This weekend I will be on a short segment of the Public Radio International program “Smiley and West” with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West. It was recorded today, to be aired this weekend. It was an honor to have a letter I sent to the program selected for the “Take Us To Task” segment, and about one of my favorite topics… the relationship between Progressivism and Liberalism.
Now, even Dr. West stated that the topic we are engaging in was more than we could do in a few minutes on the radio, and perhaps he and I needed a seminar to engage it fully… The segment pointed out to me that the words we use are entirely dependent upon the context in which they are offered… and I thank Dr. West for his dialog around the difference between religious and spiritual liberalism and political liberalism.
It was fun, and it was a great opportunity for me to re-visit much of my writing and thought around my understanding of Liberalism, and my critique of Progressivism.
Below is the letter that I sent to Dr. West.
July 20, 2011
A few weeks ago, I was on a long car trip coming back from a denominational leadership meeting, scanning through the radio, when I became full of joy to discover that you had joined Tavis Smiley in producing a show that focuses on inspiring the beloved community among all people, from the perspective of people of color. Since discovering that I can access your show through my podcast program, you and brother Tavis have now become regular traveling companions of mine, as my multiple roles in ministry often call me to spend hours driving from place to place.
This past week, while driving through the Tennessee Mountains, I had the privilege to listen to your interview of Bill Maher, and while I often disagree with him, I always find him to be provocative of deeper thought. Yet, it was not a comment made by brother Bill that has inspired me to write you, but rather one of your own.
In the show, you asked Bill to accept the label of “Progressive” and not the label of Liberal, and made a comment that in your interpretation Progressive signifies being less beholden to oligarchic power structures, while Liberals remained beholden to such structures of oligarchic power. This is my interpretation of your comment, and one of the reasons I am writing is to seek clarification as to your meaning. I do agree that many on the political or religious left have indeed been more beholden to structures of oligarchic power (and even been part of said structures themselves), yet I question the efficacy of defining the terms Liberal and Progressive along these lines. I fully admit that the terms we use to define ourselves have deep and powerful meanings that affect how we do the work we are called to do… and so it is the important work of philosophers and theologians to seek some clarity in our communities as to the meanings of such terms.
In the interests of full disclosure, I am a Liberal. I am a religious Liberal, and I am a political Liberal. I define being a Liberal not along the lines of a set of beliefs, or even a set of principles or values, but along the lines of liberalism being a methodology of belief, meaning, and knowing. A person is a liberal because they approach the knowledge they hold, the beliefs that knowledge inspires, and what said knowledge asks of them in ways that call them to a particular relationship with doubt, with reason, and with mystery. On the spectrum of methods of knowing, Liberalism would rest at the opposite end of the spectrum from Fundamentalism.
A person can be of a Liberal methodology and Progressive beliefs and identity, and indeed there are many for whom this is true… and yet I have also met plenty of Fundamentalist Progressives in my day, and in my ministerial office for counseling, for that matter.
Comparisons between Liberalism and Progressivism are “apples and oranges” comparisons… they each signify something very different. Liberalism signifies a way of relating to knowledge and meaning, while Progressivism signifies a particular meaning-set, and a resulting social and political movement that comes from that meaning-set… and though I share many of the political and social goals that arise from the Progressive meaning set, I do not accept the philosophical or theological basis of Progressivism… and therefore cannot bring myself to accept the label of being a “Progressive”.
With Reinhold Niebuhr, I cannot accept “Progress” as a source of meaning. Any system that sets a telos (end) within history seems to me too limited to provide a useful basis for healthy meaning-making, and also creates for people entirely too limited a view, in light of the multi-generational challenges we face in seeking to create just society and beloved community.
As a preacher, I’m a storyteller, so let me tell a quick story. Though I have counseled on this many times, one former congregant has consented for me to tell this story. A former congregant with a Progressive activist self-identity came to me for pastoral counseling after a setback occurred in our congregation’s peace and justice work. In that conversation, she confided in me that she just felt so disheartened whenever our work to create a just world suffered such a setback, that she did not know how she could go on with the work. It seemed to her that, far from making “Progress”, humanity was taking steps backwards… we were seemingly moving further away from beloved community, not progressing toward it.
There is a part of our shared humanity that wants to see the results of our work, yet in multi-generational challenges as large as inspiring just society and beloved community, such “progress” is often very difficult to discern in the limited attention span of human life. Progressivism creates of the concept of Progress an idol, and I fear what ends we might adopt in seeking to achieve that idol within history.
I’ve written in further detail my critique of Progressivism and a sermon on the meaning of Liberalism, and so if it is a thread you wish to follow with me, I will point you to those articles and would enjoy dialoging with you around the ideas within them. Yet, there is one last point I wish to make with regards to the definitions we choose to use for Liberalism and Progressivism, and their relationship to oligarchic power.
I am a bit of a student of history and political science, as such were the focuses of my Bachelor’s degree prior to seminary. My current assessment, (always liberally subject to revision) is that I have never seen any human political system beyond a certain size (say, 100 people or so) that has not in actuality been an oligarchy. Now, often that oligarchy is cloaked in one or another model of power, but when you look at the actual practice of power within that structure, that power flows along oligarchic lines. Democracy is often a mask for a monied oligarchy, just as communism is often a mask for a network oligarchy. Most denominations or activist movements, no matter their polity, also fall naturally into the patterns of oligarchic power.
The creation of just society and beloved community has to address that we humans create the power structures we create because it is in our nature to do so. Even when we give great intellectual thought to revising the power-structures among ourselves, within a generation or two those structures have reverted, in one way or another, to oligarchic power because it is in our human nature to do so.
To create a just society based in the practices of right relationship, radical hospitality, and beloved community will take no less than a transformation of human nature. It will take a transformation in how we human beings relate to knowledge, to meaning-making, to power, and to the divisions we make among us. While we must do the work to insure that the hungry are fed, the homeless are sheltered, and the marginalized are acknowledged, on the streets as well as in the halls of legislatures and courts… we cannot allow all of this “doing” to take our eyes off the transformation that is desperately needed in humanity’s “being”. Now, I fully believe that “doing” the work of justice in the world is the surest way of inspiring the transformation of the soul toward compassion and love, just as Christ so obviously did… yet we cannot allow such temporal “Progress” to be our idol, our telos. Only the transformation of every human soul to love and compassion can be our end, our telos… and it is and end that will not be achieved within history. The transformation is within a practice for which we ever seek attainment.
Thank you for your work, for the inspiration you have been to me for many, many years, and for the way you continue to bring the message of love, compassion, and justice to wider and wider audiences. You played a role in my own transformation, and for that I am deeply grateful. I would enjoy the opportunity to dialogue with you at some time, and am honored and humbled by any response you might make to this letter.
Here are links to the articles and sermons I referenced:
Sermon: Being a Liberal Patriot — http://www.celestiallands.org/clj/phpBB3/viewtopic.php?f=8&t=207#p1034
Why I’m not a Progressive — http://celestiallands.org/wayside/?p=162
The Danger of Progress as a Source of Meaning — http://celestiallands.org/wayside/?p=163
The Political Assumptions of Progressivism — http://celestiallands.org/wayside/?p=164
Defining Fundamentalism — http://celestiallands.org/wayside/?p=187
Yours in Faith,
Rev. David Pyle
Assistant Minister, (Select) UU Church of Ventura, CA
Chaplain, US Army Reserve