Progressive Christians Don’t Need Any Foundations [Questions That Haunt]

Last week, Stephen asked a great question. Here’s the punchline:

Progressives then have a problem with the God of most traditional and especially Christian formulations – especially with retribution, punishments, curses, condemnations, as well as problems with the unfairness of the treatment of women, slaves, and other outsiders. This gives us a huge problem with the bible and the god it describes, which forces us to re-think everything. Thus our problem speaking much, or coherently about God. Where do we go for information?

So, where do Christian progressives go for moral authority?

First, a note on Questions That Haunt. Obviously, I’ve struggled to keep up with the Tuesday-Friday rhythm. I’m going to keep trying to live up to this, but I may have to adjust the schedule it I can’t. QTH has become among the most popular features on Theoblogy, and I am grateful to all of you who have made it so.

On a related note, I’m going to take a different tack this week. I’m going to excerpt and comment on a couple of my favorite comments from last week’s post. They’re so good that they really get at what what I was going to say. Here goes:

Scott Paeth asked,

Related question: What is a moral foundation anyway? And why would one need one?

Scott went on to post a lengthy answer on his own blog (to which you should subscribe):

Why would I think that moral foundations may not be necessary? A lot depends on what you think it means to have a moral foundation. The question implies that a moral foundation must be some sort of absolute, unchanging, and completely infallible guide to behavior. Morality, in such a description of a moral foundation, is simply a matter of checking your behavior against the list of rules provided by whatever your foundation may be.

I agree with Scott (and Jack Caputo). We don’t need a foundation. In fact, I argued in my very first book that foundations are a modern invention — it’s a unicorn. Someone made up “foundations” even though they don’t exist. Human reasoning doesn’t work in a bottom-up kind of way, like there’s an indubitable foundation upon which we build all of our knowledge. Instead, human reasoning works like a web (I wrote, following W.V.O. Quine).

Craig points us to a related concept, “reflective equilibrium,” which was introduced by John Rawls but I came to by way of Jürgen Habermas:

The method of reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our considered judgments (some say our “intuitions”) about particular instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an acceptable coherence among them. The method succeeds and we achieve reflective equilibrium when we arrive at an acceptable coherence among these beliefs.

Indeed, this is how moral reasoning actually works. We achieve a wide, reflective equilibrium. This equilibrium is both fragile and temporary.

Take, for example, the issue of same sex marriage. Approaching the election last November, my help in the fight against the amendment was basically ignored by Minnesotans United for All Families. After several meetings with people on their faith outreach team, my contributions were not needed. It was decided that the one and only way to get people off the fence on the issue of marriage equality was for them to hear the stories of gay people. And it obviously worked. The amendment was defeated by a wide margin.

It’s true: people change their mind on the issue of homosexuality when one of their children comes out. Or their nephew or niece. Or their spouse. Relational moments like this tend to rupture a person’s reflective equilibrium.

But, I argued (to deaf ears), when people hear the stories of gay persons, they need a new theology to replace the old one. When the equilibrium gets disequlibriated, a person will attempt to find a new equilibrium. Sadly, that often means that people leave Christianity altogether.

Another example: In Kuala Lumpur, I met guy who was a former evangelical missionary to Japan. He has since lost his faith. He told me that Hell was the linchpin to his Christian faith, as taught by his family and his church. But once he become convinced that Hell wasn’t real — once he removed that linchpin — there was no need for Christianity at all.

I suppose that someone could see this as a foundation crumbling, but that’s not what happened. It’s not that this guy has no more moral system. It’s that his fragile equilibrium was shattered, and he has since found a new equilibrium that no longer includes Christianity. He underwent a theological rupture, not a relational one.

Similarly, we can all think of persons who’ve got gay children, but they have not relinquished their anti-gay theology. Their equilibrium holds, in spite of relational pressure on it. These people, I argue, need a theological rupture to disrupt their equilibrium, even more than a relational rupture. (I had this very argument with a staff member of MN United, to no avail.)

Foundations lead to fundamentals, and fundamentals cannot hold. Moral reasoning doesn’t actually work that way. By building your rationality (or faith) on a foundation, you’re building it on something that doesn’t actually exist. By recognizing that we come to our moral convictions through a process that is, just that, a process, we will not only have more understanding of others, we’ll also have more grace with ourselves.

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  • Illich

    And then we’re faced once again with the self-referential incoherent: trying to make ‘no foundation’ our new foundation.

  • Christian theology is not a stationary and finished, but a steadily advancing science; ever setting the truth of God in fresh lights and relations, discovering new harmonies in that truth, and thus building up, century by century, a temple of sacred doctrine, whose full completion it may not be given to mortal man to behold. To crystallize Christian doctrine into one final and irreversible shape, and then declare the process of evolution finished forever, would be to doom that doctrine, and the Christian church with it, to a death without a resurrection.
    Prof. E. D. Morris 19th century.
    I read this quote and think it addresses the subject as I understood it.

  • I don’t see how you are addressing this as a QTH. It haunts because we have advanced and realized that we can and should draw on many disciplines to answer questions of morality. That advancing leaves an ancient scripture that claims moral authority in a dubious position. You can claim all the processes or fragile equilibriums you want, you’re saying we have to reason this out for ourselves. You mention grace, but that we’ll have it with ourselves. You don’t address the problem this presents for Christianity; that it is no longer needed.

    • Craig

      Maybe the idea is that the issue haunts those Christians who, as with so many evangelicals, assume that it is for moral guidance that Christianity is needed. If, however, a progressive Christian thinks that his Christianity is warranted on other grounds (which, I take it, is Tony’s position), then the issue should not haunt him–at least by his own lights. Right?

      • I think I understand the position. I also see many questions raised as a result of that position. What does it then mean to follow Christ? What are you following? What makes him special? Why is his Golden Rule important? What meaning do words like “in Christ” or “through Christ” have? If you can choose not to accept Christ’s moral authority, what else can you choose not to accept and on what do you base that decision?

        These aren’t rhetorical. I know how I would answer them. I had to grapple with each of these questions and I could not reconcile them to any known church or theology. That’s the question. If you eliminate a basic Christian tenet, how do handle the consequences of that?

        • Craig

          I think I agree Lausten. Tony hasn’t ever, to my satisfaction, made sense of why Christianity is worth keeping. Christianity is not needed for morality, and I don’t think that it is needed for anything else that we must preserve. As I see it, Christianity gets rejected in the process of seeking wide reflective equilibrium. Since, as I suspect, many Christians fear this very possibility, they choose not to pursue wide reflective equilibrium. As one Christian writes on this thread, “If a teaching causes me to distrust God, I throw it out.” Taken to its extreme, such an approach is simply bad faith.

  • ben w

    Tony, I’m not sure you answered Stephen’s question (although maybe Stephen is satisfied… he can speak for himself). I don’t believe he was was asking to identify the 1 singular foundation upon which all other moral judgments arise from, but more broadly, “what constitutes and guides moral reasoning for the Progressive Christian?” To use the analogy of the web, what makes up the web? How does the web get drawn and then adjusted? Why can some inputs shake up the web/equilibrium (“my son is gay”) and other inputs get disregarded and bounced from the web (OT genocide, NT proscriptions, etc).

    I found Haidt’s TED talk very interesting, particularly because his research found that progressives (generally, but probably including the Christian stripe) actually carry a smaller toolbag of moral reasoning than do conservatives. That is, conservatives use a larger variety of moral considerations than do progressives, typically (all 5 types, rather than 2). In this way, Progressives, in practice – despite arguing to the contrary, appear to be more “morally-foundationalist” than conservatives. He even states that this was part of his movement from being a leftist to more of a centrist (socially).

    So how would progressive / emergent Christians keep from becoming reductionistic in moral matters? What keeps personal experience from driving all moral considerations? Is it just that simple, or else, how do other inputs and factors get appropriated? What helps the dad to determine that it’s fine for his son to be gay, but not fine for his son to be lazy, or a liar, or a glutton? Are there not any drivers or maps or fences for moral development? If so, what are they and how should the Christian disciple use these? (I know you weren’t writing an exhaustive answer, but I think more could be said even in this format).

    • Craig

      On the question of why the reasonable dad judges that it is fine for his son to be gay, but not to be a lazy, I expect that the answer will be illuminatingly common. A father has, on the one hand, presumptive reason to let his son to be whatever the son is, or wants to be; and, on the other hand, a presumptive reason to want what is good for his son. It is, for various obvious reasons, generally not good for the son to be lazy. Likewise, for various obvious reasons, it generally would not be good for the son to try to change his sexual orientation. Finally, it is difficult to see how being gay could be worse than being gay and trying to change one’s sexual orientation (especially on behalf of the wishes of one’s parental). It’s not clear that the son has any real choice about being gay.

      • ben w

        Craig, I think you’re grossly overstating the clarity of these moral questions (from a determination of goodness, to a definition of laziness, and all the way to complexities of sexual orientation and its potential to change over time).

        I really don’t have time to get into a discussion, so will have to let the conversation go wherever it may. But I’d ask what I think is Stephen’s original question: How much clarity is right, good, proper, allowed? And what is the basis for one’s clarity on these matters: Text? Experience? Ecclesiastical-Authority? Blogger-Authority? Rationality? Sense perception? Tradition? Group Loyalty? Basically: What is right? What is wrong? and how can we tell the difference?

        • Craig

          Ben, you can question anything and keep asking “why?” So, if you’re looking for an account that answers all such questions, you’ll always be disappointed. You’ll never have enough time. It therefore makes a lot of sense to take for granted, at least provisionally, certain highly plausible judgments. It may turn out that you later find the need to give up certain of these provisionally fixed starting points, and that’s just the method of seeking reflective equilibrium.

          Of course, what’s plausible to me might not be plausible to you. If, for example, it strikes you as implausible that being lazy is generally bad, or that many people don’t have much of a choice regarding their sexual orientation, then, by all means, start somewhere else. I’m am recommending, however, that you think twice before following Descartes, which is perhaps your inclination.

    • Ben, In response to your question “what keep keeps personal experience from driving all moral considerations? Is it just that simple, or else, how do other inputs and factors get appropriated”;

      I would suggest that the Christian doesn’t have to be constantly weighed down by coming up with a moral judgement on every single issue. Does it really make a difference in my life that I determine a right/wrong on every single behavior? I’m still called to love aren’t I?

      • ben w

        I don’t encourage anyone to spiral down the endless well of trying to consciously account for every moral decision one makes. But, I would want others to acknowledge that we’re making moral decisions (and in that sense, “judgments” at every turn). “Can I respond back to my boss with an equal level of snark?” “Can I share *this* office gossip?” “Do I require that my kid stays home with me rather than going to play with the neighborhood menace again?” What guides, informs, and instructs these questions?

        Yes, I agree you are called to love. And for the record, Tony’s quick answer here didn’t address love at all. So how does love compel or guide the Emergent Christian? What does Christian love look like? Does God give freedom to define that love, or does God have specific things in mind? I think Tony (and many of the comments) got wrapped up in an argument against foundationalism, but haven’t really given any instruction on what *should* guide and inform the emergent Christian’s moral life. I’d like to hear substance around that answer.

        • Ben, good thoughts.

          If love and the whole ‘do unto others’ thing is my starting point, than I don’t have to get bogged down by the ‘snarky’ attitude of my boss, coworker, etc.

          My responsibility is to act/live in such a way that reflects the love of god which is in my heart. I don’t need to determine whether or not my boss’s snarky attitude is immoral or not.

          Also, why do the issues you brought up have to be moral issues? There a lot of elements of Francis Schaeffer that I like and it was his way of thinking that got me onto the idea that everything isn’t a matter of morals, but more often than not things are a matter of choice.

          Your kid playing with the neighborhood menace; why does it have to be a moral issue? Isn’t it more a matter of choice and consequence?

  • EricG

    Great post (and Scott Paeth’s blog is great too). My only question is at which level the “web” gets applied – the post seems to suggest at the individual level, which seems consistent with how we make decisions. Others I have read, like Nancey Murphy, suggest that we can avoid charges that post-foundationalism is relativism by applying it at a higher level – e.g., the faith tradition level. Although different traditions have their own webs of values that are incommensurable in our post-foundationalist world, they can each be evaluated based on how they deal with their own internal challenges over time, she seems to say (borrowing from philosophy of science). But that doesn’t seem to work as well at the individual level.
    Maybe the answer is the web is applied ay both the level of the individual and the faith tradition level. But how do you have a consistent faith tradition if every individual has his or her own incommensurable web? How in particular does an emergent faith tradition handle this?

    • EricG

      I suppose that one answer to my question could be that, as Tony says, foundations never truly existed anyway, so post-foundationalism isn’t any more relativistic than what existed before. But is recognition that foundations are BS just unmasking relativism then, or does something like Nancey Murphy’s argument work to avoid the charge of relativism? If so, do we need the web to work at the faith tradition level?

  • If a teaching causes me to distrust God, I throw it out. My foundation is contained in the first two words of Jesus’ prayer: “Our Father”. All people, by virtue of birth, are children of this merciful and gracious father. Our natural sense of morality is increased if we love and serve one another as brothers and sisters.

  • Tony,

    You wrote, “By building your rationality (or faith) on a foundation, you’re building it on something that doesn’t actually exist.”

    I wonder what evidence you have for such an assertion. Would you attempt to disprove the existence of God to prove that a foundation for rationality or morality doesn’t exist?

    I think that you are well aware that as a consequence of rejecting such a foundation, you judgments lack an authoritative foundation. However, it seems that you attempt to cover over your dilemma (as others are doing) by substituting reflection or a “process,” fig leaves for a real problem:

    • “By recognizing that we come to our moral convictions through a process that is, just that, a process, we will not only have more understanding of others, we’ll also have more grace with ourselves.”

    Although a “process” might help you gain some sense of consistency and integration, there is nothing authoritative – and this entails immutability and universality – about it. A mental process cannot substitute – however clever it might be – for meaningful moral judgment any more than it can make something that is wrong, right. It cannot turn a lie into a truth.

    • Craig

      Daniel, you’ve just offered a list of assertions that are either confused or question-begging. You appear to be just assuming that adequate “authority” and proof require the foundationalist features that Tony and others reject.

    • “I wonder what evidence you have for such an assertion.”
      That would require a lengthy post, so I assume Tony is assuming that you have considered the question at least a little bit on your own. Since you made the statement, I get the sense that you haven’t. You might want to try the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They have a “Definition of Morality” page.

  • Eric

    I’m new to this whole “progressive Christianity” thing. It seems that you just believe whatever you want. What do you believe ABOUT the Bible? What do you believe IN the Bible? If you don’t hold to the moral teachings in the Bible, what do you hold true? Was Jesus was the son of God? Did he rise from the dead? Was he God at all? Is there a God?

    • I started at a progressive church in 1993. I took Jesus Seminar classes, read the books, changed words in rituals to be more inclusive and challenged leaders who were asking me to challenge them. For answers to moral questions, I eventually sought out other philosophers on my own. I still can’t come close to answering the questions you have about what progressives believe. It seems that what defines them is that each has a different answer, but they all accept the others right to those answers, within reasonable limits of course.

  • David

    I think the introduction/preface which may be read in the preview of this work speaks to this point.

    • Eric

      I’m so torn. I think evangelicals (which is my background) are hypocritical in the fact that they hold some passages as moral absolutes (i.e. homosexuality = sin) while they have no problem allowing other moral teachings (i.e. allow divorce, allow women to speak in church, etc.). If you want to hold the Bible as literal and obey it… obey ALL of it, not just what is convenient, right?

      But progressives hold no real absolutes which leads to believing whatever you feel to be right. If you hold the Bible as not literal and can interpret it however you please, why believe that Jesus was the Son of God, sent to save the world? Why believe anything in the Bible?

      It seems to me there are only 2 groups who are authentic. “Radicals” who hold to every letter of the moral law in the Bible (who most would call crazy), and agnostics who just think we can’t really be sure about any of it (who most would call not-Christians.) Choosing anything in the middle seems disingenuous.

      • Craig

        But progressives hold no real absolutes which leads to believing whatever you feel to be right.

        Eric, what “absolute” is both vital to affirm and is not, or cannot, be affirmed by progressives?

        • Eric

          So based on my understanding, to be a Christian you must believe Jesus was the Son of God, died for our sins and was resurrected. If you believe that… you believe it based on the Bible, right? So the issue isn’t what is “vital to affirm” but rather why would you affirm just the parts of the Bible that you agree with? Either the whole Bible is “vital to affirm” or none of it is. How can you pick and choose?

          • Craig

            Eric, some people might approach the Bible the way I approach the ideas of my next door neighbor: I don’t automatically believe everything my next door neighbor; I also don’t automatically disbelieve everything my next door neighbor says. Rather, like any intelligent and reasonable person, I apply a lot of filters and keep my wits about me. You probably do the same with the people in your life, as well as with what you hear on the radio and with any of the books you read. So, at least at this general level, the progressive isn’t doing anything novel or mysterious.

            • Eric

              So again… how can you believe some of the Bible and not all of it? It just doesn’t add up.

              Do you believe Jesus was the Son of God?
              Do you believe he died for our sins/rose from the dead?

              Is there any rational behind what you do and don’t believe? Or do you just believe what is convenient?

              • Craig

                So again… how can you believe some of the Bible and not all of it? It just doesn’t add up

                Really Eric? I believe some of the Bible but not all of it. For example, I believe that Jesus lived in Palestine. I don’t believe that Noah survived a worldwide flood on a boat with a breeding pair of every species of land animal on board. Why? Maybe ask yourself a similar question. Why do you believe that Joseph Smith existed, but you don’t believe everything that’s written in the Book of Mormon? Can there by anything rational here? Or do you just, as you say, “pick and choose” and “believe what is convenient”?

                • Eric

                  I’m not sure what I believe… hence the questions 🙂

                  You didn’t answer if you believe Jesus was the Son of God, died for our sins and raised from dead…

                  Believing Jesus was a real person is a far cry from believing IN him.

                  • Craig

                    Eric, I myself do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I don’t consider myself a Christian. But, the point here is general: it’s quite reasonable to believe some but not all of what is said in the Bible (or in the newspaper, or by your neighbor, etc.). Doing so obvious doesn’t mean that one to merely “picks and chooses” or “just believes what is convenient.” How is that not obvious?

                    • Eric

                      The Bible is touted as the “Word of God” – not “some words that may or may not be true. Believing just some of what’s in a newspaper and what your neighbor says is so far from believing just some of what’s in the Bible.

                      So what DO you believe in the Bible, if you don’t believe Jesus was the Son of God? I’m confused why you even are having this discussion…

              • spiritanointed

                I am guided by the Holy Spirit.
                I have a real relationship with Jesus, and so I know what He’s like.
                If a bunch of people decided to write a collection of books about my husband, I would easily sift the false from the true. The same principle applies.
                Jesus Himself challenged people’s relationship with scripture. Please do not deify the Bible, it will only harm you in the end, as all idols do.

  • spiritanointed

    I understand what you are saying here. It makes perfect sense to understand a lateral process as the way we derive our morality.
    However, I can’t help but think that Jesus must be our foundation. Not scripture, not what people have taught us to believe, but Jesus. His life, His words, His example, His personal guidance right here and now.
    I believe that no other foundation will stand the test of time.
    I think Christianity has a lot of extra stuff added to it, and as progressives we’re cutting away that fat, but I’m going to stay snuggled up safe and sound on my Rock. ♥

    • Eric

      It’s great to think our foundation must be “Jesus. His life, His words, His example…” but where exactly do you find that. It’s great to say you have a real relationship with Jesus, but he’s not walking through the park with you teaching you what he said, the Bible is.

      So it’s back to the same issue… If you don’t believe what’s IN the Bible, why do you believe in Jesus. How can you choose to just what’s written about Jesus, but not what’s written before or after that.

      • Greg

        Eric, you are asking some great questions! It is important to seek the Truth. How can we believe what we believe? Is there any absolute Truth?

        You should look up what relativism is. This blog is soaked it in. The claim that we do not have any absolute Truth is absurd. We all know you cannot walk up to a random person and shoot them in the head and that ever be ok. It is absolute. If it exists in one dimension, it exists everywhere. The problem here is that people believe we can find Truth on our own, and that is it subjective. What’s true for you, is not true for me. But the way we know what Truth is is Divine Revelation!!! Duh. The God who created the universe is Truth. Jesus himself said this. I am the way, the truth, and the life.

        Listen Eric, in this brief comment, I cannot lay out exactly my argument here, but let me end with this. The Catholic Church is where your answers will be found. (Cue outrage by most people reading this blog). But it is the Church founded by Christ. People say you only need the Bible. The Bible is indeed inerrant and inspired. However, it was not decided what the New Testament was until the councils of Rome in 382, Hippo in 393, and Carthage in 397 and 419. So was there no Christianity until 419??? Of course not, because we have Sacred Tradition, the teachings of the apostles handed down through the generations, and the magisterium, the teaching component of the Church, which allows us to deal with new issues as they arrive, and of course the teachings have to be found in Sacred Scripture and confirmed by Sacred Tradition. Jesus Christ is with his Church always. If you delve into the Catholic Church, you will find your answers. As a recent convert, I can say this with certainly.

        God bless you on your journey to Truth Eric. Do not ever settle for anything less.

        • Eric

          I’m actually chuckling right now because that answer was the only thing that actually sense in all the debating above. I still struggle with a lot of what is said in the Bible… but if you don’t start with a foundation of truth, there’s nothing to build off of.

          Thanks so much Greg.
          And honestly, thanks to everyone else who took the time to comment on my questions… even if I don’t agree 🙂