Tolkien’s Long Defeat

“Actually I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote of himself, “and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).


History as a long defeat – I can think of nothing that is more anti-modern than this sentiment expressed by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a thought perfectly in line with the fathers and the whole of Classical Christian teaching. And it’s anti-modernism reveals much about the dominant heresy of our time.

We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better. The “long defeat” would only be a description of the road traveled by racism, bigotry, and all that ignorance breeds.

And our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. The scientific concept of evolution (please do not jump on me for mentioning the subject) only suggests that there is a change in living things and that the change is driven by adaptation and the survival of those adaptations that are generally advantageous. If such a theory is granted, it says nothing about the direction of the process nor about the process as improvement or progress. That “evolve” has come to mean “change for the better” is a purely ideological assumption with no warrant in science.

But the metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought.

But Tolkien’s sentiment bears deeper examination. For not only does it reject the notion of progress, it embraces a narrative of the “long defeat.” Of course this is not a reference to steady declining standards of living, or the movement from IPhone 5 back to IPhone 4 (perish the thought!). It is rather the narrative of Scripture, first taught by the Apostles themselves, clearly reflecting a Dominical teaching:

But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. …Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith; but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was. But you have carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, love, perseverance, persecutions, afflictions, which happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra– what persecutions I endured. And out of them all the Lord delivered me. Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. But evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2Ti 3:1-13)

 This is Tolkien’s warrant for the “long defeat.”

 And the thought is not that we wake up one day and people are suddenly boasters, proud, blasphemers, etc. Rather, “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.”

It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.

 This is not a pessimistic streak within Orthodox Christianity. If history tells us anything, it is that this is a very honest, even prescient reading. The evils of the 20th century, particularly those unleashed during and after World War I, are clearly among the worst ever known on the planet, and continue to be the major culprits behind all of our current struggles. That war was not “the war to end all wars.” It has rather been the foundation of all subsequent wars. May God forgive our arrogance (“boasters, proud”…). But the Classical Christian read on human life contains the deepest hope – set precisely in the heart of the long defeat.

It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples. The Greeks and Romans did not consider themselves to have exceeded the heroes who went before. They could model themselves on Achilles or Aeneas, but they did not expect to match their like. The Jews had no hope other than a “restoration of the Kingdom,” which was generally considered apocalyptic in nature. All of classical culture presumed a long decline.

The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.” 

But Tolkien notes that within the long defeat, there are “glimpses of final victory.” I would go further and say that the final victory already “tabernacles” among us. It hovers within and over our world, shaping it and forming it, even within its defeat. For the nature of our salvation is a Defeat. Therefore the defeat within the world itself is not a tragic deviation from the end, but an End that was always foreseen and present within the Cross itself. And the Cross itself was present “from before the foundation of the world.”

Tolkien’s long defeat, is, as he noted, of a piece with his Catholic, Christian faith. It is thoroughly Orthodox as well. For the victory that shall be ours, is not a work in progress – it is a work in wonder.






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.



61 responses to “Tolkien’s Long Defeat”

  1. Devin Avatar

    The good news: I have grace working in my that’s enough to raise the dead. The bad news: I’m so sin sick it’s just enough to enable me to pray, “Lord have mercy!”:)

  2. Devin Avatar


  3. Dino Avatar

    Fantastic Father!
    It reminded me of Elder Aimilianos who was exceedingly fond of using the cryptic expression “the symbols of the defeated birth” (taken from a homily of St. Gregory the Theologian that mentions Jacob’s struggle with God) as a kind of cypher for describing the character of our victorious salvation

  4. Dino Avatar

    I think the (somewhat unfortunate) English translation of this expression is “the tokens of the defeat of his race” – as is found in Gregory’s Funeral Oration (43) on the Great S. Basil, Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia. (paragraph 71), but the Elder would use it as a way to describe our road to perfection that involves the walk up the exponential curve of Golgotha culminating in the exaltation on the Cross.

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What does it say about us that the great “progressive” ideologies of the late 19th century when put into practice have decimated humans, the environment and our political/economy?

    Evolution as a social doctrine has always been “progressive”. Marxism, industrialism, psychology, Wilsonian democracy and the darkest of all Nietzsche and his disciples.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    All of these have come together into the toxic brew of secular statism.

  7. David Armstrong Avatar
    David Armstrong

    Fr Stephen,

    You note that the Jews hoped for an apocalyptic Kingdom, but I might note that Christ himself did not deny the validity of this hope, he merely qualified their expectations for its implementation. E.g. Acts 1: Jesus tells the Apostles that it is not for them to know the times the Father has set, but he does not challenge the idea that a Davidic kingdom with a Davidic king ruling over the earth is, after all, the end game. The apostolic ministry is in fact the announcement to all the world that Jesus is that Davidic king (consider Paul’s sermon in Acts 13, for example) and a call to repent in light of the fact that God has appointed a day on which he will judge all the world through Jesus (Acts 17.31). I like the article, but I might quibble that your ending statement seems to present a sort of overrealized eschatology–Christ’s victory is already completely implemented as far as it will be. How does the narrative of the “long defeat” fit in with Christian hope for the return of Christ, the bodily resurrection of all the dead, and the age to come, which the Creed is so concerned with?

  8. Wordsmyth Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m not jumping on you, but I respectfully disagree with your comment on evolution. I can’t divorce evolution from progress. The whole point of an adaptation is an improvement meant to make survival more likely. If contemporary humans aren’t an “improvement” compared to the first hominids, I can’t imagine what an improvement would be.

    I’m wrestling with new ideas/information that pertain to evolution. Growing up I was basically taught that it undermined the Christian explanation of the Fall. I know that’s not exactly on point with the topic of this piece, and I’m not trying to start another evolution debate. I’m just sharing to put my comments in context. I thought the Christians who embrace evolution viewed it as God’s way of creating Homo sapiens, the centerpiece (for lack of a better word) of Creation.

  9. C.M.C. Fulmer Avatar

    What a sweet victory it will be. At last, to be liberated from human civilization and the will of my passions and desires. To be a simple creature, ignorant of the ways of rebellion in the presence of Glory.

  10. Christopher Avatar

    Here is a link to Elder Starets Ambrose of Optima where he puts forth a view confirming Father Stephen’s on “progress”, “morality”, and the like. It’s not quite as sophisticated and his view on “progress” is more benign, but then he did not have the subsequent history of the mindset that we have had to suffer through:

  11. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I’m feeling a bit confused by this article and therefore probably need to reflect on it further.

    However, I am rather intrigued by the phrase a “long defeat”. Generally the word “defeat” is not thought of as something that occurs over time. To be defeated is to be beaten – it is a discrete event in which one has decisively lost.

    Ironically, “progress” is generally thought of as a process, an advancing forward toward a destination over time. (Of course, what one considers “advancing” and what the “destination” is is crucial here as to whether it should be considered good.)

    Perhaps this is the source of some my confusion.

    I understand that the Kingdom of Heaven is not about progressing toward greater material prosperity or even an improved society. I also understand that living for the Kingdom puts me at odds with that sort of “progress”, leading perhaps to the experience of worldly “defeat”.

    On the other hand, can I never hope that anything will change for the better? If I feel I have made “progress” in my understanding of the Faith, have I fallen prey to heretical modernism? I surely hope not.

    I am also curious why the Desert Fathers would believe that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker. Certainly they believed that the same Spirit would strengthen and nourish the generations to come, would they not?.

    As I said, I found some of this confusing.

  12. Matt Avatar

    “It is that hope that sets the Christian gospel apart from earlier pagan historical notions. For the “long defeat” was a common assumption among the ancient peoples.”

    I did not realize until I got to this paragraph that this post was about one of the big reasons why I felt I should convert to Christianity to begin with! As someone who once believed in humanity taking to the stars (before I finally looked up what general relativity was about), uploading intelligences into machines (before I finally read enough about how little we know how brains work and how that which we know is so utterly radically different from any machine), and creating strong AIs that could ever improve themselves (before I finally had to read about patent law and how our iPhones get made) as our great hopes for our future survival and transcendence from self-destruction, I don’t think I ever truly lost that sense of hope, but “placeholder for unformed excuse not to commit suicide while indulging in worldly vices” was not a rationale conductive to anything good.

    @Wordsmyth: If an environment meant that, say, an organism that did not seek the consent of its mates before impregnating them would have more viable offspring, then that environment is setting up that species to become much “better” at rape. (There are actual examples of this – bed bugs, ducks water beetles…) Likewise, if an environment favoured extreme genetic instability to allow a species to resist chemical weapons being used against it, it would be better adapted to that environment, but with all the additional deformities and mutations it suffers because of that instability the end product would be far from anything we can call good, noble or beautiful. Evolution necessitates only a very relative kind of improvement, and a quick look at biodiversity before and after each of the mass extinction events (Great Dying, K-T, ??us??) can be – or at least was for myself – a rather shocking confirmation of that narrative of long defeat. Human personhood – especially assuming it is in fact truly unique in the history of the Earth, and there weren’t like 200 other races of paleozoic peoples, whether fallen or not, that God had other plans for before they cleared out for us – is an exceptional imposition by God and is not, in my view, necessitated by an known evolutionary principle at all.

  13. Matt Avatar


    If contemporary humans aren’t an “improvement” compared to the first hominids, I can’t imagine what an improvement would be.

    I’m reading C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain right now and his discussion and speculations about early human evolution are very, very relevant to this question.

  14. Francis Avatar

    Indeed, cf. Voegelin on the immanentization of the eschaton.

  15. Paul Avatar

    I think the long defeat in the world parallels the long defeat in ourselves.
    As a child, I was so full of wonder and hope and optimism.
    As an adult, I struggle to find that wonder, hope and optimism.
    The weight of the cross gets heavier as we age and but God’s grace also grows greater and greater to help us bear that cross.
    Once again Father, thank you for post. Believe it or not, I found it uplifting!

  16. Arnold Avatar

    Man: ‘Lij’ ain’t the man he used to be, is he, Josh?
    Josh: Nope. He never was.
    (from Train Time at Punkin’ Center, ca. 1920’s)

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Mary Benton,

    I will make an effort to address some of your confusion on this article. First of all it is yet another way of saying “We Will Not Make the World a Better Place” and a continuation of the idea that “progress” has no real place in Classic Christianity.

    Perhaps it is helpful to think about it on the personal level. In the Christian world we get conflicting messages, first that we are to die with Christ, then that we are to try to be a better person. Both are true if viewed as part of the long defeat.

    Think of Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Several times he worked really hard and finally achieved a shedding of one layer of dragon skin, but the “victory” at the end was to discover that he simply couldn’t do it on his own, that Aslan had to do it swiftly with one swipe of a sharp claw.

    Our job is to allow ourselves to die so that Christ may live in us, but it doesn’t happen all at once; it is one long, slow defeat over the course of our life here on earth. Our efforts at being a better person achieve “victory” when we discover that those efforts are not enough, so that we finally despair, allow ourselves to die in that area, and let God fill us with Himself.

    One day we shall go through Resurrection proper in a flash with something akin to Aslan’s claw, but for now the process is slow and anti-climatic.

    This process is being mirrored for the world as a whole. It must die before it can truly live again. Successful initiatives won’t be ones that make the world a better place, but ones that reflect the truth: we can’t do it on our own; we need God to do it for us.

    Hope this helps, or at least helps you make “progress” (grin) with the whole concept.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are others ways of thinking about the Fall other than the strictly historical/materialist/cause and effect (described in an earlier article) that you grew up with. It is the Christian materialist view (as I have dubbed it) that forces an argument with certain strains within science. It’s not a place I find it at all necessary to go.

    Having said that, much of modern science exists to serve its masters in the materialist/consumer culture, for that’s the surrounding culture for science as well as religion. Thus, science will often create various “meta-narratives” to understand its work that are simply borrowed from the materialist/consumer culture and may very well be problematic.

    Such a metaphor is the image of progress. Adaptation is adaptation, not necessarily progress. “Progress,” of course, presumes a movement towards something. Christians rightly subscribe to the teaching of “movement” (kinesis) as taught by the fathers. Everything created is moving towards union with God, and the fulfillment of its logos in union with the Logos. I do not think that evolution is a necessary piece of this. It is an image that reaches to a deeper level (the level of the logos).

    Human beings are different today than at an earlier time – but is it right to say they are different according to their logos? I would think not. I have white skin, an adaptation of my ancestors to less sunlight in the northern climes (so the scientists think). But my white skin is in no way (I think) any closer to the logos of humanity. It’s just an adaptation.

    There have been some racialists who would declare that such an adaptation was progress, but I think they are enemies of the gospel.

    What God is doing with creation is a mystery, one that can be described and discerned on a spiritual level. But that mystery is not the same thing as the processes described by the non-discerning eye of materialist science. Now, it is entirely the case that a spiritually discerning eye and heart would have insight and commentary on the relationship of the two, or how the material order reflects the other, but it will not be open to simple “objective” verification. What is most true about the world is discerned in a manner that is not entirely objective.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    I highly recommend the link you’ve supplied and encourage others to read it. What I am saying here is simply an exposition of the received tradition.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    The elders believed this would be the case (a failing of sorts) because it is consonant with Christ’s words concerning the end. We grow weaker and the times grow worse. Do we not fast less now than Christians have at any time in history? Do we not pray less? Do we not deny the teachings of the Church and indulge ourselves in almost every fantasy more? We are rich, yet Mother Teresa say us (in the West) as among the most destitute of all people. And it is from these destitute that God has to call bishops, priests and monastics. But in the End we will be saved.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Not realized eschatology at all. The Kingdom is indeed present already, but hidden. Were it not hidden, it would be realized, but it is hidden. It is a treasure that is buried. I expect the return of Christ, bodily resurrection, etc. At that time, the Kingdom will be made manifest. But, for example, in the sacraments of the Church, the Kingdom that is already here is made manifest. This is the Orthodox faith concerning the Church herself. She is the Kingdom in this world, though the fullness of that remains hidden. Whenever a sacrament of the Church is celebrated, the priest intones: “Blessed is the Kingdom…” betokening this reality.

    It is not realized eschatology. It is mystical eschatology (to coin yet another phrase). The End is “hidden” (“mystikos”). And thus the End will be “revealed” (“apokalypsis”).

  22. Steve Lewis Avatar
    Steve Lewis

    There is a kind of amillenial despondency that is just as pernicious as the newspaper-obsessed premillenial end-times obsession in other churches. Both will tell you that “Hey, we’re just being realistic. We’re trying to prepare you for what’s coming.”

  23. […] Tolkien’s Long Defeat – Glory to God For All Things […]

  24. Drewster2000 Avatar

    A great and relevant quote from St. Ambrose of Optina contained in the link Christopher provided:

    The broad schemes of the modern generation about grand activities for the good of all mankind has the appearance that of someone, not having finished an educational course, wishing that he could be a professor and instructor in a university. However on the other hand, to think that if we cannot move humanity forward then we shouldn’t labour at all, is the other extreme. Every Christian is obliged to toil according to his capacity and position for the good of others, so that everything timely and orderly, and that the fruit of our labours are presented to God and His holy will.

    We labor for the good of others because God asked us to and because it is through such things that we are healed and receive our salvation – and not because of any grand plans of saving the world.

  25. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for recommending the link to St. Ambrose of Optina, Fr. Stephen! It makes such sense! Glory to God for All Things!

  26. David Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen for laying this out so well and convincingly. While my old protestant Postminimalism was exegetical and theologically reasoned — absolutely opposed to the modern “evolutionary-progress” and the damnable modern “philosophy of progress” — Orthodoxy’s “tweaked” Amillennialism is a real challenge to me. Will happily yield to the Fathers, and have no problem at all seeing a moral weakening of humanity, even as he/we becomes far stronger, surviving, debauched material brutes.

    But is this our only option? Is there no place for the Kingdoms of this world to become the Kingdoms of our Lord & Christ? That the nations WILL be baptized & Discipled, and the Tragedy of Creation be Leavened by, and yield to a Gospel Comedy, by the Spirit & Church? Is there no broader Creational Theosis per Rm 8:22ff? Might not Christ return and snatch Victory from the jaws of suffering & defeat?

  27. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    David, allow me to reply that the answer to your last question is to look at cross and see the truth there.

    We must follow Him, do as He did and be faithful to the end.

    This is victory and life!

  28. Dino Avatar

    The problem is not that there are not enough Christians in the world, it is that there are not enough Saints within Christians.
    Fathers from Chrysostom to Isaac the Syrian where unequivocal that it is infinitely more important to have a few, even one, persons who truly know God on the face of this Earth (it is what justifies the Earth’s continued existence), than to have thousands upon thousands who know of Him.

  29. kay Avatar

    Oh Paul, yes indeed – for we must come as a little child….in wonder, and trust, and humility. All these are stripped from us in our cynicism and modern delusions of control, scientism and ‘enlightenment politics.’ God have mercy on us.

  30. Dino Avatar

    Oops, sorry for the typo: *were unequivocal that…

    A further elucidation of the above notion is this: a single authentic Christian’s (ie: a Saint’s), fervent humility, their joyous freedom and their loving discernment is incredibly more attractive to all… It is the only genuine ‘advertisement’ for Christianity. It is, in fact, far more magnetic than the lukewarm faith of a thousand others can ever hope to be.
    Moreover, God became man to make man (nothing less than) god, not just to make the masses accept the truth of Christian dogma without the subsequent deep ontological transformation of each person.

  31. Jeff Avatar

    Father Bless!

    Here are some 20 definitions of the word progressive from the Oxford English Dictionary to aid our reflection. Note definition 2c. Medical: Of a disease or disease process: increasing in severity or extent over time. 1736—2004

    The dates after each definition refer to the dates of illustrative quotations:

    1736 Bp. J. Butler Analogy of Relig. i. i. 25 Thinking, that a progressive Disease..will destroy those Powers.
    1794 R. J. Sulivan View Nature IV. lxiii. 18 A progressive disease, when arrived to..that degree which is mortal, [etc.].
    1829 S. Cooper Good’s Study Med. (ed. 3) III. 390 These symptoms are a progressive soreness and ulceration of the tonsils, uvula, palate, and tongue.
    1877 tr. H. W. von Ziemssen Cycl. Pract. Med. XVI. 647 In progressive pernicious anæmia unusual corpulence has been observed.
    1899 T. C. Allbutt et al. Syst. Med. VII. 695 Progressive dementia with general paralysis.
    1922 Lancet 29 Apr. 849/2 This is an account of the disease known as progressive lenticular degeneration.
    1971 Brit. Med. Bull. 27 55/2 Marked interference with function is usually found in those suffering from progressive massive fibrosis.
    1989 E. S. Person Love & Fateful Encounters xiii. 945 When I was an adolescent, my father became ill with a disease that was progressive, and he died five years later.
    2004 Connacht Tribune 4 June (Life section) 20/2 These can be symptoms of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary disease (COPD)—a progressive disease of the airways.

    Below are all the definitions from the OED.

    In Christ,

    Pronunciation: Brit. /prəˈɡrɛsɪv/ , U.S. /prəˈɡrɛsɪv/ , /proʊˈɡrɛsɪv/
    Forms: lME 16– progressive, 15 progressyve (Sc.), 15–16 progressiue.
    Etymology: < Middle French, French progressif that moves, that moves forward (c… (Show More)
    A. adj.
    1. Of or relating to forward movement in space.
    a. Astron. = direct adj. 3, prograde adj. 1. Now rare.

    b. Of people, animals, etc., or their motion: characterized by or capable of forward movement, as by walking, flying, or swimming; (of an attribute or faculty) that enables such movement, locomotive. Now rare or merged in general sense at A. 1c.

    c. gen. Of, relating to, or designating any forward movement; characterized by or exhibiting onward motion; advancing in space.

    2. Characterized by continuous progress or advancement.
    a. Of persons, communities, etc.: developing, changing, progressing; esp. advancing in or gaining some desirable attribute or quality; improving, or able to improve.

    b. Of circumstances, attributes, ideas, conditions, etc.: characterized by, relating to, or involving gradual change or advancement, esp. for the better; growing, increasing, developing; marked by continuous improvement.With sense ‘developing by gradual stages’ sometimes merging with A. 3a.

    c. Med. Of a disease or disease process: increasing in severity or extent over time.

    d. Of a tax or taxation: increasing gradually according to ability to pay; increasing as a proportion of the sum taxed as that sum increases.

    e. Grammar. Belonging to or denoting an aspect or tense of a verb that expresses an action in progress (e.g. am going, was going); = continuous adj. 2b. Cf. expanded adj. 2b.

    f. Biol. Of a morphological feature: relatively advanced in evolutionary development; indicative of progress towards a later evolutionary stage.Now disused in Physical Anthropol.

    3. Proceeding by steps or stages.
    a. Of an event, process, action, etc.: advancing from one item in a series to the next; proceeding by stages or degrees; step by step. Also, of the stages in such a process: occurring one after another, successive.

    b. Originally of certain card games, such as euchre or whist: involving the progress of some players from one group or table to the next after each round, according to specified rules. Also applied to other activities (as dancing, etc.) in which participants move from one place to another for each of several successive rounds or stages.

    c. Phonetics. Involving the modification or harmonization of a sound by or with one closely preceding it. Usu. in progressive assimilation (opposed to regressive assimilation n. at regressive adj. 4).

    4. Favouring or characterized by innovation or reform.
    a. Characterized by change, innovation, or experiment, or by enthusiasm for or advocacy of this; advanced, innovative, avant-garde.

    b. Of an individual, policy, or party: advocating or working towards change or reform in society, esp. in political or religious matters; committed to progress, forward-looking. With capital initial: of or relating to a Progressive Party (Progressive Party n. at Compounds).Applied at different times and in different places to various political groups committed to progress or reform: see Progressive Party n. at Compounds. In the United States now often used as a self-designation by people on the left to avoid the term liberal.

    c. Educ. Of a school, teaching method, educational system, etc.: relating to or advocating educational reform; (in later use) spec. rejecting the formalism of traditional methods of education and aiming to develop the individual, rather than to achieve standardized results; liberal.In the U.S. applied esp. to the child-centred educational practices arising from the theories of John Dewey (1859–1952), American philosopher and educationist, and his followers of the Progressive Education Association (formed in 1919), who maintained that children learn best by practical problem-solving rather than in formal teaching situations.

    d. Music. Of music: experimental, innovative; avant-garde, modern. Cf. prog adj. 2.Freq. with reference to any of several distinct musical developments. Recorded earliest in progressive jazz n. at Compounds; cf. also progressive rock n. at Compounds.

    B. n.
    a. A person holding progressive, avant-garde, or liberal views; an advocate or supporter of social, religious, or political progress or reform, or of change within or to a particular political system; a member or supporter of a Progressive Party (see Progressive Party n. at Compounds).

    b. An advocate or practitioner of ‘progressive’ educational methods (see sense A. 4c).

    2. Grammar. A form of a verb, etc., indicative of ongoing action: see sense A. 2e.

    3. Printing. In pl. = progressive proofs n. at Compounds.

  32. Matt Avatar

    Dino, I am tempted to take that last post of yours, print it out (at least starting with “[A] single…”) and stick it on a wall somewhere.

  33. Jeff Avatar

    Tolkien’s insight ought to give us pause whenever we are tempted to believe ourselves to be “on the right side of history.”

  34. Dino Avatar

    The elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra would powerfully state this -in reverse- with these words: “A Christian who is not on fire with fervor and who does not radiate with joy is nothing less than a false accuser of God!”. I am grateful every time I hear them in my head, -and having them on the wall on the way in and the way out of my room would certainly be a bright idea…

  35. Andrew Lohr Avatar

    Is defeat something all the Fathers agreed on? Didn’t Athanasius rejoice that the gospel was prevailing and the idols vanishing? He was exiled several times, but he had some kind of perception of victory, eh? If Eusebius was a Father, wasn’t he happy to see Constantine, as an improvement over the pagan Caesars? (Maybe too happy–as if Constantine were bringing in the Kingdom–but he did have a point.)

    The Bible is something Christians have somewhat in common, and Jesus said in Mt 28, Teach all the ethnic groups to obey all My orders. Then He ascended to Heaven and left us to get it done. Maybe He wants us to do it and maybe we will, and maybe–compared to A.D. 30 or 300 or 1300–we can see some progress, along with lots of problems and regressions? Spurgeon: “The Holy Ghost would not suffer (allow) the imputation to rest upon His holy Name that he was not able to convert the world.” (Quoted by David Chilton).

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a clear consensus within the fathers regarding the trajectory of history. Spurgeon is simply wrong and talking off the top of his head. Jesus never “left us to get the job done.”

  37. David Avatar

    Perhaps you’re both right…Jesus “never left us” at all, but sent the Holy Spirit to with the Church to disciple the nations…as He promised He would. “Lo I am with you always, even…take heed little Flock, it the Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom…”on earth as it is in Heaven”?

    It seems the main problem with those embracing this is not the objective to see Col 1:1921, “to reconcile all thing to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross” with Rm 8…is they want it without fasting, suffering, persecution, martyrdom…Tolkien’s “slow-defeat” like the Cross…which ends in a victorious Christ over all His enemies who become His footstool. Perhaps Christ is Victorious in His & our Defeat?

  38. Matt Avatar


    I actually like your version a lot better. The “go big or go home” rhetoric seems to me, in the wrong hands, a great temptation to despair or hypocrisy, or a badly examined initial reckless fervor that leaves a person badly burned out and disillusioned at the end.

    Having done the latter a few times in my life already I’m just glad the catechumenate is no shorter than one year, in fear that I ever end up wearing my baptism like a drunkenly obtained tattoo of a stranger’s name. (Was this a particularly common fear in the times of the early saints?)

  39. Dino Avatar

    there’s a time and a place for either way of describing it… and it must be aimed to me of course, not another.

    …if we allow our selfish-self to take the reins (we allow this in various degrees by acquiescing to non-watchfullness, more sleep, more food, more distraction, and all things that lead us to become attracted to not resisting sin), then any Grace can subsequently come to appear “like a drunkenly obtained tattoo of a stranger’s name” to the reawakened ‘Old Adam’.
    Things are not so when we war the blessed war with our (old) selves, in the firm faith that the ‘New Adam’ will be formed (through God’s Grace working secretly in us and around us) according to the intensity, determination, enthusiasm, discernment, resilience and humility os this war which is being fought for God’s sake.

  40. Henry Avatar

    Oswald Spengler — ‘Optimism is cowardice.’

    The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is seen by some as a key myth in the development of Western Civilization. We have, as a culture, always been ready to trade our souls for knowledge, even under singularly unfavorable terms. We are always searching for keys to unlock mysteries concerning our own nature and to learn to effortlessly control our environment and our destinies. However, the drive to explore the infinite, the urge to recreate the world ultimately leaves Faustus exhausted, his hopes thwarted by Mephistopheles.

    The West never recovered from World War I. It was a breaking point in art, politics, economy, the nature of empires, even our faith.

    How could an Englishman hearing the ghosts of Passchendael remain optimistic?

  41. Arnold Avatar

    I like myth. It suggests ways of seeing the world I might otherwise not consider. The danger, though, of taking myth as authoritative is that it may lead me to ignore the evidence of my senses. Marley’s ghost may in fact be ‘more of gravy than of grave.’

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There is a difference in being optimistic and being hopeful just as there is a difference between being happy and being joyful.

    Joy and hope are products of one’s participation in the life of the risen Christ. Optimism and happiness more a product of one’s perceived position in the world.

  43. Robb Thurston Avatar
    Robb Thurston

    Our correspondent Henry comments: “The West never recovered from World War I.” That is slightly near sighted. We also never recovered from the sack of Rome and the withdrawal of Greek protection from Belisarius’ conquests. But yes, Dr. Faustus is a myth exemplifying our reactionism. Carl Jung also comments in the same manner. He knew his patients were reactive.

  44. Annie Avatar

    Henry, I could not agree more, and it was beautifully put. Robb, you’re right that the sack of Rome and other events have been also catastrophic – to St. Augustine and the other besieged peoples, it really was the end of the world. The story repeats itself. World War One is the example that deserves to be brought out again and again, because with that War the vision of Wilsonian Democracy(imperialism) and the language of pragmatism began to take control of our discourse. The Whiggish view of history began its triumphant climb to dominance, no longer affecting one nation, but encircling the globe and binding its people, a little like the Ring of Power.

    But maybe I’m just being fanciful.

  45. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are spot on. Henry’s focus on WWI is quite correct. For our time, nothing else can compare to it. Indeed, I think we are still fighting that war. We are certainly only attending to its lasting consequences – as well as the end of the parade that is our social life.

  46. David Armstrong Avatar
    David Armstrong

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for the clarification. Just a note: I did not suspect you of having an overrealized eschatology, just that your ending note, without further explanation, could be construed as such. I think you make a great point–the Kingdom is here, it is hidden, and the Parousia of the Coming King is the revelation of something already present. “Mystical Eschatology.” I like that term. Thanks a lot!

  47. Tim Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I’d like to read in more detail about the “belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors.” Could you direct me to some favorite passages and/or key documents on this topic?

  48. Bill M Avatar
    Bill M

    Father Stephen,

    Regarding this:

    “It was a common belief among the Desert Fathers that successive generations of monks would become weaker and weaker, unable to bear the great trials of their predecessors. Indeed it was said that in the end, the simple act of believing would take greater grace than all of the ascetic feats of the earliest monks.”

    You have perhaps mentioned this in more detail before. Or maybe I read it elsewhere. I have tried to search for the “original” story or desert father saying, but have been unsuccessful. Do you know it?

  49. Bill M Avatar
    Bill M

    Hah… Tim and I were on the same wavelength at the same time! 🙂

  50. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Bill & Tim,

    I’ve seeing that story in “Stories of the Desert Fathers”. I will look it up tonight and paste it in here.

  51. fatherstephen Avatar

    Bill and Tim:

    From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
    The holy Fathers were making predictions about the last generation. They said
    ‘What have we ourselves done?’ One of them, the great abba Ischyrion replied,
    ‘We ourselves have fulfilled the commandments of God.’ The others replied,
    ‘And those who come after us, what will they do?’ He said, ‘They will struggle
    to achieve half our works.’ They said, ‘And to those who come after them, what

    Abba Copres said, ‘blessed is he who bears affliction with thankfulness.’

  52. Tim Avatar

    Thanks very much, Fr. Stephen! This does tie neatly with the outlook of the “long defeat.” It points up the question of our own place in that narrative arc, of what kind of battalions we can field these days. (Forgive me if I get carried away with the military metaphor here…) One certainly feels the distance of between us and the Fathers as also a difference in quality, and the comparison is not at all flattering. I suppose a good soldier is, by definition, realistic about his capabilities. I know I, for one, am rather inept. The Desert Fathers are obviously crack troops – Heaven’s elite corps – whereas the hard evidence shows me to be more of a scrub.

    Perhaps there’s a link here with the parable of the talents? Whatever the reason – place in history, geographic context, temperamental makeup – some bring more to the battle than others. But regardless of the case, the obligation’s the same for every troop: support your unit, keep faith, and sacrifice everything you’ve got for the mission.

    Another thought: in the end, isn’t the long defeat a mop-up operation, albeit one that sometimes feels more like a last stand. Yet again, that difference matters more at Headquarters. On the front lines, it’s all a bit painful and dirty and the key – for shock troops and scrubs alike – is to fight with a happy heart.

  53. Robb Thurston Avatar
    Robb Thurston

    Tim, I am not at all afraid of your military metaphores. My father saw Schofield Barracks raided by the Japanese in Dec. 1941, and fought on, ultimately defending Berlin from another enemy in the late 1940s Berlin blockade. His motto was “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Adapted from Neh 8:10b That Joy of the Lord is not a picnic, “James 1:2 (KJV) My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.”
    He died in the faith, however. He is justified.

  54. […] reading a couple excellent blog posts by the Eastern Orthodox priest Father Stephen Freeman (see here and here – long-time readers of my blog posts know that I try to read some of the best blogs from […]

  55. Mark Williams Avatar
    Mark Williams

    Thanks so much for this very thought-provoking article. How this notion of a long defeat flies in the face of what seems to be a growing triumphalism in certain parts of the church where the watchwords are “victory” (how many Victory Churches there are) and “power”. I can’t help but see this long defeat as a mirror image of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Is it meant to be a model of where history and the world is heading?

  56. Arimathean Avatar

    I recently stumbled across C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” in which he explores the origins of the myth of progress. It has been transcribed in its entirety on this blog:

  57. Paul Avatar

    I remember reading about a famous (now dead) modern atheist interviewing a Roman Catholic priest– who was the Vatican’s scientist (he ran the Vatican’s observatory, was a PhD, he had recently retired, etc)– on evolution. The atheist asked him “What do you think of evolution?” The priest answered “It is the best explanation man can give for what he sees in terms of man’s existence”. He went on to say that science is the realm of man, where as truth and faith are the realm of God [or words to that effect]” The atheist was surprised, to put it mildly. The priest went on to say “Science is the result of man taking calculations and using other man made observations, and subjecting them to his reason. It is man’s view of things, not necessarily God’s view of things”. He concluded that evolution was the best explanation that man, divorced from God, has for the apparent [note the word apparent] changes that have occurred to the human animal.

  58. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Hi Paul,
    I’m always engaged when someone wants to make a comment on the topic of science. But I don’t always respond. For various reasons of my upbringing, my cultural introduction into science was quite different from that which is generally taught here in the US. Nevertheless, I studied and went through the proverbial ranks of education in the US (and another country) to obtain a Ph.D. Because of the early history I had, I was in a rather unique position to be able to view/critique the philosophical presentation of science in the western culture. Then I was hired to be a participant in a ‘reform’ of science in the US, and in that vein, was hired by a national organization to conduct that work and also by university institutions, (along with my teaching duties as a professor). To sum up, I’ve long been engaged with the cross talk between a ‘religious’ perspective of creation ‘versus’ the ‘science perspective’. Both perspectives as they are now taught in the US, have particular and unhelpful flaws. For now I will not go into the details. But I would suggest this: that both the priest and the atheist, that you describe above, are both operating with the same theological standpoint, that of the “two story universe” as is described by Fr Stephen, in his book “Everywhere Present”. If you haven’t already read it, I would definitely encourage you to buy it and read it, and note how the one story universe might make some of these ‘arguments’ relatively mute.

  59. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Rather than “mute” perhaps it might be better to simply say, ‘not relevant’.

  60. […] Tolkein’s Long Defeat by Fr. Stephen Freeman, reminds us that how we view progress has affected how we view Christ’s Kingdom and that a heresy has arisen by one of those views.  That takes us to our first consideration, to one of Chesterton’s observations which speaks to the very point of Fr. Freeman’s article: […]

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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