Over at New Liturgical Movement, my good friend Peter Kwasniewski has written about his conversion. He doesn’t mean a conversion from atheism to Christianity, or from Protestantism to Catholicism: he means a conversion from “modernity” to “traditional Catholicism.” He says that experiences of great beauty shook him out of “modernity,” that is, out of “what one might call modernism, an exaltation of our own specialness, differentness, newness, and autonomy.”
We can recognize in Peter’s description a progressivism we experience all around us. One could summarize the mindset as three claims:
1. Pre-modernity was not a period of progress. It is outdated now.
2. Modernity is a period of progress, because we value progress in itself.
3. From modernity forward, things will get better and better.
Peter recounts how he was startled into questioning his progressivism by encounters with great beauty. I don’t think this was an accident of Peter’s personality, because all experiences of great beauty have certain qualities in common. For example, beauty is:
Timeless. When you experience something very beautiful, you become “lost in the moment”—everything else fades away. But more than that, a beautiful thing disregards the boundaries of ages: even if the beautiful object was made long ago, it speaks to the heart now. One can read a book and think, “This man said….” One cannot behold a thing as beautiful and think, “This thing spoke”—it is speaking right now. It refuses to be outdated.
Abiding. When you encounter the beautiful, you want it to stay, to last, to remain with you. You don’t want life to run past it.
Transcendent. The beautiful draws you out of yourself into something greater, brings you into the presence of the sublime, and refuses to be subordinated to anything as a means. It insists on a value other than the useful.
All of these qualities of the beautiful lean away from claims of progressivism. The beautiful implies that pre-modernity is not outdated and that placing progress at the center of a culture is unhealthy.
But there are experiences of the beautiful that don’t lean so strongly toward tradition. For example, there is a consumerist experience of the beautiful. This goes along with something like a tourist mentality: the beauty becomes an item on a personal checklist, a conquest one has made by viewing.
There is even a progressivist version of the beautiful. We experience an undeniable “wow” moment when we see a skyscraper or a satellite in flight. This is the “wow” of science fiction. I would say the progressivist “wow” experience has three distinctive qualities:
1. You feel that this thing ushers in a new age. “The future is now.”
2. It seems to point beyond itself to an even further future we can only begin to imagine. It suggests the “beyond” of progress.
3. It humbles you—“I am a small part of humanity”—and makes you proud—“and we are doing great things.”
We have here a kind of transcendence of the present moment and a kind of pointing to something pointing to something greater. It is a profound experience. I enjoy it! But it is the opposite of timeless, the opposite of abiding, and really the opposite of transcendent.