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Deacon Kyle Eller: G.K. Chesterton can teach us about progress

One of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes (though that’s a long list) comes from his underrated book “Heretics”: “As enunciated today,” he wrote, “‘progress’ is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.”

Part of Chesterton’s genius is his ability to point out what is both obvious and overlooked. This is a great example. All our talk about progress is incoherent unless we have defined the goal toward which we’re progressing.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

“… [P]rogress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress,” Chesterton pointed out.

Suppose I’m walking in the woods. If I’m following a well marked trail to an intended destination, it’s clear what I mean by progress. But suppose I’m completely lost. I might choose a direction and start walking, but I couldn’t truly call it progress; I don’t even know whether all my walking will bring me closer to help or farther away. Or suppose there are two of us out walking together, and we disagree about where we would like to go. What looks like progress to me might well be something else in my friend’s eyes.

As many have observed, we Americans tend to be big believers in “progress,” in a way that cuts across political lines. We tend to think history bends toward the good.

Yet just the living memory of the events of the 20th century ought to give us plenty of reasons to doubt the inevitability of progress. So too does the full scope of American history. To give just a couple of examples: Consider “manifest destiny” — the spread of America from East Coast to West Coast, with the subjugation of all the people already living there — which was once the dominant vision of American progress. Or recall that at another moment in our history, eugenics, with its dream of science applied to society breeding a better human race through means like forced sterilization, was the glorious future.

Now we rightly look back on these and other such episodes with shame or even horror.

But we seem not to have learned humility in this. I suspect part of why we’re so divided and stuck is the competing and often mutually contradictory definitions of progress. Eugenics is back under new names, from aborting and euthanasia for the disabled to genetically modified humans to transhumanism. Another vision of progress is to “make America great again.” Another, which I read in a letter to my local newspaper a while back, is to “rid our country of the scourge that is our racist, capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy.”

Some see our glorious future in the triumph of science and technology, others in ecological conversion, still others in transcending all limits on self-invention. Many, in the pragmatic spirit of America, see progress primarily in economic terms. Some would measure it by the GDP and median income and the Dow Jones, while others would look to indicators like economic inequality.

Relying on Catholic social thought, we might point out that material and technical advances are important but not sufficient — that while they can constitute a means toward progress, only spiritual progress can really accomplish good with them.

But can there be spiritual progress without the church, without God? Certainly not.

That may lead us to ask the question of ourselves as Catholics, especially in these times when we are, as the Scripture says, brought low everywhere in the world today because of our sins. What constitutes progress for us, for the church?

Similar to our society as a whole, one could list a litany of competing ideas about this. Even leaving aside wrong turns like changing unpopular Catholic beliefs, we might include things like eliminating corruption in the church; battling evils in society like abortion, poverty, mistreatment of immigrants, or war; helping those in need.

But despite that, I think the correct answer is clear and simple: Our destination is Jesus Christ, and our path is our role in carrying on his mission of reconciling the human race to God through his passion, death, and resurrection.

Every reform, every effort for justice in the world, every work of mercy, every liturgy, every homily, every prayer, every catechism class, every retreat, every confession — every one of these things is either directed toward that goal and, in the case of the more worldly things, subordinate to it, or it’s not progress. Jesus and his mission are our reason for being.

The good news of that is that even if I have no power at all over some social ill or some problem in the church, I can truly work toward progress in countless ways, even if they seem small and thankless, or even if they are hard and involve confronting my own sins and failings and need for deeper conversion. This is a source of hope.

One thing Advent teaches us is that carrying out our lives in this spirit, faithfully doing what God has given us while waiting in hope for him to bring about his work in us and in the world around us, has been part of the plan all along.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at dcn.kyle.eller@duluthcatholic.org.