Progress & The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire

by The Reverend Daniel Tatarnic

I was sitting in the Cathedral. Rays of light from the rising sun were moving across the rose window above the high altar. I was sitting all alone, but waiting for another. Like every Tuesday, we will keep the tradition of opening the Cathedral doors; but no café, no conversation, no loitering — just care packages for the needy, and a blessing. 

There was eerie silence. And it made the slow movement of the sun feel sorrowful, evocative. In many ways I felt like the psychological observer from one of my favorite paintings by Joseph Turner, Decline of the Carthaginian Empire: there was warmth, there was light, but the sun was arching across the sky, marking the passage of time: “and God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons and for days and nights’ (Gen 1:14).” 

I was praying through the psalms, but admittedly distracted by a rumor state of emergency. “This is bad”, I said to myself, “this is bad”. I don’t know if it was real, or just the result of getting lost in the moment, but I swear if you look at that rose window long enough, it’ll merge into the image of a Latin cross. At least that’s what it did on Tuesday, March 17, as I sat alone and prayed, and thought, and waited for another.

What did I think about? Well, recently I had heard a retired priest speak about their feelings of betrayal. “Niagara used to be a progressive Diocese”. Now, the younger generation of leaders was far too conservative for my retired colleague’s tastes, “they wear cassocks.” But seriously, in the eerie silence of COVID-19, his comments stuck with me.

Progress is an elusive term. What one generation sees as progressive isn’t always a defining feature of the next. If your idea of progress looks something like a straight line pointing in one direction —away from what came before it — then you and I are probably not working from the same definition. 

Progress is movement, but not necessarily linear, and not something we do. I’ve always appreciated Hans Urs von Balthasar’s way of putting it in the introduction to his theological trilogy, “Beginning is a problem.” Progress is out-movement, drawing forward and backward, and up and down, stretching outward — always outward — toward the Good. The goal of progress is beatitude (there’s an old word), the vision of God. Progress isn’t something achieved, it is something given. In the end, our only hope is that God will give us a share in abundant truth, goodness, and beauty. 

What progress has become in modern lingo hardly reflects a theo-logical goal: the will to power, the means to an end. In this modern world we measure progress — we know where we’ve begun, and we know where we want to end. And like all instruments of rationality, progress has been weaponized, it needs to produce efficient results, or else; or else what?

Why so much attention on being progressive? Well, that’s a dumb question, right? We know that a progressive church attracts millennials. It appeals to the unchurched, simple mathematics. Be progressive and youth will flood into our pews, like they did during the halcyon days, the golden years, before … decline.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be unduly harsh or unsympathetic to those who struggle to understand what happened. A definition of progress faltered! Now what? Decline isn’t supposed to happen in a progressive church. Or is it? I for one never knew the golden age of Christianity, so my anxiety is of a different sort, maybe I’ll write about that someday. 

Suddenly, there was a sound at the west door, a familiar sound! It jostled me out of my headspace. So, I got out of my seat, looked up at the light, brushed off my cassock, and headed to the door; time had passed, another had arrived.