We still cling to the idea that progress is somehow inevitable ... but it isn't. Yet, Christians have no reason to dismay.
Most people probably do not think the world will end. Unconcerned with theorizing about the possibility of armageddon, the average person just goes on with daily life.
Now we understand in an entirely new way St. Paul’s words in this Sunday’s second reading: “When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (1 Thess. 5:3). Now, with a global pandemic, fraught race relations, a factious and caviling presidential election, economic uncertainty, and painful revelations of clerical sex abuse in the Church, the disaster is all too real.
This year certainly poses a problem to answer.
The latent, dominant view of our culture has been that things are always getting better. Science will provide an answer to the coronavirus, we say. Politics and civil discourse will settle our domestic disputes, we posture.
Do not misunderstand me. I pray that researchers will confirm a vaccine soon. I hope that we can recapture now-lost ideas of the common good to animate our political discourse. I do not, however, think that these things are predestined. Contrary to our culture’s sense of certain forward motion, I am more cautious.
I think that the recently retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, understands our age well. He diagnoses our underlying yearning for progress saying,
As a culture, we still cling to the idea that progress is somehow inevitable, that science and technology will one day deliver us from the burdens of being human. And our educated classes seem willing to believe in almost anything to avoid dealing with the possibility of God.
The at-large assumption of our culture is that thanks to scientific and technological achievement, life always continues to get better.
But some things are not getting better. Despite industrial and material advancement, more people are suffering from depression and suicide than ever before. The nuclear family is constantly undermined and attacked. There are suggestive secular arguments that modern progress is a myth.
But what about the believer?
Do we align ourselves with the narrative of progress? Do we abandon all hope, simply awaiting the Last Day?
Christians believe that there is a direction of the world. Christians think that the world is advancing toward Christ. This is not to say that there is manifest moral or technological progress as time passes. This belief, rather, is that Jesus is the consummation of history.
The Christian custom of dating years from AD 1, the year Jesus took flesh and became incarnate, suggests this direction of the world. The final moment of this timeline is not wrought by the subjugation of nature or the end of war or the mastery of the mysteries of the natural universe. The end of this timeline is the finality of all things in Christ. As our Lord says in the Book of Revelation, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 21:6). This is the Last Day, when all creation is brought to fulfillment in Christ.
The Christian awaits the Last Day with longing.
On this day, creation will achieve its triumph and the Lord will come in glory. St. Paul describes this day telling the Corinthians,
“Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
The dead shall be raised. We shall be judged for the good we have done, and the good we have failed to do. The new heavens and the new earth will be forged. The just will be taken to reign in heaven.
We live in hope of this day. St. Paul exhorts us, “You are children of the light and children of the day.” We who belong to Christ, who await this Last Day, wait for it as those who are awake.
We are not sleepers. We know that we will answer for our actions in the next life. Living as one awake, being devoted to our God and working to improve the lives of others in the here and now, marks us as the sons and daughters of day. It is a contest. We must strive to drive out the shadows, not for the sake of mere progress, but for the sake of allowing the light of Christ to shine.
This life for the believer has a direction.
It is aimed toward Christ. Joseph Ratzinger writes, “For in himself man lives with the dreadful knowledge that his power to destroy is infinitely greater than his power to build up. But this same man knows that in Christ the power to build up has proved infinitely stronger.” Left to our own devices, there is no guarantee that humanity will embrace the causes of dignity, true compassion, or genuine human progress. In fact, there seems to be much more evidence for the point of view of the cynic or the skeptic.
Believers need not be disturbed by the appearance of setbacks in the advancement of human progress. To the contrary, our hope lives on. The forward motion of history continues apace, and our lives remain filled with the opportunity to advance the love of our goal: Jesus Christ.