We in the West are hardwired to believe in progress—to believe that the state of the world will eventually improve; to believe that as good as things may have become, they can still get even better. This forward-looking mentality is an inheritance of the religions—Judaism and Christianity in particular—that have played such a critical part in shaping much of our thought patterns and orientations toward experience, including our orientation toward time.
One unexpected place this outlook was on display was last year’s U.S. Open, where two teenagers—Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu—burst onto the tennis scene like supernovas and captured the hearts and hopes of just about every tennis fan from Queens to Canterbury. Raducanu, an eighteen-year-old British newcomer who had only played her first professional tour event a few months earlier, became the first qualifier in history, male or female, to make the U.S. Open semifinals. The Canadian Fernandez, who turned nineteen during the Open and was on no one’s radar, stunningly defeated two former world number ones and the world number five on the way to her first U.S. Open semifinal in only her second appearance at the event.
I jumped at the opportunity to be at Arthur Ashe Stadium in person for the rising stars’ semifinal match-ups against far more seasoned players. Their respective opponents, world number seventeen Maria Sakkari of Greece and world number two Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, by all rights merited at least half of the fan support inside Ashe, but were receiving virtually none of it. Their winners received polite applause, but Raducanu’s and Fernandez’s winners were met with thunderous roars. When Fernandez won the first set in a tiebreak, random strangers around me were high-fiving one another as if they were all related to her.
Why did fans latch on to these young teenage phenoms who had yet to accomplish anything substantial in their careers other than win a handful of matches at a Grand Slam?
On the surface this apparent mismatch between fan adoration and actual athletic accomplishment is perplexing, irrational, and perhaps even unfair to the older, more accomplished athletes. If we probe a bit deeper, however—into the depths of our collective psyches—we’re able to understand why it was Fernandez and Raducanu who were getting the adulation from the crowd, while the eminently deserving Sakkari and Sabalenka were being short-shrifted.
Thousands of years ago, Judaism—followed by Christianity—introduced the idea of linear time into the world. Prior to Judaism, the predominant orientation toward time was cyclical, not linear. The cultic rituals of ancient Mesopotamia were seasonal rites that reenacted the lives and works of the gods; they were designed to be repeated into perpetuity, year after year, with no allowance for the conception that things might ever change, or that the state of things might one day perhaps improve.
Judaism and Christianity, however—while incorporating seasonal observances into their ritual calendars—audaciously proposed that we are to aspire to more than just an endless perpetuation of the state of things; we are to work actively toward improving the world year after year, so that every generation which passes through the planet brings humanity one step closer toward a kingdom of heaven on earth. “To Israel,” writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath, “the unique events of historic time were spiritually more significant than the repetitive processes in the cycle of nature.” Whereas the pagan Greeks and Romans believed that the golden age lay in the past—followed by a progressive decline to silver, bronze, and iron—Judaism and Christianity, in the form of their beliefs in a messianic age, asserted that humanity’s golden age lies in the future. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was fond of noting, even God’s name itself—“I will be who I will be” (Exodus 3:14)—is in the future tense.
We are living in an age in which ideologues on the far left and far right are both seeking to deny our collective beliefs in progress. Those on the far nativist right would seek to take us back to a golden age in the past—a golden age that never truly existed at that. Meanwhile, those on the extreme left have become progress-deniers altogether, rejecting the notion that any progress has occurred at all. “Progressives hate progress,” as Steven Pinker has ironically observed.
Commenting on Pinker’s observations about leftist “progressophobia,” Bill Maher recently remarked that acknowledging progress doesn’t mean we’re saying “‘we’re done’ or ‘we don’t need more,’ and being gloomier doesn’t make you a better person.” There is nothing wrong with recognizing that “your dorm in 2021 is better than the South before the Civil War.”
It is important to acknowledge that progress has in fact occurred and continues to occur—as well as to keep making the case that progress is actually good. But it is also important to recognize the roots of our belief in progress, as a reminder—at the very least—in this age of secularism that religion has contributed very much to our understandings of ourselves and of the world around us, and continues to do so.
When we find our affections gravitating more toward younger, unestablished yet promising players like Fernandez and Raducanu than to veteran stars, we are expressing instinctive, deeply held beliefs—impressed within our psyches for millennia by Judaism and Christianity—that the future has priority over the past. However good yesterday may have been, we still believe that tomorrow will be even better.
And when we find ourselves scratching our heads at the absurdity of some of the extreme Left’s progressophobia, we should appreciate that our instinctive skepticism is extremely well grounded. It is rooted in beliefs in progress that helped us endure as a civilization and that—thanks in part to the scientific revolution, technological discoveries, and astonishing advances in medical science—have helped us create vaccines, reduce poverty, and defeat diseases, and which may even one day allow us to conquer death itself.
In the enormous joy they brought to U.S. Open fans, Fernandez and Raducanu were affirming our innate and eminently rational desire for progress, and confirming our collective faith in the future.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a postdoctoral research scholar at the University of Salzburg and a Washington Examiner contributing writer. He is author of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema (2020) and the novel A Single Life (2020).
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