Progress? (Reflection)

ProgressI remarked recently to my boss that when I was younger and studying Western history in middle and high school, I used to imagine myself living in other eras. The age of the Greek philosophers, the age of Christ, the age of scholasticism, and the age of the Renaissance were all eras of incredible human progress. I thought then, How amazing it must have been to live in those periods of history. But then I said to my boss, I have recently come to realize that we are living today in what might clearly be the most amazing era of history. I now imagine people in the future looking back on our era and saying, “Now, that was an amazing time to be alive!”

Philosophers and pundits have argued for centuries about what constitutes real human progress. Some have claimed that much “progress” has come at too great a price due to the loss of human life, and that history’s “golden ages” are wrongly glorified because they ignore the immense suffering of the majority of people alive during those times. Thus, progress seems to be best studied as a two-sided coin. Progress for one group of people could mean death for another group. For example, in our era the same planes that help humans fly have dropped bombs on innocents below. The same inventions like asbestos, lead-based products, and certain medicines that seemed so promising wound up killing millions of unsuspecting people. The same fuels that heat our homes, propel our cars and mass transit are also destroying the very environment we need to survive. The progress of the last century has been nothing less than remarkable, but the light that shines from that progress also casts a dark shadow that is too often ignored.

Progress in the West over the last 150 years, especially in the sciences and technology, has been nothing less than astounding. Because of the sciences we have travelled into space, seen cures for many diseases, and scientific advances will continue to astonish us even more in the future. Technology has provided new ways to make food more abundant, and the World-Wide-Web makes just about every bit of information and knowledge available at the fingertips for just about every person on earth. I could go on for pages describing the wonderfully helpful ways science, and her offspring technology, have made our lives better. It truly is an amazingly time to be alive, and hopeful too.

Yet, over the last century, as our world, especially in the West, has undergone seismic societal changes marked by undeniable technological progress, there have been prophetic voices that have challenged us to be very careful about how we understand this progress. These voices are not simply naysayers, modern-day Luddites, or what leadership experts call “laggards” on the change adoption curve. Like the prophets of old who called the people back to their gods, these voices are calling us back to our true humanity. They seek to remind us that science and technology too often work from premises that over mechanize humanity, thus dehumanizing us in the name of so-called progress. And though humans are indeed the learning species, science is too often dismissive of the notion that to be human is not to know everything, but to continually learn how to live in the mystery of paradox; that to learn is not to solve faith’s enigmas, but to seek joy-filled understanding within the tension of endless polarities; that true learning often comes from being critical, which I call the ability to unlearn untruth.

Unfortunately, science has become in many ways the new fundamentalism, with its uncompromising mantra that science will discover all that there is to be known, asking everyone to bow down at the altar of the laboratory or be excommunicated from the ostensible civilized world. Sadly, the beaker, the computer, and the pie chart are touted as providing all we need to know; these have become the new idols we are being called to worship. But the questions that will never be answered by science or technology is “Why we are here? How do I make sense of my life?” We will always need philosophers, theologians, and artists, who do not see humans as machines but beautiful creatures. Most of all we will need prophets, who say to the world, “Unless I see more love, I will never believe in the world’s (scientific & technological) progress.”

© Paul Dordal, 2016

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