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The soup ladle pictured above is from Bonnemaman’s girlhood home. Bonnemaman was my wife’s lovable, buoyant grandmother whose life came up a few months short of a century, 1900-2000.

Bonnemaman and her family lived in northern France, near the Belgian border. During World War I, their home was first requisitioned as a British command post. Then it quartered Germans, and finally was utterly destroyed in battle. The ladle is one of two small items the family found upon returning after the war. Used to scoop salt, all the silver had corroded off, but later Bonnemaman had it resilvered.

The ladle sits in a fairly prominent place in our home. I’d always seen it as a memorial of sorts, a reminder of the sorrows and cost of the past. And maybe it is.

But recently I’ve begun to understand the ladle as a sign of hope, of the resilience of humanity, of a better future. Tough and terrible times come. But we persist and struggle and ultimately overcome. Life goes forward.

You could say that I’ve been thinking about “progress” lately.

We believe in it, more-or-less, don’t we?

(It was Oh, I Get It, This is the Bad Place by Jeff Munroe, a month ago here on The Twelve that especially restirred my thinking. I would also commend “A Birthday with the New York Times” by Keith Starkenburg that also seeded this discussion.)

** Progress and Hope **

As Christians, we are apt to support the notion of progress. The Holy Spirit is on the move, ahead of us, revealing and sharing the victory of Jesus Christ. “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done.” History is heading toward the return of Christ and the healing of all things. The future is already among us. This sort of wild, eschatological hope sustains us in darkest times.

As modern people, we are even more inclined to believe in human progress. We’re children of the Enlightenment. We have imbibed great confidence in human abilities and technology. And not without good reason. I live with an abundance of food — that I did not raise — in an electrified refrigerator. We may wait for a COVID-19 vaccine, but the breakthroughs of medical science over the past couple centuries, even the last couple decades, are astounding. Space exploration. The internet. Superhighways. Skyscrapers. Yes, sadly, too many of these breakthroughs are enjoyed by only a small minority of the world’s wealthy. Still, plenty of people point to evidence from healthcare to human rights that things are getting better for those on the bottom of the social ladder. If many are left out, is it really progress?

Suppose you were to make a venn diagram with one circle labeled “Your Kingdom Come” and the other “Human Progress,” how much overlap would there be? How much is one seen in the other? Hard to know, isn’t it? My answer probably depends on when you ask me. Progress is something we can often chart, almost connect the dots. It seems like simple arithmetic alongside the quantum physics that is hope. No one can really plumb it’s depth.

** Lisbon, Des Moines, and Rome **

The Lisbon Earthquake

Historians have taught me that the world tends to swing back and forth between hope and despair. The Lisbon earthquake (1755) and World War I are examples of landmarks that brought down broad societal optimism.

Someday this global Coronavirus pandemic will be seen as a similar landmark.

Six months ago, I thought differently. I had hoped that this was our “greatest generation” moment. This was our opportunity to display unity and sacrifice, courage and stamina. I was wrong. My hope was misplaced.

In downtown Des Moines, Iowa, the windows of government buildings are still boarded up after some midsummer protests. Whether you blame radical anarchists, or police brutality, or unrelenting systemic racism, or anything else — boarded up windows seem like a sign that something is amiss. This is Iowa, after all!

Long, long ago in a history class, we were studying “great empires.” As the section was wrapping up, the teacher summarized, “Of course, all empires come to end. Occasionally it is dramatic and violent. Often they just slip away, dissolve, decline.” We all nodded obligingly and unmoved. But then he went on. “The United States is an empire of a sort, certainly a world-power. Somehow, someday, the same will happen here.” His tone was calm and objective. There was no fear-mongering, no gleeful anti-Americanism. Simply a historian making an observation. A bunch of 20-year-olds stumbled out of class dazed and troubled that day. Our world had been shaken. Such thoughts had never before crossed our minds.

If the 20th century was the “American Century,” I think there is a looming sense that the USA is overripe. Past our prime. This isn’t something that’s happened in just the last four years or the last six months. It’s been seeping in for the last forty or fifty years. Right and left have different diagnoses, different villains to blame, but quietly they all fear that something is slipping away. Trump’s MAGA simply spoke into this fear most clearly, a bellicose attempt to return to a past that never was.

Likewise, “American exceptionalism” may bring to mind adolescent chest-thumping and chants of “USA! USA!” But I think there is an unspoken and subtle variety of exceptionalism wafting through nearly every American. We’re so accustomed to it, it feels only natural, nearly divine-right. The thought of not being “number one” unnerves us. It just doesn’t seem right, even if we can simultaneously acknowledge how arrogant and irrational that is.

Why do we imagine the tumble from number-one status will be a cataclysmic event, a chaotic descent in the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max where everyone will wear studded black leather and an eye patch? Or even into a backwater banana republic? (Well, given present circumstances, a banana republic doesn’t seem so far-fetched.) Still, what if the USA someday discovers that being number 11 or 28 isn’t so bad? I’ve been to Rome, England, France, Japan. All former superpowers or empires in their way. None of them seem to be suffering too much by no longer being number one.

And notice how quickly I’ve veered off course. Easily slipping from a larger discussion of human progress and divine hope into a particular focus on an American decline. It’s as if I am incapable of thinking about human progress and flourishing without necessarily tying it to the USA.

Where does this leave us?

I sense my own sadness, uncertainty, and fear, even as I sift for memories of human resilience and scan for signs of hope. I remind myself that what happens in the USA, while significant, isn’t the whole of humanity or history. Even more, I remind myself that while human progress and hope in Christ may be somehow related, they are not the same thing. And then I remind myself still one more time.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

9 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Once again, I’m with you. May I add that Hendrikus Berkhof writes profoundly (and soberly) about these things in three places: his wonderful Christ the Meaning of History, his lectures Well-Founded Hope, and in the “eschatology” chapters of his Christian Faith.

  • Mark says:

    To read this is troubling and still so satisfying. For me it evokes a sense something like listening to a Mahler song or maybe even Jimi Hendrix’ version of the Nat. Anthem. Thanks!

  • mstair says:

    “ … human progress and hope in Christ may be somehow related, they are not the same thing. And then I remind myself still one more time. “

    I’m reminded of the end of the film “Risen” ; Jews and one Roman, wandering off in different directions – giving up their citizenship and protection of their home countries – to obey a command of “their Lord” to proclaim some good news and baptize people who come to believe. They spend the rest of their lives, no longer citizens of any earthly nation. The Jewish nation disappeared 40 years later, Rome a few hundred after that. 1600 after that, here we are … still proclaiming and looking for folks to baptize …

    … progress …but humans shouldn’t take much credit for it…

  • Thank you for this, Steve. I wonder often why we resist thinking more globally both in terms of current cultures and history. “We” as in “I,” I must allow. Now that I serve congregations for shorter terms, there are moments when I need to point out that there is no shame in being on the waning side of a local church’s history, and in fact we can embrace this part of its story. Binary thinking impedes the life-giving unity with God and all beings we were created to enjoy.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    Whenever we pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” we need to think of the entire earth, not just our part of it, where we live or where we can vote. If one part suffers then we all suffer, just as when one part rejoices we all rejoice. It’s hard now because we are all suffering together. This too shall pass, eventually, then more of us will have a sense of hope again. I have hope that on Nov 4 there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Well said, too often we equate “America” with “Church.” America may wane but the church universal will not.

  • Marilyn Norman says:

    I always appreciate your thought provoking writings

  • Thomas Goodhart says:

    Thank you for this, Steve. I love important family heirlooms, especially a good ladle. Bless Grand-mère Bonnemaman.

    Your piece made me think of Berry’s poem about hope, Sabbath Poems, 2007 VI, which begins,
    “It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old…”
    Of course with Berry it’s always about place,
    “Because we have not made our lives to fit
    Our places…” which he goes on to exhort belonging to our places, by which he means knowing and belonging to those in our places including the creek and the fish in the creek and the poor old man who fishes for those fish in that creek. To me that is about as patriotic as I can muster in this age of gross nationalism. But anyway, what really comes to mind is the closing passage,
    “No place at last is better than the world. The world
    Is no better than its places. Its places at last
    Are no better than their people while their people
    Continue in them. When the people make
    Dark the light within them, the world darkens.”

    But of course you know all this. It’s just that this is what your words brought me to.
    Thanks again. And I hope you and Sophie occasionally use grandma’s ladle.

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Thank you all for your kind and helpful comments. Jimi Hendrix and Wendell Berry! What more do you need?
    Deb, I appreciate your insights about congregations going away as well. It isn’t as simple as “failure” or “unfaithfulness” or not loving Jesus enough. It is tides of history and demographic trends that are bigger than a single congregation. There are still things to be grateful for and to celebrate. And, of course, still hope. Congregations come and go. The Church moves forward.

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