Man & wife standing in a room, holding hands. The Arnolfini Portrait. 1434 oil painting on oak panel by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck.
The Arnolfini Portrait. 1434 oil painting on oak panel by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck.
Where are we going?

Because we live in times of rapid change, it’s easy to think of progress as a normal part of life. The constant social and technological advancement of society seems fundamental. While we may look into the future expectantly, Faust’s author may have been disturbed by what he’d already seen of ‘progress’.


How do you think of the passage of time? Does it go around and around with the seasons or does it stretch forward towards some end or goal? Does it end? Do things get better with time?

Until quite recently, Christian Europeans understood that human life was created by God shortly after the creation of the Universe, which was calculated to be less than 10,000 years ago. Adam and Eve briefly lived in the Garden of Eden, a paradise. That’s where God gave humans control over the natural world. He soon threw them out because he couldn’t trust them to obey his orders which prevented them from becoming “like gods.” Humans are curious, greedy, and ambitious. Disobeying him was the first of many human sins to come. Becoming like a god has become our ambition.

Going by legend and remains, following, there had been a golden age of advanced civilizations, now long past. In the Bible, humans like Moses lived for hundreds of years. They spoke with gods back then, and knew things we’ve forgotten, like magic and even the language God spoke. Since then we’d been in decline on the road to Armageddon. Things were getting worse. Humans were more corrupt, God was more distant, and the Devil was overtaking the Earth.

God’s plan was that the world should end as in the biblical Book of Revelation with a great and final battle of good against evil, followed by final judgment (the judgment Faust faced). But before that, Jesus would return and there would be a long period of peace.

In the few centuries before Faust’s time, Europeans thought they might have the means to direct changes that over time would lead to a better life on Earth; that perhaps in time things would get better until we were living in a paradise of our own choosing (to “immanentize the eschaton”). It might even draw God down.

Progress meant opportunity. We could progress to a better life. Of course that meant sacrifices had to be made, but God had told us that we had dominion over the earth, and anyway–while we really should respect God’s plan and not disobey him (again), a small sin for a greater good is surely forgivable. Don’t the ends justify the means?

Perhaps Faust’s first authors thought it could get worse?

The Faust legend was compiled in the mid to late 16th century near enough to the beginnings of an acceleration of change to note it, and far enough along to see where it might be heading. The legend is a warning of the consequences of one person’s sin, but also of the consequences for everybody following him. What applies to the individual, applies to the community.

Progress, with a focus on a better future life on Earth distracted from the essential focus on salvation and a better after-life. It gave people initiative and worse than that, it encouraged individualism, free thought and the upset of good order. It undermined the authority of tradition and religion. It continually pressed boundaries and stuck its nose into God’s business when it wasn’t ignoring Him altogether. It also encouraged greed and consumption, destruction, exploitation and waste.

It also raised a familiar and real fear that aroused opposition to alchemists and blasphemers like Faust: that the idiots (whoever) don’t know what they’re doing, we can’t stop them (whomever), and they will get us all killed, even worse, damned.

Abandoning God meant abandoning all hope of salvation. Rejecting God for earthly things, there is no salvation without faith.

It is easy to liken our social progress with Faust’s personal progress. Progress could end up a lot like Faust’s life did, with any good intentions waylaid, and a disastrous and humiliating end where we are exposed as having been the Devil’s puppets all along and tricked into laying waste to God’s last Garden. It’s easy to feel pessimistic. A furious God might drag the saints out of heaven and send the lot of us to hell.

Early Faust stories warn against the Humanist impulse to make a better Earth. Clearly, they point out, humans are too weak and foolish and stupid and corruptible and should not interfere with God’s plan. Others take an opposing view, that humanity can and should, and later Faust stories, such as Goethe’s, express this view of humanity approaching divinity.

But Faust is human, and not divine. The story is also about blame and responsibility. Lutherans (Faust is thought to have originated as a Lutheran compilation of tales) would say that God knew Faust’s outcome forever, and so we think Faust can hardly be to blame. Faust’s outcome was predetermined. So might ours be, as individuals and as a community, a result of natural forces reflected in population growth and inevitable decline.

Progress might just be our word for an expansionary stage in the natural development of anything. It looks like it’s directed and intentional and even fruitful, but it’s just foraging, and where we think its trajectory will take us out of the gravitational pull of natural events and consequences is where we may be misguided.

According to Dulumeau in History of Paradise (p. 133), in the mid sixteenth century (early Faust legend’s time) as exploration failed to locate the Garden of Eden, ornamental gardens became popular as a small substitute for it. It was an indication of a new relationship with God and nature.

Also as Dulumeau explains, progress killed the idea of a literal Garden of Eden–progress in the form of evolution. Between Faust and us is hundreds of years of discoveries. Rather than less than ten thousand years old, studies extended the age of the planet to millions and then billions of years, and fossil studies showed that humans weren’t just placed on the Earth as they are today, but along with the other organisms, evolved here through natural progression. That’s how we understand things these days. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

And where is the Devil in our story?

In the Faustian tradition, the Devil appears, and separates us from God, spinning lies and deception, luring us into a manipulated reality with false visions of paradise and along a different path away from God. That, from that perspective, is progress.


  • Delumeau, Jean. History of Paradise: The Garden of Eden in Myth and Tradition. Continuum, 1995. (Get it at Amazon)