2014 Religious Trends
Weightier Matters of the Law: Biblical Authority for Progressives
I encountered this problem afresh when I checked the context of the phrase that I had in mind for the title of this article—"weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." The context is Matthew 23, a chapter consisting entirely of animadversions against the scribes and Pharisees (v. 33: "You snakes, you brood of vipers!").
My way of working with texts like these so as not to lose sight of the prophetic Jesus is to make it clear at the outset that the overlay of anti-Judaism is a real problem, that these texts are, in their own way, also "texts of terror." But I don't just leave it there. I extract the underlying principle about Jesus challenging all rule-bound outward religious observance. I tell Christian audiences to try to imagine Jesus excoriating moralistic Christians when he uses terms like "blind guides" and "whited sepulchers."
Having to extract the core meaning while rejecting unhelpful accretions returns us to the main dilemma facing progressives. Sooner or later we will make our own decisions about which parts of the biblical testimony hold ultimate authority for us. But this is never a solo decision; it is one made within a company of believers engaged with each other, with the texts, and with the Spirit. When traditional readings of a given text are rejected, it will never be a matter of believing whatever we want but it will be a respectful and reasoned rejection whereby the authority of a given text is judged by the example and teaching of Jesus and not the other way around.
For me the Bible's main message will always be a message of exodus and liberation, it will always be the call for a jubilee of justice in the face of dehumanizing systems. And it will always be the invitation, and the caution, to "walk humbly." That last bit has nothing to do with shying away from courageous proclamation of good news to the poor. But it does mean doing so with the knowledge that while we can say with confidence what it is that God desires—justice and mercy—we can never say with final authority what God is ultimately like apart from the reflection we get in the face of Jesus.
In this respect progressives inherit more than a purely apophatic theology—an approach to talking about God that eschews all positive affirmations. If I may borrow an old expression, we progressive Christians still affirm that God "condescended" for the sake of giving us important information. Jesus is that information, that still-blazing North Star, and his words and example will always comprise a quite sufficient guide for how to live and how to love.
Rev. Peter Laarman is an ordained UCC minister and long-time activist in progressive Christian circles. He was senior minister of New York's Judson Memorial Church between 1994 and 2004, and prior to his retirement last December he headed LA's Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of congregations and individuals committed to rooting redemptive social action in progressive theology. Peter is currently volunteering his time as project coordinator for a PCU-initiated project on race and mass incarceration.