Dale, I was wondering the other day - were you ever a transcendentalist or utopian in any form?
I was raised Catholic -- and went to a Catholic school for a few years when I was very young. My faith was habitual and never considered, and did not survive for more than a few weeks after I left home for the first time for college. There I confronted peers of different faiths and drew the conclusion that faithful attachments were arbitrary almost at once, and I became an atheist quite soon thereafter. I've never looked back.
When you ask about "transcendentalism" though, you know of course that folks like Emerson and Thoreau are taken up through that moniker explicitly, and I will say that I have a deep fondness and affinity for much that they wrote (though not all), as I do for Aldo Leopold's "Land Ethic" and the discussions of a "web of mutuality" in Martin Luther King, and the "web of life" in George Eliot, all of which seem to me inter-implicated notions.
When William Burroughs declares that we live in a "magic universe," a universe susceptible to poetic refiguration it seems to me that this is less a conventionally supernatural claim than a recognition of the force of re-signifying practices, of rhetoric (my trade, after all), connecting the shamanic-qua-poetic imaginary to the American Pragmatist/post-Nietzschean European philosophical traditions. I find these connections edifying, and they come up quite a bit in my teaching.
Despite the fact that I do not believe in either God nor gods, I tend to be rather laid back about those who do believe in these things, unless they want to get all authoritarian or judgmental about them. This is because I have noticed that when people affirm such beliefs they tend to be saying things I can make good sense of if I simply translate them (to my self, out of politeness) into terms of affirming matters of personal aesthetic taste or affirming matters of we-intentions concerning moral communities to which they happen to belong. Likewise, I have noticed that when people do terrible things they rationalize through recourse to the affirmation of such beliefs I can make better sense of what is afoot if I simply translate them into terms of authoritarian/incumbent political views or, sometimes, mistaken or deranged claims that fail to pass muster as warrantedly assertible descriptions of the world for purposes of prediction and control.
The power of such translations tells me that there are more warranted modes of belief ascription than just the instrumental claims of the naturalist (indeed, I believe there are different criteria that render reasonable or not beliefs in instrumental, moral, aesthetic, ethical, and political modes, about which more here), and although this doesn't inspire a faith in the supernatural in my case, I do not doubt that those who cherish reductionist epistemologies would likely decry as "transcendental," or possibly menacingly relativist, in me what seems to me simply like sensible pluralism.
As for utopianism -- surely every progressive is properly speaking utopian at least some of the time? Progress is always progress toward an end, and there is something utopian about any unrealized end toward which one aspires through political education, agitation, and organization. I will say that I consider my "progressivism" subsidiary to my devotion to democracy, consent, equity, and diversity as ends. I struggle for progress toward the realization of these values, hence I think of myself as more of a democrat than a progressive, strictly speaking. I don't think this is a big deal, since most progressive-identified folks are really struggling for a more peaceful democratic world, too, and terminological squabbling doesn't seem very useful to me for the most part outside the context of academic philosophy.
I have argued that democracy relies for its intelligibility and force on a scene of consent that is actually informed and actually nonduressed, and that access to reliable knowledge and social security (non-duress) demand at best (as close as we can get to) the provision of universal education and a free cultural commons, universal healthcare, and a universal basic income guarantee -- political ends which many would surely describe as plenty utopian. I happen to be more interested in the ongoing social struggle for democratization -- the struggle through which ever more people achieve ever more of a real say in the public decisions that affect them -- than in "democracy" as some abstract ideal. And so I am interested in the actual educational, agitational, organizational, legislative struggles through which more and better education, more and better access to knowledge, more and better healthcare, more and better welfare are accomplished, and ongoing democratization achieved, than in the distance intellectuals claim to discern between the present state of affairs and some ideal. So, I don't know if you really want to call me utopian or not given all that.
Like many a good pragmatist, I think it is enormously important to remember that the perfect can be the mortal enemy of the good. Like many a fine idealist, I think it is no less important to recognize that pragmatists who assert the previous can in their fixation on what seems possible, lose sight of the good in ways that undermine their grasp of the actually possible. I think both insights are indispensable and I don't think there are any criteria on hand to assure us which is the more relevant perspective in any generally useful sort of way, and so that one must remain rather self-critical and attentive and persistent in the face of inevitable frustrations, come what may. All of this seems to me simply a straightforward matter of intelligence.