What is the point of progress if we never get anywhere?
It was what I think of as a basketful of kittens line. The intended reader goes “Awwwww” and stops thinking. I picture him clasping his hands in front of his chest, and then swooning, but maybe I’m being cranky. Anyway.
Popping up on Facebook was a short item in those big letters saying: “Progress is a journey, not a destination,” with many, many likes and a great many hearts. My heart sank. The kind of religion it represents affects me the way my one encounter with cooked kidney affected me. I wanted to run from the room.
I grew up secularish, and if I’m going to have a religion I want one that tells me the truth. I know I’m in trouble. I need a religion that says, “You’re in the wrong place. You need to be over there. Follow me.” Basketful of kittens religion, no.
When G. K. Chesterton started writing his first books, roughly 110 years ago, the word “progress” was invoked as often and as vaporously as now, and was equally unmoored to any standard by which progress could actually be measured. Chesterton was no fonder of it than I am.
It was unmoored to any standard by which movement could realistically be called progress and not just wandering around. Not having a standard was the point, of course. The idea gave people the pleasure of a stroll without the need to get anywhere — and especially without having to submit themselves to any authority that would tell them where to go.
But it’s just no good. Progress has to be a journey to a destination or else it’s just not progress. As Chesterton wrote at the end of his book Heretics (1905), “The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas.”
Our mind “is a machine for coming to conclusions,” he wrote. Man “can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas.” Then he lets loose, and this is worth quoting at length:
As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
Mic-drop, as the kids say,
Liberation of a sort
People who say things like “Progress is a journey, not a destination” present it as liberation, and it is liberation of a sort. No one’s telling you where to go. You’re not even telling yourself where to go. You can’t get freer than that.
But life as a sinner in a fallen world isn’t like a random stroll in the park on a day you don’t need to get anything done. It’s not a Sunday afternoon. It’s more like a Monday morning. It’s a life in which you hurt people and people hurt you, and you hurt you, and nature has it out for all of us anyway. It gives its blessings too, but you still know that you are not where you should be. You’re an alien in a strange land.
“Progress is a journey” is one of the appealing errors from which the Church delivers us. The Church says “You are here, and you need to be over there.” She says that we’re not going to make it on our own and that she will help us, and that the journey will have its rewards as well its pains, and that when we get where we’re going we’ll be happier than we ever imagined.
You might believe it all rubbish, but at least it offers some hope of actually getting from one place to a better place. Which is to say, actually progressing.