The Theology of Progress
by Donavon L Riley

The subject of progress is a ubiquitous theme in contemporary discourse — the conversation can be heard everywhere, from gyms to shareholder meetings to elementary school classrooms —  often celebrated as the driving force behind societal advancement. Yet, beneath its seemingly secular facade lies a familiar theological framework, making it as intricate and complex as any religious narrative.

Progress theology goes beyond mere incremental improvement; it is a spiritual narrative deeply ingrained in the human psyche. The idea of moving forward, of transcending our current state to reach a better future, echoes themes found in traditional religious teachings. However, what distinguishes progress theology is its secularized guise, shedding overt references to divine intervention while retaining the fundamental structure of eschatological narratives.(1)

The prevailing notion of progress in American culture is that of an inevitable march towards a utopian endpoint. Yet, rare is the person who asks, “What real, objective endpoint are we progressing towards?” And, likewise, “What are we progressing away from?” Rarer still is the individual or group that rejects the assumption that the present is inherently superior to the past and questions the criteria by which progress is measured. Yet, by doing so, those that do question the dominant narrative  expose the circularity of defining progress without a substantive vision of the good, highlighting the inherent subjectivity in evaluating societal advancements.

Christopher Lasch astutely likened progress to a secularized form of Christian providence, wherein the belief in a predetermined trajectory of improvement serves as a substitute for divine guidance. This secularized version of eschatology offers reassurance without the need for faith in traditional religious doctrines, promising a future where all societal ills will be rectified without divine intervention.

However, beneath this veneer of secularism lies a deeper assumption about the nature of progress itself. The expectation that progress will ultimately lead to the resolution of all societal problems reflects a belief in the inherent goodness of human endeavor. But, this optimism belies the complexities of social change and the myriad challenges that accompany it.

In deconstructing progress theology, we are forced to confront the limitations of our understanding of progress and the methods by which we seek to achieve it. By recognizing the theological underpinnings of progress, we gain insight into the underlying beliefs that shape our collective aspirations for the future.

The notion of progress as a linear journey from a flawed past to a perfected future is deeply ingrained in Western thought. It draws heavily from Christian eschatology, which posits a linear narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and ultimate restoration. However, in the secularized version of progress theology, the transcendent elements are stripped away, leaving behind a horizontal narrative, a flattened reality focused solely on earthly improvement.

Yet, despite the removal of overtly spiritual elements, progress theology retains the expectation that the endpoint of progress will fix everything that is wrong with the world. This belief apes the Christian notion of the end times, where the cultural narrative of progress does not culminate with the return of Christ and the advent of a new heavens and earth, but to the resolution of all conflicts and the establishment of a utopian state.

In this narrative, progress becomes a teleological force driving humanity towards an ultimate goal, much like the providential hand of God guiding history towards its predetermined end. However, without the theological underpinnings of divine providence, progress theology relies on human agency, ingenuity, and technology to achieve its desired outcomes.

The belief in progress as a secularized form of eschatology raises important questions about the nature of human progress and the means by which it is achieved. It challenges us to consider the role of faith, both religious and secular, in shaping our understanding of progress and how these things guide our choices as they are influences and informed by both the past and future.

As Mary Harrington notes, “Progress strips out the overtly spiritual bits and explicit moral narrative. But it keeps the structure: the from and the to. And it keeps the expectation, now mostly content-free and ungrounded, that the endpoint will fix everything that’s wrong with the world.”

Ultimately, naming the narrative for what it is — a theology of progress — serves as a reminder of the intertwined nature of religion and society, even in ostensibly secular contexts. It highlights the enduring influence of religious narratives on our collective imagination and the ways in which they continue to shape our beliefs and aspirations. So perhaps the time is ripe for us to think deeply about what gods we worship and serve in the name of progress, such as the god Economy, and ask ourselves, “What’s going to be the effect of blind faith in progress to us, to the earth, to our children’s children?”  

Before we are completely consumed by it, so that there is nothing left of our humanity to identify, we must recognize that this is the kairos time, the right time to return to the ancient truth contained in the divine creation story, the time for us to renew our need for a substantive vision of the good, the time to admit that we need to reinvest ourselves in the truth about God, the soul, and the after-life.


1. Eschatology is the doctrine of the last things. It was originally a Western term, referring to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim beliefs about the end of history, the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, the messianic era, and the problem of theodicy (the vindication of God’s justice). However, historians of religion have applied the term to similar themes and concepts in the religions of non-literate peoples, ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, and Eastern civilizations. Eschatological archetypes also can be found in various secular liberation movements.

By Donovan Riley

Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, and contributing writer for 1517. He is also a co-host of Banned Books and Warrior Priest podcasts. He is the author of the book, "Crucifying Religion” and “The Withertongue Emails.” He is also a contributing author to "The Sinner/Saint Devotional: 60 Days in the Psalms" and "Theology of the Cross".

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