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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Why "Progressive" Faith?

Perhaps no word has been as overused, and under-understood, in the last three years than the word "Progressive". It is often used synonymously with the word "Liberal" - but is that the proper usage?

For those of us who move between the worlds of politics and faith (and sometimes inhabit both simultaneously), it is necessary to have an understanding of what the two words mean. After all, how can you stand for something if you don't know what you stand for?

British historican Raymond Williams delved into the historical development of the words. "Liberal", according to Williams, in the fourteenth century, derived from a noun used to denote a free man - i.e., someone who was not a slave. It has the same root as the word "Liberty". When it became a social descriptor in the eighteenth century, it refered to "unorthodox", and was often used derisively by those who felt they knew better. As monarchies fell, and functioning democracies became a reality, "Liberal" developed its own orthodoxy. Conservatives attacked it (and lumped it with progressivism) as being weak and sentimental. Socialists attacked its focus on the individual nature of man. Williams finishes his discussin by saying that, "Liberalism is then a doctrine of certain necessary kinds of freedom, but also, and essentially, a doctrine of possessive individualism."

My interpretation of all that is that "liberals" were originally the emergent middle class that saw they did not need to depend on the aristocracy for their financial well-being, but did not want to address collective causes of crime, poverty, and other social ills.

"Progressive" originally occurred in direct opposition to "conservatives". It was seen as a natural division and explanation of political forces. One side wants to "conserve" the current status quo and one side believe that "progress", or change, was inevitable and could be positive. Progressives were naturally liberal - as a subset of liberals. In other words, all progressives were liberal, but not all liberals were progressive. "Progressive" became closely tied with the ideas of evolution and civilization - that there was an orderly improvement in conditions. Williams ends by stating that "Progressive" is not truly a descriptive term (in politics), but rather a persuasive one.

Politically, I don't think there are any "conservatives" out there. No one is trying to defend the status quo. Rather, the people calling themselves "conservative" are really radically re-gressive. The days of Barry Goldwater's principled conservatism as a defense of individual freedom (which comes very close to Williams' liberalism") is dead. Rather than argue for tax cuts on the basis of allowing people to gain a greater share of freedom, modern conservatives argue against "double taxation" or "economic necessity". Rather than talk about the ballooning deficit enslaving future generations by our reluctance to pay our fair share, they claim the deficit doesn't matter.

If we are to maintain the break Williams identifies as the main difference between liberal and progressive being the difference between individual and social responsibility, however, we can begin to make some headway into this mess. Perhaps we can even dispell the myth that liberals don't really stand for anything, they just stand against conservatives.

If "Liberal" is used in its original context as being descriptive of free persons, then liberal politics can be described as a politics that defends the individual freedoms we cherish. Progressive, then, refers to those attempts within the greater liberal movement to defend free persons by holding society accountable for its part in creating unjust situations - real situations that hurt real people.

In terms of faith, "liberal" would be used to describe those religions that believe in the idea of free will. Because we all have free will, we are all able to determine our actions and the burden of sin falls upon us individually. "Progressive" religions, then, are those within the realm of free will religions that also accept social responsibility - in my particular heritage, it is the preaching of, not only personal salvation, but also the social gospel. Thus, it is only one possible reading of religion, faith, and spiritual texts.

It is not an easy faith to hold. Because they focus on more than the individual, progressives must often defend themselves as "true" believers. This is all the more true when they embrace ideas outside of orthodoxy, or suggest that interpretation of spiritual guidelines are inevitable.

My faith is also "progressive" because I see it as incomplete. As with Abraham Maslow's idea that we are always "becoming" a person, and never quite finished perfecting our humanity, I believe that everything I do is fatally flawed in my human nature, including my faith. I make progress towards becoming the man I should be, the believer I should be, the husband and father and brother and son that I should be - but I never quite make it. Because I am a failure, and doomed to that failure by the very flesh that gives me life, I am moved towards greater compassion and acceptance. If I am going to make mistakes in my faith, I would rather make the mistake of giving the opportunity to share to too many rather than too few. I would rather make the mistake of putting forth too great an effort to understand those who are different than I am than make the mistake of not trying hard enough.

"Progressive", to me, means understanding how my failures are reflected in my faith. It means relying on others to help me understand my faith. It means approaching faith with humility and humanity rather than arrogance and intolerance.

So what does it mean to you to be progressive - spiritually or politically?

Come, let us reason together.


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