We have not settled the superlative…

Chesterton’s Progress and Tolkein’s Long Defeat

We’re not sharing just Chesterton today but tying a subject he wrote about with a thought Tolkien wrote about: progress or progressiveness (Things getting ‘better’ all the time) and  history as a ‘long defeat’ (things getting worse before they get better).  They don’t seem to have much in common but from the vantage of how they have affected how we look at Christ’s Kingdom.   And the way in which we think God’s Kingdom is coming has something powerful to say to Christians.

Tolkein’s Long Defeat by Fr. Stephen Freeman, reminds us that how we view progress has affected how we view Christ’s Kingdom and that a heresy has arisen by one of those views.  That takes us to our first consideration, to one of Chesterton’s observations which speaks to the very point of Fr. Freeman’s article:

“Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.”G. K. Chesterton, Chapter 2, Heretics, 1905

Chesterton asks us: Where is progress going to?  It must have some definite aim, and if so, what is it?  If progress is not really progress at all, if worse, it is going in a bad direction, then it speaks more to Tolkien’s “long defeat” described in one of his letters:

“Actually I am a Christian,” Tolkien wrote of himself, “and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’— though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory” (Letters 255).”

Could it be that some of us have been foolishly trying to take the “samples and glimpses of final victory” and choosing to believe these are the “progress” of all things getting better?  Tying both thoughts together, Fr. Freeman reminds us of a distinctive problem with the modern focus on progress and our faith:

“The narrative was rewritten in the modern era – particularly during the 19th century. The Kingdom of God was transferred from apocalyptic hope (the end of the long defeat) to a material goal to be achieved in this world. This was a heresy, a radical revision of Christian thought. It became secularized and moderated into mere progress. It is worth doing a word study on the history of the word “progressive.”

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