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Picking a Path Towards Progress

Almost two hundred years ago, Charles Dickens penned a prophecy:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Today, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Dickens’ words have been realized in the United States. While we may be the most powerful and prosperous nation in all of human history, COVID-19, shocking instances of police brutality, rioting, wildfires, hurricanes, and an election thin in both depth and decency have left us reeling. Across the nation, there is an overall feeling of fatigue and frustration. Obviously, no one is wholly satisfied with our present situation, and whatever our differences, everyone wants better for the nation.

However, while most everyone would agree that it is time for America to turn over a new leaf, our visions for the country are intractably distinct, and before we can proceed, we need to have a really real discussion about what progress actually means.

It is, after all, not a one-size fits all topic, and in recent history, the United States has swung between two sharply contrasting philosophies with one extolling “Hope & Change” and the other promising to once again “Make America Great.” The contrast between the two visions is stark, and yet, if we’re meant to aim at Heaven, unfortunately, they both miss the mark.

For instance, with respect to “Hope & Change,” it is not clear that “Change” is actually aiming at anything, let alone something heavenly. Rather, it seems to be an expression of general dissatisfaction which includes the implicit claim that everything is considered fair game for change. Nothing is inherently sacrosanct. Everything could potentially be thrown away. Indeed, change could be ostensibly good for its own sake.

This position is exceedingly popular today; however, it is nevertheless an extremely tenuous one to take because without a clear vision (i.e. a specific aim and explicit limits), change can very quickly degenerate. In 1998, award-winning writer Octavia Butler put it this way:

“When vision fails

Direction is lost.

When direction is lost

Purpose may be forgotten

When purpose is forgotten

Emotion rules alone.

When emotion rules alone,

Destruction… destruction.”

Thus, we need to be very, very wary of unfettered “Change,” especially when a human-centric “Hope” is lighting the way. Our Hope is, after all, meant to be rooted in God’s grace, but unfortunately, in that respect, both visions of progress have put their hope in the wrong place.

Whether in the case of “Hope & Change” or the notion that we will again “Make America Great,” hope in human achievement and agency takes center stage. We can bring change. We can make America great. The builders of the Tower of Babel thought the exact same way, and we are in serious danger of repeating their mistake. To this issue, Twentieth-century philosopher Iris Murdoch had this to say:

“Our picture of ourselves has become too grand, we have isolated, and identified ourselves with, an unrealistic conception of will, we have lost the vision of a reality separate from ourselves, and we have not adequate conception of original sin.”

Put another way, Princeton Theologian J. Gresham Machen said it like this:

“Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature’ whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.”

Original sin and brokenness have long been topics non grata. As a general rule, we do not like to be reminded of our transgressions. We’d much rather say, “Can’t we just move on? Can’t we just forget?” Amnesia–not repentance–is how we handle our sins today, and as a consequence, we have forgotten that countries, like people, are born in sin and shaped in iniquity, making exalting the past its own kind of heresy.

To say, “Make America Great Again” is to assume something that has never been because the world has not been redeemed yet. Thus, for believers, both “Hope & Change” and “Make America Great Again” are dubious paths towards progress. One is aiming at everything, the other at something not yet redeemed, and both mistake man as the measure of all things. In either case, Heaven seems very far away.

Therefore, to avoid going astray, Christians in America need to chart our own course. We need to resolve that we are not going to endeavor to boldly go where no man has gone before or claim that we were so much better off where we were before. Instead, we must remind ourselves that over 2000 years ago, Jesus said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In the now and not yet, repentance is the first step towards progress, and having done that, we should practice what Romans 12:12 says: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”

God is not going anywhere. He’s never too late. We don’t need to cleave to “Hope & Change” or a call to once more “Make America Great.” In The Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantes put it this way: “Until the day God deigns to reveal the future to man, the sum of all human wisdom will be contained in the words: Wait and hope.” Hope and wait.