Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Chastened Idealism

By Amanda Udis-Kessler

Editor's Note: This article by Unitarian Universalist Amanda Udis-Kessler was first published January 8, 2011 on the blogsite of Tikkun magazine. It speaks to spiritual progressives of all religions and denominations.

Why should we be idealists? For the same reason that we get up in the morning: because life is beautiful and we can make this broken old world a little more beautiful than it already is. Because our political values call us in that direction and we know intuitively that we won’t get out there and make social change if we are not driven on by a hunger, a passion, a yearning for what we imagine could be. We might call it a world repaired. We might call it the Kingdom of God. We might call it Buddha-nature lived out fully. We might call it peace, justice, freedom and community. But politically, we are idealists because we have ideals that we are not yet ready to give up. These days we may feel pretty lonely at times but we know better than to lay down our values for cheap grace and expensive toys.

But we who are affiliated with the Network of Spiritual Progressives are, for the most part, spiritual as well as progressive, whatever being spiritual may mean to us. What it does mean, beyond any local semantics, is that our visions are grounded in something beyond the mundane. We might speak of Allah, or the ultimate ground of being, or the inherent worth and dignity of all people, or we might use any one of a hundred other names that speak to us of that which is greatest, or deepest, or most meaningful. But our concern is with meaning, depth, the sacred, the holy, and how that realm of life intersects with the day-to-day. We seek a world infused with meaning, regardless of how the meaning is translated. And this is part of our vision, part of our yearning. Most of us, I think, see the world repaired as a world in which everyone is utterly free to find their own way to, as Rumi put it, “kneel and kiss the ground.” Does this make us idealists? Of course. What else could we be?

Well, we could be chastened idealists. Why go this route, given what I’ve already said? Because we follow politics and we understand sociology and we accept that staying passionately involved in working for a better world does not mean putting on blinders. It can’t. And honestly, for all that is wonderful about the world right now, there’s a lot that is almost unspeakably horrifying. There are a lot of people in power, all around the world, who do not seem to care about human or planetary flourishing, and for whom religion is a means of social control, not the best reason ever to break down boundaries and welcome everyone in completely. So if we are politically savvy, we must acknowledge the tremendous challenges facing our vision. It is entirely possible that our vision will not come to pass in our lifetimes. And we must somehow simultaneously act as though our vision was close enough to touch and also as though we might work in vain for years. If we neglect the first part we fail to be Tikkunistas; if we neglect the second part we may well fall prey to depression and burnout.

Which leads to the spiritual side of chastened idealism. Unitarian Universalists tend to focus much of our energy on human potential and, in perhaps an overreaction to the Calvinism from which we emerged, to look away from human frailty. But in my experience, every religion worth its salt – including thoughtful UUism – takes seriously the ways in which human beings fail ourselves and each other regularly. Such religions simply don’t end the story there; they see human beings as originally blessed (per Matthew Fox) even as they acknowledge the challenges of living a good life that will repair and re-bless the world. Thus, and perhaps unusually for a Unitarian Universalist, I think there is a spiritual component to being a chastened idealist. It means recognizing that people are deeply good but not always exclusively good; that people are powerful, but not always powerful enough to fix that which cries out for repair; and that social structures can turn the greatest hopes of individuals and groups to dust even as it is individuals and groups that ultimately make up social structures.

I’ve just finished reading Heidi Neumark’s remarkable book Breathing Space, about her experiences as a progressive Lutheran minister in a South Bronx church. I recommend this book as an example of chastened idealism, what challenges it and what keeps it alive. For at the end of the day, our central task as spiritual progressives is to tend our idealism and make sure that is not too chastened, lest we fail to hew to our work and maintain our faith.

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