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.