Game Theory and the Kingdom of God (A Quirky Series Installment), Part 8: "Nonzero: Moral Progress, Liberalism, and Religion"

Thinking back about the reaction of my theological friends to the idea of moral progress I was struck by what I felt were two inconsistencies in their positions. Recall, they strongly and unequivocally rejected any notion of moral progress over human history. And I found this strange for two reasons.

First, most of them were politically liberal. So, I found their reaction odd. That is, liberals are at least hopeful about progress and moral improvement. It is what lights the fire underneath such movements like civil rights and women's suffrage. It is what lights the fire underneath efforts to fight global poverty. I mean, liberalism seems predicated on at least the possibility of moral progress. Otherwise, why fight city hall? I guess you could be a pessimistic liberal--I'll fight for civil rights but it really won't change a thing--but that is a strange mix.

Second, these were Christians involved in the Kingdom of God. Again, as Christians involved in the work of the Kingdom, are not we at least hopeful that the reign of God will slowly break in? Sure, it is an uphill climb, but it would be really odd to say, as a Christian, "Let's go out there and make the world a better place in the name of God, but, by they way, all this effort will be fruitless." Maybe it will prove to be fruitless, but are we at least hopeful that the way of Jesus finds a home in more and more hearts over time?

For example, the motto of ACU is "Change the World." Well, why would you be working at a place with that motto if you didn't at least believe that progress was possible?

So, I wonder if something else is going on. My guess is this: Some preachers and church leaders get a lot of leverage by pointing out that humans are terrible and that the world is a terrible place. The leverage here is twofold. First, if we are evil then we need salvation and moral transformation. Second, if you allow for moral progress then a whole generation might just get smug and self-satisfied and give up straining toward righteousness. Those are legitimate concerns. So I understand why certain theologians and church leaders need to keep discussions about moral progress out of their public and church rhetoric. Keeping us morally humble is useful and important. But rhetoric aside, as a social scientific and scholarly discussion, the idea of moral progress can be rationally considered and discussed. I suspect that if you say humans are depraved over and over (for rhetorical effect) you might start to believe the rhetoric. And, as a consequence, refuse to even engage in critical reflection on this topic (as was my experience).

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