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.

Utopia

Utopia

In the early 16th Century, before the Reformation[1] came to England and King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church, Sir Thomas More penned his timeless masterpiece, Utopia.  More was considered perhaps the greatest Renaissance[2] scholar in England at the time.  He also happened to be a close personal friend of the King, and had won a reputation on the European continent as a cultured man of reason and letters, including the recently rediscovered study of ancient and New Testament Greek.

As Chancellor of England (the equivalent of Prime Minister before any such position existed), More had the King’s ear and was able to offer refuge to scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus, who had gotten into hot water with the ultra-conservative faction of the Spanish Catholic establishment.  At that time, Spain ruled Erasmus’s homeland in what is now Belgium.  The two great scholars became friends and stimulated each other to pursue their studies of the new knowledge.

More chose the title of his work, written in elegant Latin (the term utopia is Latin for ‘nowhere’), to protect himself from the possible repercussions of openly critiquing the social, political, economic, and religious establishment of the day.  The book was brilliant and won a wide readership among the scholarly and literate classes.  Erasmus considered it better than anything he had written himself.  Even King Henry professed to admire it, perhaps not suspecting that More was criticizing English society (and by implication him as the embodiment of Divine Right Absolutism) as much as any on the continent.

We need not concern ourselves here with the specifics of More’s attempt to describe an ideal society.  As the name indicates, such a place does not exist anywhere and, as he explained, will not exist until God rules the world.  More was also backhandedly denouncing the Church’s betrayal of its true mandate to bring the Kingdom of God into the world according to a completely different kind of rulership from that of the secular powers of ‘this present age’.  More’s strongly implied point was that truly just, good, and Christian rulers should be working towards the kind of society he was attempting to describe.

More’s gift to the future was the term “utopia” as a symbol of the ideal society, and the goal that the human community should be directed towards.  No previous work had ever attempted to apply the idea of a perfect social order towards the reform of society in the present.

More derived his concept from his reading of the Bible.  In the Books of Isaiah (Old Testament) and Revelation (New Testament, and the last book of the Bible), there are descriptions of such societies couched in mostly allegorical and symbolic terms.  More’s thesis was what such conditions might look like if humanity’s rulers dedicated themselves to creating a society based on those conditions in the here and now.

More was not a naive idealist, as some might ignorantly assume today.  Neither was he a religious fanatic.  In our 21st Century environment, the tendency is to write off scholarship smacking of Biblical and theological overtones as irrelevant, if not downright dangerous.  Religious fanaticism of any kind, or the mere hint of it, immediately disqualifies ideas and concepts put forward by serious thinkers having drawn upon such sources in the eyes of our own age’s academic and intellectual establishment.  If we so offhandedly dismiss More and most of our intellectual and spiritual ancestors in the Western tradition, we are cutting ourselves off from immensely rich (re)sources that underpin the very foundations of our civilization.  We are also robbing the rest of the world of all that is noblest in the Western tradition.  When the roots are cut, the plant must soon wither and die.

More considered himself a true Christian, but not a ‘simple’ or uninformed one.  He had no use for superstitious flimflammery.  He was fully cognizant of the failings of the Church as an institution and sympathetic to the demands for reform.  He was a man of his time, and as such he believed in God, the Trinity, and the life, crucifixion, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus.  He believed that history bore out the truth of the Christian story.

Utopia, his great masterpiece, was written and published on the cusp of an enormous upheaval in the West’s social, political, economic, and religio-spiritual order.  Change and reform were in the air.  Challenge to the establishment on all these levels was brewing.  Modern Science was just beginning to emerge, and deep dissatisfaction with the failing Medieval model of ‘Christendom’ was rumbling beneath the surface all across Europe.

But we mistake the powerful desire for change among the leading intelligentsia of that time as a growing disillusionment with Christianity itself or a wholesale rejection of the Christian Gospel and a shift towards veiled agnosticism, if not atheism.  When 21st Century revisionist historians and scholars look back on those times, we facilely commit the ‘mortal sin’ of anachronism, transferring our age’s prejudice and bias against faith and religion to the thinkers of that age.

No doubt, there were agnostics and a few atheists in the crowd, but the vast majority of the thinkers and scholars pushing a reform agenda were still theists at the very least, and most still held to the Deity of Jesus Christ and his mission of bringing salvation to humanity and the broken, suffering creation as a whole.  Their disillusionment and cynicism was directed towards the frail human representatives of that mission who had fallen into the temptation of taking a share of power and the world’s enticements in the here and now.

Sir Thomas More eventually took a stand against his friend and master, King Henry VIII of England.  In 1537, he paid for it with his.  In 1534, King Henry had decided to claim complete authority over the Catholic Church in England because the Pope would not grant him an annulment of his long-time marriage to Queen Catherine for her having failed to give him a live male heir to the throne.  Henry’s solution to this impasse was to say that he, the anointed ‘temporal ruler’ of England, could rightfully also claim final spiritual authority over the Church within the bounds of his sovereign territory.

For More, the somewhat worldly but still firm believer in the Church’s heavenly mission to bring Christ’s light and rule into the world as it now is, this was too much.  It was too far from ‘Utopia’, the goal of moving the present world closer to the eventual rule of Christ on earth.  To have so brazen a power-grab confounded with a profound spiritual truth was ‘beyond the pale’ for More.  Henry, faced with this open challenge and denunciation of what he now stood for by his erstwhile best friend and closest advisor, could only respond by demonstrating his absolute authority.  He had him beheaded as a traitor.

More died as graciously and elegantly as he had lived, saying as he stood in front of the chopping block with a vast audience looking on, “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”  Sir Thomas More was elevated to sainthood as a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church in 1934 on the 400th anniversary of King Henry’s apostasy and More’s imprisonment.

[1] The official date for the start of the Reformation is usually given as Oct. 31, 1517 when priest and Professor Martin Luther posted his challenge to the practice of indulgences on the main door of his parish church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The Reformation was a movement to bring radical reform to the Roman Catholic Church.  The Church rejected the demands of the would-be reformers and then excommunicated them.  This resulted in the beginning of the Protestant branch of Christianity and great strife in Europe over religion for the next 150 years or so.

[2] The Renaissance – the word means ‘rebirth’ in French – had begun in the late 1300s in Italy.  It was a movement to recover and study the Greek and Roman ancient philosophers and literature in order to develop new insights and bring balance into life.  The scholars felt a need to offset the sometimes oppressive control of the Roman Catholic Church over life and society.  The Italian poet and scholar Petrarch is credited with naming the movement.