What’s up with the progressive spiritual tradition’s almost dogmatic focus on this earthly life? As much as focus on heavenly things leads to lessened commitment to liberative action in this world, I sympathize with a focus on such things as the fulness of life, human flourishing, grounding in this world, lessons in “how to be here.”
But I wonder if this “spiritual materialism” has become the new dogmatism, worth a bit of pushback. Notice the great teachers of progressive spirituality are all hammering home the notion that it is this life, and only this life, that is to be our primary focus as Christians. You’ve got, at least, and these are only the most recent and most popular, the following recent publications:
I’ve always been intrigued by, attracted to, contemplative materialism. It’s a worthy approach to the phenomenology of what is. And it is the case that quite frequently, a Christian orientation towards the afterlife justifies less than life-giving action in the present moment, or at the very least fails to fund the imagination for such.
But as much as I sympathize with what might be called a secular spiritually vibrating with the earthly life of Jesus and the world as we know it, I’m sorely tempted of late to start preaching a series on how we can be so earthly minded that we are no heavenly good.
By this, I do not mean that I’m going to revert to a strangely judgmental Calvinism, making strident and confident claims for who is saved, and who is not, and how one accomplishes a (highly individual and grossly narrow) form of salvation.
I love a majority of correctives that have come from progressive theology that critique the highly constricted soteriologies we have received. Scripture and Christian faith are completely directed towards love of neighbor, and God’s spirited presence in this mortal plain.
That being said, Paul did famously remark in 1 Cor. 15.19, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” And this was not a minority statement of Paul’s. Paul hopes for another life, a life after this one, and believes his trust in Christ moves in this direction.
Returning to small examples from each of the books mentioned above. Moltmann’s work is an attempt to correct a truncated, impoverished definition of life by reference to the living God and that God’s immersion in this world, remaining open to transcendence. But this transcendence, which Moltmann as much as any living theologian has evoked in all his work, is still in the end transcendence in reference to the festival of this earthly life.
This is an immanence-directed transcendence. Heaven, whatever it is, refers back to this life.
Similarly, Volf’s book explores religions in global perspective with an eye towards the ways in which they can contribute to flourishing over against nihilism.
Or Bass’s book, which explores the emerging shift in contemporary religiosity that shifts away from notions of a distant God and towards the discovery of God’s sacred presence “grounded” in this world. For Bass, God is now less vertical, and instead horizontal, in natural habitats and human geography “above all.”
Or Bell’s book, which I’m going to suggest is on a slightly different level from the others, because as far as I can tell, it’s just a progressive warmed-over and hipsterized evangelical appropriation of Joel Osteen and his best life now philosophy. This right here is all there is, and if you’re upper middle class and can pursue your artistic dreams, heck, this life right here ain’t half bad.
So why does this matter? Well, once I’m alerted to groupthink (and I’m not always alert, because that’s how groupthink works), I tend to find myself allergic to it. When the leading voices in the tradition I inhabit all start speaking and writing in these ways, my itchy nose says, “What’s missing here? Why so strong a push in this one comfortable direction?”
And I am not offering a negative evaluation of any of these books (with the possible exception of Bell, who I think has jumped the ship). The continuing presence of hurtful and antiquated soteriologies needs a voice over against. We need people to say in no uncertain terms that the fundamentalist notions of heaven and hell, and the TULIP Calvinist confidence in knowing who goes there, runs against not only Scripture itself, and the teachings of Jesus; it also simply does not comport with what we know of this world, and can imagine based on our current cosmologies.
Let’s take those in turn. In Scripture, you have a fundamental hermeneutics of suspicion of any kind of over-confidence about our position vis-à-vis God (Psa. 19.12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. )
As far as salvation is concerned, Jesus and Paul team up for a very high level of clarity. In Matthew 19:25 we have, “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”“
And in Paul, in his definitive statement concerning the salvation of Jews and Gentiles:
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “
For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
In other words, salvation in the end is only a God thing, and we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling only in the sense that we have to let go of it and hand it to God.
Progressive theologians might argue, if this is the case, that there is no reason to worry about salvation, the life after, because it’s all in God’s hands anyway. Yet this is not at all what Paul and Jesus are actually teaching. What is important is God’s action, God’s impossible possibility, and this (im)possibility is a state, a promise, a place, a gift, a doxology. It is so capacious that Paul finally can’t speak of it other than through praise.
And he ends with, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” Which is to say that this life, as beautiful as it might be, is lived in reference to God, and not because that makes this life better, but because all of this life will in the end be gathered up into God.
Part of the reason I have begun to care about this so much is this: I believe the progressive Christian over-focus on secular materialism as itself a spirituality, concedes an imagination for the salvation of the whole world over to those whose vision is clouded by their heretical self-righteous delusions.
In their brave attempts to speak a liberative word, a corrective to Christian faith that retains the prophetic dimensions of neighbor love, especially God’s love and so our love for the marginalized and poor, they have failed to articulate a vision of the future in consonance with the Christian faith that imagines a cosmological eschatology gathered up into God.
The result is predictable and in many ways boring. You have fundamentalist Christians of various sorts hammering out medieval notions of heaven and hell, or evangelical Christians with their shorts in a knot over minute differences concerning obsessive millennialism. And in the secular world, all you get are dystopias.
As great as so much science fiction is, and much of it really is great, it’s almost always conservative warning, depressing destabilization.
Nobody seems to know how to write a utopia anymore. And I think the reason is because progressive religiosity has put all its eggs in one basket, thinking that small political or social fixes now are all there is. Heaven is a place on earth. Of course it is. But that’s because it is on its way here from somewhere else. And that “somewhere else” is what I think progressive Christianity has lost sight of
(2 Corinthians 4:18).