Spiritual Pillar #3: Progressivism
In a very general sense, progressivism is a worldview that recognizes the worth of human life and seeks to maximize freedom, opportunity, and fairness in society. Further, it aspires towards improving the well-being of all—via education, the arts, technology, social justice, health care, economic opportunity, et cetera—while also balancing human interests with those of the natural world. A progressive vision, therefore, seeks to enhance the liberty and fulfillment of both individuals and groups while simultaneously cultivating social responsibility and environmental stewardship. Progressives seek to manifest this vision through the promotion of diversity, empathy, pragmatism, critical thinking and debate, innovation, and cultural participation.
The above outline is very broad, but Progressivism can also by applied to religion specifically. There is, of course, a huge amount of information out there regarding progressive spirituality. I agree with the basic outline given by UU theologian James Luther Adams:
(1) Revelation and truth are not closed, but constantly revealed.
(2) All relations between persons ought ideally to rest on mutual, free consent and not coercion.
(3) Affirmation of the moral obligation to direct one’s effort toward the establishment of a just and loving community.
(4) Denial of the immaculate conception of virtue and affirmation of the necessity of social incarnation. Good must be consciously given form and power within history.
(5) The resources (divine and human) that are available for achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate (but not necessarily immediate) optimism. There is hope in the ultimate abundance of the Universe.
I can string these together to say that a progressive spirituality recognizes the emergent nature of reality, promotes liberty and social beneficence, and aspires to meaningful change. At the root of all this is the idea that things can and should improve. While the world will always be imperfect, we have a moral obligation to make it better however we can. Yes, there will always be disagreements about what “better” is exactly and how to get there. But there is nevertheless an underlying agreement that change and improvement is both possible and desirable. Further, I would posit that a progressive vision of spiritual improvement would be a desire not to force a single way of being on everyone, but rather to create the conditions necessary to allow unique personal and cultural differences to thrive.
Now then, I take all this one step closer—I maintain that a progressive spirituality applies equally to the self. As such, I believe that I am an emergent being, flowing from the unchanging source of my being, yet constantly in a state of change (just as the Sacred River is and is not the same river from moment to moment). I have a moral obligation to improve, mature, and grow as a human being. As it happens, I have some firm ideas of what that means.
The first thing is what I call the Three Domains of Health, which include the physical, the psychological, and the characterological. Physical health is pretty straightforward. By psychological health, in broad terms, I mean the development of cognitive coherence and flexibility; adequate emotional self-regulation; the ability to form healthy relationships and experience social attunement; having a stable (but not rigid) sense of self; and the capability to be inwardly and outwardly aware (i.e. mindfulness). As a budding psychotherapist, I of course have more details on this, but will leave it as it stands for the sake of brevity. I have reduced characterological health to what I believe are four irreducible yet interconnected traits: courage, integrity, beneficence, and openness. Every one of these “health domains” are amenable to change and improvement, a goal geared not only to lead to a happy life, but to enable optimal functioning, to become the most you that you can be.
Other areas of improvement include knowledge acquisition (both experiential and didactic), agency (the ability to be effective in the world), and what can be called “mystical attunement” (I dislike this phrase, but lack a better one at the moment), the increased perception of connection/union between one’s deepest self and Nature/God/The All. I will try to explore each of these and other categories in future posts. The takeaway here is that changes in each of these areas do more than add knowledge and abilities—they profoundly change the very nature of the person.
And so we now have a basic spiritual scaffolding consisting of religious naturalism, allegoricalism, and progressivism. The first looks to the natural world and our place in it as the source of understanding reality and developing meaning; the second supports the development and use of religious objects (icons, rituals, texts, etc) while acknowledging that they are ultimately symbols for human ideas, values, principles, experiences, and desires; and the third insists on personal and social evolution by promoting liberty, opportunity, and fairness in society and health, education, agency, and mystical attunement in individuals. There are, of course, as yet unspoken philosophies embedded in this scaffolding, such as emergence theory, sacred humanism, process theology, and so on. But now that we have a basic outline, we can begin to fill in some details. I hope you will continue to join me.