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Detail from Construction of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

The Gods of Progress

Philip Britts

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Never more so than now, the myth of progress remains the story by which we live our lives. Every disruption and new product rollout reinforces it. But where are we progressing to? In 1948, just as the postwar technological boom began, the English farmer-poet Philip Britts penned this essay on what he called “spiritual evolution.”

Are we standing at the beginning of a new age of scientific development, of supersonic speeds, of atomic energy, of more and more wonderful machines? Or are we standing, unaware, at the end of the machine age, at the end of the progress of scientific power? Are we about to enter an era of greater wealth, greater luxury, greater leisure, the modern home, people emancipated from drudgery? Or has this age of power reached its climax, and will this civilization destroy itself with those forces that it has created?

To reject this question, to sail onward in the arrogant confidence that man can and will manipulate these tremendous forces for the good of all, is to put more pressure on the drift to catastrophe. Is not this the poison of the age, the belief of man in man? “Man is certainly stark mad,” said Montaigne, “He cannot make a flea, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.”

Yet many people have the question in their hearts, and many, many people are haunted by the fear of another war…. All this leads to a further question: Is man himself making spiritual progress; is he, together with his indisputable intellectual enlightenment, becoming a more noble creature?

Today man can speak and his voice be carried instantaneously to a hundred million listeners, thousands of miles apart – but has he anything to say that is more vital for the welfare of humanity than what Isaiah, or Plato, proclaimed with the unaided voice?

Detail from Construction of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Construction of the Tower of Babel, 1563
Images from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
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Let it never be denied that sometimes a word of shining wisdom is spoken and printed. There is gold amongst the dross. But if one speaks of mankind making progress, one speaks and dreams of mankind as a whole: in one’s mind is a vision of the human race, very gradually, and perhaps even with up-and-down spirals, but very gradually, as a race, rising to nobler heights.

Against this conception of man’s spiritual evolution a mountain of evidence is piling up, more than could be put into many volumes of heavy books. Some things have been greatly publicized: the concentration camps, lynchings in the US, the rapidly increasing divorce rates, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the continued manufacture of atomic bombs in the postwar armaments race.

There is a skeleton in our cupboard – the skeleton of an ape.

But those who put their trust in progress reply that these horrors that mar our civilization are ­committed by a relative few. The average man is more enlightened, kindlier, more humane than his remoter forbears. Progress is slow, and sometimes interrupted by the backsliding of a certain race. On the whole, though, we have made great strides in education, and in the care of the mentally and physically diseased, and in our provisions for social relief. We have definitely become more social-conscious. We have…done great things in organization and collaboration.

And there are these veins of gold in the mental output of the world. It would be hard to say if they are more than formerly, or are increasing, but they are more efficiently dissemin­ated. They reach a better educated public, they come from better educated minds. Still it doesn’t seem to be invariably so that the sublimest truths are uttered by the best-trained minds, and it would be hard to prove that the gold is purer than it was in the past.

“Be ye all like-minded, compassionate, loving as brethren, tender-hearted, humble-minded.” This was written by a fisherman in the year 63. Has anything more valuable to mankind been said by any philosopher or theologian in the twentieth century?

Strangely enough, it isn’t so much by looking at other people around us that we have become so convinced of this upward trend of humanity. Conviction is carried most strongly home to our heart by looking at ourselves….We feel deep within us that, however imperfect we are, we are humane and kindly people. We are seekers for truth, and we live according to our lights. We have our ideals, and we strive to be an influence for good in the world.

There is a skeleton in our cupboard – the skeleton of an ape. Half of our restless pressing onward, half of our so frantically clothing ourselves with knowledge, culture, civilization, is caused by our need to fly from the skeleton of this ancestral ape…. And in the course of our progress we commit atrocities more hideous than any of nature’s cruelest beasts could dream of. The character of the beast of prey dominates world society, a beast of prey not only empowered with tremendous physical resources, but empowered with a highly trained intellect to serve his malicious ends.

Or perhaps the beast is alive within us. There is no possibility of leaving him behind, of climbing to peaks he cannot reach. There is the alternative of fight or submit to his rule. But within us also, or rather, ready to enter every open heart, is the spirit that fights against the beast, the spirit of the New Man. And the fight is a choice, with which we are faced every day, and in which we have free will to choose: Which spirit shall I serve?

Our only choice is a choice of service. All our sparkling ability, our insight, our psycho-physical resources, are drawn into the service of one or the other.…We are free to choose. But let us beware of trying to choose both.

In absolute opposition to what we have been calling the spirit of the beast is the spirit of love. This spirit alone can bring that peace which is in absolute opposition to war and death and destruction. Peace that is born of love and filled with love is the only true peace. It is not just a cessation of war, a shaking of the ripe fruit while the tree goes on growing to bear again in due season. Peace can only arise when the tree is cut down and rooted out. In this mighty work, love uses weapons that are in absolute opposition to the weapons of the beast. Instead of the good man, the poor in spirit; instead of the confidence in the progress of man, the sorrowful recognition of the helplessness of man; instead of the mighty, the meek; instead of self-satisfaction, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness; instead of judgement, mercy; instead of the doctrine of many paths, singleness and pureness of heart; instead of coercion, reconciliation; instead of success, persecution for righteousness’ sake.

Against the multiple weapons of division, love constructs the fortress of unity. This, too, has its foundations way down in the practical things of daily life. Mine and thine are done away with, in material as in spiritual things. Property divides men, the haves from the have-nots-or-not-so-much. It is one of the first barriers that melts in the glow of love. But individual pride and self-respect are properties of the heart. They vanish too, in the realization that we are all weak men, and there is none good but God; that we are all brothers and one is our master, even Christ. We are no longer separated individuals, each with a slightly different “kingdom of God” within us. But we are all members of one body, with a common purpose and a common source of strength to follow it. Thus each shares with the other, goods and work and table, for everything belongs to the spirit of love. Each helps the other, and accepts help, for the victory is not unto us. There arises brotherhood, as the true calling of man, as the fruit of the spirit of love, as the unity that establishes peace.

Detail from Construction of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
Detail from Construction of the Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

There is always this insistence of Jesus upon deeds, not words. Even the cup of water to the least of these my brethren. One drop of lifeblood spent in the actual practice of brotherhood is more effective in the struggle for peace than an ocean of ink written about it. This would not be true perhaps if victory lay within the power of man, if the struggle were one of human goodwill against human weakness, of human progress against our obscure origins; if the kingdom of God could be set up by man. The faith that an ounce of action is worth a ton of speech, the faith that there can be any significance whatever in a tiny group of very ordinary people trying to live in brotherhood, can rest only on the faith in the living God. That God acts, and that his will is love, his purpose peace on the earth, is the justification for the decision to put that will wholly into practice in our lives here and now. It is the significance of the savor of the salt. The vital thing is not the bulk of the substance, but that the salt be salt.

Community is not a system for solving the economic-social problem. Many such communities have been organized and have failed to stay the course. Community is a consequence. Community is the consequence of people being kindled with the glow of love. Community is the consequence when people see right through to the depths the necessity of the fundamental choice: either-or. Either unity or division, either brother­hood or war. It is when people see this choice and, having seen it, make the choice to serve the spirit of love in terms of unconditional surrender, that they are drawn together, that they are given community through the power of love. A new form of society emerges because men are filled with a new spirit. Community cannot exist in the absence of the spirit of love. Love cannot be expressed where there is division, competition, isolation, egotism. Each one must give himself wholeheartedly to all – making no reservations.

Community is not a system solving the economic-social problem.

“The kingdom of God is within you.” This sentence has been twisted by the religion of this world to blind us to the real and concrete issues. The kingdom of God is not a comfortable feeling inside that we have attained a harmony of our souls with abstract truth. Above all, the kingdom of God is not the private property of each individual soul. The kingdom of God is the reign of God on this earth. To the words, “Thy kingdom come,” belong the words, “Thy will be done on earth….” The powers of the kingdom of God are at work wherever division is overcome by unity, wherever barriers are swept away by brotherhood.

Instead of the glittering palace of manifold divisions, let us seek a simple house with an open door. Instead of the towering organization of worldly skill and worldly knowledge, let us seek a humble trust in God. Let us make the unconditional surrender to the spirit of love. “Except a man be born again he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Let us beware of trying to save ourselves by going the two ways. “He who seeks his life shall lose it.” Are we standing at the brink of long vistas of prosperous evolution, or is civilization moving towards its own destruction? Has it the seeds of life or death within it? Our only choice is a choice of service, and service means deed, not word. It is either-or. Serve one or the other. Prune the great tree of division or plant the new tree of brotherhood. Let us not be misled by the symptoms of human power. The power of God alone is decisive in the end.


The article above is an excerpt from Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer, ed. Jennifer Harries (Plough, March 2018).
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Contributed By Philip Britts Philip Britts

Farmer-poet Philip Britts was born in 1917 in Devon, England. Britts became a pacifist, joined the Bruderhof, and moved to South America during World War II.

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