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The Myth of Progress

Written by Maria Drews : April 29, 2008

A few months ago I e-mailed one of my pastors at my church after he gave a sermon on the Kingdom of God. As part of a long, frustrated e-mail, I wrote the following:

My biggest question is, why aren’t we seeing the progress on earth? Why haven’t the cosmic changes that Jesus’ coming brought turned into real changes on earth? I know that the Kingdom of God is a long work in progress, but why can’t I see any big concrete changes towards the Kingdom of God? I know there have been many many many little things that Christians and churches have done over the past 2000 years to make earth a little more heavenly, but it doesn’t seem like there has actually been a mass movement forward, even if it is just a little bit more forward. Instead it seems like we are in much the same place, if not in a worse, more sinful, and evil condition. Now I definitely can’t grasp the whole scope of history around the world in the past 2000 years, but it doesn’t seem like the world is moving towards peace as we are building up larger militaries, amassing nuclear weapons, and fighting over ever more dwindling resources. It doesn’t seem like we are moving towards the end of poverty as the gap between the rich and poor is growing ever larger still, and the Christians around the world have the resources to end extreme poverty on their own, yet aren’t doing it. It doesn’t seem like we are moving towards authentic loving communities as our lives become more and more individualistic and media-based. Is it getting better and I’m just not seeing it?

My longing for the Kingdom of God led to deep frustrations when I couldn’t see it coming. I wanted tangible examples of the redemption of God here on earth. Small examples wouldn’t do; I wanted to see progress towards the glorious return of Jesus, when there would be a new heaven and new earth, and all of creation would be redeemed. I believed that if the Church just got it’s act together, and we all agreed that we needed to end injustice, love our neighbor, and overthrow the Empire, we could do it. I believed that the Church could usher in the Kingdom of God through strong effort and unity.

I realize now that I started believing in the “myth of progress.”

N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, explains the myth of progress:

“[The myth of progress is] the idea that the human project, and indeed the cosmic project, could and would continue to grow and develop, producing unlimited human improvement and marching toward a utopia…. This utopia dream is in fact a parody of the Christian vision. The kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world come together to produce a vision of history moving forward towards its goal, a goal that will emerge from within rather than being a new gift from elsewhere. Humans can be made perfect and are indeed evolving inexorably toward that point.”

We believe this myth when we believe that the next political leader will finally solve some the world’s problems once and for all. We believe this myth when we believe medical advances will eventually rid the world of disease. We believe this myth when we believe economic growth will eventually end world poverty. We believe this myth when we believe the Church can build the Kingdom of God

When we stop believing in this myth we see that it is no longer our responsibility to build the Kingdom of God, but that doesn’t mean that we should try to slide through this life as painlessly as possible, waiting to go to heaven or until Jesus’ return. Please don’t get me wrong, we have a very real work to do here on earth, building for the Kingdom of God. We are not going to build the kingdom on our own; it will come from God as a new creation, as an act of redemption, not as the final conclusion to the progress we are making here on earth. Yet every work of grace, every work of love, justice, and compassion, is building for the kingdom, and will be part of the kingdom when it comes in full. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul speaks about the resurrection of the dead and the coming new creation, and he ends the chapter in verse 58 by saying, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” We may not be able to build the Kingdom of God on our own, nor will we slowly progress towards it, but let us be assured that our work here on earth is not in vain, that we really can build for the kingdom, with the assurance that in the end God will redeem all of creation.

I encourage you to read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope to explore more of this idea.

Author Bio:: Maria currently lives in Chicago with her husband and works with teenagers. She always has more questions than answers, but is hoping to find a few more answers next year when she goes to seminary. In the mean time you can find more of her questions at www.mariadrews.wordpress.com.

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