We Will Not Make the World a Better Place

RelativiteitI have written previously about various aspects of the “Modern Project.” It is the world we live in. Its ideas and assumptions enter our thoughts with no critical inspection or hesitancy. We are modern.

However, the gospel is not modern and many ideas of Modernity are contrary to the gospel. It is necessary, therefore, as a simple matter of discernment to question and examine the assumptions of our world.

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Rom 12:2 NKJ)

The Modern Project believes in progress. It believes and is utterly committed to the idea that things move forward and improve. Just as microchips get smaller, faster and cheaper, so, too, the world gets better, more advanced, more civilized, more free, more fair, richer, healthier, smarter and wiser. We assume that we know more and understand more than those who came before us. We are the goal of everything that has come before.

I am certain that many readers are already taking exception to some of the assumptions described above. But even though we might agree that some of these things are simply not true (we are not wiser, for example), we still think they should be! Modern political discussions are almost entirely about competing plans for a better world. No one suggests that a better world is a false idea.

A better world is not only a false idea – it is rooted in heresy.

You will search in vain for the notion of making a better world prior to the 16th century. Though there are visions of the “New Jerusalem” within the New Testament, it is a “heavenly city” and not a model for an earthly goal. The Kingdom of God is not “of this world,” nor is it something that people work for or “build up.” The Kingdom of God is God’s gift, is already coming into the world and cannot be stopped. But the Kingdom is not measured by social progress or the betterment of humanity – it is measured only by the crucified and risen Christ. He is the first instance of the Kingdom and is the sole defining mark of its character. That which is not yet crucified and risen is not yet the Kingdom.

So from where did the Modern Project derive its notion of progress?

The Reformation probably sowed the seeds of the myth of progress. The drive to reform the Church gave birth to similar ideas across the whole of society. There were occasional outbreaks of radical reform that included political and social upheavals. The most enduring such reform was the Puritan movement in England that carried its vision to America. There the Plymouth Bay Colony was said to be a “City on a Hill,” an American vision that continues to fuel the imagination.

In the first half of the 19th century, powerful religious movements swept away the institution of slavery (with a Civil War to boot in America) and began to lay the foundations for the prohibition of alcohol and women’s suffrage. The success of the first issue fed the imaginations of those who dreamed of the marriage of the Christian gospel and modern technology. As various Christian revivalist movements arose, so too did the notion of a progress towards the Kingdom of God.

The classical statements of these ideas can be found among the Fabian Socialists in England and in the Social Gospel movement of the early 20th century. The echoes of those movements have not disappeared. In some cases they have passed into the common language so profoundly to be an inherent part of the modern worldview.

But, in truth, we have never had such control of the world that we could “build it” or permanently “change” it. We only live here – we do not own the place.

Stanley Hauerwas has famously noted that whenever Christians agree to take charge of the outcome of history, they have agreed to do violence. He therefore labels violence as “idolatry,” an attempt not to obey God’s commandments, but to assume the place of God.

Perhaps the most tragic instance of this hubris was the Treaty of Versailles and its accompanying effects. Following the tragedy of the Great War (World War I), the Allied Powers  established themselves as the arbiters of the shape of the world to come. They drew boundaries, created countries, and designed our modern world. The result has been the bloodiest century of war in history. Everything from World War II to the continuing bloodshed in the Near East, indeed almost every civil war the world has seen since, has come as a result of the plans and decisions of that fateful “peace.”

Its most immediate effect was the disastrous handling of the Balkans, the establishment of modern Turkey with the deportation of half its population (the Christian half) and the Armenian genocide. Across the globe the colonial powers reinvented the world without regard for geography, race, or religion. It was a modern world. If history can be a judge, then we must declare modernity to be a failure.

But the myth of progress is written deep into our culture. We do not care for the poor – we have a “war on poverty” with the result of poverty’s institutionalization. Many massive government schemes in the name of a better world have yielded deeply flawed results and even worse unintended consequences. These failures are often met not with repentance for their fundamental errors, but simply with calls for more money and more planning. The bureaucracy of the better world has become the single largest consumer of the world’s resources. Progress is becoming unaffordable.

None of this speaks ill of the commandments of God. To share what we have with others is at the very heart of the Christian gospel. All the good that a society does – health, education, etc., are proper and can be described as God-given duties. But there is a subtle and radical difference between such duty and the notion of progress and the outcome of history.

Technology has been a great boon to humanity on the whole. It has increased productivity to levels that create unimaginable wealth. However, it is also clear that we are no closer to solving the problem of the distribution of wealth now than we were two thousand years ago. Justice, within the human heart, is not subject to evolution or progress.

There are narratives used by many to spin the myth of progress. Most of the narratives are self-serving of the various constituencies that invoke them. Those who own the largest and loudest media also own the loudest versions of the narratives. And their progressivist accounts of modernity are made to seem both obvious and undeniable.

But there is no promise nor account of progress within the Scriptures. It is an idea that is heretical in its roots. For it is a distortion of the apocalyptic hopes of Christianity, written into a political and economic story. It is the secularization of the Kingdom of God.

I recently did a search across the web for the phrase “building the Kingdom of God,” and was dismayed at how common it was. Even within Evangelical sites of good repute, the notion received large play. One site argued that our present efforts for the good would somehow be received and incorporated into the Kingdom, and would thus be eternal. It’s an interesting claim, but without neither any warrant in Scripture nor a basis within the Christian tradition. It is simple heresy. We do not build the Kingdom. We do not add to it, nor can we diminish it. It is the work of God.

There is no building of the Kingdom, because it is already complete. It is theologically without meaning to speak of the Kingdom in a manner that is less than complete. The phrase, “Thy Kingdom Come,” is rightly understood as a prayer for the inbreaking of the End of All Things. For the End that shall be, already is. And that End is already beginning to be manifest in our world. But where it is manifest, it is truly present. It is not manifest and unbuilt, or a work-in-progress. This is its mystical reality. Those who have no understanding of the sacramental, mystical nature of the Christian faith easily misunderstand such things and reduce them to yet another human project.

If Christ tarries, delays His return, then it is certain that the present world order will cease to exist. The land that I live in will collapse as surely as all others before it have. It is the way of earthly kingdoms to come and to go. And what we might accomplish in our lifetimes will have perished as well. The myths and the narratives of the present will be forgotten with the past. The Modern Project will be seen to have failed (“Babylon the great has fallen”).

By faith [Abraham] dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  (Heb 11:9-10 NKJ)

We do well to work and wait, observing the commandments of God, renouncing the arrogance of Modernity.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



124 responses to “We Will Not Make the World a Better Place”

  1. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You utterly misunderstand my point. Any of the things you mention are more than worthy of our attention. Obeying the commands of Christ we do any and all of these things. But the point is that in doing these things, the world is not becoming “better” in the aggregate. We are not in a march of progress towards better and better things. It is for us to tend immediately to our world, even giving our lives for the poor and needy, etc. But it is a false consciousness that tells us tales of create a better world. Much evil has been done under that banner.

    Technological change (dentistry and plumbing) are just that – change. Change is always happening. Nothing wrong with it – indeed it’s just normal.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Karen, I have studied the myth of progress for over 45 years. The beginning of that study coincided with my turn to Christ. I studied for myself and once I found the Church did not think it necessary to continue the study. It keeps popping up though so perhaps I should have.

    The critique of the myth goes back well over 100 years. There is an excellent review of that critique in a post in the Touchstone blog, Mere Comments by J. Douglas Johnson that gives a brief bibliography. Some writers he missed however are Henry Adams ,Carl Becker and George Orwell. There are others should one care to look. Father Stephen is not alone nor new in what he says. He is unique however in addressing it within the context of the Orthodox Church as far as I have seen. Although the totality of Orthodox teaching and experience is the destruction of the myth.

    The modern proponents of progress are behind such ideas as the normalization of deviant sexual practices (not just homoerotic ones but fornication, adultery, pornography, BDSM and pedophilia), abortion and feminism. Democracy and egalitarianism as well. All that is “modern”

    Of course the most plain spoken proponent of the myth is my old friend William Friedrich Nietzche. He got down to brass tacks about it. The destruction of everything that impedes progress must happen-God, moral and spiritual men (especially Christians), all goodness so that the Ubermensch could triumph and reign. Once that happens man will no longer be fettered by outmoded ideas and petty weakness such as kindness, decency and the care of others.

    In the end the myth is nothing new as it is found in the whispers if Satan in the Garden– surely you will not die. You will be equal with God.

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Oh and Karen we may have to voluntarily forgo some f those conveniences you mention in order to regain our humanity.

  4. Karen Avatar

    If all you’re saying is that when we fix one problem we humans will find some new ones, I agree. I still think we need to address problems and shut up about whether, say, providing clean water to villages in Africa and requiring fathers to send their daughters to school instead of selling them as brides are good things, well, you lose me then. Solve the problems.

  5. Dean Avatar

    I have long known and loved this passage from the prophet Micah. “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” 6:8. I doubt if Micah had in mind that of creating a better world. I think of Mother Theresa. She practiced fully what Micah wrote but again I do not think she consciously was trying to better the world. If we faithfully do the thing at hand, then we too will be fulfilling what Micah wrote. Most of the Christian life, I believe, is like that. Pretty mundane, not flashy, most eyes not even noticing.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    And, of course, part of the propaganda of the modern project is that anyone who critiques it is an enemy of flushing toilets, antibiotics, etc. Modernity is not the author of technology. It has used technology as a mantle in which to wrap itself in order to justify is darker interests.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Many of the human authors of the modern project were specifically anti-Christian. Looking for a philosophy to replace classical theology. It is a shape shifter. Whatever shape I t guise it takes it is always a lie. It lies about God about man and about the nature of creation.

    It is tough to take in that the inyellectual and cultural norms in which we live is filled with lies and damned lies. It took me years to accept the enormity of it all. I appteciate Fr. Stephen’s gentleness in approaching the topic.
    Dean’s comment is correct and of course the real antidote: Christ is Risen!

  8. Byron Avatar

    I still think we need to address problems and shut up about whether, say, providing clean water to villages in Africa and requiring fathers to send their daughters to school instead of selling them as brides are good things, well, you lose me then. Solve the problems.

    Karen, yes we should address these things. The issue is that we are not actually solving the problems by doing so. The root of the problems is sin, not society/culture/ect. We’re not making the world “better” by doing these things because they don’t address the true issue. Christ is bringing the world into Himself. This is what “solves the problems”. We do what we can out of His love.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father is it the shame that we are not in deep communion with God the driving force behind the myth of progress or is it the hatred of the evil one–or both mixed together?

  10. David Foutch Avatar
    David Foutch

    Karen, I agree with you completely. God is love and we are never closer t God than when we are expressing and manifesting love towards our fellow man and God’s creation. I am hard pressed to believe that the Love that is in our hearts that is made in the image and likeness of God isn’t making the world a better place when it moves from a place of compassion to stop the injustice and ease the suffering of others. Such expressions of love are vehicles for transforming ourselves and the world

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Off-hand, what you are saying seems obvious and salutary. But that is ignoring the whole of both the article and the numerous articles on the phenomenon of modernity. It is important to do good, to relieve suffering, to serve the poor and to seek justice. But modernity places such things in a narrative that suggests that by doing these things we “make the world a better place.” That presumes a kind of upward thrust of history that is patently false. One thing is corrected, another rises in its place. Change and progress are not at all the same thing.

    What is false about the modern narrative is the presumption that human beings, through their enlightened coordinated efforts can “bring in the Kingdom of God” (at least that’s how modernity got its start).

    In the name of various modern projects, we have seen some of the worst human suffering ever visited upon the world. Utilitarianism is its philosophical name and it has only a long train of false promises and failure.

    Having said that, I in no way mean to suggest that we do not do good, or make technological improvements, etc. We have commandments from God to do good. It’s the narrative about what we are doing that creates the danger – a false narrative – that becomes the means of actually doing terrible things.

    This is a conversation that has a lot of background within the articles – that would be good to consider. I would also reference some of the work of Stanley Hauerwas on the notion of modernity and the modern project.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David, the world does not move in an Hegalian march to perfection. That is what the myth of progress asserts.

    Much closer to the reality is the understanding of the long defeat. No matter what we do people still die, suffer and fear.

    That fact calls us do more but with no expectations.

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The only change that takes place is by the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart by grace.

    Anything that happens outside of that is not of my doing or under my control.

    Control is a key condition of modernity.

    In obedience to and trust in God we learn to give up that control and offer love and mercy simply for love and mercy not for any other reason.

    Had, for example, Mother Teresa acted as a modern she would have led protests to improve conditions, raised money for shelter and lodging for many. As she was doing that particular people would have died unattended, alone and in agony.

    Christianity and salvation is particular, personal, intimate and small.

    I have this inkling that because my wife loves me I will have a much better defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ than I would if I were to ignore her, harden her heart against me as I was tending often and well to the feeding of thousands whom I do not know. When I look into her eyes I see Christ.

    I need to expand that so that I can see Christ in others near me but it has to be a personal and intimate exchange a moment of communion and thanksgiving even if quite brief.

    “If I cannot love my brother who I have seen, how can I love God whom I have not seen.”

    Love the one you are with.

  14. Dino Avatar

    A famous abbot of an Athonite monastery (Elder Vassilios Gondikakis) used to be very fond of gleefully repeating that our paramount security, our salvation’s certitude, the one unfailing defense against the pervasive evil and –often subtle– corrosion of this fallen Godless world is that, no matter what we do, people will still die and suffer…! Fr Tom Hopko often mentioned this in his talks too.
    No matter what we do, I think the greatest thing we can achieve that way (through ‘action’) will never be greater than the “Let it be upon me and upon all” of the Mother of God, (the ‘stillness’ of the) “let it be according to God’s will even unto death”.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I get that Dino as noisy and unwatchful as I am-the holy Yes of silence and let it be done unto me according to Your Word.

    The exact opposite of the yes Nietzche proposed in Zarathustra. When I first read “The Three Metamorphosis of the Spirit” 47 years ago, there was a strong attraction. To my natural mind there was a rightness to it. Over the years as I have come back to that section of Zarathrustra the rightness gradually faded. It is only quite recently that I have seen and understood it as wholly wrong and evil. God is patient in his mercy. Interestingly enough it was my year long study of Nietzche that help set my feet on the path to the Church. A total gift of grace.

    Neitzche is not only the prophet of the death of God, he is also the prophet of progress. I well understand the attraction of that ideology.

    Stillness does not mean inaction however. That can be a trap don’t you think?

  16. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    There is evil in the world. But I’m not willing to say it is Godless. It is said that God loves (and loved) the world. While my heart is troubled by the evil I see and hear, I remind myself that the creation of God is good. While I will help others whenever and however I can in the daily course of my life, the first evil I need to attend to is the evil in my own mind and heart.

  17. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    And I should add, as it is said here, that by ‘attending to the evil in my own heart’ I mean that I pray for God’s grace of love to fill it, that my soul might be a mirror of Christ in the world.

  18. Dino Avatar

    It absolutely doesn’t mean inaction, if by inaction is implied idleness. But there’s not much one can do on the Cross (especially from a secular perspective), other than turning ever more concentrated upon the Lord, allowing God’s will to be done, which inevitably fashions the resurrection of the believer unto life eternal in Christ. If only we could do more of that!
    The utter acceptance of God’s will in inner stillness, the total trust in Him (to such an extent that it is retained even upon the Cross) is nothing less than a scorching, all-consuming godwardness [the ‘action’ in genuine stillness if you like]. But it is an utter inaction of the ‘old self’, the death of the old-self so Christ can reveal the person that was meant to be, the true self, in Christ, that death has no power over. Such “kenosis” of course would imply simultaneous “Theosis”…

  19. David Epstein Avatar
    David Epstein

    The vice is not trying to make things better, but to think that we fallen humans are capable of developing and putting into practice comprehensive schemes of improvement and believing we can make a utopia (Thomas More’s idealized policy). There are at least two problems with this: (a) fallen as we are, we both benefit from and misuse new ideas and technologies–such as airplanes to travel and to bomb; (b) insofar a society works at all, it works through slowly evolved customs and institutions, that cannot be reduced to some kind of manual; we change them at our peril. Like genetic mutations, most social innovations turn out to be deleterious.

    Best-laid plans, und so weiter.

  20. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David, et al
    A clear mistake about technology and certain forms of social justice is to think that you’ve actually succeeded in making human beings better. We do not have slave, but we still have the kind of people who would live with it and justify it. If we don’t think that is true, then I think we do not know ourselves very well. And the examples could be multiplied. We are standing on the shoulders of the generations before us, but, in terms of moral progress, not so much. Sin is not as easy as solving plumbing issues and antibiotics.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Actually Father there is just as much slavery as ever. Mostly not the chattel slavery of the U.S. in the 19th century but slavery nonetheless.

    The Muslim world still practices it including the trading of slaves. Many forms of economic slavery similar to share cropping are widespread.

    So called sex workers are slaves as prostitutes(many are children trafficked for sex internationally), porn performers, etc. Their masters make the money.

    Our own debt based economy is a form of slavery. Many even sell themselves into slavery to obtain largely impractical propaganda laced degrees from “mental institutions” known as bastions of higher learning. All the while the work of our own hands is devalued and subject to robotic replacement or even worse the making of cyborgs. Their is even work going on to create an artificial womb. Or the brain computer link that Elon Musk is floating. Brave New World anyone. The globalists whose Newspeak is right out of George Orwell. (All of our modern politicians) Any actual potential abolitionists are shouted down, humiliated or ignored or killed.

    All but the age old Muslim contribution and the indigenous forms of share cropping are sold and marketed as progress.

    All these forms of slavery in the “modern world” are maintained by violence, real or implied as slavery always is. Often the violence is internalized. Talk about shame.

    The cultural memes that unless you go to college (sell yourself into slavery) you cannot succeed in “today’s global world”. Implied violence or rather violence disguised as benevolence. Orwellian.

    No, slavery is alive and dealing it’s death to souls pretty much everywhere.

    The Church is the Ark of Freedom, but as with Christ Himself victory is experienced in and through the Cross.

    Any foray into the methods, ideas and techniques of modernity is failure and death. Tough though since we are literally immersed in modernity. As you have said yourself, we are all moderns.

    As Dino pointed out passivity as in expecting the grace of God to triumph in ourselves -body, mind and soul is not a smart expectation.

    So, want to change the world, free the slaves, make everything better? Do the work the Church has always placed before us: Give alms with a merciful heart, pray in thanksgiving, worship in sacramental thanksgiving, fast, confess and forgive. EXPECTING NOTHING IN RETURN–least of all one’s own healing.

    As long as we expect or worse demand results we are caught in the utilitarian lie that everything is transactional including our own salvation.

    It is one of the three Satanic temptations of Christ–Matthew 4:8-11–dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth.

    Our true dominion as revealed in Genesis forward and in the lives of the saints is in serving, not in exercising power and control to which we should all say “Away from me Satan!”.

    Of course that is the way of the Cross it seems.

  22. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To snyone who believes in progress — just take a look at any major highway in your town. Always being “improved” but no matter how many lanes are added the congestion still remains and you have to endure the construction.

    That is the reality of progress in the world.

  23. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    “If making the world a better place were a proper goal, Christ would have given it to us. It is not. It is idolatry.”

    Thank you for the clarity you provide.

  24. Brandon Avatar

    Father – thank you.

    Are you able to give a comment about http://www.orth-transfiguration.org/ or at least their motto “Proclaiming the Ecological Mission of the Orthodox Church as the Reconciliation of All Things in Christ.”

    I want to make sure I head down a good path in my studies.

    Thank you!

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