any of these areas, whether the treatment of animals or state sponsored punishment or acceptance of our queer brothers and sisters or race or gender, we have made anything like the progress that we should make. We remain flawed, prejudiced, short-sighted, and worse. Our behavior doesn’t keep up with our ideas. But does not this seem like progress? Why, then, do so many commentators on the human condition tend to say that humans have made little or no progress?
Perhaps this is a just a bit of false modesty. In view of our considerable flaws, we are reticent to claim any progress at all. Or perhaps it’s the classic use of the idea of total depravity to avoid taking responsibility: don’t expect much of us, we say, lachrymose voices dripping with lament. We just are this way: depraved through and through. Or perhaps, it’s simply become a truism trotted out without much thought.
Problems with progress
Whatever the case, we do seem to be making some progress in moral thought, but that progress like all progress, whether technological or theoretical or moral or theological, runs into two difficulties. One is the problem of scale: the farther we get ahead, we farther we seem to fall behind. The other is displacement: progress of any kind always displaces something else, often, perhaps always, something of value. Let me briefly consider each of these.
I’ll not spend much time on the first: the problem of scale. In our time, the moral issues facing us have gotten larger and more complex. The parade example is ecological damage, including climate change. How do we parcel out moral responsibility for destroying this good earth when we are, all of us, linked together in ways too complex for any of us to fully understand. Buy a pair of jeans, and you will have purchased not only the jeans but a system that exploits workers in other countries. Grab a water from your local supermarket, and you will be part of a system that pollutes our oceans and our air with plastics. In a global economy, what does it mean to be a ṣaddīq, a righteous person in the biblical sense? Lacking easy answers, we despair of any progress at all.
But leave aside for the moment the problem of scale, the way that moral issues have become too large for us to handle. Of more immediate relevance to us is perhaps the second difficulty with progress. Call it “displacement.” Progress of any kind always displaces something else, perhaps something we don’t even notice initially. We gain by losing. Sometimes the losses are significant.
Go back to the bulls for a moment. If good sense prevails and Pamplona decides to ban the practice of running with the bulls, what would be lost? Not much, I think, except money, but there are those who may believe that in doing so society would have one more time stepped away from the sheer joy of a certain kind of risk-taking and that in doing so society will have moved one more step in the direction of all that is bland and managed and destructive of the human soul. Something like that argument was floating around in Pamplona.
There are better examples. Take car culture. I write this from California, the home of car culture. Freeways everywhere, in every drive two, three, more cars. Cities are built to accommodate cars, not people, certainly not walking. As we consider car culture from this belated vantage, we can see what has been displaced: not only neighborhoods but a certain kind of neighborliness, not only clean air but contact with nature itself. And more, much more.
This sort of displacement is almost always directional. Once society chooses a direction, there is no going back. Although we now see some of the depredations brought about by the automobile, we will not go back to horses. That culture is forever lost. We can only try to mitigate the damage of automobile culture by such things as electrifying cars so that they pollute less, building more mass transportation, and creating walkable cities. We can’t bring back the horse, but we can try to recover some of what cars displaced.
But is this sort of displacement true not only of technological innovations like the automobile but in matters of morality and theology? I suspect so. Perhaps the great test case is the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers, people like Luther and Calvin—add in humanists like Erasmus—were full of new ideas taken from the culture in which they were immersed. They had the idea, for example, that one could read the Bible like any other text, an idea that not only revolutionized theology but that led inexorably to modern biblical studies. These new ideas displaced older ways of reading the Bible, what was called in antiquity theoria, reading the Bible “spiritually.” Protestants began to treat reading the Bible as a technological issue: apply the right interpretative techniques, and, voila, you’ll have the word of God. But it doesn’t work that way, as we have discovered more and more.
The work of conservation
So what do we do? There’s no going back. Once you see the Bible as text like other texts—a fundamental Reformation insight—you can’t unsee it. Modern biblical studies are not going away. Some have supposed that perhaps Orthodoxy with its long tradition will take us back to a time before the Reformation, allowing us to recover some of the insights of the pre-Reformation church, and indeed Orthodoxy does have much to teach us. But we can’t simply adopt the way the early church read the Bible. We will have to find new ways to read the Bible that honor the insights of the pre-Reformation church by grasping them anew in post-Reformation terms.
This is profoundly conservative work. It often happens when we come to the end of something, and we see it for what it is, that we recognize what has been lost, displaced. As we come to the end of car culture, and we see what cars have done to our cities and our lives, we reach back for what has been lost: not for horses but for neighborhoods and places to walk, balancing those things uneasily with the independence and freedom cars have brought us.
The irony is that we can conserve the past only by embracing the future. What too often passes for conservatism in this and perhaps any other age is holding on to the form of things and losing what matters. So it’s thought to be conservative in some circles to drive around in big gas-guzzling pickup trucks with the pollution controls removed from the engine. The bigger and the badder, the better. But this conserves nothing. If we want to conserve what was wonderful about growing up in car culture, we will have to find other ways.
The same is true of theology. As we come to what seems to be the end of the Protestant era, we can begin to see its considerable virtues and its equally considerable failures. We can see from our present vantage more clearly than before what was lost, displaced, by the Reformation. In moving ahead, it will not be a matter of going back but of trying to find ways to grasp the old in the context of the new.
And this is true also for the sort of moral progress with which this essay began. In many respects we seem to be at the beginning of something, at the beginning of new ways to think about human life in which many of the old categories no longer apply in the same way, categories of race and caste and gender. This is new and heady stuff. And once we have seen what we have seen, there is no going back. You can’t unsee it. Once we have seen that gender is a social construct, not a biological fact; that race and caste are human notions, not divinely instituted categories; that sexuality is complex, not binary; we will not be able unsee these things despite the efforts of politicians to hide the facts from children and others.
What this calls for is a double embrace: the embrace not only of the future but of the past. As I said, this is profoundly conservative work. What I have been up to in this blog over the past couple of years is my own halting attempt to do this work.
Are we making progress? Perhaps. I think so. But progress is always both promise and peril. Still, there is no other place to live but in the midst of this promise and peril. One day the bulls will stop running in Pamplona. I pray it’s soon. And when that happens, something will get displaced, lost, that only later we will notice and lament.