An Old Testament Professor On Being Progressive
To be progressive is not to be bound by traditional ways and beliefs. Here my hero is Job, that loud-mouthed questioner, seated on the ash heap of his life. Job will have none of the facile nostrums of his so-called friends, mountebanks each one. He knows all too clearly that he has done nothing worthy of the disasters that have befallen him, and so roundly rejects the blame that his friends would pin on his filthy robes. But even Job, the titanic one, who calls the friends and God into the most serious question, himself is brought up short by the mysterious appearance of a God who flatly refuses to answer Job's arrogant questions by urging him to have a more careful look at the ostrich!
Whatever that means, it says that Job does not know half of what he thinks he knows, and that his obnoxious certainties about God and the universe were not viable after all. And so it is for those of us who are progressives. We must always test those things we think we know; better said we need especially to test those things we are completely sure of. And as the book of Job makes clear, the God we espouse likes that sort of thing. God at the very end of the drama turns to the chief idiot, Eliphaz, and lets him have it with both divine barrels: "You have not spoken to me what is right like my servant Job has!" Now there is a sentence to shut the mouths of all would-be conservatives who think that they know all things well. In short, they don't; in short, we don't.
To be progressive is to be nonconventional and unconventional, nonorthodox and unorthodox, nontraditional and untraditional, broad minded and open minded. It is to take with seriousness the possibility of surprise in all things, the distinct option that something new is about to put in an appearance.
In this the poet of the exile, the blandly named Second-Isaiah, puts it very well. Right after he has urged his fellow Babylonian exiles to remember and celebrate the great acts of God who brought them out of Egyptian slavery so many centuries before (43:14-17), he astoundingly continues: "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs up, do you not see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" (43:18-19).
By this charge he does not mean for Israel to forget the Exodus; they will hardly do that. What he does mean is that they should never get stuck in that memory. Those who get stuck in the past, who are ruled by tradition, are doomed to be unable to "sing God's song in a new land," as the poet of Psalm 137 found himself unable to do. God is the God of the new—roads in the wilderness, where there are none, and rivers in the desert, where water is not to be found.
To be progressive is to try desperately to catch up with a God who ever runs on ahead, creating new hopes and dreams for all of God's people. God's dream for us all is shalom, a vast and glorious unity and wholeness for all of creation, from ant to anteater, from lion to lamb, from human to beetle. This is the realm and rule of God, and God is a progressive. We can do nothing less than join God in the struggle for this shalom.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.