My goal here is not to settle the issue of which Christians got there first. Capitalism grew in stages, each of them influenced by a different aspect of Christianity. When Francis Bacon and Descartes called for a technological system in which man becomes a master and possessor of nature, they made their case in terms of recovering the prosperity of the Garden of Eden. When Locke defended property rights and the cultivation of nature by practical intelligence, he saw humans as imitating the creativity of God and thus acting “in His image.” Even today we think of work in terms of a “calling” or “vocation.” In this Christian understanding, we receive our talents from God and use them to benefit ourselves, our families, and our society in line with God’s will for us.
With capitalism and prosperity came something new: the idea of progress. This is the notion that things are getting better and will continue to get better in the future. History is seen as moving in a straight line, onward and upward. In the past century the idea of progress has seen some strange and ugly manifestations, such as “survival of the fittest” and the supposedly inevitable “revolution of the proletariat.” Tarred as it now may be, the ideal of progress endures, and in some form it is now part of the furniture of the modern mind. Most of us, for example, fully expect our children to live better than we do. We also tend to believe in moral progress. The abolition of slavery, for instance, seems to be an irreversible moral achievement. We hope that future generations will be more morally enlightened than we are, take better care of the planet, and stop killing the unborn.
This is not, however, the way the Greeks and the Romans—or the Chinese and the Indians—saw it. Most cultures believe that history moves in cycles. Things go up and then they go down. An alternative view is that things were better in the past, and the further you go back, the better they get. As J. B. Bury shows in The Idea of Progress, Westerners think of progress not in terms of cycles but arrows. Our modern ideas of “development” and “progress” are a secular version of the Christian idea of providence.” The Christian narrative of history guided by God from beginning to end—a story of creation, incarna- tion, and last judgment—is converted into a story of human advancement. Thus through human effort we fulfill a kind of spiritual mandate to continually make things better.