The Best is Yet to Be?
The idea that life could get better strikes some as naïve. With recent elections, wars and their chaotic aftermath, looming ecological disasters, and more, it seems absurd that things can get better. Some even say things inevitably getting worse. I disagree.
Pessimists will admit that improvement of a certain sort can be made. Humans can increase in quantities of production, for instance. The numbers and complexity of computers are clearly increasing. Technology always seems to advance. And we have access to more information than ever.
Pessimists rightly say that an increase in commodities, technology or information doesn’t indicate genuine progress. What we want is an increase in our quality of life.
Ironically, commodities that we thought would make life better sometimes decrease our quality of life. What we really want is the proliferation of well-being. An increase in genuine happiness would represent authentic progress.
Two Options: Reinhold Niebuhr and Bertrand Russell
In the first half of the twentieth century, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was an advocate of the idea that authentic progress was impossible. Instead of calling those who hold this stance “pessimists,” however, he called them “realists.”
Niebuhr was reacting to the liberal optimism that preceded him. Many liberals assumed a particular view of evolution and had faith in science. They believed that progress was inevitable.
In his book, The Irony of American History, Niebuhr says that “the irony of America’s quest for happiness lies in the fact that she succeeded more obviously than any other nation in making life ‘comfortable,’ only finally to run into the larger incongruities of human destiny by the same achievements by which it escaped the smaller ones.”
By contrast, one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Bertrand Russell, believed in progress. Like many atheists today, Russell argued that religion prevents genuine progress, however. Religious people place their hope in something beyond or outside history. Consequently, religion slows the march toward a better world.
For Russell, science provides a trustworthy basis for progress. He put it this way: “Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in.”
A Third Option
Many seem to think they must choose between two options. The first option says nothing can make the world a better place. Progress is impossible. The second says that thanks to science and evolution, the world will necessarily become better. Progress is inevitable.
I propose a third option: progress is possible but not inevitable. In terms of moral progress, we might say that love can make progress. But we can also step backwards, fail to love, and witness evil’s increase.
Henry David Thoreau put it this way, “Love is an attempt to change a piece of the dream-world into reality.”
Acknowledging that we can make progress protects us against feelings of despair, indifference, and personal insignificance. If progress were impossible, it would be appropriate to feel hopeless and apathetic. But if progress were inevitable, we’d have a hard time believing anything we do has genuine significance. If progress is possible and it partly depends upon us, what we do really matters.
An Uncontrolling God of Love
The idea that progress is possible but not inevitable fits well with a particular view of God. This view says that God is always active, always influential. But God never controls others. God is uncontrolling, in the sense of never absolutely determining any creature or creation.
This view of God also says God invites creatures to love. God acts first in each moment to call use to promote well-being. God empowers, enables, and inspires us to love.
We must choose how we will respond, however. If we respond well, progress in love occurs. If we respond poorly to God’s call to love, destruction and ruin take place. In short, how we act makes a real difference.
A New Year
As I enter a new year, I’m reminded of the optimistic phrase attributed to John Wesley: “The best is yet to be.” As I see it, this does not tell us something inevitably true about 2017. But it does rightly say that our responses to God’s love can make the coming year better than the last one.