Defining Terms: Progressive and Modernist

Pes, a frequent sparring partner in blogodom, asked if I would clarify my essential approach by answering these two questions:

What you mean by “progressive”?

How is it different from “modernist”?

Let me preface my essay by stating that I have limited exposure to secular philosophy. I understand modernism as a system of secular values expressed in art, music, politics, literature, and other related human endeavors. “Progressive,” to me, would characterize a broader approach to life. I would tend to take the meaning of that word literally.

My understanding is that the essence of modernism is a rejection of the past to explore totally new ways of human expression. Atonal music, for example, completely set aside the predecessor traditions of romanticism and impressionism. Therefore atonality can be rightly described as modernist. Atonality could be understood to be progressive in the broad sense, in that its proponents thought they were improving on serious music.

Early proponents of polyphony were progressive as well. They built upon the tradition of plainsong and organum to create a new approach to music. I suppose one might say that modern composers such as Part or Tavener, in the sense of their building on earlier sacred music traditions, and to the degree that they advance or improve the state of the art in sacred music, are progressive by the broad definition of the term. But these musical approaches would not be considered modernist, however progressive they might seem in contrast to what went before.

When I label myself as a progressive, it implies my basic approach to life is that things are not as good as they could be or perhaps should be. I’d be a political progressive in the sense that I think Bush is doing a poor job as president. Both major political parties are dead to the needs of the broad public. Other people are out there who could do a better job. I might be one myself. I’ might not be happy with the way things are, but I don’t think the US needs to overhaul the system that got us here. So I’m not a political modernist. I like the basic structure of my country; I just think the Republicans and Democrats both should give way to better leadership. To a mainstream political sensibility, that might seem to be modernism in the sense that I wish both parties would just die. But my interpretation would be that neither Republicans or Democrats are essential to the “T”radition of the US political system.

Let’s take a churchy example. Catholic music and preaching could be far better in most parishes. Catholic lay commitment to the Eucharist also has much room for improvement. I think the curia is more of a burden and obstacle to better liturgy than a help to it. As leaders, bishops seem very weak and ineffective to me. We have a lot of room for improvement pretty much everywhere in Catholicism. I’m not a modernist because I don’t think a break from the past is needed in the sense of reengineering Holy Orders or dispensing with musical traditions or completely overhauling the Mass. I think the basic structure of bishops, pope, parish clergy, and some kind of Roman curia has worked well for us in the past and could work again. Because I believe there’s room for improvement, I’d say I’m a theological progressive.

Regarding a person who might think that my advocacy of worship in the round, for example, is an example of modernism, I would probably chuckle because I know you can’t prove it. I can appeal to history and suggest that this might be a lost tradition, but it is not an invalid one. I would also not suggest that every church should reorient itself. Having a variety of architectural expressions is good for Catholicism.

I would embrace the philosophy of freedom that accompanies some modernist efforts. But modernism at its worst does not taint the good values they have borrowed to forward their varied agendas.

Summing up, modernists might be considered a subset of progressives. But not all progressives are modernists.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Commentary, Liturgy. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s