I have a predicament. I am a progressive Christian, but I am pretty sure that progressive Christianity as it’s usually interpreted opens up a deep and anguishing pain in my heart, head, and soul! I think this is the case because I’ve read too much of the Bible and Barth lately, so maybe you all can help me and straighten me out.
Funnily enough, I’m not terribly sure that anyone could ever accuse me of being a great defender of Christian orthodoxy, at least not for its own sake. I do tend to think that, in the United States, theologians, pastors, and lay-persons alike have neglected the history and development of our tradition so that they might push their own agendas; but it turns out that these agendas are sometimes good, rightly calling into question previous Christian interpretations of what were once considered fundamental and irreproachable Christian doctrines. Then I read a blog today by Peter Laarman, both a very nice and intelligent man who is also the executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting; unfortunately, the blog signified for me precisely where current discussions of Christian identity, especially in the context of “progressive Christianity,’ have gone entirely wrong. I would like to take say a little about this.
First, Laarman’s blog has me questioning precisely what something like “progressive Christianity” has come to mean. If it means no longer confessing as a Christian, count me out. If it means confessing as a Christian…in the basic trust of God in Christ…to the best of one’s ability, arguing all the while that God doesn’t damn Muslims, homosexuals, and adulterers, and that God cares for the poor, then I’m in. So, I propose a basic terminological distinction between “progressive Christianity” (what Laarman calls his stance) and “progressive religiosity” (what I believe it actually is). I can affirm the first, but I’ve no interest in, as a faith stance, the latter. To confuse these two terms is a category mistake that demonstrates on the part of ‘progressive religionists’ two things: a lack of understanding of the basic Christian faith (and its intellectual reflection in theology) and, frankly, a degree of arrogance when it comes to (re)defining that faith.*
Laarman makes several points, which, in an entirely non even-handed manner, I’ll sum up as follows: “the Christian interpretation of God is merely one possible projection of human thought into God such that, if we were honest with ourselves, we could see through and reject to no small degree. We could then find solidarity with all other religious traditions by trading symbols and lies with one another about God, choosing for ourselves those projections which makes us feel the most progressive.” The basic trajectory of the blog, then, is to reduce Christian identity to a non-identity, annihilating the basic belief and trust that persons do not first come to believe by means of intellectual articulation, but that they already find themselves in a state of belief and, in some real manner, have no basic ability to stop believing even if they wanted to do so (and I’ve tried).
First, then, progressive religiosity rejects Jesus the Christ** as a, even the, unique expression of God. To put this statement into a broader context, I can fully buy into the blog that Philip Clayton wrote last week, which essentially claimed that there are several types of Christianity, none of which need be mutually exclusive of the others. I would add this simple point to Clayton’s reflections, one which I was gratefully able to tell Clayton myself: there is a sine qua non of the faith, a ground and affirmation that I can’t imagine doing away with and still calling myself Christian. What is that affirmation? An absolutely basic trust that God has definitively saved this world in Christ. I call it a trust because it is not even primarily a conscientious “belief,” an intellectual assent. One is passive in the original movement, which is a movement of God. Trust, rather, is quite simply a change of the heart by God such that God, in Christ, becomes the fount of all one’s activities…beliefs, knowings, and actions. We become (without importing necessarily the moral vocabulary) justified.
But it is important to affirm this basic trust in Christ, for if one reflects on it, it is precisely this trust in Christ that becomes important to the Christian. Whatever Christ may mean…however we might interpret him…God has acted definitively in him. All intellectual reflection on what this might mean, however important, is truly secondary to the trust we find ourselves to have through this bare and basic turning. Now, to be clear, this point need not mean that all intellectual interpretations of this basic point are co-equal. (Word Christology, in my mind, is far superior to spirit Christology, and hermeneutic Christology trumps both.) But there is much room for debate on these issues, so long as they’re issues taken seriously in the first place.
Secondly, progressive religiosity rejects the intellectual soundness of human belief in the nonsense that Christ is the unique expression of God. The basic point, then, is that progressive religionists cannot take this primordial and unwilled (at least by the person) trust in God through Christ seriously (I know I should add the Holy Spirit in here, too). And, if one does not take the Christian trust in God through Christ seriously, that’s okay; one does not need to do so, but certainly one is not Christian either. Neither can I fathom why one would want so ardently to hang onto the absurdities of our faith if one has no basic trust in God through Christ, unless for one of two reasons. (1) Progressives see Christianity as purely a tool for moving forward some sort of political agenda; but then “faith” becomes the worst form of political propaganda with no ties to that original trust which makes the whole thing viable as a political stance in the first place! (2) Progressives maybe secretly fear that, if they don’t admit nominally to being Christian, God will condemn them to eternal hellfire, and they want to ward off this possibility. Fear not, my friends, a good chunk of us believe God to be more just than this; plus, I suppose if you’re going, I’m probably going, too!
Tripp, I’m counting on you to come out as a Progressive Christian now, too. You’re up!
*On the other hand, I don’t doubt for a minute this is what my more fundamentalist friends say of me!
**When I say Christ, I mean the cross-dead Jesus and the resurrected one.