By Tyler McKenzie
Neither the hopes of ideological progressives nor those of conservatives are biblical because both locate their hope in the same place . . . humanity. While God has imbued humanity with awesome dignity and seemingly endless potential, grounding our ultimate hope in ourselves will always disappoint.
Progressives ground their hope in the advancement of human reason and ingenuity. The 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have seen Western cultures driven by this vision that human progress in areas like technology, science, medicine, economics, and politics will bring us closer and closer to utopia. Every generation will leave the world a little better for the next. It’s all up and to the right. And throughout the process, these increasingly enlightened societies will grow out of the superstitions, religions, and moral systems of yesterday.
The problem is that with two centuries of evidence available now, we see the massive failure of the progressive dream. The 20th century is a case study of this. No century in human history has ever seen more blood spilt. This is illustrated in the changing attitudes of English historian H.G. Wells. In the 1920s and ’30s Wells was lovesick over the progressive vision. He wrote in A Short History of the World,
Can we doubt that presently our race will more than realize our boldest imaginations, that it will achieve unity and peace, and that our children will live in a world made more splendid and lovely than any palace or garden that we know, going on from strength to strength in an ever-widening circle of achievement? What man has done, the little triumphs of his present state . . . form but the prelude to the things that man has yet to do.
A few years later, World War II happened. After watching the most educated and cultured nation on earth bamboozled by Hitler, Wells flipped (as he recorded in Mind at the End of Its Tether from 1945):
The cold-blooded massacres of the defenseless, the return of deliberate and organized torture, mental torment, and fear to a world from which such things had seemed well nigh banished—has come near to breaking my spirit altogether. . . . “Homo sapiens,” as he has been pleased to call himself, is played out.
Eventually we all must face the reality that we simply cannot be trusted. Technology can stimulate struggling economies or create nuclear weapons. Medicine can cure diseases or be exploited by pharmaceutical companies. Science can reveal undiscovered landscapes, and yet the sense that life goes beyond what can be accounted for by science alone continues to haunt many of us.
I say this often, but look around. How’s it going, America? We are the most advanced society in human history. We have more tech than ever. Wealth abounds. Luxuries are more sumptuous and pervasive. Food tastes better. Sex is fluid and accessible. Life expectancies are longer. People can do whatever they want with their lives, careers, families, marriages, and bodies. Everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
But are we happier? That would be a hard argument to make. The alarm bells are going off. Statistically, our generation is more mentally unhealthy than ever (when measured by suicide and depression). We are lonelier, more anti-social, and despairing than previous generations. We are more untrusting of our major institutions and one another. Our media is dishonest, dramatic, and malevolent. Our cultural art and literature are dystopian, apocalyptic, and pessimistic. We have this low-boil, seething rage against all the institutions that have failed us.
We see it all magnified in the most progressive cities. They claim to be utopian hubs with the social programs and sexual ethics that will fix everything, but the flight from many major cities has been widely documented.
While progressives ground their hope in the future advancement of human reason and ingenuity, conservatives ground their hope in the preservation of a historic instance of human brilliance (like the Constitution) or a perceived “golden era” of American history. (This is captured with campaign slogans like “Make America Great Again!”) The problem here is that history will not allow us to whitewash our unsavory past. The well-documented racism, sexism, religious extremism, economic exploitation, political corruption, and violence in our nation’s history is undeniable.
The Bible is unique in its refusal to venerate any prophet, priest, king, or apostle as flawless and in its refusal to extol any age as “golden.” Besides Jesus, every main character is guilty of egregious sin. From Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham and the Patriarchs. The books of 1 and 2 Kings are an unforgiving invective against basically every king. If we had to sum up the main messages of these two books, along with 1 and 2 Samuel and Chronicles, we might write, “Even the good kings weren’t that good.”
The spokesman for the apostles was a betrayer. The author of half the New Testament waged holy war against Christians before his conversion. Tax collectors, former demon-possessed women, zealots, and doubters were at the top of the org chart. My point is this: it is a uniquely Christian trait to recount our stories and heroes, warts-and-all.
As we can see, neither the futuristic hopes of the progressive nor the preserving hopes of the conservative get us all the way there. A robust biblical hope summons the best of both. Biblical hope is strongly conservative in that it is in the historic person of Jesus and the historic event of his crucifixion and resurrection. However, it is strongly progressive in that we believe conserving the way, the truth, and the life of the risen Jesus gives us power today to build the kingdom until Jesus returns. We are responsible for moving history forward, ruling and filling the earth, stewarding the graces of life, earth, and neighbor to the glory of God and the flourishing of one another.
What makes Christian hope better than the progressive or conservative version is that the power source is theocentric, not anthropocentric. Both progressives and conservatives believe power starts inside of us and flows inside-out. But the Christian believes power flows outside-inside-out. We believe that hope is grounded in a historic person (Jesus) and event (his crucifixion and resurrection). Upon accepting this, a transcendent power (the Holy Spirit) comes in and animates us with a living hope that isn’t just eye-on-the-sky passivity but power for our time.
Hope-filled Christians have our eyes fixed on the past as we bring the way of Jesus to bear on the future. In a cultural moment that is exhausted with the zero-sum game that partisans in government, academia, and church play, this third way has more evangelistic appeal than we might imagine.