Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Danger of Progress as a Source of Meaning

In a conversation with a fellow seminarian who had read my article “Why I’m not a progressive”, it became clear to me that though I laid out the reasons why I call myself a Liberal and not a progressive, I did not highlight what problem I have with the word progressive, and this might be confusing to some. Nor did I say where I do find my source of meaning, if not progress. While one person who responded to that article stated that there has always been a clear distinction between the two in their mind, I believe such a distinction is not the norm. I think the two have become dangerously entangled.

Before I go any further, let me first state that I am not stating opposition to most of what Progressives stand for as far as policies and programs. I am not saying that I do not support or will not work for such “progressive” ideas and policies as single payer healthcare, or strengthened corporate regulation, or sound environmental policies, or expansion of civil rights protection or strengthening the Geneva Conventions. I do believe in all of this, and more. If it were just about the policies and programs, then I might be willing to be called a “progressive”. But it is not about the policies and programs… not at all. For my support of such programs and policies you can call me a liberal Democrat (and that is a move for me, as some of you know).

Behind the policies and programs, there is a worldview that is being promoted by the word Progressive, and it is a worldview I do not agree with ethically, theologically, culturally, or morally. I believe it is historically inaccurate and overly simplistic. I am concerned enough about it in the political realm, but when I see that word being connected to Unitarian Universalism or being used to replace Liberal in Liberal Faith or Liberal Christianity, I am dismayed. Indeed there may be such a thing as Progressive Religion… it is just not a religious faith that I hold to.

I will also admit that there are some aspects to my developing theological system that do still have progressive edges… I am a product of a western culture that is steeped in the myth of progress, and I am still working to disentangle myself from it. Some of that work of disentanglement was the original impetus for this line of thought and series of articles.

There are some inherent assumptions, theological premises, and value statements that are made when we place such an emphasis on “progress” that we make it a part of the primary descriptor of who we are, be it in politics, in religion, or in life. I believe much of the current thought around progressivism glosses over those assumptions, and that the majority of people who call themselves progressive have not deeply encountered those assumptions. I mean, who does not want “progress”? As I said before, it’s great marketing.

I am going to write first about my concerns with religious progressivism. I will write a second article focusing on my concerns with political progressivism, and I hope this first article will serve as a base for the second. Later, I will write a third article on the personal dangers of claiming a self-identity based in progressivism.

First, some theology. There is much that I disagree with Reinhold Niebuhr about, but one theological concept I think he has nailed is the danger of building a theological system that depends upon the fulfillment of a source of meaning within history. Human beings are notoriously impatient. Even in a theological system that seeks a telos, or a final end to occur both within and beyond history, there are still billions of Christians convinced in every generation since the death of Jesus of Nazareth that their generation would see the end of days. This trend is also true among some adherents of Judaism, of Islam, and of some forms of Buddhism as well as other faiths.

How much more true is this impatience then in a theological system which finds its meaning either primarily or solely within history? I cannot count the number of questions I have received from parishioners that circle around this issue. What meaning does our faith have, when nothing ever seems to change? How do you keep from becoming disillusioned when the “progress” you thought you saw on a point spawns a series of collateral complications? How do you keep your faith when the congregation again fails to live up to its ideals? If we don’t have right relationship here at our church, how can we expect anyone else to? Such conversations almost always end up to this very deep and simple question… What’s the point? The answer that I usually give is that you have to let go of the results and simply do the work, live the faith… but that answer is rarely satisfactory.

Progress is a fickle, trickster God…

Though it is only the first among many, I believe the greatest danger of creating a religious identity too closely related to progress is that it creates an impossible source of meaning for religious life and faith. Progress as a source of meaning is entirely too dependant upon the need to see transformation to validate one’s belief in the faith. Like many evangelical Christians, such a faith based in progress is dependant upon an outside set of factors nearly completely beyond the control of the believer, the church, and the faith as a whole for its continual validation of and commitment to the faith. Instead of finding that validation or meaning internally, or even in religious community, it is sought in a personal interpretation of a constant and shifting world.

Progress is doomed to fail as a religious source of meaning, and doomed to fail quickly… because the world is too complex to support a discernable progressive trend. Though this is easy to show in historical and political terms (which I will do in the follow-on essays), let us take the move towards religious personal freedom as an example of “progress”. And, I no doubt have to say, I believe in religious personal freedom… but I would not call it progress.

First, whether you value religious personal freedom as progress is determined entirely by the point of view that you bring to that judgment. There is no objective measure by which you can say that this development is progress. Now, I do not have a problem with this, because we humans make value judgments like that all the time. As a liberal, however, I have to admit that this is not the only way to do faith, and that my preference for freedom in personal faith must be regularly questioned by myself and others.

It is also easy to show that there are significant social and religious costs to embarking on a religious faith based in personal freedom. First, it requires that one do a lot of personal and spiritual groundwork to deepen in your faith that might not be required if one believed in a system that was already well trodden. It requires the freedom and privilege to do that personal spiritual work, which is part of the reason why such a path often appeals most to middle and upper middle class people.

Much of the social cohesion that society has had over the centuries has come from religious faiths that were based in communal responsibility, not personal freedom. As we have moved, both as a society and in religion in American culture, we have seen a continuing disintegration of social cohesion. We have also seen a continual move towards personal isolation, spiritually as much as physically… there is something lonely in going through a “Build Your Own Theology” course and realizing that though you share some beliefs with others, in the particulars you are alone. Its no wonder we talk about politics more than theology… we tend to agree there more.

This is the merest touch on what personal religious freedom might critically mean. A doctoral dissertation could be written on the personal and spiritual costs of personal religious freedom. What I am hoping to outline however is that calling it “progress” is too simplistic. The results radiate out from that sense of isolation, including our faith’s incoherence in social justice work, our regular search for an identity that is defined by other than what we are not, and our sense of shame surrounding issues such as our having once been a state-sponsored church or how we carried ourselves during the White Crisis over Black Empowerment (Black Empowerment Controversy), among others.

One of the primary thoughts I want to express here is that by questioning whether we can call something like personal religious freedom “progress”, I’m not trying to malign personal religious freedom. I personally thank God for the development of personal religious freedom (and responsibility), otherwise I would either have lived a miserable life of silent doubts or I would have been burned at the stake for heresy. Personal Religious Freedom has been a boon to me. What I am holding up is the danger of taking what has personally balanced more on the positive side for me, in the experience of my life, as the model for a more universal “progress”.

To attempt to turn it into such a model for what “progress” means is to deny the experience of others who do not feel as I do… and they are many times many. Implying that any valuation other than mine is “regressive” or “static” (which is intentionally implied by the word “progress”) ironically seems to me to be maligning the personal religious freedom of those who disagree with me.

Now, I have spoken in the past of my desire for a “vision” of what the world would be like if we were all ever to live by the principles and practices that I believe in as a Unitarian Universalist. Actually, I have spoken of my desire for hundreds of thousands, or millions of visionaries visioning together of that world. I still hold to that, I still believe in the need for us to do that visioning together… but the end or purpose of that visioning is not to create that perfect world (for it can and never will be achieved). The purpose of that visioning is so that we are visioning together. The purpose is to get us dreaming together… and this gets to what rests at the apex of my personal pantheon of sources of meaning. Rather than progress, my eyes, heart, spirit and soul are focused on practice.

There was a moment in my practice of Zazen meditation (I think many of us go through this) in which I turned to my teacher and asked, not in so few words “Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?” Over time, and also not in so few words he lead me to the answer “It is all there is… what more could there be?”

I have personally found the source of meaning of my religious faith not in Progress, but in Practice. Not just in Zazen practice (although that’s a part) but in the deep practice of living life as a Unitarian Universalist.

In the practice of regularly coming back to the things I assume and believe and consciously questioning them.

In the practice of forgiving others not because they deserve it, but because I need to forgive them (something I struggle with daily, and fail at regularly).

In the practice of re-committing to community even when it has hurt me, and even if that commitment is transformed by that pain.

In the practice of seeing when I don’t honor someone’s inherent worth, and doing the work inside to find out why.

In the practice of being public about my faith, in a world in which such a public stance places me on the margins, but might just plant a few seeds in the lives around me.

In the practice of regularly recognizing that the spheres that I see and sense are only an infinitesimal part of the greater whole, and recognizing that whenever I seek to simplify that greater whole for the sake of understanding, that simplification is never reality.

In the practice of seeking to touch that greater reality by regularly exposing myself to experiences, views, perspectives and assumptions other than my own… especially ones I disagree with.

All of this and so much more is what I think of as the practice of Unitarian Universalism, and living the practice is my source of religious validation and meaning, as often in my failure to live up to the practice as in the commitment to return to it. I am confirmed in my faith every day, when I see a deepening in myself… when I recognize a complexity I did not see before in the world around me… when I find the strength to come back to a pain and forgive. In all of these ways, I find a meaning in my faith that is not dependant upon the achievement of exterior goals, but rather in the continual quest to live an authentic human life.

Angus McLean, one of the most profound religious educators of our movement, once said of religious education that “The Method is the Message”. For me, the method, the practice of Unitarian Universalism is the source of its own meaning, and I am thankful that I am freed from trying to find meaning in such a trickster God as Progress.

Yours in Faith,


Click here for Part II of this series “The Political Assumptions of Progressivism”

10 Thoughts on “The Danger of Progress as a Source of Meaning

  1. I will need to come back and read this essay completely David but I have reasonable grounds to believe that this hot off the press newspaper article may go a long way towards very concretely illustrating the differences between self-described “progressives” and bona fide liberals. Let me know if you agree.

  2. “Progress is a fickle, trickster God…”

    Apparently so David. . .

  3. Wow….well said.
    A lot to unpack there, and re-read.
    If I read you correctly, what I really like is your point of working towards the goal is the priority even though arriving at it is an impossibility. I would go so far as to say that too many of us have lost sight of that elegant idea.

    If we as a life form give up on being the best we are and reaching out and helping others the best we can, then we are no better than mindless creatures with tool making skills. Animals, act in only their self interest. An argument can be made that such a philosophy is not even mammilian. To argue “what’s the point” to reaching out and helping others is also a form of sociopathy.

    Your point is a truth of humanity, and sanity. Thank you for saying it.

    It is also refreshing read a use of eastern religion that is not focused on ignoring racism, or criticizing ideas of fairness. Too often passive-racist UU’s misquote eastern ideologies to support their arguments of self ceteredness, non-inclusion and support of racial injustice. Your statement is a welcome rescue of eastern religion.

    More later, but thank you.

  4. “If I read you correctly, what I really like is your point of working towards the goal is the priority even though arriving at it is an impossibility. I would go so far as to say that too many of us have lost sight of that elegant idea.”

    Wow Chuck! I dare say that that is the first time anyone has ever described The Dark Knight Of The U*U World as elegant! 🙂

    I am genuinely flattered. 😉

  5. Chuck,

    I think you have correctly identified a consequence of what I am speaking of, but that consequence is not the motive force…

    What I am arguing for is that how we should live our lives as people of Liberal Faith should be determined by our values, principles, and practices, regardless of any goal. That this has us work toward our goal anyway is a consequence. But it is a wonderful point that you have unpacked from what I wrote, and I thank you for it.

    Robin, I have seen that story in several places… and to me it is an example of both reactionism, as well as a misunderstanding of some aspects of some pagan faiths. I am not there in that congregation, so I’m not going to second guess this particular decision… but there is an excellent question of, if they have banned this particular individual from carrying a hunting knife, have they also removed all of the knives from the church kitchen?

    But that is a completely separate discussion… and all churches are peopled by people, and so therefore are subject to the messyness that is inherent in peopledom.

    Yours in Faith,


  6. David,

    The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Franklin North Carolina’s “Weapons Policy” is a fine example of “progressive” reactionism, which why I brought it to your attention here. It actually doesn’t have a whole lot to do with misunderstanding of some aspects of some pagan faith, indeed I am not sure that Sikhs would appreciate being classified amongst pagans.

    Here is what the FU*UC’s ‘Weapons Policy’ says –

    No items, concealed or not, that can be reasonably defined as weapons may be brought onto the buildings and grounds which comprise The Unitarian
    Universalist Fellowship Of Franklin, North Carolina

    So *they* have not in fact banned “this particular individual” from carrying a
    hunting knife on church property, even though Pagan UU Charles Rowe is the first “victim” of that security blanket banning of weapons as it were. Nope, “progressive” Franklin U*Us just banned any and all *items* concealed or not, that can be reasonably defined as weapons from being brought onto the buildings and grounds which comprise The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Of Franklin, North Carolina. So yes, your very liberal question asking if the FU*UC has “removed all of the knives from the church kitchen”, to say nothing of removing all the chairs in the sanctuary and all the cars in the parking lot. . . is quite pertinent here.

    Gotta love those ever so “progressive” Franklin U*Us no? 😉

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  9. I see examples of progressivism replacing liberal theology in my volunteer work at our Sunday forum. Every so often we get a speaker who tells us that the future of the progressives is just around the corner. They tell us that the economy that replaces capitalism is just a few years away while they try to hawk books following their speech.

    I have learned to ignore the extreme elements that deny the UU principles, or bend them slightly. Using reason and rational arguments that pay attention to science and ignore an idolatry of the spirit means to me that you have to separate the two sides. I agree that theologically you can’t define yourself as a progressive theologically. I use the term Liberal with a capital L to distinguish myself from people who use it to mean a political stance, and say so.

    A term that I ran into in Building Your Own Theology is everydayness. I wonder if the progressives are both caught up in their preferences regarding everydayness (that the transformation that will come will affect everybody with peace and love) without realizing that it is still true to say that there is everydayness in real life. There is an upper end to reality. I think that progressives reach for an end to the everydayness that contains the ability of people to lie, or cheat and make things harder for everybody else. They see an everydayness that they think that they can break out of by willing it true.

    The problems that we have with our ecology could lead to our mass extinction soon. Given this kind of problems that we face, it is understandable that people would have preferences regarding solutions to big problems. I belong to 350.org because I think that there are scientific proofs that we have to get the level of carbon down to 350/million, or we can trigger disaster. That is however separate from my theology. I don’t try to define my views of what I would prefer others to do in theological terms.

    I see the differences between progressive and Liberal theology as one of trying to use force on others–if only verbal–to make them join the preferred worldview. I suspect that much of the opposition to the military is one of implied preference for a moral force that is done one to one to promote a progressive agenda as a religion, rather than recognizing that the use of force is a secular convention that we have the military for.

    Donald Wilton

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