The Adjacent Possible as your New Year’s Resolution

Theologian Paul Tillich taught us a lot about what it meant to “have being.” Today I am thinking of his thoughts on the interplay between Destiny and Freedom.

Destiny – In each moment, we are each presented with particular facts that we must deal with. We are born a woman or a man, rich or poor, black or white. Each of these (and others) constitute who we are at any given moment.

Freedom – Regardless of the particular situation or context we find ourselves in, we have the ability to make decisions and take action that can lead us into new situations and contexts.

Today, a lot of people are finalizing their resolutions for the new year.  I used to scoff at this practice, but then I realized that it is part and parcel of what it means to be human. I actually think it is a good practice and one that churches should figure out how to sacramentalize.

It is no lie that our destiny plays a significant role in our lives. In a very real way, the particular situations and contexts we find ourselves in “set the parameters” for the ways which we will be able to function.

Notice that I wrote “set the parameters” not “limit our options.” This is the key, I think.

We are not stuck.

For instance, I get a bit annoyed by the newbies who delve into personality type theory (MBTI or Enneagram) and use it to make excuses for their behavior.  When I hear “Well, this is just the way I am” I walk away. This person is not looking for insight, but justification.

On the flip side, knowing your parameters helps you to move forward with your eyes open. I am an introvert and I make a pretty big deal out of it. Does that mean that I get to avoid social situations? Not at all. Knowing that I am an introvert makes me responsible for my well being, and requires that I take steps to fulfill my social responsibilities in a way that acknowledges that I can’t be around people constantly. I use what I have at my disposal to take positive steps forward.

Stephen Johnson wrote about this idea in Where Good Ideas Come From. In that work, he talked of the “adjacent possible,” the ability to see what resources and limitations are currently present and take a step forward by “cobbling them together to create new uses.”

It’s certainly not a one-to-one analogy, but it makes me realize that when I’ve failed at changes in the past, it is because they have been too drastic, too radical. I am a completely different person than I was 10 or 20 years ago, but the places of maturity represent gradual exploration and experimentation.

As you think about your New Year, I encourage you to shy away from goals that require a wholesale change in who you are. Instead, I encourage you to focus on a larger question – “What does it mean to be more patient?”, “What does it look like to be bold in my convictions?”, “What gifts and skills do I have that might be of some benefit to others?” – and explore it.

Don’t set yourself up for failure. Spend the year exploring one aspect of your life.

A Progressive Call to Conscience

One of my spiritual heroes, Fr. Richard Rohr, posted this quote on his blog yesterday:

“Despite a certain trend towards conservatism in parts of the church and society, I am convinced that we have moved into a new era that will be determined by people who live by their own conscience and are particularly qualified to act as discerning members of community and society…the era in which almost everyone was content to be born and to live as a member of a certain church or ‘organized religion’ is over. The people who will shape the future of believers of all religions are those who have the courage to make their own choice, whatever pain may be involved, and to do so with personal responsibility.”
– Fr. Bernard Haring, German Redemptorist priest

The “certain trend towards conservatism” that Haring writes of has been on my mind a lot lately, and I love how he describes it.

I appreciate his description of “conservatives” as simply being content to be born into and live as a member of a particular kind of system, because that has been my working definition of this stream of the faith for quite a while. The truth is that, for a lot of Christians, the historic ways of thinking about and enacting our faith works, and works well. To hold this particular doctrinal understanding or that one makes a lot of sense. Given the way that their worldview is constructed, one cannot fault someone for professing the particular theology that they do (remember: knowing determines understanding determines meaning).

But Haring names something important, I think. What will shape the future of faith is whether or not we have the courage to make our own choices. I do not understand him to say that all of those choices are going to be good ones that will lead to the Abundant Life, but I do understand him to say that this will be the norm (and this comes from Catholic moral theology, which, according to Rohr, has as its first principle, “Follow your conscience”). However, the interesting point that Haring’s thought raises for me is not regarding the future of religion, but about the reaction of those living out that “certain trend towards conservatism.”

I can say from experience that persons who want to preserve the particular system that has defined Christendom raise loud, vocal opposition whenever someone dares to explore the “adjacent possible” of our common faith. I find it interesting that, at almost every turn, what we have discovered to be a true expression of God’s love for creation was once thought to be in direct violation of scripture and theological tradition (ie – equality of races and genders, etc). I am grateful for those who naturally want to preserve the best of our faith, but I am not willing to let them rule the roost. And yet, that is what is happening.

As I observe it, Progressives (those who seek to explore the adjacent possible) do one of two things in response to loud, vocal opposition. We either cower in the corner, constantly on the defensive, and allowing the opposition to set the agenda; or we segregate ourselves, trying to ignore fray, telling ourselves that this “certain trend towards conservatism” is not a serious issue. In both cases we fail.

This “trend towards conservatism” cannot be allow to set the agenda for the future of the Christian faith, for, indeed, its agenda is not about the future, but about the past. This conservatism is often little more than a romanticizing of times gone by, and as Melissa Harris-Perry recently said of a similar kind of USAmerican nostalgia, there is no time in the American past that one would want to go back to as a black woman. If we allow the agenda of the Christian faith be “Back to the Future” we are all destined for a limited and limiting existence.

However, more often than not, what Progressive Christians do is sit smugly in the corner and decline to engage in the debate at all. The reason we can be accused of snobbery is because, well, we practice it. Rather than cower in the corner, we (instead) sit there smugly, waiting for others to “catch up” to a more inclusive, holistic, and complex way of engaging the world. We do this because we don’t like to argue and fight; we don’t think that anyone’s mind will be changed.

I disagree. Minds can be and are changed. I trace my own “journey to Progressivism” to my freshman year of college, when my friend Todd rhetorically dismantled my conservative theological worldview. I returned to my room after that very civil debate and cried for about an hour because, for the first time in my life, I did not have all the answers.

I believe it is time for those who identify as Progressive Christians to begin proclaiming what my New Testament professor calls ” a confident counter-proclamation.” I believe it is time for us to cease being afraid. I believe it is time for us to cease allowing the recent “trend towards conservatism” to be the agenda setting narrative. We must not be haughty, but we must be firm, clear, and respectful.

I would call this a call to arms, but it is not a war. So, instead, I take a cue from Haring and issue this Progressive Call to Conscience. Sisters and brothers, let’s once again be willing to make bold choices to explore the adjacent possible of the Christian faith, and be willing to endure whatever pain may come as a result.