The Western is a genre of literature, cinema, or other arts that depicts life in the American Old West during the latter-half of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century. A common feature of such depictions is a vision of grandeur, limitless horizons, and untamed wilds. Lawmen vie with outlaws in desolate places to bring American civilization and order to new lands.
In the Western genre dreams of greatness are often expressed: a hope at establishing a new life “out West,” finding a fortune in the gold rushes of California, seeking personal revenge, or finding fame through heroic acts against Indian tribes or bandits. The modern version of the knight errant, the lone ranger seeking justice, is bound no social institution but only to his internal sense of honor.
While the Western harkens to a deeply profound aspect of American culture, the dream of limitless progress, it also speaks to one of its most problematic features. We Americans have been taught since our childhoods that we are destined for greatness, that we have limitless potential. While good-hearted, these affirmations have not produced masses of over-achievers but a generation of the down-trodden who have failed to live up to their expectations of perfection.
The American belief in ever-upward progress, both on an individual and collective level, is nothing new. We have been engaged in a perpetual pep-talk since 1776. The United States of America is “unique,” “special,” and “destined by the Almighty to bring freedom to the North American continent (during the 18th and 19th centuries) and to the world (during the 20th and 21st centuries).”
The impetus behind every undertaking of the uniquely American cult of progress is to bring its gospel to every corner of the world. At its core, the cult is rooted in Christianity in its 18th and 19th century evangelical Protestant variety, which coincided with the United States’ westward expansion. Evangelical Protestantism and the conquest of the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains created the world’s largest engine of modernity.
The American concept of progress is a recent construction dating to the 19th century. It denotes a sort of eschatology parallel to the Christian doctrine of the end of all things. Christian doctrine affirms that Christ will return and establish the Kingdom of God upon the earth. Christians may experience a partial expression of His Kingdom through the sacramental life of the Church.
The 18th and 19th century evangelical Protestant expression viewed the Kingdom as something mankind was destined to build. This eschatological scheme is sometimes called “post-millennialism” in contrast to the more common traditions of pre-millennialism and millennialism and is a derivative doctrine of Reformed theology (i.e. Calvinism).
American Protestant reformers saw the outline for bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven in the Bible. The Kingdom could be made manifest in the here and now if poverty and injustice were eliminated. Not only was this goal possible in some distant future but could be seen in 19th century America as it expanded from “sea to shining sea.”
Since its inception in the late 18th century this doctrine has undergone a transformation. It has been stripped of its religious overtones and justification in Christian scripture and taken on the color of secularism. The cult of progress now justifies its acceptance of eternal progression by appealing to the vagaries of reason.
While the cult may not promote or accept the notion of the divine it is clearly religious in orientation. No other religion has been more confident in its assertion of the universality of its precept of “progress.” All men, of whatever religion, should share in shouldering the burden of making the world a better place by eradicating poverty and injustice.
The devotees of the cult of progress not only accept the veracity of their religion but insist that its truth should be apparent to any reasonable person. To disagree with their perspective is to be consumed with reactionary resistance, a byproduct of ignorance or malicious intentions.
Many contemporary Christians have adopted the secular view of progress derived from American Protestantism. These Christians accept that the Christian imperative is to “make the world a better place.” I will not argue that doing good is not a Christian duty, it is. But it is a serious error to put good deeds in a scheme of progress or “making the world a better place.”
The attitude that links progress/“making the world a better place” with the Christian gospel is rooted in the rational mind’s need to discriminate, judge, and explain. The rational mind which measures and weighs cannot recognize what is true, beautiful, and good. The ability to rationalize is good for solving mathematical equations but not for recognizing what is transcendent and eternal.
In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus relates the parable of the last judgment to his disciples:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne [and separate the good from the wicked]. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
The ability to see beauty and to do good is found in the metaphoric “heart.” It is different from the analytic faculty that measures and weighs, discriminates, judges, and explains. The heart does not find its value in its utility but in its ability to discern that which is eternal and surpasses the bounds of this mortal life. The heart is where man communes with God. It is the place where the individual is found, where we see the “least of these” and find their personhood intact.
Rather than seeking to change the world through the application of progress the heart seeks to transform the individual person’s life through faith, hope, and charity. The heart, the nous of the Christian Fathers, is concerned with the particular. However, modernity has promoted a different paradigm based on “global” concerns or those aimed at the eschatological goal of transforming the world into a “better place.”
Modernity teaches that the individual must understand and accept certain things as being important. If one cares about something that is important he or she is a good person because he or she is making the world a better place. Examples of this attitude abound in the pop-cultural mix of causes célèbres such as the knee jerk reaction to dress one’s Facebook profile in the flag of a country experiencing a particularly traumatic event. This behavior is nothing more than virtue signaling and an expression of the piety of the cult of progress and the religion of modernity. Even more troubling, many Christians have accepted this sort of expression as the core of their faith and practice.
Jesus’ commandments always focus on the individual and particular. When asked what was the greatest commandment in the Torah he replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
While we are not to ignore the global or even local, we live in the particular, the here and now. Secular modernity instead orders life around the global and tells us that we can manage the affairs of the world and move it towards some idealistic utopian end. The drive of the cult of progress is towards the universal, however the Christian God’s own drive is towards the heart of the individual, the weak, and the downtrodden.
The central mystery of the Christian faith is that God, in his infinite power and majesty, “…emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The concept of kenosis or self-emptying is applied in this context, God’s condescension to the station of men so that men might become like God; he calls us as individuals and by name to follow him.
For the Christian, Jesus Christ is the exemplar of right living. As he did we must also do to live the abundant life. We may do this as individuals by emptying ourselves of our own wills and desires thereby becoming fitting vessels for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Our focus must not be on the universal, a “God’s eye” view of the world, but like God it must be on the individual, particular, the small and seemingly insignificant.