P.C.’s Veritas Conference dives into theological questions surrounding the desire to define, limit the nature of progress


PROVIDENCE — Providence College hosted the third annual Veritas Conference, a two-day interdisciplinary academic conference, April 19-20. The conference, titled “Let Us Make For Ourselves A Name: ‘Progress’ and a Genuinely Human Future,” focused on a variety of philosophical, theological and cultural questions surrounding the desire to define the nature and limits of social and technological progress.
This year’s conference was organized by Dr. Stephen Long and Dr. Richard Barry IV, both professors in the theology and humanities programs.
“We aim to address topics, invite speakers, foster conversations that will aid students, academics, and all those in our region, especially those who profess to be Christian, in describing and understanding our contemporary world, that is, understanding where it has come from, where it is going, how it holds together,” said Dr. Long.
Many of the speakers, in examining the contemporary conceptions of progress, asserted that such a view is based on a secularized understanding of the Christian worldview, and that it can only avoid the extremes that many of its ideological supporters exhibit if it returns to its Christian roots.
“We’ve exalted progress into an almost deified position, and as Christians I think we need to challenge that,” Dr. Long stated. “Because God is infinite, part of coming to share in God’s life is a kind of infinite progress into life with Him, but you can warp that by taking God out of the equation, and then progress just becomes its own end.”
Mary Harrington, a public intellectual, author and contributing editor of the political commentary website “UnHerd,” delivered the opening lecture on Friday afternoon. Harrington explained that a defining feature of such a view of progress is our reliance on technology. A strong emphasis on the role of technology in human life began with an attempt to curb certain unsafe physical conditions or to manage risk, but has since evolved into the desire to regulate, change, or enhance nature indefinitely, something which expresses itself in such diverse ways as contraception, abortion, gene editing and transgenderism. The main way to overcome these trends, Harrington argued, was through a return to a more grounded view of human nature, one rooted in the Christian view that human nature is something created by God, not something to be remade whenever one wants.
The conference continued into Saturday with the speakers connecting many of the themes in Harrington’s lecture to broader questions concerning ethics, human nature and spirituality.
Dr. Angela Franks, a professor at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, argued that many of modern views on self-identity are rooted in the belief that self-identity is merely a matter of how we perceive ourselves, which leads to the broader belief that self-identity is something we create, rather than receiving it from a higher, divine source.
The last presenter was retired professor, writer and blogger Dr. Larry Chapp. Chapp stated that many of the problems with the modern understanding of progress result from the fact that it is rooted in a conception of freedom that many Christians believe is antithetical to authentic spiritual freedom.
“There is perhaps no other era in human history than our own that has spoken more often of freedom, and which has oriented the political sphere to its attainment,” Chapp said. “And yet, ours is the age that defines this freedom in shockingly minimalist terms, as a mere freedom from external constraints, and therefore the revolution of our time…is a radically transgressive movement that seeks to overturn as mere conventions the moral, spiritual, artistic and even now linguistic truths of the past as oppressive hegemons that constrain our personal choices which are now reimagined as mere assertions of our atomized and nomadic self, devoid of any constituent orientation to an objective moral good.”
Father Dominic Verner, O.P., a professor at Providence College, noted that one prominent theme that stood out to him was contemporary American society’s proclivity to place the foundation of hope in our desire to master nature through technology.
“This American belief in progress…is an aberration of a Christian hope,” said Father Verner.