Q & R: Bible and Progress

Here’s the Q from a European podcast listener:

Yesterday I listenend to your Bible Overview podcast #6 about Cain and Abel. Once alone as I walked by the brook between the station and my work place. And then again at home in the evening together with my wife, a guest couple from [another country] (I discovered he also listens to podcasts of yours), [and my adult kids] …. It was a good moment for all of us, I think.
Comments from [some in our little circle] (“Should we go back to being nomads?”) and reflections on my part led me to the following Q: If the progression from hunter-gatherer to nomadic herder to farmer to city-dweller represents a move away from God and into increasing violence and perversion, is it wrong that man has made this move? To express it another way: Is what people generally see as advance actually contrary to God’s will? What would that mean regarding industrial and technological developments over the past century or two?

R: Great questions … I think the Bible is much better at handling moral ambiguity and moral paradox than we normally are. It regularly offers multiple perspectives on the same events, some positive, some negative, which together give us a truer assessment than a single dualist judgment would. For example, what is the Bible’s perspective on the monarchy in Israel? To some Biblical writers, it’s a tragedy: people rejecting God as their king and wanting to conform to the standards of other nations. To others, it’s a great gift – so much so that the dream of “the kingdom of God” takes on real meaning as an expansion on the kingdom of David, with the anticipated Messiah being identified as the Son of David. Taken together, those multiple viewpoints give a more realistic vision than either would alone.
I think the same is true with “progress” and “development.” The goal, it seems to me, isn’t simply to return to the garden; nor is it to forget the garden and anticipate the world’s soon destruction so we can all be beamed up to heaven. It’s a best-of-both scenario – a garden city. You feel exactly that in Revelation 21 – worth reading in this light, as is Romans 8.
I also feel (this is a highly subjective, interpretive thing) that the story itself reminds us that if we don’t build our civilization well, it will crash and we’ll have to go back and start from scratch.
This is today’s news, because our environmental crises face us with monumental questions about our future. There are signs of hope in the conversations about sustainable economies, “living local economies,” and regenerative economies. But the forces of Babel are still strong … and today, still more of the remaining patches of the Garden of Eden (speaking metaphorically) will be destroyed by bulldozers, greenhouse gases, and other forms of “development.”
Two of my favorite books on this subject are Herman Daly’s Beyond Growth and Leonardo Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor. And all Bill McKibbin’s books are also top-notch and urgently needed. I tried to capture some of their wisdom in my book Everything Must Change – which is on sale for $6 in the US, by the way!
Genesis 1 – 11 gives us a tremendous mirror by which to look at “Western Civilization.” Thanks for your question – which will encourage many folks to see “us” in this mirror for the first time.
One last thought: I don’t think shifting from garden to field to city to civilization needs to be a move away from God. But there are new spiritual skills, responsibilities, and qualities that we need to develop the further we move from the land. Without those spiritual assets, we will squander our “progress” in pride. All this evokes Jesus’ story about the wise person who built on a rock …