Progress

Progress

The Ideology of Progress subsumes all Progressive thinking as we find it in the 21st Century West.  It is a peculiarly Western invention.  It depends on the foundational construct that time is basically linear, having a beginning and an end, however distant in the past and future, and moving ‘forward’.  It also assumes that things generally improve over time.

Evolution depends entirely upon this idea, characterizing the ‘progress’ of life forms from ‘lower’ to ‘higher’ or ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’ according to a set of criteria set by the ‘experts’ in evolutionary biology.  The experts most probably don’t even think about why they use such classifications but assume they are self-evident.

One might say that simple observational common sense reveals the linearity of time: living things are born, grow, age, and die.  Even non-living things undergo the ravages of time: forming (or being formed by exterior factors), breaking down, eroding, rusting, disintegrating.

And therein lies the rub.  As rational, self-aware creatures we live within and experience this linearity and inevitable entropy, unable to return to the past and undo what has been done, and always living with the consequences of all that has preceded us.  We cannot stop the future from coming either, even though we are quite aware that it will come, come what may.  We can only live and act in the present, not fully comprehending what effect the past is having as we act, and seeing only dimly, if at all, what effects our present actions may be projecting into the future.

The ancients clearly understood and appreciated all these paradoxes.  They formulated different responses to the ‘timeless’ dilemma of what to make of time and its story of devolution and dissolution.  They did not see an inevitable progression from inferior to superior and would have laughed at the idea.  There was no evidence to support it, unless you were a Roman of the Augustan Age (like Virgil) writing revisionist history that all eras and previous events had merely set the stage for their emergence as the final world empire.

Among the ancient Greek greats of thought, Aristotle was probably foremost in trying to find meaning in the nitty-gritty of daily existence.  ‘In the end’, even this giant among theintellectual titans of the ages could find nothing more profound to conclude than thatinscrutable Fate controlled everything, even the gods.  [1]

Around the same time, oriental gurus proposed a cyclical construct of time, an eternal round of birth, death, and rebirth through endless repetitions.  For them, there is really no ‘eternal’ or teleological purpose.  Nirvana gives only temporary (although for a long time) surcease from the round of suffering and travail that relentlessly engulfs the mortal sphere.  One can only hope to achieve nirvana relatively early in a cycle so as to suffer the least possible.  Ultimately it all dissolves and restarts along the same path.

In this context, ‘progress’, as we would understand it, is a meaningless concept, and the motivation to ‘improve oneself and the world’ is also meaningless aside from reducing suffering for oneself in some way.  Even helping others to reduce their suffering is really but a means of accumulating ‘good karma’ to reduce one’s own present and future suffering from past bad karma.

We are thus left with the question of why and how only the West, among all the great civilizations, has hung its hat so stubbornly on the idea of Progress.  Just what does this Western concept entail?  As we have seen, Biological Progress (Evolution) is conceived as moving from primitive, one-celled organisms with no consciousness to the pinnacle of humanity as the most ‘highly evolved’ organism.  Humanity is the apex of ‘biological progress’ because humans are self-aware, consciously able to create, improve, and reach beyond themselves towards an idealized future where ‘all will be well’ and ‘all will be harmonious’.  Ideally, we will live forever, or at least for a very long time, eliminating sickness, aging, and strife, fully reaching our (unlimited, except by the end of time) potential (whatever that is), truly self-actualized and self-realized.

We must repeat that this idea of a definite progression from lesser to greater is an historical oddity and novelty, a completely revolutionary idea.  The sages of China, India, Persia, Mezo-America, Africa, or even ancient Greece and Rome did not and could not conceive it.  Nothing forecast its emergence.  But the seed was already planted in ancient times.  To whom do we owe it?

In The Gifts of the Jews, Volume 2 of his historical tour de force “Hinges of History”, Thomas Cahill cogently argues that, at the most fundamental level, the West owes much of its unique worldview to one of the smallest, most insignificant (politically, economically, socially) peoples of antiquity, the Hebrews or Jews, as they became later.  The Jewish story is of course found in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, as non-Jews call it.  The story has a definite beginning – creation – and moves forward to a definite conclusion – the coming reign of God for eternity.

Christianity tells the same story, derived from Judaism and declaring the fulfilment of the Jewish story.  Christians proclaim that God has already sent His Messiah, His Anointed One, in the person of Jesus, His incarnate Son, to inaugurate the preliminary manifestations of the coming Kingdom of God in the present in order to give people hope as they await the complete fulfillment of the promise.

Therefore, it is the Jews who gave us the original notion of progress through time from a definite beginning to a definite end, not to be repeated, but culminating in something far better and greater than what now is.  Christianity, as Judaism’s offspring, completely agrees with the Jews and has been the principal instrument of disseminating this worldview to the wider world, adding that we can now belong to God’s Kingdom through adoption into His family via our acceptance of His Son as the chosen Redeemer and true Lord.[2]

I am not presenting this summation as a soft-shoe evangelistic plea.  Whether you are a Christian, Jew, atheist, polytheist, or any other ‘-ist’, or a Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, or Buddhist is irrelevant to the historical reality I am presenting.  It simply is what it is.  The liberal, democratic, Progressive West derives its most basic worldview principle from a source that most of its intellectual establishment shuns.

Talk of the supposed horrific historical misdeeds and ‘evils of religion’ is irrelevant to the issue of why ‘Progress’ has been rooted so deeply in our psyche.  It will not do to claim that our basic worldview is virtually entirely and exclusively derived from the great thinkers of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.[3]  Supposing they really did ‘set us free from all the ignorance, superstition, oppression, and persecution perpetrated by Christianity’.  It is still patently absurd to declare that they retained nothing of import or value from the 1500 years of Christian (and Jewish) heritage before their time.  This is nothing less than historical revisionism à outrance.

Gibbon’s monumental Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire remains the quintessential example of how this view was propagated.  Gibbon wrote so well and convincingly that his portrait struck home and twisted much of our understanding about the realities of our ancient and Medieval past.  Gibbon knew he was deliberately distorting history as he avoided ancient sources which contradicted his point.  Instead he substituted a vitriolic condemnation of Christianity as the reason that Rome fell and the West plunged into a thousand years of ‘Dark Ages’.

As Cahill points out so well, the ‘Dark Ages’ never really happened, and medieval Christian scholars actually did enormous service in preserving so much of the ancient past in the midst of the chaos of pillage and carnage as Rome’s Imperium collapsed and a new order slowly emerged.  The Enlightenment philosophes rejected this well-known story and instead sought to sever the ‘Classics’ from the ‘despised superstition’ whose scholars had actually saved it for them.  Earlier Renaissance humanists such as Rabelais and Montaigne had already set this tone.

Careful historical work over the last century or so has completely discredited Gibbon’s anti-religious and especially anti-Christian manifesto.  (Gibbon was also a vehement anti-Semite.)  Yet the myth he created remains entrenched.  Late Enlightenment thinkers, such as Auguste Comte, even attempted to surgically remove the concept of Progress from its true source in the Judeo-Christian worldview.  Comte’s formulation is actually rather pathetic if viewed objectively.  We unfortunately still suffer from the disease of historical revisionism inspired by the same hostility or plain ignorance passed on by the well-rooted distortion.

All protestation to the contrary cannot change the historical truth.  The historical truth, as Francis Schaeffer put it, is that:

“Our daily habits of action … are dominated by an implicit faith in perpetual progress which was unknown either to Greco-Roman antiquity or to the Orient.  It is rooted in, and indefensible apart from, Judeo-Christian teleology.  The fact that Communists [and liberal Progressives, Socialists, and Greens] share it merely helps to show what can be demonstrated on many other grounds: that Marxism, like Islam, is a Judeo-Christian heresy.  We continue today, as we have lived for about 1700 years, very largely in a context of Christian axioms.”  (Pollution and the Death of Man, in “The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, a Christian Worldview. Volume 5: A Christian View of the West, 1985.”) p. 63.  [Square bracketed insertion = my words, not Schaeffer’s.]

If we hope to restore integrity and hope to our fractious, fractured, embittered society in the West, we must first face the challenge of why we are who we are, and that much of the heritage we live in, with, and by is uniquely valuable, even if it arose from sources many now find uncomfortable and unpalatable.

The notion of Progress divorced from real hope simply cannot inspire the kind of charity and tolerance we claim to aspire to.  Evolution as a story is ultimately empty in and of itself.  It starts with nothing and ends with nothing.  However, if we start with God and arrive at eternity with God in the kind of existence we all long for, we might have something really hopeful to work with.  “It beats the hell out of the alternative.”

[1] Aristotle formally accepted the existence of the gods but argued that whatever or whoever they were, they were in fact no better off than mortals in the long run, having no control over the decrees of Destiny and Fate, which were unknowable and whose source could not be known.  He and Plato differed widely on how to interpret the nature of reality, but both posited the idea of some unknowable, inscrutable Supreme Deity which remained hidden from mortal senses and beyond mortal reason’s ability to fathom.

[2] Perhaps Christianity’s essential Jewishness is why Christianity has, along with Judaism, become a favourite whipping boy of the ‘Progressive West’.  The vitriol towards ‘religion’ so frequently expressed by certain ideologues and liberal progressive academics is often but thinly disguised hostility towards Christianity, pointedly omitting any similar criticism of Islam or the Oriental religions.  Similarly, anti-Semitism is not far below the surface of much ‘anti-Zionist’ rhetoric and policy advocacy.

[3] Incidentally, all the scientists who launched the Scientific Revolution were Theists, and most were lifelong practicing Christians, including the hero of all scientific iconoclasts, Galileo, as well as Newton, greatest of them all.

One thought on “Progress

  1. Thanks for this, I was reading it to link it in the church newsletter, but found it very interesting. What will it look like for a society to try to keep the Ideology of Progress without the Judaeo-Christian worldview? I guess we’re in to find out 🙂

    – Jake

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