Variationism vs. progressivism

Broadly speaking, there are two different paradigms concerning the history of the material world. One paradigm is that the material world has always been roughly the same as it is now. An ancient version of this said everything would eventually return to the same state. This cyclic version is rare now. What became more common is the idea that things change within limits. Call this variationism, because it says that everything is a variation of what came before.

The other paradigm is that the material world was very different from what it is now; whether that is seen as better before or better now. The idea of a former golden age was common in ancient times but has almost disappeared. The more common idea is that the world was once primitive and has become complex, which is seen as better. Call this progressivism, because it says that everything progressed from something different to what it is now.

There are metaphysical and theological implications of these two paradigms. Aristotle said that the world is eternal since an origin couldn’t be determined. That is compatible with variationism since an eternal world must always be a variation on what it was in the past. Many today would say there are eternal laws of nature that have operated on the natural world over time to generate the world of today. That is compatible with progressivism since it says everything is always progressing to something different.

The idea that the world had a distinct beginning, which is commonly called creation, is compatible with either variationism or progressivism. Creation entails variationism if the original creation is understood as a mature world that changes within limits. Creationism entails progressivism if the original creation is understood as a primitive world that became the complex world of today over time.

Variationism has historically been the most common view among Christians. God created a world suitable for life on Earth, which was created as natural kinds that varied within limits. Since the 19th century, progressivism has become more common. God created a primitive world with natural laws that enabled the material world to become what it is today. Variationism has a stronger biblical foundation but progressivism has been very influential in all branches of Christianity.

Christianity is progressive. That is, Christianity has progressed over time, in the primary sense of progressing from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, as well as the secondary sense of progressive revelation, which is a progressive growth in understanding what Christianity means. This has overflowed into a progression of freedom and equality in societies with strong Christian influence.

The problem with progressivism is that it projects the progressive quality of Christianity onto the natural world. Progressives think that history is on their side, that there is an inevitability to progress. The general history of humanity should disabuse them of that notion but they are convinced more by science than history. Taking the synchronic for the diachronic reality, they extrapolate limited experience for long-term reality.  It may take a disastrous failure before they awaken to the reality that progress is primarily spiritual and only secondarily material.