STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/14/2007

FEATURE | Pondering Progress: The Jerusalem & Athens Program Essay Contest

The Jerusalem and Athens Forum (JAF) is a great books course in the history of Christian thought and literature. Funded by the Lilly grant, the program strives to help students reflect on the relationship between faith and intellect, deepen their own sense of vocation, and awaken their capacities for intellectual and moral leadership. Seminar-style classes involve students in an ongoing critical conversation with thinkers from the broad sweep of the Western tradition.

This year STILLPOINT and JAF sponsored an essay contest that was open to all participants in the program. Students were invited to offer critical reflections on the concept of progress--prevalent in Western culture since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Essayists were especially encouraged to consider how the Christian tradition and moral imagination might contribute to a Christian theology of progress. Students engaged with thinkers as various as George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Augustine of Hippo, Theophan the Recluse and Josef Pieper.

The first-place essay, "Recovering an Image of Progress" by Michael Tishel '08, argues for the genuinely progressive nature of Ancient Church tradition. Bethany Joy Floch '08 received an honorable mention for "To Kill Time Is to Kill Life," in which she explains how Sabbath-keeping is both a reminder of God's grace and a guard against the idolatry of productivity. Joshua Hasler, whose essay "Progress as a Work of Redemption" also won an honorable mention, suggests that "progress may be both merely and triumphantly our participation in the redemption of fallen creation."

Recovering An Image of Progress
By Michael Tishel '08

There is a joke about the Eastern Orthodox Church that goes like this: "How many Orthodox people does it take to change a light bulb?" The response is simple: "Change?"

Orthodoxy is often accused of not changing with the times, and a single visit to an Orthodox church--with its incense-filled, candle-lit, icon-covered sanctuary, and clergy in ancient vestments--confirms the stereotype that Orthodox folks aren't too keen on change. Compared to chic American mega Christianity, with convention-style LCD projectors, stage lights and rock music, the Orthodox Church can seem rather calcified and antiprogressive.

This worship tradition (of which I am part) has been in existence since the Early Church and was carried over from an even earlier tradition, the Jewish liturgy. Is Orthodoxy taking refuge in nostalgic traditionalism, or is there something much more intentional happening? I would argue that Orthodoxy, in its apparent changelessness, is actually all about change. Anthony Bloom, Orthodox writer and theologian, describes the ancient liturgy as being "a school for spirituality: it is a situation and an encounter with God and the world in God. It has its own spontaneity which goes beyond the actual spontaneity of each of its members. It is the holy spontaneity of the community already fulfilled and in God." The liturgy, filled with litanies and prayers that have persevered for centuries, is like the sunrise--mutable and immutable, constant and beautifully sporadic--in all things spontaneous, yet not chaotic.

St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Gregory of Palamas and Blessed Augustine of Hippo were among the many Early Church giants upon whose shoulders we, as dwarves, rest, learning about a vocation that continues beyond the grave. Russian theologian St. Theophan the Recluse said, "Look to Heaven, and measure every step of your life so it is a step towards it." Do not be fooled by this apparent otherworldliness; if every moment of our lives is interpreted with the destination and direction--Heaven--fully in mind, we will live every moment to its fullest. To have an untarnished focus on Heaven is to transform every present moment into that which is genuinely progressive--that is, oriented towards eternity.

False progress, on the other hand, is movement that only appears to make life better. The media, for example, has "progressed" toward much more freedom of expression ever since the gyrating hips of Elvis Presley disrupted the tame pop culture of the mid-20th century. Violence, raw promiscuity and rock-star irreverence have all had their fair share of the limelight. Is this progress, or is it leading mankind back to itself in a circular path? For progress to be genuine its direction must be toward God; transfiguration is stunted by movement back toward the self. The Eastern Church would say that the entirety of man's life is about changing from his fallen state into a transfigured person who becomes as God--just as He became man--and, ironically enough, more human than ever before. The whole world falls under the umbrella of this incarnational transformation.

Nothing can baffle the human mind more than this mystery of Christ's Incarnation. That God Himself deigned to take on a fallen human form--one that He created to begin with--is utterly appalling, universally unique and somehow wondrously comforting.

We read about the Incarnation in Scripture; we hear it expressed in sermons; we subliminally absorb its reassuring promise--but do we see it? How do we see a God who came in the form of a baby? Babies, of course, can be depicted, spoken of, seen. Parents send birth announcements with a picture and description of the newborn--symbols that do not capture the essence of this wonderful new human being, but that nonetheless allow us to share in the parents' joy and to celebrate this event. What about Jesus--could He be depicted? Can He be depicted even now?

Images in the form of icons fulfill this very role in Orthodox worship--they allow us to see Jesus. A particular hymn in the Orthodox Church referred to as a "kontakion" beautifully contemplates this great and awesome mystery:

The uncircumscribed Word of the Father became circumscribed,
taking flesh from thee, O Theotokos [Mother of God],
and He has restored the sullied image to its ancient glory,
filling it with the divine beauty.
This, our salvation we confess in deed and word,
and we depict in the holy icons.

We all have it right when we talk about the need for progress, I suppose. But we must specify. When I place the image of a fast-paced urbanized culture next to that of the steady consistency of a slug and ask which one is making more progress, I must question direction. In which case is culture being transfigured? In which case are people being transfigured? Is the culture becoming a better culture by its frantic search for success? Or is the slug becoming a better slug by simply being a great slug?

If Heaven is the end, then the mutual pull of man to Heaven and Heaven to man will dictate anything from politics to ecology, relationships to cosmology and anything else under the sun. If we see the world as an icon, then the journey of progress becomes much clearer. We can all learn a thing or two by simply stopping to check our course and confirm our journey's end.

Maybe the joke should read: "How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?"; with this revised response: "Change? Change is fine, but only if you screw it on the right way, and it lights up the whole world in the end."

To Kill Time Is To Kill Life
Excerpt from an essay by Bethany Joy Floch '08

Growing up I thought eternal life began after death. Similarly, I thought we would enter the Kingdom of God after leaving this world. However, in the Lord's Prayer we say "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." God's Kingdom is neither purely future nor purely elsewhere--it is also here and now, throughout history on earth. Furthermore, Christianity calls us to a much larger sense of ourselves as human beings. Although our earthly days are numbered, eternity begins at conception.

But how does this relate to time? If time is merely a commodity or resource, then it is smaller than I am--something I have the power to limit, to manage, to control. However, realizing I am eternal requires me to recognize time as something bigger than myself. Eternity is beyond the limits of my imagination--I cannot even begin to pretend to comprehend it. Time is a gift, but not one in a box that I can unwrap. It is a gift that I must enter into--a world that waits beyond a door; perhaps like the door at the end of C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle. It is a world where we are always called to go "further up and further in."

Progress As A Work of Redemption
Excerpt from an essay by Joshua Hasler '09

Across the black water, above the recently thawed silt of unplumbed depths, the gray trees are desolate in these late winter months. A flock of colorless birds emerge, startled, I imagine, by the slam of construction that labors on our side of the pond. Just below where I sit in Lane Student Center, massive cement trucks roll by and arrive at the exposed soil like so many gardeners--braving the icy winter my western sensibilities balk at--to bring us something new, something good. And yet they are seen through the skeptical eyes of one of the last nostalgic residents of Wood Hall. And I sit where many of you have sat before and wonder: What, if any of these things, is progress? It may be the forging of a new building to replace the old and the worn. It could be the regrowth of trees or the path around the pond. Do we appraise progress according to our benefit as stewards, by the flourishing of creation itself, or the peace and happiness of humanity as a whole?

Michael Tishel, a Pike Scholar, is studying comparative historical theology (Orthodoxy and Protestantism). He is active in his church's youth program and Orthodox college ministry and has a special love for the Eastern monastic tradition. He likes playing guitar, singing and songwriting, and spending time with family and friends. His summer plans include a pilgrimage to Mount Athos in Greece and a seminar on the history of ancient and modern Greek culture and Christianity.

Bethany Joy Floch, a Pike Scholar studying comparative literature, is from Dallas, Texas.

Joshua Hasler
is a philosophy major from Conifer, Colorado.