My dog is a lithe, energetic, twenty-five pound beagle that walks with a graceful trot, chases squirrels, and loves belly rubs. But she was not always so fearless. She is a pack dog, mistreated by some heartless Virginia hunter, housed in a pen with a concrete floor for her first three years, tossed meager scraps of food for which she had to compete with the bigger dogs. And she comes from an anxious breed. So she breathes and eats apprehension. The first time I tried to pet her, she recoiled. When I began walking her, she pulled back to the house, to the point of choking herself on her leash. She shook unstoppably, jerking her head to look in the direction of even the hushing of leaves blown by a mellow wind or the hum of a sedan cruising down the lane. With love and protection, Annie progressed. As I went about my business, she sidled up next to me. She began sleeping in my laundry hamper. She strutted more confidently and shook less as we completed whole walks without any cars running over her—or even trying to. As other dogs walked by without trying to eat her, she became willing to play. But I have moved homes several times since I’ve had her. And with every move, Annie has regressed. She regressed most intensely when I left her with my mother in the big city. There, the cars were louder and drove faster, and the outdoor noises were more urban, more sharply metallic, louder. In the city, Annie regressed badly. When my mother took her to walk, Annie used all her energy left over from shaking and scouring the landscape for threats to plant her behind relentlessly on the concrete, refusing to walk. A Dog’s Progress There is more human in the dog than the human would like to admit. Or, better yet, there is more dog in the human than the human would like to admit. Habit is a fickle mistress for man and dog alike. I once had a friend who progressed. For much of his life my friend—Cliff, we will call him—was caught up in some destructive behaviors involving pills and sex and heavy drink. Cliff engaged in these behaviors behind his wife’s back until she found out and left him. His children shunned him. Once he lost everything, Cliff sought professional help and returned to church. His progress was immediate. Cliff’s began behaving better, in part, by his telling, because he began to believe that God controlled the universe. Cliff met friends who kept in touch with him, studied the Bible with him, and encouraged him in his progress. Christianity is often justified in its ability to bring about this sort of progress. My aforementioned friend, who hadn’t a single male friend after he married, made friends at church. Another man who long struggled with depression discovered that faith in Christ gave him a new sense of meaning in the world. A single mother found that knowledge of Christ took away the crushing load of pressure she felt in raising her five children. A businessman developed a healthy conviction about obeying his ambition more intensely than he cared for his family. And a young woman lost her enthusiasm for late nights filled with drink and merriment and encounters with unknown men after she awoke one morning to find that Jesus was the only friend she had. These stories are real and the experiences underlying them are authentic. There is a body of religious rhetoric that theorizes how this progress comes about. The logic underlying the rhetoric is the same across traditions even if the actual words are not. Evangelicals speak in a progress rhetoric equally well-developed and theologically imprecise. They talk of “going deeper” and “growing stronger,” of “godly living” and “taking the next step,” of deriding “spectator Christians” and urging people to “get connected.” Some Reform-minded Christians, guarding against the impression that the disciple’s works contribute to progress, speak of “growing in faith” or “deepening one’s understanding of faith.” Yet they simultaneously emphasize the importance of intentionality and obedience, which pours an unintended meaning into their phrases of choice. Theological liberals and Emergents, though often separated on key points of doctrine, emphasize the disciple’s role in the progress toward social amelioration, with the latter speaking of “missional” living and “seeking generative relationships.” These examples are just a few of many. The rhetoric of progress is sure to be found in any tradition. Post-Evangelicals like me are apt to believe that Evangelicals invented the rhetoric of progress. But passion must give way to empiricism and, in turn, to the recognition that the rhetoric of progress is at least as old as the church. We can draw a few conclusions about the ideas on progress that progress rhetoric reflects. First, progress rhetoric primarily describes the thing a man himself must do for himself, by himself, in order to progress. Thus, underlying progress rhetoric is the view that progress is effectuated in significant part by human action. Second, as a related matter, the focus on acting differently, or growing and becoming more like Jesus and changing who you are, implies in terribly stark terms that the way a man is now will not do. Thus, over time, the reliance on progress rhetoric to describe a person’s relations with his God invariably implies that God is waiting for the person to change. The progress Christian will implore you in literal terms to “come as you are,” but the flood of progress rhetoric smashes the levy and overwhelms the pledge of God’s unconditional love. The third implication of progress rhetoric is that the state of being in which one stands at the germination of faith is in some way inferior and needs improvement. And so progress rhetoric reveals a hostility to conversion, if the conversion occurred over five minute ago. Also notable is how little progress rhetoric is Biblical. A Dog’s Regression But when the disciple inexplicably works backward, progress rhetoric meets a challenge. Perhaps a man’s depression returns after several years’ respite and in spite of regular church attendance and Bible study. Another man’s friends move away, leaving him without the support to oppose the self-hating ideas swirling in his head. The single mother suffers despair after her fervent prayers do not deliver her a husband and surrogate father to her children. The businessman take a new job for the good of his family but mourns the loss of the idol he long worshiped, and, as a result, has no desire for God, no desire for church, no desire for things Christian. The young woman who has left behind the licentious life finds no excitement in the stilted culture of her church. These stories are real and the experiences underlying them are authentic. As for Cliff, his progress halted when he did a good work. It turns out that Cliff had not been entirely honest with his friends and his new girlfriend about the extent to which his salacious misdeeds had abated. He had attempted to live a double life for roughly one year. Finally, he came clean. It was very difficult to be entirely honest for the first time in his life; however, his bloodletting was an act unvarnished in its courage, holiness, and regression. But the next month was very bad for him. As his girlfriend—with whom he was utterly in love, and whom he met through his foray into church and progress—wanted space from him, he sunk into depression, and he often failed to honor his girlfriend’s wishes that he not contact her. At this moment, the worst of all possibilities occurred: progress people emerged from the woodwork. Many of these progress people were progress Christians. And everyone knows progress Christians are the worst of all progress people, armed as they are with a transcendental truth to wield like a medieval morning star. Pretty much every one of Cliff’s friends was ready to offer his/her own direction on how to get rid of his sinful desires. Among the least helpful of these directions came from Christians who offered to “keep him accountable” and urged him to “rely only on the Lord” and to step up his church involvement. Certainly the least helpful direction came from his spiritual mentor, the sainted panjandrum of Cliff’s progress people: when Cliff contacted his ex-girlfriend against her wishes, Cliff’s mentor chastised him for “busting another boundary” and “waiving the white flag to his own ego.” Cliff’s friends failed to realized that the fact that Cliff’s desire to live an honest life, the guilt he felt for his dishonesty, represented great progress in itself. That is to say nothing of compassion and understanding, which none of Cliff’s friends seemed to consider offering. But regression ought not waste its time waiting around for progress’s compassion. Progress is too afraid of sanctioning vice to offer compassion. Progress must not even identify regression as regression; progress must lie to itself and describe regression merely as an impediment to progress. Upon seeing regression, progress becomes the finger-wagging elder sibling, searching for a cause, a culprit for the impediment to progress, some bad-faith player who is too lax in his “spiritual walk,” who inexplicably lacks desire to “get closer to God, to “grow stronger,” to “grow in faith.” Of course, progress is emotionally aware and therefore wise enough to resist bluntness in its commands. The lyrics of his condemnation are set to an enjoyable jingle—assurances of love, a fashionable website, the quotation of Scripture, the promise of hope for the future—that turns that great Christmas ode of slantwise coercion into a Sunday School song: “You better not shout / You better not cry / Better not pout / I’m telling you why / Jesus Christ is coming to town.”
Progress’s reflex to seek out for a rational explanation for regression is a little unusual, though, given that the theater production that is the Christian story supplies such a defect in Act I. Progress is slow to rely on the Act I defect to explain regression, though, because progress comes to Scripture predisposed to believe that the Act I defect has been cured—cured in his own heart, not least of all. Hence, if the Act I defect explains regression, then progress’s entire conception of himself is smashed. If the Act I defect explains regression, then progress is at risk of regression. But the very existence of progress relies on denying that he is at risk of regression. He insists on denying that risk. The idea of progress frees the Christian to return to his pre-conversion view of himself and of the world, this time dressed up in church clothes. So the rhetoric of progress has no choice but to condemn and critique at the sight of the disciple who has no desire for progress, because to let regression occur without condemnation would be to upset the progress Christian’s view of himself and of the world. Progress cannot bear to conclude that regression is the simple and altogether expected product of a human spirit utterly fitful and confused. Progress must delude himself into thinking that the human heart is drawn with straight lines and right angles. Things do not “just happen” in Progress’s world. A Progress Christian Worldview We like to distinguish the Christian from the heathen in terms of doctrinal issues—the divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the like. But as it regards the distinction between Christian and heathen thinking, or the distinction between the blood and guts of the Christian and the heathen, progress’s insistence on denying his risk of regression represents a patently secular worldview. And what worldview is that? Chapter Eight of Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled “To the Employer,” displays it. A recovering alcoholic is speaking with a bank executive, who relates the story of a co-worker at the bank. The co-worker has just returned from a three-month leave of absence aimed at finding a cure after his latest bender and, according to the bank executive, “the board of directors told him this was his last chance.” The recovering alcoholic warns the bank executive that his co-worker is likely to “go on a bigger bust than ever” and begs the executive to let the recovering alcoholic—who “had nothing to drink whatever in three years . . . in the face of difficulties that would have made nine of out of ten men drink their heads off”—speak with the co-worker about AA’s solution. “Oh no,” the bank executive demurred, “this chap is either through with liquor, or he is minus a job. If he has your will power and guts, he will make the grade.” The progress Christian and the bank executive share the same heathen thinking about the mechanics of human being. “If he has will power and guts, he will make the grade.” Give, get. Pay, receive. Hand over, get back. Work, pay. Offer, exchange. Tell the truth, avoid depression and addiction. The relentless pursuit of perfection. The process of perfecting ourselves. You act, and Jesus reacts. Progress Christendom abides by these rules. Progress may sneak some language into his lexicon about “relying on God” or “letting go,” but the listener should not be deceived into thinking that progress does not believe that a little prayer and elbow grease will solve the problem. Progress thinks in a very Hindu way, and his advice bears little relation to the Christian doctrines of justification and whatever it is that we call sanctification. The progress Christian might wear religious garb, adhere to Christian doctrine, and obey Christian commands. But he adds fuel to a fire that slowly burns away at the world. Naturally, progress people had all the answers for Cliff. Progress people told him to “cool off” from his girlfriend and keep his distance, but he couldn’t respect the boundary and called her from time to time. He was chided: he received advice and direction and suggestion, but underneath it all was chiding. Cliff continued to try to clean up his bad habits, but, no matter how hard he tried, he could not make the grade. And he continued to call his girlfriend. His progress friends told him he lacked guts and willpower. Most perniciously, they used language of regression—“give up” and “let your ego die” and all of that. But the evidence of their progress lie in their reflexive need to offer solutions, in their inability to disassociate in their own minds the acts of patient listening and sanctioning vice. If Cliff’s progress friends had the guts and will power to stop their own bad habits, what did that mean about him? What kind of moral ingrate was he? There is nowhere more desolate than the land of regression, when a man is there alone. Lacking the guts and will power to stand his loneliness, and guilty over his lack of guts and will power in comparison with his progress friends, he swallowed a bottle of Seroquel, which I am told causes tachycardia and coma while the patient remains alive. We should rebel against progress, first by expelling the delusion that the battle between progress and regression is nothing less than a battle between life and death. Amen.