Can Progressive Christianity Save (or Cure) Christianity?

Can Progressive Christianity Save (or Cure) Christianity? March 16, 2017

Or How Exactly is Progressive Christianity Not “Working”? Thoughts on Allison Lynch’s “Here’s Why Progressive Christianity Just Doesn’t Work”

 

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For months now, I’ve sat in front of the keyboard and tried to churn out a reasonably succinct piece—one that outlines exactly where I think various views and approaches that fly under the broad rubric “progressive Christianity” go wrong, or where the entire enterprise does.

It never worked. Any time I started, an hour would go by, and then two, and I’d be left with what amounted to a jumbled outline for a massive theological treatise.

Yesterday, there was a provocative guess post by Allison Lynch over at Unfundamentalist Christians, titled “Here’s Why Progressive Christianity Just Doesn’t Work,” that tried to do just that. It was a bold move—especially considering that it appears on a major blog on the Progressive Christian channel, with the particular audience it commands.


Brevity (and simplicity) is a double-edged sword in instances like this. Write too much in too much detail, and you place an unreasonable burden on your readers. On the other hand, the more succinct you are, the more oversimplifications and overgeneralizations you end up making. It’s hard to find the Goldilocks zone.

Lynch’s piece was about as succinct as you could possibly get for a topic so big.

She describes going through a shift in her Christian views in her twenties and, in the course of this, finding the label “progressive Christian” convenient, because it “gave me enough wiggle room among my non-Christian peers for them to believe I was open to new ideas, and it allowed me to stay within certain Christian circles without being thought of as a project to work on,” as she puts it.

In retrospect, though, Lynch seems to have come out ultimately thinking of progressive Christian belief itself as residing in this sort of liminal, essentially noncommittal (and confused) dead-zone—one that “allows people to choose what they want to believe in the Bible, and to be evasive when it comes down to what the Bible actually says.” To take some examples, she mentions

trying to defend the Bible’s stance on homosexuality. Yes, it’s true that Jesus did not condemn it. Yes, only six verses explicitly mention same-sex relations. But there’s no getting around the fact that the Bible calls it “an abomination,” just as there’s no getting around Paul telling wives they need to be submissive to their husbands. Or trying to undermine a giant flood logged as a historical event. It’s just what the Bible says. Analyze it, pick it apart, review the various translations and iterations, but face it: a lot of what the Bible says is just plain outdated or scientifically incorrect, and we know it.

Lynch goes on to suggest that

While viewing the Bible through a progressive lens allows us to dissect the cultural and historical contexts of Scripture for better understanding, it ultimately frames the “truths” of Christianity as merely a house of cards. We cannot claim Christianity as the “one true religion” anymore if Scripture is refuted.

In the end, she offers a provocative plea—really, almost closer to an ultimatum—to progressive Christians:

Christians, please stop saying you’re “progressive,” when what you really mean is, “I’m too scared to let go of my faith even though I’m questioning everything I was taught to believe.” To me, Progressive Christianity is merely a symbol for the decline of religion in the Western world.


The follow-up comments to Lynch’s piece, both on the post itself and on the Facebook page for Unfundamentalist Christians, are pretty typical for such a harsh indictment of progressive Christianity itself. However, among these, there were a decent number of fairly knee-jerk reactions that don’t actually engage with any of her main points, and at most vaguely accuse her, for example, of fundamentally misunderstanding what progressive Christianity is all about in the first place: “someone who has no idea what a progressive Christian actually is or does,” as the top-voted comment on Facebook describes her; or similarly, “There’s no real argument here, just her bashing on something she doesn’t understand.”

To sort of jump into my own response to Lynch’s piece, though, starting from her concluding lines: first and foremost, I think that many progressive Christian respondents (if some can ever pull themselves together to really offer a substantive response to this, that is) will want to resist Lynch’s close association or equation of the truth of the Bible with the broader idea of the truth of Christianity itself: recall her “We cannot claim Christianity as the ‘one true religion’ anymore if Scripture is refuted.”

Of course, on one hand, I think that Lynch is exactly right on this. For example, official Catholic doctrine¹ is unequivocal that the truth of Catholicism itself—and, by extension, Christianity as a whole, with Catholicism understanding itself to represent the “fullness of truth” in terms of Christian belief and theology—in fact rises or falls along with the truth of Scripture. In other words, despite its well-known emphasis on the importance of extrabiblical tradition, Catholicism affirms that if Scripture is either wholly or even only in part unreliable, then Christianity itself is, too, and should be discarded. (To use the more traditional Catholic language here—rooted in Matthew 16—in this case the “gates of Hell” have “prevailed” against the Church.)

The Catholic dogmatic tradition’s theology of Biblical inspiration and indeed Biblical inerrancy here is sometimes lesser known, even among Catholics themselves. However, I don’t think the same can be said for various Protestant traditions, which historically have been defined by their robust notions of Biblical sufficiency, or in broader terms what we might call a “high Bibliology.”

For many Protestant traditions, then, if the primary source of Christian doctrine is the Bible itself, and if this doctrine can be derived directly from the Bible through reasoned interpretation alone, then the truth of their doctrines also seems to rise or fall based on the truthfulness (or lack thereof) of Scripture

Now, all that being said, I think the most obvious mitigating factor that progressive Christians will jump to here is the idea of the flexibility of Biblical interpretation, or of the possibility of differing theologies of the Bible altogether, and how it’s approached and situated in Christian theology itself.

As for the flexibility of Biblical interpretation, the most obvious principle that people will point to here is the idea that not everything in the Bible must be taken literally and/or historically. Be that as it may, however, when considering the full gamut of churches and denominations in wider Christendom, this issue actually poses a host of unresolved theological problems—and historical ones, too. For example, I’ve often pointed toward widespread misconceptions in people’s understanding of the history of non-literal Biblical interpretation: misconceptions that can significantly affect how certain theological problems are navigated here.

More specifically, there’s an ongoing and perhaps ultimately irreconcilable tension between certain fundamental theological doctrines (as they’re delineated in particular churches or denominations), on one hand, and many of the common conclusions and arguments of critical Biblical scholars and historians, on the other: things that challenge the viability and historicity of various churches’ dogmas or their foundations.

I think that in many ways, the inner conflict that arises from the need to uphold one’s denominational orthodoxy or Christian faith itself, while at the same time attempting to truly appreciate the work of modern Biblical scholars and historians (which, again, can offer a sharp challenge to the former), can end up putting one in the same sort of liminal, essentially noncommittal dead-zone—and perhaps indeed one of deep confusion—that Lynch had made reference to in her piece. (For an instructive study of how this tension can play out in the analysis and hermeneutics of a prominent Catholic Biblical scholar/theologian, see Gregory Dawes’ “Why Historicity Still Matters: Raymond Brown and the Infancy Narratives.”)


The truth is that in some ways, we’re still in the historical infancy of critical academic analysis of the Bible, and particularly in our understanding of the theological implications that might emerge from this. In my most recent post, I’ve highlighted some of the unexplored areas here, and what both Christians and non-Christians can do to help break new ground in this regard. For now, though, there are many senses in we simply still don’t know what the implications of critical Biblical interpretation might be.

For example, in her post, Allison Lynch called attention to the lack of evidence for the historicity of the Biblical flood of Noah, and hinted toward how this might affect our idea of the truth of Christianity itself. Although skepticism of the historicity of the flood is now virtually universal in progressive Christianity, very few people have ever bothered to really explore the critical/academic theological implications of this. If anything, it’s often assumed that this skepticism simply doesn’t have any broader implications. (By contrast, I’ve attempted to broach the critical theological issues in a pretty detailed way, in my post here.)

I also mentioned Gregory Dawes’ article on critical analysis of the infancy narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the issue of the theological implications of their historicity (or lack thereof). Those like the famed Catholic Biblical scholar Raymond Brown set much of the modern tenor for both progressive Catholic and Protestant theologians here, offering a hermeneutical perspective by which one can appreciate the theological significance of narratives like these divorced from any historical concerns; and yet Dawes calls attention to how much of this begs the question—or even leads to interpretive and theological inconsistency—and how it may well be that any theological significance of these narratives necessarily depends on their historicity.

Other areas and issues here are even lesser explored. For example, Lynch raises the prospect of the apostle Paul’s views on homoeroticism and sexism. 
Of course, as with other things mentioned in my post, and as Lynch also hints at too, there are various strategies that unfundamentalist Christians use to try to work around the implications of this: that Paul was simply beholden to the unchallenged assumptions of his broader culture, etc. But I think people often fail to appreciate how deeply ingrained and in some ways essential such things seem to have been in Paul’s theology and anthropology. (See my recent post “Is Christianity Fundamentally Sexist? Women in the Apostle Paul’s Anthropology: the Image of God, Once Removed?“)

For that matter, what if Paul were resurrected today, brought up to speed in terms of the developments of the last 2,000 years, and yet persisted in his anti-homoeroticism and/or sexism? What if Jesus reappeared, and opined similarly? Where, then, would be the place for a progressive Christian sexual ethics?

This hypothetical aside, while some try to parse out some of Paul’s more unsavory views from his wider theology, other progressive Christians seem disturbingly haphazard about dispensing with the authority of Paul wholesale. The phrase “well that was just Paul, not Jesus” is an increasingly common one.

(I think that in doing this, many people overlook the fact that although Jesus was clearly a radical reformer in some aspects, the New Testament gospels also present him as having some extremely conservative views on sexuality and other issues. In light of what we can glean from the views of other Jews roughly contemporary with the time of Jesus, no one should be the least bit surprised if the historical Jesus had thought of any type of homoeroticism or homosexuality as an aberration. For that matter, though, it’s true that the Jesus that reaches us from the New Testament isn’t the pure historical Jesus, unimpeded by the filter of the early church’s theology. And yet this is really the only Jesus we have.)


All together, it’s tempting to think that the other shoe hasn’t dropped yet for progressive Christianity, and that we simply don’t know whether if it will be able to come out unscathed in the end.

In many ways, it might also be tempting to think that something like the Catholic modernist crisis of the late 19th and early 20th century—which was, in truth, little more than the encounter of Catholic theology with contemporary advances in knowledge that had been made in the humanities and other academic disciplines (critical religious studies, broader advances in history, biology, and philosophy, etc.)—actually awaits Christianity as a whole sometime in the near future. Or perhaps we’re already in it.

Catholicism may have learned to adapt to the modernist discoveries and insights that challenged it—many of which it eventually and reluctantly conceded as being true; but perhaps, as Gregory Dawes and others hint toward, this was all at the expense of a true theological consistency or coherence, with many Catholic theologians now resigned to something of a liminal dead-zone in terms of how to reconcile this with the doctrines of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy, and other doctrines.

Similarly, the progressive Christianity of the non-orthodox has at least temporarily learned to live with a skepticism, or straight-up denial, of former mainstays of Biblical historicity, from the flood and the exodus to the accuracy of the birth narratives of Jesus itself.

But how much of what critical Biblical scholars, philosophers of religion, and radical theologians bring forth can it abide and still remain coherent or relevant? Even for many moderately progressive Christian denominations, acceptance of Trinitarianism or the Nicene Creed still represents the minimum in terms of a meaningful Christianity; and yet modern philosophers and radical theologians have mounted an assault on the very idea of the coherence of the Incarnation itself, and its metaphysics. (In fact, a serious opening salvo in this regard was made a few decades ago by a few prominent Christian theologians, in the volume The Myth of God Incarnate—which caused somewhat of a mini-crisis in the Anglican theological world.)

Can even progressive Christianity live with something like the emerging academic consensus² that Jesus and Paul were in some significant ways fundamentally failed apocalyptic prophets? Can it live with some of the increasingly sophisticated challenges to the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus himself, or a sophisticated religious pluralism that might undermine the significance any type of resurrection here, and along with this the notion of the exclusivity of salvation through Christ?

If people aren’t really saved through Christ at all, but potentially through any number of other ways, too—much less if the legitimacy of the notion of salvation itself is challenged—what exactly does Christianity do? Is Jesus simply just a patron psychopomp that shepherds his own flock to heaven, in the same way that the Amitābha buddha brings his flock to the buddhakṣetra, the “pure land”? And, if so, do the non-religious get a patron saint, too? Or is it that the religious and the non-religious are placed on an even playing field here, judged only by their actions on earth, not their beliefs?

In truth, and as many Biblical scholars (and some theologians) have realized, the prospect of a true salvation by works lurks tantalizingly in the teachings of Jesus himself, at least as are ascribed to him at some places in the New Testament. And maybe this is the realization that drives many progressive Christians’ emphasis on acts of social justice alone, or in simply “loving others.” But if this is the main message Jesus had to offer, there’s very little reason to accept any of the other traditional metaphysics and theology of Christianity—except perhaps for nostalgia’s sake, or for the more general and psychologically-comforting belief in an afterlife that it offers.

And here I can’t help but think of one of the most “liked” comments from a thread on the Progressive Christian channel page on Facebook:

Progressive Christianity is not, for all people, a sign that we are wishy-washy. It’s a sign that we recognize the difference between the mythology of the Christian church, the stories that are written by human hands and reflect the time period they were written in, and what it means to be a good person today

This comment seems to conceal what’s tantamount to a thinly veiled Marcionism, with Christianity sharply bifurcated between antiquity and the present. In the comment, on one hand there’s a kind of regressive Christianity that’s defined by “the mythology of the Christian church” and its original outmoded cultural context; and then there’s progressive Christianity, which seems to be defined just by being a “good person.” Of course, just how much of early Christian historical claims and theology qualifies as dispensable mythology in this person’s interpretation is unclear; but I suspect it’s quite a lot, as it is for others, too.

But is progressive Christianity really ready for a Jesus stripped of, say, all hints of divinity, and who simply stands as a symbol of what an exemplary, ethically-conscious human looks like? (Now it’s true that, against recent trends, some Biblical scholars and theologians have precisely been exploring the starkly unorthodox³ ways in which Jesus’ humanity stands out and is framed in the New Testament: see, recently, J. R. Daniel Kirk’s A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. Also on this note, however, there are now those coming out and questioning whether the human ethics of Jesus truly are praiseworthy: see Hector Avalos’ monograph The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Finally, again recall here the prospect of an all-too-human failed apocalyptic Jesus—who, needless to say, should hardly be emulated or looked up to at all.)


In the end, Allison Lynch accused “progressive Christianity” of being shorthand for “I’m too scared to let go of my faith even though I’m questioning everything I was taught to believe.” This is pointed rhetoric that certainly doesn’t appear to have engendered much sympathy from progressive Christians themselves, nor really fostered any kind of truly critical dialogue at all. (Though I think we can always count on those like Dan Wilkinson, and some other writers from Unfundamentalist Christians, to get some good conversation going in this regard.)

Of course, if people truly are dealing with, say, some sort of cognitive/psychological barrier that prevents them from taking the step toward a more thoroughgoing skepticism of their beliefs—and for various reasons, I think we should seriously consider this as a viable possibility—they can’t really be blamed for something that seems to reside outside of their conscious control. Nonetheless, however, if in an attempt to avoid the prospect of this more thoroughgoing skepticism they end up having to ignore, say, highly plausible academic facts and hypotheses, or avoid dealing with the potential broader theological/philosophical implications of these (or they just otherwise obfuscate things here), then I think this can be more blameworthy.

I’m not sure exactly how far Lynch herself wanted to take things “outside of the chapel” here. From everything she said, it seems like she thinks of progressive Christianity as just one more barrier that prevents people from going fully beyond Christianity itself—a place she thinks we must go.

In the end, however, if progressive Christianity is in some way fundamentally defined by its openness toward the critical insights and paradigm shifts of/in our collective human knowledge more broadly, and if it seeks to incorporate these into its worldview—and yet if, in the ultimate analysis, it turns out that critical knowledge is in fact essentially incompatible⁴ with any sort of meaningful Christianity—then, ironically, progressive Christianity might just open the door for its own demise. In this sense then, despite Lynch’s harsh tone and the incredulity it could engender, it might indeed be an unavoidable conclusion that progressive Christianity, or (in my own analysis) any Christianity at all, “just doesn’t work.” 

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


Notes

[1] I use the vaguer “official Catholic doctrine” here merely due to the less familiar “Catholic dogmatic theology,” etc.

[2] That Jesus and Paul fit into the category of failed “apocalyptic prophets” in significant ways is more of an unstated premise in academic work than something that’s consciously explored; but that’s beginning to change.

It’s still shocking, however, how little the theological implications of this prophetic failure have been broached. Dale Allison—who’s also done most of the heavy lifting here in terms of understanding the earliest Christian eschatology from a critical Biblical/historical perspective, too—has attempted this a little, but not in any truly sustained or comprehensive way. (Further, although he seems to display an honesty here rarely seen among other Biblical theologians in this regard, and only self-identifies as something like a Christian deist, he still seems to occasionally lapse into a sort of rationalization here that’s out of step with his actual historical conclusions. Funny enough, he himself has more or less candidly admitted this.)

I haven’t had a chance to look into it much, but some essays in the volume Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn might be another exception to this. (Particularly Christopher Morse’s “‘If Johannes Weiss Is Right . . .’: A Brief Retrospective on Apocalyptic Theology” and possibly also Joseph Mangina’s “Apocalyptic and Imminence: A Response to Christianity’s Cultured Defenders.”) As a whole, though, from a brief skim, the bulk of it looks to be characterized by an avoidance of the true ramifications of failure here.

For another theological study that’s attempting to grapple with the prospect of prophetic failure a bit more honestly, however (though, despite this, still navigating it in transparently apologetic way), see the collected essays in the volume When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia (which I’ve discussed in more detail here). For a bit more on the issue of “academic consensus” vis-à-vis  “failed apocalyptic prophets,” see my comments here.

[3] In fact, speaking of “starkly unorthodox,” one formally infallible canon from the Second Council of Constantinople—though from one of its texts that’s fully accepted only by Catholics and not, say, Eastern Orthodox—seems to suggest that denial of the omniscience even of Jesus’ human nature is formally heretical.

[4] For more on an essential incompatibility here, see my comments here—though some of this is oriented specifically toward Christian orthodoxy/Catholicism. (As suggested several times throughout this current post, however, there are more broadly applicable shared principles here.)

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