Today the term “progressive” is used to describe the process of social and economic leveling. However, up until recently, there was a narrative of progress – rooted in the Bible – that inspired the development of Western civilization. Unfortunately, it is now largely rejected in academia. This understanding of progress provided a unifying narrative, which greatly influenced many countries including the modern state of Israel.
The Loss of the Western Narrative of Progress
The narrative of progress was part of British and American education from the 18th century until the 1960s. The development of Western Civilization was understood to be a long and difficult process which ultimately led to greater freedom, respect for each individual, and systems of government that would protect citizens from abuse. Along the way, there were many set backs and counter directions, like segregation in the United States and South Africa.
In the ’60s, the radical left rejected this narrative and sought to deconstruct it. For many, it was more than rejection; it was disdain. Today people with such views have taken over the levers of culture formation in our society. In previous generations most culture purveyors saw things differently. We see this in film-maker Cecil B. DeMille’s personal presentation of his film The Ten Commandments. He framed the biblical exodus story as release from oppression into freedom, and compared it to the difference between the tyranny of Communist regimes as opposed to the liberty in democratic nations.
One historical milestone for progress was the US Declaration of Independence which declared that “all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Modern ideas of freedom had their origins in Scripture, not in the anti-God, anti-Bible orientation of today’s libertarians.
The Bible teaches that every person is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and is therefore deserving of individual respect and honor. This Biblical norm was expressed in the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Yeshua, in what became known as the Golden Rule, to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (see Leviticus 19:18). This was also expressed in Jewish rabbinical tradition by Hillel as: “Do not do something to others that would be hateful to you.” The Bible details standards for fair courts of justice in Deuteronomy 16:20, Leviticus 19:36.
Liberty and a Brief History of Western Progress
The disintegration of the Roman Empire led to fragmentation and ignorance throughout Europe. The Feudal system was often oppressive. The Catholic Church and the authorities in the West became superstitious and fostered a stratified culture that fixed people in their social status.
Two of the first great strides towards limiting the power of tyrants were the agreements struck between the English nobles and their kings – in the year 1014 CE and then in the Magna Carta of 1215 CE in which governmental checks and balances were established.
The Renaissance and Reformation fostered ideas of greater liberty in Europe from the 14th to the 17th century. The former developed the ideas of human potential, and the latter embraced the centrality of literacy based on the importance of everyone reading the Bible for themselves. The printing press was a key to making books available, and fostered a culture of literacy. The Reformers’ emphasis on Bible translations in the vernacular and their view of the importance of individual conscience before God sowed the seeds that eventually led to a harvest of religious liberty. This acceptance of liberty and tolerance was the lesson learned from the pain of Europe’s religious wars, where Catholics and Protestants opposed one another with enormous loss of life.
In the Colonies of the New World, Pilgrims and Puritans undertook the difficult journey to foster a new society based on Biblical norms and religious liberty.
During this period the enlightenment sought to spread knowledge and science. Modern scholars recognize that science progressed in societies that embraced the Bible, since the universe was created by a God of law whose laws of nature could be studied and understood by his image bearers.
I believe that the historical meta-narrative of progress is largely true, and that the loss of confidence in this narrative is a grave danger to Western societies.
This article originally appeared in Israel’s Restoration newsletter, November 2017, and reposted with permission.