How the Idea of “Progress” Began as a Christian Heresy

“Progress” is one of the main pillars of the liberal-modernist religion. It is a marketing tool. Progress refers to a positive trajectory in an evolutionary model. And who would oppose such a thing?

However, progress is also a useful weapon. Whatever comes before it, is deemed redundant and obsolete. This makes possible – and even necessitates – the critique of traditional institutions, structures and ideas (such as religion), family, and even gender.

Progressivism is a sort of self-defeating proposition too, considering that progress is virtually never-ending. So what passes as progressive today, may be considered to be regressive tomorrow. But this innate “accelerationism” of the ideology is precisely what liberal-modernists want, as it means that their deconstruction project is never-ending.

Carl Schmitt is easily the most influential European political thinker of the last century, and a notable critic of liberalism. He famously asserted that all of the modern political concepts are basically secularized Christian theological concepts.

And what we’ll be looking at here, is how progressivism might also have roots in a Christian heresy.

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Progressivism: Trinitarian Heresy

There have been many decent critiques of the idea of progress. For instance, Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress.

But, as Muslims, and due to our specific theocentric epistemology, we would of course prefer to take a religious approach to this question.

This is where Eric Voegelin – who passed away in the ’80s – intervenes. We’ll be focusing on his most influential book, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction, first published in the ’50s.

Like Schmitt, Voegelin was a German political philosopher based in the US. And following Schmitt, he wanted to discover the religious roots of modernity.

For Voegelin, modernity was the resurgence of Gnosticism – a dissident, sectarian movement within early Christianity which thought of itself as elitist. The Gnostics believed that they were superior to the average individual. The everyday man was too immersed in the material world that the Gnostics considered evil. They believed that they alone could reach spiritual elevation through various eccentric methods – think of the “New Age” gurus of today.

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As per Voegelin, these Gnostics, who were previously quietists in politics, became revolutionaries. This was during the European Middle Ages; most notably through the works of Joachim of Flora. Joachim was an Italian theologian, Catholic abbot and monk from the 12th century.

What did Joachim do?

The distortive changes in European society during his time, such as rapid urbanization and the bourgeoning of individualism, led him to opt for revolutionary politics by applying the Christian dogma of the Trinity to history. This would lead to all the violent utopian ideologies to come, from the French revolution to Marxism and national-socialism, as Voegelin details on p. 111:

Joachim broke with the Augustinian conception of a Christian society when he applied the symbol of the Trinity to the course of history. In his speculation the history of mankind had three periods corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity. The first period of the world was the age of the Father; with the appearance of Christ began the age of the Son. But the age of the Son will not be the last one; it will be followed by a third age of the Spirit.
(…)
In his trinitarian eschatology Joachim created the aggregate of symbols which govern the self-interpretation of modern political society to this day.

So Joachim divided historic dynamics into three phases, going in an ascending “progressive” tone towards the “age of the Spirit,” which was characterized by a few “symbols.”

Voegelin expands on these “symbols.” However, so as to not burden the reader, we will suffice with quoting him on the first and the fourth symbols. This should be enough to highlight how Joachim’s ideas have become part of the progressivist’s canon.

We read on pp. 111-113:

The first of these symbols is the conception of history as a sequence of three ages, of which the third age is intelligibly the final Third Realm. As variations of this symbol are recognizable the humanistic and encyclopedist periodization of history into ancient, medieval, and modern history; Turgot’s and Comte’s theory of a sequence of theological, metaphysical, and scientific phases; Hegel’s dialectic of the three stages of freedom and self-reflective spiritual fulfilment; the Marxian dialectic of the three stages of primitive communism, class society, and final communism; and, finally, the National Socialist symbol of the Third Realm—though this is a special case requiring further attention.
(…)
The fourth symbol is that of the brotherhood of autonomous persons. The third age of Joachim, by virtue of its new descent of the spirit, will transform men into members of the new realm without sacramental mediation of grace. In the third age the church will cease to exist because the charismatic gifts that are necessary for the perfect life, will reach men without administration of sacraments. While Joachim himself conceived the new age concretely as an order of monks, the idea of a community of the spiritually perfect who can live together without institutional authority was formulated on principle. The idea was capable of infinite variations. It can be traced in various degrees of purity in medieval and Renaissance sects, as well as in the Puritan churches of the saints; in its secularized form it has become a formidable component in the contemporary democratic creed; and it is the dynamic core in the Marxian mysticism of the realm of freedom and the withering-away of the state.

Voegelin then writes on p. 119:

The idea of a radically immanent fulfilment grew rather slowly, in a long process that roughly may be called “from humanism to enlightenment”; only in the eighteenth century, with the idea of progress, had the increase of meaning in history become a completely intramundane phenomenon, without transcendental irruptions. This second phase of immanentization shall be called “secularization.”

So Joachim of Flora launched a quest for progress, or in other words secular utopias, by applying the Trinity to history…

The Trinity has certainly harmed Christians in immeasurable ways, and this is one of them.

Voegelin says “the price of progress” is not only the death of any transcendent referential (itself a tragedy for the nihilism it installs in the populace), but also an open door for totalitarianism. “Gnostic elites” think that in order to impose the truth – which they exclusively represent – they can “cancel” you in the name of LGBTQ+ activism, the vaxx religion or whatever else is trendy at the time.

He writes on p. 131:

The death of the spirit is the price of progress. Nietzsche revealed this mystery of the Western apocalypse when he announced that God was dead and that He had been murdered. This Gnostic murder is constantly committed by the men who sacrifice God to civilization. The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world-immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life of the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline.

A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time—but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule. Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization.

Alarmed, he notes on p. 164 that this Gnostic idea of progress is also spreading in the post-colonial world, under the disguise of “Westernization” and its various correlated ideologies:

Modern gnosticism has by far not spent its drive. On the contrary, in the variant of Marxism it is expanding its area of influence prodigiously in Asia, while other variants of gnosticism, such as progressivism, positivism, and scientism, are penetrating into other areas under the title of “Westernization” and development of backward countries. And one may say that in Western society itself the drive is not spent but that our own “Westernization” is still on the increase.

Was “The Price of Progress” Worth It?

Muslims may be intrigued by such a religious reading of history and politics. Progressivists on the other hand, being inherently secular, will tell us to instead look at the “benefits” of progress: dropping child mortality rates, rising life expectancy, technology increasing ease and comfort, and so on.

However, as Muslims we would argue that materialistic indicators are not true signs of “success.” Fewer children dying during infancy, but then growing up to become depressed nihilists – who will probably hate religion – is not “success.”

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Someone who took a closer look at the “price of progress” (Voegelin’s expression) is Christopher Ryan, in his book Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress.

He methodically deconstructs all the supposed facts and statistics of the progressivists’ “successes.”

Let’s come back to child mortality rates, seeing as progressivists always use the example of children. And this is obviously done to evoke emotions: “You can’t possibly be in favor of children dying!”

Ryan argues that there’s no credible reason to believe that children previously died in their infancy more frequently than today, as in fact, this is compensated by the widespread use of birth control and abortion.

He writes in chapter 4:

While a significantly greater percentage of infants died in prehistory than today, even that point isn’t as unambiguous as it seems. First, many of those deaths were cases of what might be called “postnatal abortion” of children born in times of resource depletion (during a severe drought, for example) or with congenital deformities or other disabilities that would now be detected during prenatal testing, often resulting in an abortion. Such infants would not have survived long in a world where it was crucial to be mobile, vigorous, and sharp-eyed.

Infanticide is hardly a practice relegated to foragers, having been so widespread in Europe that foundling hospitals were opened to address the plight of infants being left to die by the side of the road. In the early 1800s, roughly a third of the babies born in Paris were left at the foundling hospital. For most of the infants, foundling hospitals offered little hope of survival. Of the 4,779 babies admitted to a hospital in Paris in 1818, for example, 2,370 died within three months. Other facilities had similarly dismal results. Half the infants admitted to the St. Petersburg hospital died in their first six weeks, and fewer than a third lived six years.

According to Chinese government records, about thirty-five thousand abortions are performed in that country every day. In China and India particularly, but not exclusively, healthy female fetuses are traditionally aborted because boys are preferred. My intention is not to debate the ethics of abortion, but to highlight the mathematical absurdity of including infant deaths in calculations of prehistoric life expectancy while excluding the many millions of abortions performed each year in estimations of contemporary life expectancy.

In chapter 11, aptly titled In the Absence of the Sacred, he demonstrates how “modern life” has its own unique set of psychological pressures:

Whether one measures the value of life in the currency of happiness, meaning, interestingness, or merely the absence of despair, the subtle traumas of modern life are inescapable. A 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70 percent of Americans hate their jobs or have simply “checked out” of them, while only 30 percent are “engaged and enthusiastic” about what they spend forty-plus hours per week doing. As Thoreau noted long ago, “Most men would feel insulted, if it were proposed to employ them in throwing stones over a wall, and then in throwing them back, merely that they might earn their wages. But many are no more worthily employed now.”

Not surprisingly, the use of antidepressants in the United States is up nearly 400 percent since 1990. In 2008, 23 percent of women between the ages of forty and fifty-nine were taking at least one of them. In 1985, sociologists asked Americans if they had close friends in whom they could confide. Ten percent said they had no one. By 2004, the number of people so isolated that they had no one they could confide in had risen to 25 percent. The CDC reported in 2013 that the rate of suicide among Americans in the prime of life (from thirty-five to sixty-four years old) had jumped 28.4 percent in the first decade of the twenty-first century, surpassing, for the first time, the number of people who died in car accidents. Among men in their fifties, suicides were up 50 percent, while suicide among women between sixty and sixty-four rose nearly 60 percent.

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Some of the “gifts” that secularized liberal-modernity and its capitalistic system have given us:

  • Mistrust in one’s job, which in a capitalistic society shapes an individual’s social status, and thus their whole life.
  • Lack of genuine human relationships such as friendship. Have you noticed how many fictional “superheroes” barely have any friends?
  • The urge for suicide, which is logical in a nihilistic society.

And Ryan mentions more in his book.

So, was the price for progress really worth it?

As Muslims, our models are in the past, i.e., the Salaf – our pious and righteous predecessors. We know all too well how what the liberal-modernists refer to as “progress,” is in fact just the inevitable progression towards eschatological times, and the ascendancy of Dajjal.

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