Progress?

Ordem e progresso (“Order and progress”) – Brazil

Vorsprung durch Technik (“Progress through technology”) – Audi

“I guess you’ve got everything now” – Arcade Fire, Everything Now

“Letting the days go by (same as it ever was)” – Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

I would go so far as to say that one of the core elements of the human psyche is progress. We innately want to go forward – individually and collectively. Some of us are more driven than others. Some of us want to make progress quickly. Some of us are prepared to make progress more steadily and patiently. Yet, deep down, we all feel the satisfaction of improving, although it manifests itself in different ways – some more visible and acute than others.

Last month saw significant progress in the world of marathon running. Eliud Kipchoge became the first person to go under 2 hours for the 26.2-mile distance.  Paced by a forty-strong team on a suitably chosen course in Vienna, he stayed on pace throughout the attempt and even managed to accelerate in the final kilometre to record a time of 1:59:41. Secondly, in arguably, an even greater performance, Brigid Kosgei eclipsed Paula Radcliffe’s female world best mark by over a minute recording a time of 2:14:04 in the Chicago Marathon.

Many of the headlines, however, in the wake of these performances have focused on the shoes worn by the athletes. While the Nike Vaporfly 4% have been available since the start of the year for around £240, in recent weeks, the Nike Vaporfly Next% trainers have entered the market at a similar price. The latter were the shoes worn by Kosgei and all the pacers for Kipchoge. Kipchoge went one step further and wore a specially designed, prototype Nike trainer: the alphaFLY. Lab tests have shown that Nike are justified in claiming that their shoes which make a 4% difference in running; and runners of all standards appear to be benefiting from the technology, recording personal bests.

While I do not intend to buy the shoes, I shall not judge the many – including good friends – who, highly understandably, are taking advantage of this new technology. I have, however, had cause to question what it means for ideas of progress. The purist in me thinks that when we buy into technology like this, the goalposts on what constitutes progress shift slightly. Whether that matters or not, however, is another matter. In sport, performances are quantifiable; the numbers may be arbitrary, but they do not lie. By contrast, in the arts, progress is harder to judge because it is generally non-quantifiable: who is to say that a painting someone created last year is superior to one created today? Sometimes, this can even be refreshing and take us away from a toxic performance-based culture. Yet, I am sure even artists seek some degree of progress.

In the world and particularly in the West, while we have made remarkable progress in numerous areas (e.g., scientific, technological, health), in other areas – particularly political and social spheres – we are in deadlock and possibly in regress. While we may be more productive, are we freer, happier and more fulfilled? I am not so sure.

At this point, as I often do in these posts, I appeal to the ancient writings of the Bible. Some might see this as a surprising move: what would a set of writings from nearly 2000 years ago have to say about progress? Is it not outdated on many of the issues of our day? It was certainly written in a different historical context from our own. We need to remember that and work hard to try to understand and historically reconstruct as much of it as possible, before undertaking the essential task of understanding what it means for us today. In reality, however, many of the issues that are addressed in the Bible are timeless ones. I believe that progress is one such example.

Based on Scripture, there is a strong case to made for the equation of faith with progress. Many both inside and outside the Church might find that surprising. Faith – particularly faith in Jesus Christ – is, after all, something more qualitative than quantitative: we either have it or we don’t. In the Gospels, Jesus subverts the disciples’ appeal for more faith at one point (see Luke 17:5-6). Nevertheless, there is a sense that we are called to progress and to go forward in faith.

The theme of progress is perhaps most evident in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, likely written in the late 50s / early 60s AD. Here, on a couple of occasions, Paul uses the language of “progress”.[1] The Greek term Paul uses, prokopē, was frequently used by the philosophers, particularly the Stoics, to encourage adherents to progress in their moral life.[2] Paul appears to draw upon such language but repurposes it for the early followers of Christ whom he addresses.

Firstly, Paul writing from prison, believes that the purpose of his imprisonment is for the progress of the gospel: “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has befallen me has rather been for the progress of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Instead of dwelling on his imprisonment as something which has halted progress, he sees the opportunity to write from prison and to spend time preaching Christ to those guarding him as progress.

Secondly, having considered – quite philosophically – the relative advantages of life and death in his situation, Paul decides that it is his desire to remain for the good of the Philippians: ‘I shall remain for you all for your progress and joy in the faith’ (Philippians 1:25). Paul desires to keep living in order to be able to continue to foster the progress of the Philippians: to disciple them. He wants to see their joy increase and progress through a deepened faith in Christ.

When we put our faith in Jesus Christ, we shall undoubtedly make progress – but very often this progress is not in worldly, even visible terms. God’s idea of progress is different from ours in ways that we so often cannot comprehend at the time, particularly in hardship and struggle. I am still learning this as I set out into my twenty-ninth year. Above all, progress in divine and spiritual terms is not some cold, mechanistic, conveyor-belt progress; but a vibrant and relational process, often made in faith, but ultimately leading to joy.

This, to me at least, still seems the most valuable progress we can seek today, for it can generate all sorts of good — both in the present and eternally.

[1] The other instance of prokopē in the New Testament is 1 Timothy 4:15: ‘cultivate these things … so that your progress might be clear to all’.

[2] For those interested in some more rigorous scholarship, see Paul Holloway’s commentary on Philippians (2017) and/or John Fitzgerald’s edited volume, Passions and Moral Progress in Greco-Roman Thought (2006).

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