The notions of tradition and progress, contrary to the views of many, are not opposed to each other. Because of ever-improving technologies and certain evolutionary philosophies, the temptation exists to assume that progress is an ongoing phenomenon that is unfolding on every level.
Historian Christopher Dawson described this extreme belief in progress in his book Progress and Religion: “The doctrine of progress, in the full sense, must involve the belief that every day and in every way the world grows better and better.”
This view, however, is both unrealistic and unsupportable. Gen. Omar Bradley made it clear that progress is not such a broad occurrence:
“The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war that we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
Rev. Martin Luther King expressed the same point in his characteristic manner: “The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
Utopianism is a philosophy that believes in progress to the point that it excludes tradition. Yet the various utopian philosophies, from the Oneida Community of John Humphrey Noyes in mid-19th-century America to the “paradise on earth” utopianism of Karl Marx, have all failed. History and anthropology do not validate the belief in progress found among some scientists and evolutionary thinkers.
Each age provides something that is worth perpetuating, worthy of being part of a tradition. Plato, Shakespeare, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Dante and St. Thomas Aquinas have not been superannuated. They remain relevant and are a legitimate part of tradition. “Tradition,” as Gustav Mahler has wisely pointed out, “is not to preserve the ashes, but to pass on the flame.”
One error of progressivism is to dismiss the great and enduring accomplishments of the past. Another error, perhaps even more pernicious, is to deny the religious foundations of civilization while believing that some kind of deity will emerge when progress reaches its zenith. The New Age movement has spawned a number of odd religions, perhaps the oddest being one that venerates the late character actor William Frawley (of I Love Lucy and Miracle on 34th Street fame). Nonetheless, culture does not produce religion. Rather, it is religion that produces culture.
According to Dawson:
“The great civilizations of the world do not produce the great religions as a kind of cultural by-product; in a very real sense, the great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest. A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.”
Belief in the doctrine of progress (referring back to Dawson’s description) stems from an overappreciation of the present culture and an underappreciation of past cultures. The irony of this excessive belief in one’s moment in history (“chronolatria,” as Jacques Maritain called it) is to endanger that moment and make it appear entirely irrelevant to future generations. It is to interpret that culture, ultimately, as “flameless,” and therefore not deserving of being passed on as part of a tradition to succeeding generations. The flame dies as the age gives way to a succeeding age.
There can be little doubt that the doctrine of progress is inextricably intertwined with political correctness. The result is a certain intolerance to anything that originated in the past, including Christianity and Christian mores. Every age has its own outlook, operates within certain limitations and makes its characteristic mistakes.
According to C.S. Lewis, one corrective of the errors of the past is reading old books and, as a result, “keeping the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” Opening the mind, in the best sense of that often-misinterpreted phrase, includes opening it the treasures of the past.
Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International.
He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,
and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.