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The Christian’s ProgressThe Christian’s Progress

The Christian’s Progress

As Advent moves us toward the promise of Christmas, Peter Copeland and Fr. Deacon Andrew Bennett chart the Christian progressive vision against its static secular form. Part one of three.

Peter Copeland
Andrew P.W. Bennett
4 minute read

In our heart of hearts, we know that we are not all that we can be, personally, or collectively. We cry out for more, not knowing where to go, or how to get there, but led forward by this flame that burns within.

Christians have long thought that though our desires can be misguided, they are not aimless. Our inner yearning is directed towards an end that completes and fulfills us. Christians understand progress in this way: it is ordered towards an ultimate good which is union with God and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. How does the Christian vision differ from the way in which we understand and pursue progress today?

The fundamental question for any person is this: what end do we seek? What is it that we are progressing towards? Is the secular understanding of progress that we confront in our world today in fact its complete opposite: stasis or even regress?

The prevailing anthropology of secular progressivism works always with a conception of the good that is finite in nature, striving for its equal realization across the range of categories that differentiate people, one from the other.

In its contemporary form the highest good, or summum bonum, is the autonomous pursuit of self-expression, and its equal social recognition. Its criterion is authenticity, and an ever-fleeting short-term subjective claim to psychological well-being. This autonomy elevates the ‘I’ above community and in effect depersonalizes individuals who, in Christian anthropology, can only fully realize their potential in communion with other persons. In this relationship with others, they are called to recognize the image and likeness of God, the fount of human dignity.

Secular progressivism’s utilitarian strain sees the goal as maximizing an aggregation of pleasurable states of mind, so long as they are the product of choice. Not the kind that is reflective, patient, and informed, but one that is construed as the absence of constraint, manifesting itself more often than not in the cultivation of a persona, as part of the life project of self-creation and self-actualization. This is choice without boundaries. It is freedom without reflection on what truly makes us free. It is, in effect, slavery.

The romantic strain of progressivism idealizes the victim, where expressions, lifestyles and choices are valorized insofar as they are associated with those who suffer, lacking power and social status. The result is often the collapse of the distinction between the healthy and unhealthy, the good and the harmful.

With every increase in wealth, pleasure, honour, or glory, conceived of as an end, the person is left emptier. How can one become courageous, loving, kind, and merciful without practice? Instead, we sacrifice the fruits that come from the long pursuit of virtue for fleeting ‘authentic feeling’? How can anyone cultivate the disciplines that make actions into habits, and habits into the virtuous life? How can one do this without the right use of reason, deployed in understanding one’s own nature, one’s own end and that of other things? We must be clear on what is the good and how to attain it – conforming our actions and orienting our desires to it. We must also have an ordered understanding of material things such as money, material possessions, other creatures, and above all our own bodies if we are to truly pursue the good. It is only in moulding one’s beliefs and how we relate to the goods that we see around us and seek, that peace and true fulfillment can be found.

For Christians, union with God is true happiness, true fulfillment and it is achieved not by self-actualizing, but by its opposite, kenosis – self-emptying. First, seek the Kingdom of God, and all else shall be given to you.

Crucial to this vision is the union of the rational mind in knowing what is good and the heart in striving to seek it rightly, purely. In the Sermon on the Mount, we see that the law says, you shall not murder, commit adultery, and love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But Christ says, if you are angry, you will be liable to judgment; if you look at another with lust, you have already committed adultery in your heart; and you shall love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

Christ comes not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. The law – which comprises distilled moral truths – is God’s way of showing us what will make us happy, by pointing us away from what is harmful and towards what we truly seek.

Crucially, it is no mere empty duty-bound conscience, or free-wheeling relativism that Christ promotes, but a union between the letter of the law and its spirit. Jesus teaches that it is not enough to simply follow the rules, seek after a good outcome, and perform right actions by rote. It is not just simply following the Golden Rule.

For the Christian, self-emptying means that I become third: God is first, others are second, I am third. John the Baptist perfectly encapsulated this truth when he said pointing to Christ that “He must increase and I must decrease.” What a radical idea for today’s age.

Drawing attention to the inner life, Christianity asserts that the inner disposition of the person spills out into outer action. You cannot be happy yourself, or seek the good for others without being holy, loving, kind, humble and prayerful, cultivating the joy and love of God in one’s heart. We correctly orient ourselves and direct the world to the truth not by stale and sterile actions or feckless activism, but through a heart that is pure, for a pure heart spills out its goodness and love on the world.

Part Two: What do we mean by social and political good?

Photos in order of appearance: Yulian Alexeyev, Unsplash; David Gavi, Unsplash; Alexander Milo, Unsplash

Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

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