Read LECTURE V - THE PERILS OF PROGRESS of Christianity and Progress , free online book, by Harry Emerson Fosdick, on


In the history of human thought and social organization there is an interesting pendular swing between conflicting ideas so that, about the time we wake up to recognize that thought is swinging one way, we may be fairly sure that soon it will be swinging the other. Man’s social organization, for example, has moved back and forth between the two poles of individual liberty and social solidarity. To pick up the swing of that pendulum only in recent times, we note that out of the social solidarity of the feudal system man swung over to the individual liberty of the free cities; then from the individual liberty of the free cities to the social solidarity of the absolute monarchies; then back again into the individual liberty of the democratic states. We see that now we are clearly swinging over to some new form of social solidarity, of which tendency federalism and socialism are expressions, and doubtless from that we shall recoil toward individual liberty once more. It is a safe generalization that whenever human thought shows some decided trend, a corrective movement is not far away. However enthusiastic we may be, therefore, about the idea of progress and the positive contributions which it can make to our understanding and mastery of life, we may be certain that there are in it the faults of its qualities. If we take it without salt, our children will rise up, not to applaud our far-seeing wisdom, but to blame our easy-going credulity. We have already seen that the very idea of progress sprang up in recent times in consequence of a few factors which predisposed men’s minds to social hopefulness. Fortunately, some of these factors, such as the scientific control of life through the knowledge of law, seem permanent, and we are confident that the idea of progress will have abiding meaning for human thought and life. But no study of the matter could be complete without an endeavour to discern the perils in this modern mode of thought and to guard ourselves against accepting as an unmixed blessing what is certainly, like all things human, a blend of good and evil.

One peril involved in the popular acceptance of the idea of progress has been the creation of a superficial, ill-considered optimism which has largely lost sight of the terrific obstacles in human nature against which any real moral advance on earth must win its way. Too often we have taken for granted what a recent book calls “a goal of racial perfection and nobility the splendour of which it is beyond our powers to conceive,” and we have dreamed about this earthly paradise like a saint having visions of heaven and counting it as won already because he is predestined to obtain it. Belief in inevitable progress has thus acted as an opiate on many minds, lulling them into an elysium where all things come by wishing and where human ignorance and folly, cruelty and selfishness do not impede the peaceful flowing of their dreams. In a word, the idea of progress has blanketed the sense of sin. Lord Morley spoke once of “that horrid burden and impediment upon the soul which the Churches call Sin, and which, by whatever name you call it, is a real catastrophe in the moral nature of man.” The modern age, busy with slick, swift schemes for progress, has too largely lost sight of that.

Indeed, at no point do modern Christians differ more sharply from their predecessors than in the serious facing of the problem of sin. Christians of former times were burdened with a heavy sense of their transgressions, and their primary interest in the Gospel was its promised reestablishment of their guilty souls in the fellowship of a holy God. Modern Christianity, however, is distinguished from all that by a jaunty sense of moral well-being; when we admit our sins we do it with complacency and cheerfulness; our religion is generally characterized by an easy-going self-righteousness. Bunyan’s Pilgrim with his lamentable load upon his back, crying, “What shall I do! . . . I am . . . undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me,” is no fit symbol of a typically modern Christian.

Doubtless we have cause to be thankful for this swing away from the morbid extremes to which our fathers often went in their sense of sin. It is hard to forgive Jonathan Edwards when one reads in his famous Enfield sermon: “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; . . . you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes, as the most hateful and venomous serpent is in ours.” Any one who understands human nature could have told him that, after such a black exaggeration of human depravity as he and his generation were guilty of, the Christian movement was foredoomed to swing away over to the opposite extreme of complacent self-righteousness. Unquestionably we have made the swing. In spite of the debacle of the Great War, this is one of the most unrepentant generations that ever walked the earth, dreaming still of automatic progress toward an earthly paradise.

Many factors have gone into the making of this modern mood of self-complacency. New knowledge has helped, by which disasters, such as once awakened our fathers’ poignant sense of sin, are now attributed to scientific causes rather than to human guilt. When famines or pestilences came, our fathers thought them God’s punishment for sin. When earthquakes shook the earth or comets hung threateningly in the sky, our fathers saw in them a divine demand for human penitence. Such events, referred now to their scientific causes, do not quicken in us a sense of sin. New democracy also has helped in this development of self-complacency. Under autocratic kings the common people were common people and they knew it well. Their dependent commonality was enforced on them by the constant pressure of their social life. Accustomed to call themselves miserable worms before an earthly king, they had no qualms about so estimating themselves before the King of Heaven. Democracy, however, elevates us into self-esteem. The genius of democracy is to believe in men, their worth, their possibilities, their capacities for self-direction. Once the dominant political ideas depressed men into self-contempt; now they lift men into self-exaltation. New excuses for sin have aided in creating our mood of self-content. We know more than our fathers did about the effect of heredity and environment on character, and we see more clearly that some souls are not born but damned into the world. Criminals, in consequence, have come not to be so much condemned as pitied, their perversion of character is regarded not so much in terms of iniquity as of disease, and as we thus condone transgression in others, so in ourselves we palliate our wrong. We regard it as the unfortunate but hardly blamable consequence of temperament or training. Our fathers, who thought that the trouble was the devil in them, used to deal sternly with themselves. Like Chinese Gordon, fighting a besetting sin in private prayer, they used to come out from their inward struggles saying, “I hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.” But we are softer with ourselves; we find in lack of eugenics or in cruel circumstance a good excuse.

Undoubtedly, the new theology has helped to encourage this modern mood of self-complacency. Jonathan Edwards’ Enfield sermon pictured sinners held over the blazing abyss of hell in the hands of a wrathful deity who at any moment was likely to let go, and so terrific was that discourse in its delivery that women fainted and strong men clung in agony to the pillars of the church. Obviously, we do not believe in that kind of God any more, and as always in reaction we swing to the opposite extreme, so in the theology of these recent years we have taught a very mild, benignant sort of deity. One of our popular drinking songs sums up this aspect of our new theology:

“God is not censorious
When His children have their fling.”

Indeed, the god of the new theology has not seemed to care acutely about sin; certainly he has not been warranted to punish heavily; he has been an indulgent parent and when we have sinned, a polite “Excuse me” has seemed more than adequate to make amends. John Muir, the naturalist, was accustomed during earthquake shocks in California to assuage the anxieties of perturbed Eastern visitors by saying that it was only Mother Earth trotting her children on her knee. Such poetizing is quite in the style of the new theology. Nevertheless, the description, however pretty, is not an adequate account of a real earthquake, and in this moral universe there are real earthquakes, as this generation above all others ought to know, when man’s sin, his greed, his selfishness, his rapacity roll up across the years an accumulating mass of consequence until at last in a mad collapse the whole earth crashes into ruin. The moral order of the world has not been trotting us on her knees these recent years; the moral order of the world has been dipping us in hell; and because the new theology had not been taking account of such possibilities, had never learned to preach on that text in the New Testament, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we were ill prepared for the experience.

Many factors like those which we have named have contributed to create our modern negligence of the problem of sin, but under all of them and permeating them has been the idea that automatic progress is inherent in the universe. This evolving cosmos has been pictured as a fool-proof world where men could make and love their lies, with their souls dead and their stomachs well alive, with selfish profit the motive of their economic order and narrow nationalism the slogan of their patriotism, and where still, escaping the consequences, they could live in a progressive society. A recent writer considers it possible that “over the crest of the hill the Promised Land stretches away to the far horizons smiling in eternal sunshine.” The picture is nonsense. All the progress this world ever will know waits upon the conquest of sin. Strange as it may sound to the ears of this modern age, long tickled by the amiable idiocies of evolution popularly misinterpreted, this generation’s deepest need is not these dithyrambic songs about inevitable progress, but a fresh sense of personal and social sin.

What the scientific doctrine of evolution really implies is something much more weighty and sinister than frothy optimism. When a preacher now quotes Paul, “as in Adam all die,” not many of the younger generation understand him, but when we are told that we came out of low, sub-human beginnings, that we carry with us yet the bestial leftovers of an animal heritage to be fought against and overcome and left behind, well-instructed members of this generation ought to comprehend. Yet in saying that, we are dealing with the same fundamental fact which Paul was facing when he said, “as in Adam all die”; we are handling the same unescapable experience out of which the old doctrine of original sin first came; we are facing a truth which it will not pay us to forget: that humanity’s sinful nature is not something which you and I alone make up by individual deeds of wrong, but that it is an inherited mortgage and handicap on the whole human family. Why is it that if we let a field run wild it goes to weeds, while if we wish wheat we must fight for every grain of it? Why is it that if we let human nature run loose it goes to evil, while he who would be virtuous must struggle to achieve character? It is because, in spite of our optimisms and evasions, that fact still is here, which our fathers often appraised more truly than we, that human nature, with all its magnificent possibilities, is like the earth’s soil filled with age-long seeds and roots of evil growth, and that progress in goodness, whether personal or social, must be achieved by grace of some power which can give us the victory over our evil nature.

In past generations it was the preachers who talked most about sin and thundered against it from their pulpits, but now for years they have been very reticent about it. Others, however, have not been still. Scientists have made us feel the ancient heritage that must be fought against; novelists have written no great novel that does not swirl around some central sin; the work of the dramatists from Shakespeare until Ibsen is centrally concerned with the problem of human evil; and now the psycho-analysts are digging down into the unremembered thoughts of men to bring up into the light of day the origins of our spiritual miseries in frustrated and suppressed desire. We do not need artificially to conjure up a sense of sin. All we need to do is to open our eyes to facts. Take one swift glance at the social state of the world to-day. Consider our desperate endeavours to save this rocking civilization from the consequences of the blow just delivered it by men’s iniquities. That should be sufficient to indicate that this is no fool-proof universe automatically progressive, but that moral evil is still the central problem of mankind.

One would almost say that the first rule for all who believe in a progressive world is not to believe in it too much. Long ago Plato said that he drove two horses, one white and tractable, the other black and fractious; Jesus said that two masters sought man’s allegiance, one God, the other mammon; Paul said that his soul was the battle-ground of two forces, one of which he called spirit and the other flesh; and only the other day one of our own number told of the same struggle between two men in each of us, one Dr. Jekyll, the other Mr. Hyde. That conflict still is pivotal in human history. The idea of progress can defeat itself no more surely than by getting itself so believed that men expect automatic social advance apart from the conquest of personal and social sin.


Another result of our superficial confidence in the idea of progress is reliance upon social palliatives instead of radical cures for our public maladies. We are so predisposed to think that the world inherently wants to be better, is inwardly straining to be better, that we are easily fooled into supposing that some slight easement of external circumstance will at once release the progressive forces of mankind and save the race. When, for example, one compares the immense amount of optimistic expectancy about a warless world with the small amount of radical thinking as to what really is the matter with us, he may well be amazed at the unfounded regnancy of the idea of progress. We rejoice over some slight disarmament as though that were the cure of our international shame, whereas always one can better trust a real Quaker with a gun than a thug without one. So the needs of our international situation, involving external disarmament, to be sure, involve also régénérations of thought and spirit much more radical than any rearrangement of outward circumstance. To forget that is to lose the possibility of real progress; and insight into these deep-seated needs is often dimmed by our too amiable and innocent belief in automatic social advance waiting to take place on the slightest excuse.

To take but a single illustration of a radical change in men’s thinking, difficult to achieve and yet indispensable to a decent world, consider the group of prejudices and passions which center about nationalism and which impede the real progress of international fraternity. What if all Christians took Jesus in earnest in his attitude that only one object on earth is worthy of the absolute devotion of a man the will of God for all mankind and that therefore no nationality nor patriotism whatsoever should be the highest object of man’s loyalty? That ought to be an axiom to us, who stood with the Allies against Germany. Certainly, we condemned Germany roundly enough because so many of her teachers exalted the state as an object of absolute loyalty. When in Japan one sees certain classes of people regarding the Mikado as divine and rating loyalty to him as their highest duty, it is easy to condemn that. When, however, a man says in plain English: I am an American but I am a Christian first and I am an American only in the sense in which I can be an American, being first of all a Christian, and my loyalty to America does not begin to compare with my superior loyalty to God’s will for all mankind and, if ever national action makes these two things conflict, I must choose God and not America to the ears of many that plain statement has a tang of newness and danger. In the background of even Christian minds, Jesus to the contrary notwithstanding, one finds the tacit assumption, counted almost too sacred to be examined, that of course a man’s first loyalty is to his nation.

Indeed, we Protestants ought to feel a special responsibility for this nationalism that so takes the place of God. In medieval and Catholic Europe folk did not so think of nationalism. Folk in medieval Europe were taught that their highest obligation was to God or, as they would have phrased it, to the Church; that the Church could at any time dispense them from any obligation to king or nation; that the Church could even make the king, the symbol of the nation, stand three days in the snow outside the Pope’s door at Canossa. Every boy and girl in medieval Europe was taught that his first duty was spiritual and that no nationality nor patriotism could compare with that. Then we Protestants began our battle for spiritual liberty against the tyranny of Rome, and as one of the most potent agencies in the winning of our battle we helped to develop the spirit of nationality. In place of the Holy Roman Church we put state churches. In place of devotion to the Vatican we were tempted to put devotion to the nation. Luther did more than write spiritual treatises; he sent out ringing, patriotic appeals to the German nobility against Rome. It is not an accident that absolute nationalism came to its climacteric in Germany where Protestantism began. For Protestantism, without ever intending it, as an unexpected by-product of its fight for spiritual liberty, helped to break up western Europe into nations, where nationalism absorbed the loyalty of the people. And now that little tiger cub we helped to rear has become a great beast and its roaring shakes the earth.

A superficial confidence in automatic progress, therefore, which neglects an elemental fact like this at the root of our whole international problem is futile; it leads nowhere; it is rose water prescribed for leprosy. The trouble with nationalism is profound and this is the gist of it: we may be unselfish personally, but we group ourselves into social units called nations, where we, being individually unselfish with reference to the group, are satisfied with ourselves, but where all the time the group itself is not unselfish, but, it may be, is aggressively and violently avaricious. Yet to most people our sacrificial loyalty to the nation would pass for virtue, even though the nation as a whole were exploiting its neighbours or waging a useless, unjust war. The loyalty of Germans to Germany may be rated as the loftiest goodness no matter what Germany as a whole is doing, and the loyalty of Americans to America may be praised as the very passport to heaven while America as a whole may be engaged in a nationally unworthy enterprise. The fine spirit of men’s devotion within the limits of the group disguises the ultimate selfishness of the whole procedure and cloaks a huge sin under a comparatively small unselfishness.

We can see that same principle at work in our industrial situation. We break up into two groups; we are trades unionists or associated employers. We are unselfish so far as our group is concerned; we make it a point of honour to support our economic class; it is part of our code of duty to be loyal there. But while we are thus unselfish with reference to the group, the group itself is not unselfish; the group itself is fighting a bitter and selfish conflict, avaricious and often cruel. There is no ultimate way out of this situation which does not include the activity of people who have a loyalty that is greater than their groups. Henry George was once introduced at Cooper Institute, New York City, by a chairman who, wishing to curry favour with the crowd, called out with a loud voice, “Henry George, the friend of the workingman.” George stood up and sternly began, “I am not the friend of the workingman”; then after a strained silence, “and I am not the friend of the capitalist”; then after another silence, “I am for men; men simply as men, regardless of any accidental or superficial distinctions of race, creed, colour, class, or yet function or employment.” Until we can get that larger loyalty into the hearts of men, all the committees on earth cannot solve our industrial problems.

Nor can anything else make it possible to solve our international problem. The curse of nationalism is that, having pooled the unselfishness of persons in one group under one national name and of persons in another group under another national name, it uses this beautiful unselfishness of patriotism to carry out national enterprises that are fundamentally selfish. One element, therefore, is indispensable in any solution: enough Christians, whether they call themselves by that name or not, who have caught Jesus’ point of view that only one loyalty on earth is absolute the will of God for all mankind. This last summer I spent one Sunday night in the home of Mr. Ozaki, perhaps the leading liberal of Japan, a man who stands in danger of assassination any day for his international attitude. Suddenly he turned on me and said, “If the United States should go into a war which you regarded as unjust and wrong, what would you do?” I had to answer him swiftly and I had to give him the only answer that a Christian minister could give and keep his self-respect. I said, “If the United States goes into a war which I think is unjust and wrong, I will go into my pulpit the next Sunday morning and in the name of God denounce that war and take the consequence.” Surely, a man does not have to be a theoretical pacifist, which I am not, to see how indispensable that attitude is to a Christian. There is hardly anything more needed now in the international situation than a multitude of people who will sit in radical judgment on the actions of their governments, so that when the governments of the world begin to talk war they will know that surely they must face a mass of people rising up to say: War? Why war? We are no longer dumb beasts to be led to the slaughter; we no longer think that any state on earth is God Almighty. If, however, we are to have that attitude strong enough so that it will stand the strain of mob psychology and the fear of consequences, it must be founded deep, as was Jesus’ attitude: one absolute loyalty to the will of God for all mankind. So far from hurting true patriotism, this attitude would be the making of patriotism. It would purge patriotism from all its peril, would exalt it, purify it, make of it a blessing, not a curse. But whatever be the effect upon patriotism, the Christian is committed by the Master to a prior loyalty; he is a citizen of the Kingdom of God in all the earth.

An easy-going belief in inherent and inevitable progress, therefore, is positively perilous in the manifoldly complex social situation, from which only the most careful thinking and the most courageous living will ever rescue us. The Christian Church is indeed entrusted, in the message of Jesus, with the basic principles of life which the world needs, but the clarity of vision which sees their meaning and the courage of heart which will apply them are not easy to achieve. Some of us have felt that acutely these last few years; all of us should have learned that whatever progress is wrought out upon this planet will be sternly fought for and hardly won. Belief in the idea of progress does not mean that this earth is predestined to drift into Paradise like thistledown before an inevitable wind.


A third peril associated with the idea of progress is quite as widespread as the other two and in some ways more insidious. The idea is prevalent that progress involves the constant supersession of the old by the new so that we, who have appeared thus late in human history and are therefore the heirs “of all the ages, in the foremost files of time,” may at once assume our superiority to the ancients. The modern man, living in a world supposedly progressing from early crude conditions toward perfection, has shifted the golden age from the past to the future, and in so doing has placed himself in much closer proximity to it than his ancestors were. The world is getting better such is the common assumption which is naturally associated with the idea of progress. As one enthusiastic sponsor of this proposition puts it:

“Go back ten years, and there was no airship; fifteen years, and there was no wireless telegraphy; twenty-five years, and there was no automobile; forty years, and there was no telephone, and no electric light; sixty years, and there was no photograph, and no sewing machine; seventy-five years, no telegraph; one hundred years, no railway and no steamship; one hundred and twenty-five years, no steam engine; two hundred years, no post-office; three hundred years, no newspaper; five hundred years, no printing press; one thousand years, no compass, and ships could not go out of sight of land; two thousand years, no writing paper, but parchments of skin and tablets of wax and clay. Go back far enough and there were no plows, no tools, no iron, no cloth; people ate acorns and roots and lived in caves and went naked or clothed themselves in the skins of wild beasts.”

Such is the picture of human history upon this planet which occupies the modern mind, and one implication often drawn is that we have outgrown the ancients and that they might well learn from us and not we from them.

Christians, however, center their allegiance around ideas and personalities which are, from the modern standpoint, very old indeed. The truths that were wrought out in the developing life and faith of the Hebrew-Christian people are still the regulative Christian truths, and the personality who crowned the whole development is still the Christians’ Lord. They are challenged, however, to maintain this in a progressive world. Men do not think of harking back to ancient Palestine nineteen centuries ago for their business methods, their educational systems, their scientific opinions, or anything else in ordinary life whatever. Then why go back to ancient Palestine for the chief exemplar of the spiritual life? This is a familiar modern question which springs directly from popular interpretations of progress.

“Dim tracts of time divide
Those golden days from me;
Thy voice comes strange o’er years of change;
How can I follow Thee?

“Comes faint and far Thy voice
From vales of Galilee;
Thy vision fades in ancient shades;
How should we follow Thee?”

Behind this familiar mood lies one of the most significant changes that has ever passed over the human mind. The medieval age was tempted to look backward for its knowledge of everything. Philosophy was to be found in Aristotle, science in Pliny and his like. It was the ancients who were wise; it was the ancients who had understood nature and had known God. The farther back you went the nearer you came to the venerable and the authoritative. As, therefore, in every other realm folk looked back for knowledge, so it was most natural that they should look back for their religion, too. To find philosophy in Aristotle and to find spiritual life in Christ required not even the turning of the head. In all realms the age in its search for knowledge was facing backwards. It was a significant hour in the history of human thought when that attitude began to give way. The scandal caused by Alessandro Tassoni’s attacks on Homer and Aristotle in the early seventeenth century resounded through Europe. He advanced the new and astonishing idea that, so far from having degenerated since ancient times, the race had advanced and that the moderns were better than their sires. This new idea prevailed as belief in progress grew. It met, however, with violent opposition, and the remnants of that old controversy are still to be found in volumes like George Hakewill’s five hundred page folio published in 1627 on “the common errour touching Nature’s perpetuall and universall decay.” But from the seventeenth century on the idea gained swift ascendency that the human race, like an individual, is growing up, that humanity is becoming wiser with the years, that we can know more than Aristotle and Pliny, that we should look, not back to the ancients, but rather to ourselves and to our offspring, for the real wisdom which maturity achieves. Once what was old seemed wise and established; what was new seemed extempore and insecure: now what is old seems outgrown; what is new seems probable and convincing. Such is the natural and prevalent attitude in a world where the idea of progress is in control. Nor can the applications of this idea to the realm of religion be evaded. If we would not turn back to Palestine nineteen centuries ago for anything else, why should we turn back to find there the Master of our spiritual life? In a word, our modern belief in progress, popularly interpreted, leads multitudes of people to listen with itching ears for every new thing, while they condescend to all that is old in religion, and in particular conclude that, while Jesus lived a wonderful life for his own day, that was a long time ago and surely we must be outgrowing him.

That this attitude is critically perilous to the integrity of the Christian movement will at once be obvious to any one whose own spiritual experience is centered in Christ. From the beginning until now the faith of Christian people has been primarily directed, not to a set of abstract principles, nor to a set of creedal definitions, but to a Person. Christians have been people believing in Jesus Christ. This abiding element has put unity into Christian history. The stream of Christian thought and progress has never been twice the same, yet for all that it has been a continuous stream and not an aimless, sprawling flood, and this unity and consistency have existed for one reason chiefly: the influence of the personality of Jesus. Folk may have been Romanists or Protestants, ritualists or Quakers, reactionaries or progressives, but still they have believed in Jesus. His personality has been the sun around which even in their differences they have swung like planets in varying orbits. Take the personality of Jesus out of Christian history and what you have left is chaos.

Moreover, it is the personality of Jesus that has been the source of Christianity’s transforming influence on character. Ask whence has come that power over the spirits of men which we recognize as Christianity at its mightiest and best, and the origin must be sought, not primarily in our theologies or rubrics or churches, but in the character and spirit of Jesus. He himself is the central productive source of power in Christianity. We have come so to take this for granted that we do not half appreciate the wonder of it. This personality, who so has mastered men, was born sixty generations ago in a small village in an outlying Roman province, and until he was thirty years of age he lived and worked as a carpenter among his fellow townsfolk, attracting no wide consideration. Then for three years or less he poured out his life in courageous teaching and sacrificial service, amid the growing hatred and hostility of his countrymen, until he was put to death by crucifixion “because he stirred up the people.” Anatole France, in one of his stories, represents Pilate in his later years as trying to remember the trial and death of Jesus and being barely able to recall it. That incident had been so much a part of the day’s work in governing a province like Judea that it had all but escaped his recollection. Such a representation of the case is not improbable. It is easy so to tell the story of Jesus’ life as to make his continued influence seem incredible. None would have supposed that nineteen centuries after his death, Lecky, the historian of European morals, would say, “The simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers, and all the exhortations of moralists.” None would have thought that sixty generations after he was gone, Montefiori, a Jew, putting his finger on the source of Christianity’s power, would light upon the phrase “For the sake of Jesus,” and would cry: “Of what fine lives and deaths has not this motive been the spring and the sustainment!” None would have thought that so long after Calvary seemed to end forever the power of Jesus, one of the race’s greatest men, David Livingstone, engaged in one of the race’s most courageous enterprises, breaking his way into the untraveled jungles of Africa, would sing as he went, for so his journal says he did,

“Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills my breast”?

Take the personality of the Master out of Christian history and we have robbed it of its central moral power.

Moreover, the personality of Jesus has always been the standard of reformation when Christianity has become recreant or laggard or corrupt. A man named John Wilkes started a political movement in England in the eighteenth century, and around him sprang up a party who called themselves Wilkites. These followers of Wilkes, however, went to extremes so wild and perilous that poor John Wilkes himself had to explain to everybody that, as for him, he was not a Wilkite. This lapse of a movement from the original intention of its founder is familiar in history and nowhere is it more clearly illustrated than in Christianity. The Master, watching Western Christendom today, with all our hatred, bitterness, war, would have to say, If this is Christianity, then I am not a Christian. The Master, wandering through our cathedrals with their masses, waxen images and votive gifts, or through our Protestant churches with their fine-spun speculations insisted on as necessary to belief if one is to be a child of grace, would have to say, If this is Christianity, then I am not a Christian. Indeed, just this sort of service the Master always has been rendering his movement; he is the perennial rebuke of all that is degenerate and false in Christianity. Whenever reform has come, whenever real Christianity has sprung up again through the false and superficial, the movement has been associated with somebody’s rediscovery of Jesus Christ. Saint Francis of Assisi rediscovered him, and made a spot of spiritual beauty at the heart of the medieval age. John Wesley rediscovered him and his compassion for the outcast, and led the Church into a new day of evangelism and philanthropy. William Carey rediscovered him and his unbounded care for men, and blazed the trail for a new era of expansive Christianity. And if today many of us are deeply in earnest about the application of Christian principles to the social life of men, it is because we have rediscovered him and the spirit of his Good Samaritan. In an old myth, Antaeus, the child of Earth, could be overcome when he was lifted from contact with the ground but, whenever he touched again the earth from which he sprang, his old power came back once more. Such is Christianity’s relation with Jesus Christ. If, therefore, the idea of progress involves the modern man’s condescension to the Master as the outgrown seer of an ancient day, the idea of progress has given Christianity an incurable wound.

Before we surrender to such a popular interpretation of the meaning of progress, we may well discriminate between two aspects of human life in one of which we plainly have progressed, but in the other of which progress is not so evident. In the Coliseum in ancient Rome centuries ago, a group of Christians waited in the arena to be devoured by the lions, and eighty thousand spectators watched their vigil. Those Christians were plain folk “not many mighty, not many noble” and every one of them could have escaped that brutal fate if he had been willing to burn a little incense to the Emperor. Turn now to ourselves, eighteen hundred years afterwards. We have had a long time to outgrow the character and fidelity of those first Christians; do we think that we have done so? As we imagine ourselves in their places, are we ready with any glibness to talk about progress in character? Those first Christians never had ridden in a trolley car; they never had seen a subway; they never had been to a moving picture show; they never had talked over a telephone. There are innumerable ways in which we have progressed far beyond them. But character, fidelity, loyalty to conscience and to God are we sure of progress there?

To hear some people talk, one would suppose that progress is simply a matter of chronology. That one man or generation comes in time after another is taken as sufficient evidence that the latter has of course superseded the earlier. Do we mean that because Tennyson came after Shelly he is therefore the greater poet? What has chronology to do with spiritual quality and creativeness, which always must rise from within, out of the abysmal depths of personality? Professor Gilbert Murray, thinking primarily in a realm outside religion altogether, chastises this cheap and superficial claim of advance in spiritual life:

“As to Progress, it is no doubt a real fact. To many of us it is a truth that lies somewhere near the roots of our religion. But it is never a straight march forward; it is never a result that happens of its own accord. It is only a name for the mass of accumulated human effort, successful here, baffled there, misdirected and driven astray in a third region, but on the whole and in the main producing some cumulative result. I believe this difficulty about Progress, this fear that in studying the great teachers of the past we are in some sense wantonly sitting at the feet of savages, causes real trouble of mind to many keen students. The full answer to it would take us beyond the limits of this paper and beyond my own range of knowledge. But the main lines of the answer seem to me clear. There are in life two elements, one transitory and progressive, the other comparatively if not absolutely non-progressive and eternal, and the soul of man is chiefly concerned with the second. Try to compare our inventions, our material civilization, our stores of accumulated knowledge, with those of the age of Aeschylus or Aristotle or St. Francis, and the comparison is absurd. Our superiority is beyond question and beyond measure. But compare any chosen poet of our age with Aeschylus, any philosopher with Aristotle, any saintly preacher with St. Francis, and the result is totally different. I do not wish to argue that we have fallen below the standard of those past ages; but it is clear that we are not definitely above them. The things of the spirit depend on will, on effort, on aspiration, on the quality of the individual soul, and not on discoveries and material advances which can be accumulated and added up.”

Let any Christian preacher test out this matter and discover for himself its truth. We are preachers of the Gospel in the twentieth century. St. Francis of Assisi was a preacher of the Gospel in the thirteenth century. We know many things which St. Francis and his generation never could have known but, when we step back through that outward change into the spirit of St. Francis himself, we must take the shoes from off our feet, for the place whereon we stand is holy ground. We may not talk in such an hour about progress in Christian character in terms of chronology, for a modern minister might well pray to touch the garment’s hem of such a spirit as St. Francis had! When, then, one speaks of outgrowing Jesus, one would do well to get a better reason than simply the fact that he was born nineteen centuries ago. The truth is that humanity has been upon this planet hundreds of thousands of years, while our known history reaches back, and that very dimly, through only some four or five thousand. In that known time there has certainly been no biological development in man that any scientist has yet discerned. Even the brain of man in the ice age was apparently as large as ours. Moreover, within that period of history well known to us, we can see many ups and downs of spiritual life, mountain peaks of achievement in literature and art and religion, with deep valleys intervening, but we cannot be sure that the mountain peaks now are higher than they used to be. The art of the two centuries culminating about 1530 represents a glorious flowering of creative genius, but it was succeeded by over three centuries of descent to the abominations of ugliness which the late eighteenth century produced. We have climbed up a little since then, but not within distant reach of those lovers and makers of beauty from whose hearts and hands the Gothic cathedrals came. Progress in history has lain in the power of man to remember and so to accumulate for general use the discoveries, both material and ethical, of many individuals; it has lain in man’s increasing information about the universe, in his increasing mastery over external nature, and in the growing integration of his social life; it has not lain in the production of creative personalities appearing in the course of history with ever greater sublimity of spirit and grasp of intellect. Where is there a mind on earth today like Plato’s? Where is there a spirit today like Paul’s?

The past invites us still to look back for revelations in the realm of creative personality. Some things have been done in history, like the sculptures of Phidias, that never have been done so well since and that perhaps never will be done so well again. As for the Bible, we may well look back to that. There is no book to compare with it in the realm of religion. Most of the books we read are like the rainwater that fell last night, a superficial matter, soon running off. But the Bible is a whole sea the accumulated spiritual gains of ages and to know it and to love it, to go down beside it and dip into it, to feel its vast expanse, the currents that run through it, and the tides that lift it, is one of the choicest and most rewarding spiritual privileges that we enjoy. As for Jesus, it is difficult to see what this twentieth century can mean by supposing that it has outgrown him. It has outgrown countless elements in his generation and many forms of thought which he shared with his generation, but it never will outgrow his spirit, his faith in God, his principles of life: “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name;” “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself;” “It is not the will of your Father who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish;” “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another;” “If any man would be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all;” “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them;” “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you;” “Thy will be done, as in heaven, so on earth.” Take principles like these, set them afire in a flaming life the like of which has never come to earth, and we have in Jesus a revelation of the spiritual world which is not going to be outgrown. Still for the Christian he is Saviour and Lord, and across the centuries in his face shines the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.


Progress, therefore, intelligently apprehended, does not involve that flippant irreverence for the past that so often is associated with it. It offers no encouragement to the chase after vagaries in which so many moderns indulge, as though all that is old were belated and all that is novel were true. The idea of progress has led more than one eager mind to think that the old religions were outgrown; that they were the belated leftovers of a bygone age and were not for modern minds; that a new religion fitted to our new needs alone would do. Suppose, however, that one should say: The English language is an archaic affair; it has grown like Topsy, by chance; it has carried along with it the forms of thinking of outgrown generations; it is not scientific; what we need is a new language built to order to meet our wants. In answer one must acknowledge that the English language is open to very serious criticism, that one can never tell from the way a word is spelled how it is going to be pronounced, nor from the way it is pronounced how it is going to be spelled. One must agree that the English language makes one phrase do duty for many different meanings. When two people quarrel, they make up; before the actor goes upon the stage, he makes up; the preacher goes into his study to make up his sermon; when we do wrong we try to make up for it; and the saucy lad in school behind his teacher’s back makes up a face. The English language is fearfully and wonderfully made. But merely because the English language has such ungainly developments, we are not likely to surrender it and adopt instead a modern language made to order, like Esperanto. Say what one will about English, it is the speech in which our poets have sung and our prophets have prophesied and our seers have dreamed dreams. If any do not like it they may get a new one, but most of us will stay where we still can catch the accents of the master spirits who have spoken in our tongue. There are words in the English language that no Esperanto words ever can take the place of: home and honour and love and God, words that have been sung about and prayed over and fought for by our sires for centuries, and that come to us across the ages with accumulated meanings, like caskets full of jewels. Surely we are not going to give up the English language. Progress does not mean surrendering it, but developing it.

We shall not give up Christianity. It has had ungainly developments; it does need reformation; many elements in it are pitiably belated; but, for all that, the profoundest need of the world is real Christianity, the kind of life the Master came to put into the hearts of men. Progress does not mean breaking away from it, but going deeper into it.

Here, then, are the three perils which tempt the believer in progress: a silly underestimate of the tremendous force of human sin, which withstands all real advance; superficial reliance upon social palliatives to speed the convalescence of the world, when only radical cures will do; flippant irreverence toward the past, when, as a matter of fact, the light we have for the future shines upon us from behind. He who most believes in progress needs most to resist its temptations.