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The Future of Progress

February 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Reacting to the unbridled modern confidence in progress, G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.” He realized that real progress is not simply a temporal assurance as though the future hold unlimited promise for progress. The proper question is, “Progress toward what?” Where are we headed?

If I am moving closer and closer to an oncoming train, am I making “progress?” Chesterton viewed this unreflected confidence in the abstract spirit of the age as a bit absurd, he said, “Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” And then, “The modern world is a crowd of very rapid racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic.” Recently a friend recommend I read last December’s, The Economist; where sounding very much like G.K. Chesterton, they published an article asking, “Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished?

The article weaves Imre Madach’s “The Tragedy of Man” (1861) throughout. Madach tells an industrial age version of “Paradise Lost.” Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but Adam is not repentant. He glories in his power and free from God’s rules, proclaims his dream of human progress and achievement. Lucifer lulls him to sleep and then leads Adam through a series of future epochs. The Economist summaries,

Adam gets the chance to see how much of Eden he will “regain”. He starts in Ancient Egypt and travels in time through 11 tableaux, ending in the icebound twilight of humanity. It is a cautionary tale. Adam glories in the Egyptian pyramids, but he discovers that they are built on the misery of slaves. So he rejects slavery and instead advances to Greek democracy. But when the Athenians condemn a hero, much as they condemned Socrates, Adam forsakes democracy and moves on to harmless, worldly pleasure. Sated and miserable in hedonistic Rome, he looks to the chivalry of the knights crusader. Yet each new reforming principle crumbles before him. Adam replaces 17th-century Prague’s courtly hypocrisy with the rights of man. When equality curdles into Terror under Robespierre, he embraces individual liberty—which is in turn corrupted on the money-grabbing streets of Georgian London. In the future a scientific Utopia has Michelangelo making chair-legs and Plato herding cows, because art and philosophy have no utility. At the end of time, having encountered the savage man who has no guiding principle except violence, Adam is downcast—and understandably so. Suicidal, he pleads with Lucifer: “Let me see no more of my harsh fate: this useless struggle.”

With this backdrop, we now visit the perplexing history of progress in the modern world. “Optimists in the Enlightenment and the 19th century came to believe that the mass of humanity could one day lead happy and worthy lives here on Earth. Like Madach’s Adam, they were bursting with ideas for how the world might become a better place.”

The Economist explores the troubled history of the word and idea of “progress” since its flowering in the 17th century. Some of the various approaches to progress include an accounting model, a scientific model, and a business model.

Accounting – Progress by the book
The libertarians Julian Simon and Stephen Moore wrote an extensive study arguing that “It’s Getting Better All the Time.” While they amass statistics highlighting amazing improvements in most living conditions , they ignore increased government oppression in the 20th century. They demonstrate a significant improvement in health and wealth but the numbers do not voice greater contentment, more happiness, a deeper sense of responsibility. They also fail to take into account the dangers as a result of progress like nuclear cataclysm, environmental destruction, or the decline in moral power as demonstrated in Alisdair MacIntyre’s work on moral philosophy.

Science – Discovery with a Hint of Alchemy
While science has transformed our modern world and made possible many of advancements in health and wealth that Simon and Moore document, we cannot ignore the power science wields to change and possibly even destroy the world. The Economist summarizes:

Modern science is full of examples of technologies that can be used for ill as well as good. Think of nuclear power—and of nuclear weapons; of biotechnology—and of biological contamination. Or think, less apocalyptically, of information technology and of electronic surveillance. History is full of useful technologies that have done harm, intentionally or not. Electricity is a modern wonder, but power stations have burnt too much CO2-producing coal. The internet has spread knowledge and understanding, but it has also spread crime and pornography. German chemistry produced aspirin and fertiliser, but it also filled Nazi gas chambers with Cyclon B.

Economics – The End of the Rainbow
There is a bit of irony in this section since The Economist virtue of its name is commited to strong business and a healthy economy. “Yet even the stolidest defenders of capitalism would, by and large, agree that its tendency to form cartels, shuffle off the costs of pollution and collapse under the weight of its own financial inventiveness needs to be constrained by laws designed to channel its energy to the general good.”

Free markets may have delivered economic prosperity but they can’t deliver inner peace, true joy, and an assured future growth. If the natural resources are completely depleted, we may hand our children an ugly world with even uglier social problems haunting them and their descendents.

A Vision of Moral Progress
In the end, we are presented with a possible approach for progress rooted in moral sensibility coupled the junior partner of democratic governance. Citing Susan Neiman, The Economist proposes that there are ways of thinking about morality that are not trapped in power games or institution bigotry. “Ms Neiman asks people to reject the false choice between Utopia and degeneracy. Moral progress, she writes, is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead, it is up to us.”

My Initial Responses
While this article doesn’t fully answer Chesterton’s critique of the lack of a specific goal for progress, I think it does point us toward a conversation where those goals might be elucidated. Neiman’s language of moral sensibility is appealing though not having read her, I am not clear the path where she uncovers these moral senses, but I am attracted enough to learn more. It makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s language of moral imagination.

As a person who has been called by Jesus Christ, I look toward the person of Jesus Christ as a starting place for thinking about moral sensibility. Now some might suggest that this is immediately a closed-minded, bigoted response to this call for a “universal moral sensibility.” But as Chesterton points out some where, (and I am loosely quoting from memory) you can’t turn right and left at the same time. The act of turning right eliminates the left turn. The decision to speak of moral sensibility immediately changes the question from the universal to the particular. The real question is whose particular moral sensibility.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, I encounter a moral sensibility that fulfills the Ten Commandments including the Law and the Prophets. I can engage someone with a different foundation for moral sensibility. I simply make my starting point for moral imagining clear. It is not my own sense of morality (which is often deluded and corrupted) but the Ten Commandments fully enfleshed in Jesus that serves as a starting point for me to think more deeply about moral imaging and the future of progress.

Chris Anderson – Free

September 25, 2009 1 comment

Wired posted a great article on thinking/acting abundantly from the “long tail” wizard Chris Anderson this week. His basic premise is that businesses tend to think and act on the basis of scarcity and not abundance. He article offers excellent insights for businesses, families, and even churches. In fact, he is echoing a thought that shows up again and again in Scripture. Jesus tells a parable of the sower. While we tend to focus on the various places the seeds are sown and which seeds produce. We might also step back and think about a sower who sows everywhere–whether it looks like fruitful ground or not.

Anderson offers an excellent chart comparing the scarcity management model vs the abundance management model. Most often, I’ve worked around the scarcity model, but one boss at Philips Magnavox demonstrated the abundance model on a regular basis. One point of comparison is on the nature of rules in the two models. Rules in a scarcity paradigm sound like this, “Everything is forbidden unless it’s permitted.” On the other hand, the abundance framework suggests that, “Everything is permitted unless it’s forbidden.” The church has often operated within the former model, but Chesterton wisely pointed out that the latter model is the real thing. Listen to Chesterton on the Ten Commandments:

“The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Ten Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted: precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.”

In one sense, this is what Anderson is exploring in his article on Managing for Abundance. Here are the highlights, but be sure to visit the article because he models his premise by giving away the audio of his latest book: Free.

One theme that shows up in his article is the “power of waste.” Anderson writes:

When scarce resources become abundant, smart people treat them differently, exploiting them rather than conserving them. It feels wrong, but done right it can change the world.

He illustrates this with a reference to Cory Doctorow and his ideas on “thinking like a dandelion.”

The science fiction writer Cory Doctorow calls this “thinking like a dandelion.” He writes: “The disposition of each—or even most—of the seeds isn’t the important thing, from a dandelion’s point of view. The important thing is that every spring, every crack in every pavement is filled with dandelions. The dandelion doesn’t want to nurse a single precious copy of itself in the hopes that it will leave the nest and carefully navigate its way to the optimum growing environment, there to perpetuate the line. The dandelion just wants to be sure that every single opportunity for reproduction is exploited!”

Read his article, his book, and don’t forget to visit his blog, The Long Tail.

A Christmas Carol

December 23, 2008 Leave a comment

I still remember the shock I first experienced when Ebenezer Scrooge (in the guise of Mr. Magoo) saw his name on the tombstone. In some strange way, this odd slightly scary image is one of my earliest impressions of Christmas. And I think of it fondly.

Mr. Magoo introduced me to the wonder of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and for that I was always be grateful. I can barely imagine Christmas without the wonder of this marvelous story.

Over the years, I’ve watched almost every version of “A Christmas Carol.” And yet, every year I find another one I haven’t seen. This year I had the pleasure of discovering a haunting 1935 version with Seymour Hicks. Drawing elements from German expressionism, this version captures the terrible wonder of this story.

I believe the master storyteller Charles Dickens in all his flaws was graced by God to bless the world with his rich legacy of penetrating stories. (Here is a little essay I wrote on Charles Dickens in the early 90s.)

Dickens saw the suffering of the world first-hand. As a child, his family went to the poor, but Dickens was left behind to fend for himself. For several months, he drifted through a nightmare of existence.

His nightmares became the stories I’ve loved so deeply. Dickens doesn’t hesitate to portray the gritty ugliness of our world and the people in our world. And yet, his loves those people. He loves Scrooge. So he can’t leave him in his dis-grace.

A few friendly ghosts will rescue the old man in his misery. During of night of visions, Scrooge encounters the ugliness of his soul, his need for redemption, and the heart of Christmas joy. While “A Christmas Carol” does not explicitly detail the story of Christ, the image is never far from the surface. Listen to Dickens own words as he talks about his image of Christmas:

What images do I associate with the Christmas music as I see them set forth on the Christmas tree? Known before all others, keeping far apart from all other, they gather round my bed. An angel, speaking to a group of shepherds in a field; some travelers, with eyes uplifted, following a star; a baby in a manger; a child in a spacious temple, talking with grave men; a solemn figure, with a mild and beautiful face, raising a dead girl by the hand; again, near a city gate, calling back the son of a widow, on his bier, to life; a crowd of people looking through the opened roof of a chamber where he sits, and letting down a sick person on a bed, with ropes; the same, in a tempest, walking on the water to a ship again; again, on a sea-shore, teaching a great multitude; again, with a child upon his knee, and other children round; again, restoring sight to the sick, strength to the lame, knowledge to the ignorant; again, dying upon a Cross, watched by armed soldiers, a thick darkness coming on, the earth beginning to shake, and only one voice hear, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Dickens saw the “writing on the tree” so to speak. He saw what Christmas envisioned. The birth, life and death of the Savior for all humanity. The only hope in a world darkened by human violence and human oppression.

Alongside Dickens, we learn to love Scrooge as we witness a man wounded and damaged in this world of sin. Scrooge, the grumpy bah-humbug truly becomes the “founder of the feast” that Bob Cratchitt has called him. In his redemption, Scrooge comes to exemplify the very spirit of Christmas present. Joy and generosity overflow from the man who once was a pit of stinginess.

In the 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney, Scrooge is so deeply transformed that he tears up his debt book (bringing up images of Zacchaeus after he encounters Jesus). Then Scrooge dons a Santa outfit and proceeds to pour out gifts and laughter and joy upon everyone in his presence. Wherever Scrooge goes, he brings the celebration with him.

That spirit of abundance, of generosity, of overwhelming joy inspires me to bring the joy, and not to wait for someone or something else to make me happy. I’ve tasted the secret of joy in the goodness of God’s grace, and I want to spread it to all people I meet. Just as Cratchitt loved the unlovable Scrooge, I want to love and call for the best from the people around me.

When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol,” the London Times hadn’t mentioned Christmas for over 30 years. But Dickens saw the possibility of what could be, and he wrote about it. Chesterton rightly calls Dickens the “founder of the feast” because he fell in love with the despairing people around him and wrote a vision of their transformation.

Sounds a bit like the wonder of a God who loved and loves his enemies. And his relentless love transforms our dark and hateful souls into something wondrous. Oh Lord, grant me eyes to see your love for the people around me. Just as my haunting memory of the Mr. Magoo Scrooge facing a tombstone, I know we all face a tombstone.

We have a brief sojourn before ascending. Let us love deeply and widely and unreservedly. Let us pray and hope and expect the grace of God to penetrate all the Scrooges in our world.

Practical Ideas for Social Computing

October 6, 2008 Leave a comment

Last spring I made a presentation at the Bazaarvoice Social Commerce Summit about practical ideas for retailers in the social space. Looks like a quick summary of the presentation made it to their blog today. Thanks!

By naming the presentation “practical” I hoped to convey the idea of learning by practice. The best way to enter the social commerce space is not by reading books, blogs, and the latest banter online. It is simply to do it. We learn much more by doing than by thinking about doing.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” What?

His inverted aphorism was written to turn conventional expectation on its head by pointing out the value of acting and not simply watching others act. We jump into the middle of fray. We make mistakes. We learn. We perfect. We get better.

Einstein follows a similar appeal by suggesting, “A person who never made a mistake, never tried anything new.” While I am a great believer in market testing, I think we may sometimes drown in data while we could actually be throwing a lifeline to a drowning person. Knowledge and charts and graphs and profiles and ideas are not enough.

So enjoy the Bazaarvoice summary, but hopefully you also be willing to step out and trying some things. Who knows? You might even discover something the gurus haven’t stumbled on yet, and you might just create the future.

Thank You Notes – G.K. Chesterton

May 9, 2008 1 comment

G.K. Chesterton’s writings helped restore my eyes to the wonder of this world and the marvel of God’s goodness revealed in this creation. His chapter, “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy stands as one of my all time favorite chapters in a book. In Chesterton I disocvered the grace of God working in the imagination to awaken faith.

The gift of Chesterton is the gift of “eyes to see.” Our busy schedules, personal trials, and distracted imaginations can blind us to the wonder of God. Whether telling the story of Thomas Aquinas, revealing Jesus as the “Everlasting Man” or writing poems about an upside down world, Chesterton consistently shouts and sings out as the merry jester that penetrates my heart with delight in the goodness of God.

As his warm love and laughter stirred in my mind and heart, I found my clouded vision finally opening every so slightly to the marvel of creation, the wonder of life, the miracle of love that God pours out continually upon his people. Thank you G.K.

You’re words have been medicine for my soul.

Read all Thank You Notes.

Chesterton on the Danger of Being Too Serious

May 8, 2008 1 comment

I do not like seriousness. I think it is irreligious. …The man who takes himself too seriously is the man who makes an idol of everything. – G.K. Chesterton

Advent – Santa and the Wonder of Belief

December 20, 2007 Leave a comment

Here’s a meditation I wrote 3 years ago about the magic of Christmas. Like Chesterton, I learned to believe in God in the fairy tales of childhood. Here is on attempt to capture that believe in wonder.

Every year cartoons and movies retell the same story: the story of a child or an adult who has lost the wonder of Christmas, “the Christmas spirit.” Every year the tale of innocence and experience is retold through the lens of Santa Claus and a heart that needs only believe.

Christmas is the time when we hope, we wish, we dream it might all really be true. Of course, we know better. And yet deep within us there is a longing for that place called the North Pole. The sophisticated refuse to waste their thoughts or time with such pointless dreaming, ah but the child in all of us longs for the dream to come true.

In our Christmas stories, we express the truths our imagination knows to be true, even when our intellect says otherwise. I believe that our stories embody our deepest beliefs: the beliefs that are fundamental to our whole understanding of the world.

Some parents hoping to protect their children give them presents but refuse to give them the stories of Christmas. But maybe stories are more important than an endless supply of boxed toys that will soon be discarded. Long after the specific toys are forgotten, the stories will be remembered. The stories shape us: they shape the boundaries of our imagination; they shape our understanding of the world—both seen and unseen.

And what do our Christmas stories tell us? What we believe really matters. The magic of Christmas is veiled to the unbeliever. For them it is only commerce—buying and exchanging of presents. But for those who believe, we know the Christmas present reminds us that the greatest treasures cannot be purchased: they can only be received as gifts. The believer offers milk and cookies in gratitude.

After we sit in the glow of our twinkling Christmas trees inside, we might notice the glorious glow of our trees outside: and for that matter our grass and our bushes may look a little brighter. The world around is not as dull and dreary as we had come to believe, but is really an explosive symphony of light.

When we see the Santa strolling through the mall, we reminded of a goodness and a kindness and an unending benevolence just north of all we can see or hear.

We are not alone.

And who knows how often we entertain angels unaware?

In the swirl of Santas, and snowmen, and songs of sleigh rides, we discover something else—a lean to, a broke down barn, a rustic shelter. Inside this stable lies a baby that bears the hopes of all the ages.

Once again, the manger is an embarrassment to the sophisticated. How could the God of the ages come to earth as a poor child? Yet this tragically beautiful tale captures the imagination: a virgin with child, a cold winter night, no place in the inn, a miracle birth, shepherds and angels and wise men. And in the center of the story: the hope of hopes lying helpless on the hay.

This is the myth of myths, the story of all stories. The story of the God who comes to earth as man—not to betray the world, not to oppress or destroy but to love in weakness. To embrace the downtrodden, love the unlovely, heal the broken heart, preach freedom to the captives, the bear the weight of every pain, every fear, every sin, to overcome evil with goodness, and to overcome death with life forevermore.

We fear the story is too good to be true. Because ultimately we fear good stories cannot be true. We’ve seen too much pain, too much loss, too much needless suffering. We’ve lost our innocence to the dark reality of this cruel world. In the midst of this dark world, a light still shines.

Dare we believe? Dare we become childlike again? Dare we believe that our stories were pointing to something real? Dare we believe in someone who created us for a life beyond all we ever could hope or imagine?

This Christmas we might truly discover the Spirit of Christmas. Or rather, he might waken us to the wonder of a love that we have longed for all our lives.

“O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

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