Pentecost 4 B 15 June 1997 | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |

Do Christians believe in progress?

We live in a progressive society. You can't stop progress, they say. Everyone seems to believe that. So the idea of making all things new is likely to sound good to most ears.

In Christ, there is a new creation ... everything has become new! Does it mean that in Christ there is progress? Can we score a point here against those in modern society who will not listen to anything the church says because they have a prejudice that we are all conservative? Most of us in the church today have, in fact, lived through a time when the majority of church members believed that Christian faith is progressive, that we are in favour of change, and indeed some would believe that everything is moving towards perfection in the kingdom of God. So it is thought we can fit into a progressive society and live a normal life as we adjust to inevitable changes. Is that right? Is there a basic belief in progress that is part of the Christian faith?

Of course a good deal depends on what you think counts as progress as I have pointed out previously; and obviously not all change is good. Let me remind you of the illustration I gave a few months ago.

A little parable of change for life or death

If you go for a walk in the forest you will see evidence of change all around you. In Springtime especially, you will see new shoots appearing, seedlings coming up and young plants growing and struggling for a place in the sun: all of that is one kind of change, the kind that make for life. But there are also other kinds of change in the natural world of the forest. Besides growth and development in many forms of life, you will see trees fallen over, rotting logs and sticks on the floor of the forest, and if you look closely there will be myriads of insects, worms and other organisms aiding the breakdown of organic matter that is being returned to soil. These signs of corruption are the changes associated with death. Both kinds of change are necessary parts of the natural order of this created world. It is like that in the church today. The next time someone exhorts you to be ready to change, ask yourself what kind of change you are being asked to make: is it a change to do with life or with death. Is it a way of growth and development into the light, or is it a change of decay, disintegration and death. Modern doctrines of progress do not make this distinction clear. Much as it may be unpopular ever to say 'No', it is necessary to discriminate between changes that make for life and those that make for death.

Then, even if you can distinguish between changes that make for growth, which you might call progressive, and those that tend to decay, there is the problem that what is popularly regarded as progressive at one time might not be at all popular at another. Forty years ago some aspect of socialism, such as public ownership, the rights of workers or support for the Soviet Union, would have been a sign of a progressive attitude. Now socialism has largely been discredited. Then came a time of greatly increased spending on health, education and welfare as attempts were made to transfer benefits to the less well off and lay foundations for social development. Now there are different ideas about what makes for progress and these programs are being wound back. Today an emphasis on personal freedoms, such as the rights of the individual person in economic matters, sexual freedoms, the rights of the child, etc., are considered progressive. Who knows what might be regarded as progressive in a few years! Perhaps social responsibility might be reconsidered, and our grandchildren might look back in horror on some of the things people are doing today. People forget how ideas of progress change, but a basic belief in progress, whatever it is, remains deeply embedded in our Western way of thinking.

Beware of the aggressive ideology of progress

Indeed the tendency to regard ourselves, or the people of our day, as progressive is one of the forces at work in the current fashion for seeking apologies or damages or compensation for events in the past like medical testing, or stolen children, or the treatment of certain minorities. You will know from what I said a couple of weeks ago on aboriginal reconciliation that I believe we should take action now to overcome past injustices which still affect people; but we should beware of that fashionable attitude which says look at how bad things were in a previous generation, and by implication says "Look at us, see how much better we are", we who have made progress from those dark days of one or more generations ago. It tends to reinforce belief in the dominant ideology of progress, but the truth and value of it all depends on what counts as progress. I wonder how progressive future generations will regard a society which proved incapable overcoming unemployment, allowed massive differences in wealth to develop and saw the family disintegrate as individual self satisfaction was consistently rewarded more than socially responsible behaviour.

Some ideas cease to be regarded as progressive because the essential goals of proposed changes are achieved and society moves on to other concerns, but other causes become unpopular because they are found to have serious flaws. Sometimes the direction of social change itself changes so that new goals are sought in a different direction entirely. New growth , in fact, seldom comes in the same shape as the old. Yet in any particular period there is a tendency to regard the present direction of change as necessarily extending into the future. In recent times a new dogmatism has developed which condemns anyone who dares to question the conventional wisdom about what counts as progress.

It should be obvious that Christians are not called upon to conform to whatever is thought progressive by opinion leaders at any particular time or in any society. It is easy to be bullied and deceived into conformity with what others call progress when we should be prepared to take a stand against the stream. So do not take Paul's great affirmation In Christ, there is a new creation ... everything has become new! as an endorsement of shallow and deceptive modern beliefs in progress. At the same time, that belief in a new creation is obviously not the simple opposite of progress. You can hardly mount a defence of the status quo on this celebration of everything becoming new. Tradition is important in Christian life and teaching, but not so as prevent new developments, and the tradition handed on to us includes this major emphasis on renewal: In Christ, there is a new creation.

Tradition in the church and scripture

Next Sunday, the twentieth anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church, I hope to recall with you some of the founding hopes and commitments with which the union was formed. One part is particularly relevant to the question of whether we emphasise progress or tradition. When first report on the negotiations for union was written in 1959, a strong commitment was made to recall people to the faith of the church which had been received from ancient times:-

We wish to recall the members of our Churches to the great tradition in which they stand. We are debtors not only to the writers of Holy Scripture but also to the Fathers of the Church who through creed, confession, commentary and hymn of praise have sought to keep men in a relationship of faith and trust, of love and hope in the worship of God as He has made Himself made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. We are grateful for these pledges of the work of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Church. In his power men have been enabled to confess and praise God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. We in our day neglect at our peril these great words of believing men of other ages. If we in Australia are to avoid an idiosyncratic faith, we must give careful consideration to the Faith of the Church of the ages.

Tradition was to be important for us, but it was tradition founded on scripture which saw a dynamic process of change in which old Jewish customs and human tradition were to pass away. Tradition is regarded as both good and bad in the New Testament. For example, Colossians 2:8

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ.

For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.

So some customs were expected to change, but handing on of traditions was also of vital importance in the life of the Church. Not least in relation to the central act of worship in the Eucharist. 1 Corinthians 11:23-24: -

In terms of the central teaching, the nature of the gospel, we have the same conception of handing on a tradition.

Paul refers to this tradition as being of first importance. The faith of the Church is not simply what people happen to believe at a particular time. The Basis of Union witnesses to this truth and points to scripture where the tradition of the apostles is authoritatively affirmed, albeit within a context in which further development of our understanding is anticipated. The Church cannot be cut off from its roots and still be the Church. If then, everything is being made new, to be faithful, new developments must be built upon the foundation of the tradition concerning Christ that we have received from the apostles. When it said that everything old has passed away it was not Christian tradition, tradition as such, but the old ways of corruption which were passing away. That becomes clear when we look that the scriptures concerning the new creation.

So what is this new creation?

There are other images of things being made new in the New Testament. A few weeks ago we had the story of Jesus talking with Nicodemus about being born again or born from above as God acts in human life to make things new. John sees such renewal as the purpose of the coming of Jesus, as the Word of God made flesh:

As we have it in the first letter of Peter:

Paul put it clearly in Romans in a way that sets it off sharply in contrast to modern pressures to conform to what the world regards as progress:

Renewal, or regeneration or being transformed into a new creation, was necessary in the Biblical view because evil was at work and had to be overcome. New life had to enter and transform a world that had been corrupted. Modern thinking is confused and even contradictory about this. On the one hand people who believe in progress see evidence of evil or corruption or imperfection in the world, but they tend to think it belongs in the past. On the other hand they like to think of people as essentially good, and capable by their own efforts of building a better world. The Biblical view is that human life can only be transformed by the power of God which can enter directly into our lives. Modern views of progress are a kind of humanism in which humanity itself and not God the Creator is the chief object of faith and hope. Indeed the dominant ideology is a kind of progressive humanism which hopes for and expects human perfection through natural development of the essential character of being human, although no one can quite escape a lingering doubt, wondering whether such progress is really inevitable.

The early Christians had no doubt about it when they put their trust not in men and women, but in God. Knowing God in Christ they had experienced an escape from the decay and corruption of the world, and they were still celebrating and growing into a life of freedom from corruption in which they had previously been bound. They rejoiced in the a life which they urged upon others:

It is not an easy transition to a new state. Paul pictured the change in human life that comes from being in Christ as like the labour of child birth in which there is pain and struggle before the new life comes into the world. It was also, like the birth of a child, a great new event that was eagerly anticipated:

See how it is affecting more than you or me as individual people: the whole creation takes part in this renewal; -- see, everything has become new! Bondage to decay and corruption everywhere is replaced by the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We should expect to see not only individual lives changed, but relationships restored and renewed, and justice and peace in the earth. That is the kind of renewal of creation that was anticipated even in the days of the prophets:

That promise was seen by the faithful as being fulfilled in Christ who came to renew the creation which had been made through him (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15).

The new heaven and new earth which Isaiah foresaw and which Paul saw beginning was seen to be established completely with the final coming of Christ as John the divine saw it in his vision of the end:

"See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; {4} he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

So do Christians believe in progress? No, not as a development of human capacity by our own efforts. We do not trust in humanity, but in God, who will make and is making all things new through his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. We glory in him through whom we are brought out of an old world of decay and death into a new life in a new creation.

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