The Mystery of Redemption: Progressives and Social Justice
There is a way forward hinted at in Dr. Schmidt's rejoinder to his original article where he points out the difference he sees between mystery understood as the limits of what can be understood about the ways of God "as understood in Christian tradition" and mystery as the very definition of God for some Progressive Christians. The latter use of mystery seems to unite the disparate factions but can also inadvertently function as a check against theological articulation at all. The first definition of mystery holds merit but begs the question of how the "ways of God" are understood in Christian tradition.
Here the theological work of Edward Farley in his Divine Empathy: A Theology of God provides a fruitful way forward in my view. Farley locates the way to the problem of God in the midst of what he calls the "facticity of redemption." What this means is that the symbolism, imagery, and iconography that give expression to what we name "God" is rooted in the faith and experience of actual people. It is rooted in particular communities of faith formed to give expression to the lived experience of redemption in the face of the human problems of angst, idolatry, and social evil.
The experience of redemption gives rise to communities of faith who seek to give expression through rituals, scriptures, symbols, and traditions to a deliverance whose source lay beyond mere human effort. This grounding in religious experience honors the scripture and tradition of a religious community as theological source and thus connects progressive concerns in the present to a historical tradition. At the same time, it relativizes this tradition by placing it as the historic attempt to imaginatively articulate the mystery of the God who is manifest in concrete acts of redemption. This relativizing doesn't make scripture and tradition less important but, instead, orients us to see them as a progressive history of wrestling with the task of articulating the profound mystery of redemptive transformation Christians call God.
This doesn't settle all questions, nor should it. The ongoing challenge to articulate a Progressive Christianity is both problem and promise. The mystery of redemption brings forth an iconography that seeks to symbolize and articulate the lived experience of a liberated community of faith as well as brings forth an iconoclasm that relativizes these articulations from becoming idols. The notion of "social justice" understood in a Progressive Christian theology can serve both of these functions.
Beginning with the lived experience of communities of faith formed by the experience of redemption (of which the Exodus, the giving of the law, the experience of the community formed around Jesus are all articulations), Progressive Christianity gives honor to the past while insisting that Christian theology is properly "progressive" in that it is rooted in the experience of a God who redeems in the present and future tense as well as the past tense. It is this redemption, remembered and celebrated in texts and traditions as experienceable now, that shapes our engagement with the issues presenting themselves to us today. This makes a community that is founded neither on ideological purity of political stances nor on theological purity of doctrines dehistoricized from their moorings in redemptive communities. Mystery and specificity must live together in a messy project that points to the redemptive activity of God in concrete situations.
Richard Quinn is the Director of Christian Education at Donelson Heights United Methodist Church in Nashville, TN. He has also taught in a variety of educational settings and his vocational experience includes experience in issues of poverty, social justice, and community philanthropy. Richard currently serves as a member of the Education Committee for the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church and has recently entered the candidacy process for ordination as an elder in the United Methodist Church.