When I lived in England I discovered that one of the differences between US and UK was the approach to advertising. In America if they want to sell you something they re-brand and slap the word “New” on their product. They don’t even have to say “New and Improved” because if it’s new it must have been improved in some way.

In England it was the reverse. To sell something in England they put the product in an antique looking container and said it was “an old fashioned recipe”. Everything was marketed not by novelty, but by nostalgia. If you wanted success put your cookies in an old tin box with a picture of a thatched cottage or a castle on the lid. To really succeed you would link it with the royal family in some way. So if you could get HMQ to wear your waxed jacket, eat your marmalade or drive your Land Rover you could plaster on your labels the “royal warrant.” You would provide your product to the royal household without charge of course, and then you could use the royal warrant. So let’s say you were the manufacturer of axes during the time of that jolly old Englishman King Henry VIII. You could put on your packaging, “Suppliers of axes to His Majesty’s Office of Executions Since 1534.”

You get the idea.

The heresy of progressivism is the notion that something is good simply because it is new. The love of novelty for its own sake is everwhere. The artist is judged not on the quality of his work, but whether it is “original”. The architect is excused for foisting on us some brutal eyesore of concrete chrome and glass as long as it is “exciting and innovative”. We must have the latest technology because progress is always a good thing.

The notion springs from Darwinism with its implication that nature is on an irresistible upward ascent. The evolution of species–in the long run–is always upward and positive. “Every day in every way we are getting better and better” Darwin’s ideas were applied to society by Herbert Spencer in a movement at the end of the nineteenth century now termed social Darwinism. Fast on the heels of this development came not only progressivism but the rise of eugenics. Darwins’s cousin Francis Galton observed that the upward progress of the human race was impeded by the breeding of substandard human beings–the mentally deficient, disabled and undesirable. Social Darwinism is now largely discredited–not least because it contributed to the Nazi master race ideology. The final solution was not only to recognize the “inferior” individuals and races, but to put in place an active process to facilitate upward evolution by eliminating them. “A good gardener pulls the weeds.” “A good landlord exterminates the rats.”

Social Darwinism as a political ideology may not have many proponents but its underlying assumptions are woven into our modern society in the form of progressivism. “If it is new it must be better!” This progressivism has infected the church too. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard critics of the Catholic Church say we must be more “up to date” and “get with the times” and all of us have had to endure the progressive clergy with their relevant theologies and “accessible” liturgies.

But it doesn’t take a German theologian to figure out that something is not good or bad simply because it is new or old. The judgement of a thing’s value is in its integrity and authentic expression or contribution to all that is eternally beautiful, good and true.

Endorsing something just because it is new is silly because before too long it will be old and something else new will have come along to take its place.

It also doesn’t require much further thought to realize that if something is neither good or bad simply because it is new, neither is a thing good or bad simply because it is old. 

I am, by nature and nurture, a conservative. Therefore it is easy for me to dismiss progressivism in a breezily curmudgeonly fashion. However, because I am a conservative it is my instinct to value what is old. (That’s why I went to live in England for twenty five years!) I have to stop and remind myself that primitivism is also a problem. I have written on the problem of primitivism here.

Put simply, the problem with primitivism is valuing a thing merely because it is old. Catholics like me, who value tradition, are inclined to this error. But a devotional practice, a liturgical form or a type of music is not good simply because it is old. Things were not necessarily better in every way before the 1960s. If there is a temptation to idolize everything new there is an equal and perhaps more delicious temptation in idolizing everything old.

We might value what is old because it has withstood the test of time and therefore proven its worth, and that could be a good thing (just as we might value something new because of its ingenuity, innovation and improvement.)

What we should avoid in church and society is the temptation to jump on either the progressivist or the primitivist bandwagon–and seek prayerfully and carefully the things that are beautiful, good and true.

Some of these ideas make up my new book coming out in the summer: Beheading Hydra-A Radical Plan  for Christians in an Atheistic Age. Stay tuned!