Progressive Christianity in the Spotlight

Progressive Christianity in the Spotlight May 18, 2015

The Fountains United Methodist Church recently had the experience of a number of conservative churches in its area banding together to preach against progressive Christianity. They promoted the sermon series with signs and news articles promising a series of sermons on conservative fundamentals:


The Fountanins UMC church responded with a banner borrowed from another congregation:

Progressive Theology banner

Eric Alexander blogged about this at the Progressive Christianity website.

And so I thought that a post highlighting these events, and offering support for the church and the progressive Christian tradition, was in order. Rather than repeat things I’ve said before, I will direct people to those earlier posts for a basic introduction to what “progressive Christianity” means and why I self-identify as one, as well as the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel. And then, building on that, I would like to say a few more things on the subject, together with a round-up of quotes and links to recent blogging and news on this topic. I won’t offer a definition, except to say this: Progressive Christianity is a broad tradition, encompassing all forms of Christianity which honestly acknowledge that being a Christian is not merely about preserving things from the past, but innovating, revising, reforming, and creatively engaging with the present as well.

Progressive Christianity is a great option for those who feel the intellectual appeal of many of the points that atheists make, but find their exclusion of spirituality unattractive and unnecessarily reductionist. Most of the critical elements many in our time associate with atheism – challenging anthropomorphic depictions of God, not just embracing but promoting science, recognizing historical and moral issues in the Bible – are in fact borrowed from liberal Christianity.

Hemant Mehta recently took exception to this quote by Karl Rahner:

The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths and deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.

But I do think that atheism would seem less attractive an option to many if a Christianity which is skeptical of the miraculous, committed to reason, and equally committed to living lives of love and self-sacrifice. Nonetheless, not all will find it appealing – although sometimes that is because of the way their thinking has been previously shaped by fundamentalism. I wonder whether that is the case in Libby Anne’s reaction to my recent meme featuring a quote from Rachel Held Evans.

Having mentioned skepticism of claims to the miraculous, and so perhaps it is about time that I shared the interesting discussion that took place a while ago between Antonio Piñero and Thomas W. Hudgins about whether Jesus performed miracles (HT Henry Neufeld).

Progressives are open to revising theology (and beliefs more generally) in light of new evidence. Along these lines, let me share a link to a recent article about Unitarian Universalism, which included this as #6 on a list of ten things the author wanted people to know about that tradition:

We’ve revised our view of God — and of everything else.

The ancient Greek physician Galen, the so-called father of medicine, lived nearly 2,000 years ago, when the ideas in the Nicene Creed (the main creed of Christianity) took shape. Galen made advances in physiology and surgery, but I’m glad my own physicians no longer consult his recommendations. He championed bloodletting, among other archaic practices.

In the same way, we need to revise our understanding of ultimate reality so it conforms to everything else we know. We understand our experience of God (though not all of us would use that term: see #2 above) as an experience of belonging — not just to a family, or a nation, or even a galaxy, but to everything: the experience of ultimate belonging. The experience of God intimately and extensively connects us to everything — all that is present in our lives and our world, as well as all that is past and all that is possible.

In a word, God is the experience of possibility.

Jon Rowe recently highlighted the role of Unitarians in Transylvania in pioneering religious liberty.

I also thought I would share a quote here that I also included in something I recently wrote for publication. The quote comes from “Truth “Once for All Delivered” or a Living Theology,” an editorial in The Biblical World, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Apr., 1910), pp. 221-222:

[T]he duty of Christian thinkers in the present generation is to address themselves consciously and earnestly to the task never indeed abandoned, but long held in check by the doctrine of an authoritative canon of Scripture or an authoritative church, and to seek from all the sources at our disposal to frame for our day such a statement of truths in the realm of religion as will on the one hand satisfy in the fullest possible measure the data at our disposal and on the other hand meet as fully as possible the needs of our day… In this process the true greatness of Jesus and the finality of his fundamental thought will not be lost, but only transferred from postulate to assured result of investigation. But no period and no experience, certainly not that of our own day, will be without its possible contribution, and our effort will be not to return to the position of any past age, even that of the dawn of Christianity, but with fullest loyalty to the achievements of the past to push on as far as possible toward the larger light and fuller truth.

Some, like John Shuck, would even go so far as to call themselves atheist Christians.

Progressive Christianity is a broad fellowship of all of the above, and more – people committed to preserving what we find valuable within the Christian tradition, but also recognizing the need to adapt and innovate. We are committed not only to that process, but also to remaining in fellowship with others involved in the same process, even though our conclusions and adaptations may not be the same. As Richard Beck recently put it:

Disagreement is what makes community a real community.

While some conservative Christians are responding to these emphases by attacking them, some are seeking to learn from them. A recent post by Ian Paul highlighted a book which recommended greater humility among Christians, and openness to learning from those with whom one disagrees. And Eddie Arthur wrote, “if we ever get to the point of saying that only those people who agree with us and behave like us are real Christians, we are undoubtedly mistaken and need to get out more! Doctrinal rigour needs to be matched a generous and humble spirit.”

Progressive Christians, however, are open to going as far as needed, and to revisiting and revising historic beliefs. Derek Flood puts it nicely:

The simple fact is, obedience absent of reflection or understanding inevitably leads to abuse. We therefore cannot unquestioningly follow the New Testament or even Jesus. Instead, we need to learn to adopt how Jesus approached both life and Scripture, adopting his method of faithful questioning motivated by love and compassion.

As moral adults, we should not simply unquestioningly accept whatever the Bible says (including the New Testament), nor should we unquestionably accept whatever our culture says is right (whether from the left or the right). Rather, we must learn how to step into the dispute — both within the pages of the Bible, and in the public square — and make our case for what is good. This is exactly what we find Jesus doing in his time, and for those of us who call ourselves his followers, we need to learn how to do the same in ours.

The term “Progressive Christianity” also may include Christians who may be more or less conservative with respect to doctrine, but are politically progressive. On that topic, I would note Jeff Carter’s post about the allegation the president Obama disagreed with Jesus. When Jesus said “the poor you will always have with you,” it is generally agreed that he was alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11, which emphasizes that, since poverty cannot be eliminated entirely even by radical social institutions such as the Jubilee year, therefore one should never cease to be generous. It is ironic that conservative Christians attack those who actually understand what that verse means when interpreted in the context of the Bible as a whole.

Charity is not the solution to issues of poverty. Nor is leaving government and the economy uninfluenced by our presence without calling for greater justice. Systemic problems require systemic solutions, and economically progressive Christians are committed not merely to seeing the rich benevolently give some of their wealth to the poor, but to changing social structures to reduce or eliminate poverty’s root causes. A quote I recently came across by Muhammad Yunus makes the point well:

Poverty is not created by people who are poor. So we shouldn’t give them an accusing look. They are the victims. Poverty has been created by the economic and social system that we have designed for the world. It is the institutions that we have built, and feel so proud of, which created poverty. It is the concepts we developed to understand the reality around us, which contributed to the creation of poverty, made us see things wrongly, and took us down a wrong path, causing misery for people. It is our policies borne out of our reasoning and theoretical framework, with which we explain interactions among institutions and people, that caused this problem for many human beings. It is the failure at the top, rather than lack of capability at the bottom which is the root cause of poverty. 
The essence of my argument is that in order to reduce, and ultimately eliminate, poverty we must go back to the drawing board. Concepts, institutions, and framing conditions which created poverty cannot end poverty. If we can intelligently rework these framing conditions, poverty will be gone, never to come back again. 

The Moltmanniac recently shared this radical creed from theologian Dorothy Solle:

I believe in God
who created the world not ready made
like a thing that must forever stay what it is
who does not govern according to eternal laws
that have perpetual validity
nor according to natural orders
of poor and rich,
experts and ignoramuses,
people who dominate and people subjected.
I believe in God
who desires the counter-argument of the living
and the alteration of every condition
through our work
through our politics.

I believe in Jesus Christ
who was right when he
“as an individual who can’t do anything”
just like us
worked to alter every condition
and came to grief in so doing
Looking to him I discern
how our intelligence is crippled,
our imagination suffocates,
and our exertion is in vain
because we do not live as he did

Every day I am afraid
that he died for nothing
because he is buried in our churches,
because we have betrayed his revolution
in our obedience to and fear
of the authorities.
I believe in Jesus Christ
who is resurrected into our life
so that we shall be free
from prejudice and presumptuousness
from fear and hate
and push his revolution onward
and toward his reign

I believe in the Spirit
who came into the world with Jesus,
in the communion of all peoples
and our responsibility for what will become of our earth:
a valley of tears, hunger, and violence
or the city of God.
I believe in the just peace
that can be created,
in the possibility of meaningful life
for all humankind,
in the future of this world of God.

Let me conclude, for those who’ve read this post all the way through, with an episode of Last Week with John Oliver that is relevant to the topic of social structures that maintain poverty and which we regularly fail to notice, and thus fail to challenge.

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  • JasonTorpy

    I’m all for progressive Christianity. Reading the Bible as metaphor and choosing reason and empathy over the more barbaric old verses is the only way to get the right answer. Keep on interpreting.

  • John Thomas

    2 points that came to my mind on reading this:

    1. The medicine of Galen and Hippocrates and physics of Aristotle were considered unalterable truths for centuries until objective study of reality showed majority of their ideas to be wrong and human knowledge about nature of man and physical reality were updated accordingly. Same should go for the understanding of God. The concept of God (if it exists) need to be reassessed based on our current understanding of nature and how well it fits the data we currently have. Process theology, for example, is a wonderful effort in that direction in my opinion. Such efforts need to continue in the future.

    2. I came out of not identifying myself as Christian because I was told by my relatives and friends that I am no longer a Christian if I don’t accept the Trinitarian doctrine of God, deity of Christ, virgin birth, resurrection, ascension and second coming of Jesus etc. But I still meditate and contemplate on and I am constantly inspired by teachings of Jesus and Buddha without accepting them to be divine but just admiring their practical wisdom for being still relevant standing the test of time and proving that it has some truth quality to it.


      The Nicene Creed as much past its sell-by date as the physic of Galen? Without any renewed understanding of the Mystical Body your enterprise will fail. Doomed. A complete no brainer. Consigned to the dustbin of history like communism. Let me quote from John Gray, professor of politics at Oxford University. He is not a Christian but he questions the tenets of secular society. ‘To expect humanists to give up their myths would be unreasonable,’ he writes. ‘Like cheap music, the myth of progress lifts the spirit as it numbs the brain.’ And again he writes: ‘Atheism and humanism may also seem to be conjoined when in fact they are at odds. Among contemporary atheists, disbelief in progress is a type of blasphemy. Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege. The decline of religion has only stiffened the hold of faith on the mind. Unbelief today should begin by questioning not religion but secular faith. A type of atheism that refused to revere humanity would be a genuine advance.’ Professor Gray’s book is called The Silence of Animals – On Progress and Other Modern Myths (Penguin 2014). I am reading it alongside an old favourite, GK Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. Anyone at Patheos for Chesterton’s God? No, I thought not.

      • John Thomas

        If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology. At the same time, I totally understand why people take a given metanarrative to be true and lead their life according to it and I don’t blame them (that’s all we can do with short lives we have). If Christian metanarrative is the truth about the reality, fine, then I am wrong and you are right. I never claimed whatever I said was right, I was just airing my opinion. Peace.


          I will look into apophatic theology, John. My comment was not really directed at you so much as the drift in postmodern thinking. In the free interchange of ideas we will see a thousand flowers bloom. That can be a beautiful sight. And as you say we are here for such a little time. I do not think in terms of 100 per cent certainty. The early Christians spoke of faith as the Way. We walk on the edge of mystery as the British-American theologian Rosemary Haughton said in her book The Knife Edge of Experience. I would give my 100 per cent support to the social manifesto outlined above. Our societies are degraded by economic forces over which we the people have no control. The gap between the poor and the rich is growing. Here in Britain we have millions of children living well below the poverty line, ‘food banks’ being set up by caring volunteers, the super-rich enjoying tax free status – and still the electorate returned a right-wing government who will make the poor pay for the crimes of the rich. Even the most careful economists say the economic system in the West is dis-functional. And I haven’t even talked about the poor countries of the world being forced to privatise their health and social care services under economic threat from the United States. I am thinking that a Christian faith which rejects the myth of progress can do more for the powerless than a ‘progressive’ faith. I am not saying you must all recite the Nicene Creed whether you believe it or not. What I am saying is that abandoning it will leave you adrift, vulnerable to all the idols of secular society. Ireland gave up its pagan gods under the radical power of the Word of God brought by the Celtic missionaries. To re-christianise the West will mean rediscovering the Mystical Body of Christ. It will mean convicting the world of sin. It will mean leading the people to the one who had no sin and who said, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ Os Guinness wrote about this 40 years ago in his book The Dust of Death. We didn’t listen to him. On YouTube you can see three Roman Catholic lay theologians speak on this – see ‘Franciscan University Presents Evangelical Catholicism’. My prayers.

          • John Thomas

            I totally sympathize with you. I am not one of those who want Christianity to wane. I believe that it has tremendous positive impact in the lives of millions of people. But I am more in support of progressive versions of Christianity promoted by the likes of Marcus Borg, Richard Rohr, John Shelby Spong etc which involves spiritual transformation in the lives of people rather than current Evangelical version that is dominant in US which insist on assertion of orthodoxy to be acknowledged as Christian and damnation of those who don’t.

            Now I believe that we can have modified understanding of Trinity and dual nature of Christ that is more rationally appealing to me and hence I am more sympathetic to, personally. For example, I believe that concept of Trinity can be better rationally explicated by input from the understanding in Stoicism and Advaita Vedanta. Stoics believed in Logos (rational intelligence), the principle which orders nature as cosmos from chaos and Pneuma, the principle which continuously animates the nature. If you add to that Stoic understanding, self of the cosmos (understood as Brahman) as proposed by Advaita Vedantists or Ground of Being as proposed by Aristotle, we get our three persons in the Trinity. So if all beings have a true self as Advaita Vedantists say, then we can be thought to have a self, rational intelligence and life in us in our one being, similarly God as self of cosmos can also be thought to have a Logos that orders cosmos and Pneuma that animates the cosmos. Similarly Advaita Vedantists believe that entire creation is the manifestation of divine Brahman and purpose of human life is to manifest that divinity in our lives. In that sense, human beings can be understood as combination of both human and divine natures (spiritual and material) and Jesus can be understood as one of those human beings who manifested that divinity in his life maximally much similar to Buddha. In the same sense, I treat not only Jesus, all philosophers (both moral and natural) who have advanced our understanding and led us closer to truth (both moral and natural) following rational contemplation on our experience as manifesting an element of divinity in their lives and hence logos incarnate in some sense. Whenever I say something like this, I am told by Evangelical Christian friends that I am saying something that is far off from what orthodox Christians believed for centuries and so I digress and let them believe whatever that is comfortable to them. But that is the only understanding of Trinity and dual nature of Christ that makes some sense to me personally.

            Regarding your concern about decline in morality which might accompany decline of Christianity, I agree with it to some extent. I think that general populace need to be instructed in some ethical instruction as they grow up. If Christianity does that job well, I am all for it. But Christianity is not the only trade in town for it (it might be the most popular). Buddhism and Stoicism has good moral code that can lead a person towards moral perfection. Personally I follow Stoicism more as I find moral code of Stoicism bit more satisfying than that of Christianity, but then that is a personal issue.

            Just like you, I am too concerned about increasing gap between rich and poor. I am not a Communist in the sense I don’t believe in rule of proletariat or rule of one party ((rather rule of all people irrespective of their characteristics), but I am a socialist in the sense that I believe that we as a community need to come together to ensure that there is social support for weaker sections that live amongst us and that would need contributions from every member of community proportional to how much they can afford to contribute based on their income. But unfortunately socialism is badly caricatured as communism and something that we never should pursue in the country where I live.

          • JACK HAGGERTY

            Thank you John for the time and trouble you have taken here. It will take me a little time to digest your sources. I was most interested in your allusion to Advaita Vedantists. Just yesterday I purchased a copy of David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Experience of God’ (Yale 2013). As I am sure you know he is an Eastern Orthodox scholar of religion. He says there is an old Scholastic distinction between the religion tradition of ‘de Deo uno’ and ‘de Deo trino. And he argues for a definition of God that can be found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Vedantic and Bhaktic Hinduism, Sikhism, late antique paganism, the various Mahayana formulations of Buddha consciousness and aspects of Taoism. I read a little in this vein in my youth in the 1970s when I was briefly a member of a meditation group. Quite soon I came to see the group’s master, the late Chinmoy Ghose as an utter charlatan, though members of his groups are very sincere in their spiritual search. I can see how many intelligent people in America are in revolt against Christian fundamentalism. I am not sure how I should feel myself about this cultural issue if I were living in the USA. My interest in the Puritans came through my belated of discovery of Doctor Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Iain H Murray. Slowly I have come to think that the Puritans offer riches far deeper than the shallows of progressive theology. But I know of no group in Scotland interested in the Puritans outside of my friends in reformed churches. John Calvin stands in similar isolation. Calvinist Scotland (if it ever even existed outside of a few scattered pockets) is dead and gone. You could speak about Vedantist thought or Taoist philosophy in any public library in Scotland and draw a good crowd. Any lecture on Calvin, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, John Elias or Bunyan would draw just a handful of people and maybe a stray dog. The secular French have disowned John Calvin. Robert White who lectures in French at Sydney University has a good essay in the June edition of the Banner of Truth Magazine on the challenge of translating the great Genevan reformer. Another French scholar Kathy Childress has beautifully translated Calvin’s sermons on Galatians. THL Parker’s translation of Calvin’s commentary on the Gospel of John is one of my favourite late-night reads. Strange to think I should have gone to my grave without having read a single line of Calvin and the Puritans, were it not for Messrs. Murray and Lloyd-Jones. To be reformed today in Scotland, England or Wales is a rather lonely business. (Northern Ireland is in a better position.) We in Scotland have great theologians such as Donald Macleod and the late Geoffrey Grogan but they are not part of the public discourse. The motto of my native city used to be ‘Lord let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of thy Word and the Praising of thy Name’. That too has died along with our Christian past. I keep thinking of that haunting statue in France of William Farel. He holds the open pages of the Bible high above his head. But who notices?

  • Michael Wilson

    James, I find myself attracted to progressive Christianity because I think their is wisdom in Christian teaching and it is in Christianity as a vehicle for social improvement not a theological formula for immortality. I just happen to think encouraging free-market economics eliminates the social conditions that cause poverty better than redistribution systems.

    That being said, my reason for this post is Jeff Carter’s interpretation of the periscope 😉 concerning you will always have the poor. Here I think is an example someone changing the meaning of a biblical story to preserve the bible’s value rather than admit that not everything in the bible is good advice. If Jesus wanted his disciples to take from this that they should always be helping the poor, then he is condemning the action of the woman who dumped the perfume and agreeing with those that thought it should have been sold. But clearly Jesus is defending the woman, not by suggesting his disciples shouldn’t help the poor because ut us futile (and frankly I see very few instances of Christians of any stripe interpreting the passage this way) but because they will always have an opportunity to do do, and will. Now, I don’t know if this was a real scene and Jesus is being a megalomaniac, but he wouldn’t be the first champion of the oppressed to fall into this trap, or if this is an invention to justify flagrant spending on Jesus, or perhaps the Church. Many take it to mean that it is ok to splurge on a luxury, be it a birthday party or Mars Lander. That isn’t bad advice I think.

    • My understanding of the statement in context is that this is a unique opportunity to do something to Jesus that will never occur again, while there will be plenty of other opportunities to help the poor. And so this unique opportunity for a unique act of devotion which will mitigate the dishonorable burial given to Jesus takes then priority over something that one can do on another occasion. One may still disagree with the viewpoint – and it probably reflects Christian attempts to justify the action after the fact. But I think these contextual considerations still need to be part of how we understand the text.

      • Michael Wilson


      • John Thomas

        Totally agree with what you said. From what I read about the conclusions of various critical New Testament historians about gospel accounts, many of them believe that the earliest accounts of Jesus might have ended at the point where he died at the cross. That might have been the earliest tradition. If that is right, account of the woman anointing Jesus could be written for making up for the fact that Jesus did not get a honorable burial.

      • Frank

        Well said. And even today there are unique opportunities for unique acts of devotion.

    • Andrew Dowling

      I think you have to look at Mark’s larger motif. This is not some historical story passed down from generations; this is a Markan creation. The woman is annointing Jesus because she, unlike the Disciples, understands that Jesus’s destiny is to suffer and die so that He can “ransom the sins of many.” The importance of suffering is paramount to Mark. Thus she gets pretty much the only unqualified praise of anyone not named Jesus in the Gospel; she “gets it” when no-one else does. The statement about the poor is kind of beside the point; it’s not the central part of the passage.

      • Michael Wilson

        Thanks that explains a lot! But the author does seem to think that the audience will find this extravagance appropriate in the circumstance. I could imagine in reality the woman would not have known he was going to die and so the act would have been scandalous!

  • WTH! Why do they have the scare quotes around progressive and not Christianity? Wouldn’t that make more sense?

  • Also, does this just mean Progressive theology is a contradiction in terms (about the picture and atheist Christianity)?

  • Gary

    Good for the Fountains UMC. If I lived there, I’d go to their church, if only to ignore the other churches there.

  • Also, a textile+apparel (hereafter, just to be referred to as just textile) industry is pretty much the first industry any developed country started with. America had it in the 1840s, Korea had it in the 1960s, Britain had it in the 1780s, Japan had it in the 1880s, China had it in the 2000s, and Mauritius, Bangladesh, and Vietnam and more hopeless countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Haiti have it today. Cambodia is just beginning on its process of industrialization. There’s nothing wrong with having a sizable textile industry unless you’re a rich country. Even in the early 20th century, Britain exported 80% of the world’s textiles, but that was then, and any rich country worth its salt has long graduated from textiles, due to more readily available wage labor in the poorer nations. And the fact the textile industry is returning to the U.S. is worrisome.

    Obviously underage workers are expected to be employed at many of these plants. Where do you expect them to go? Isn’t the common worry that kids these days don’t have enough work experience? I find it wonderful that an industry which formerly was largely confined to rich countries has now spread to poor ones. If there is any royal road to becoming a rich country, textiles are certainly on it. Obviously, however, not all textile exporters can be expected to become rich due to the inferiority of their laws and institutions. The textile industry does not “maintain poverty” in any country.

    • Nick G

      If there is any royal road to becoming a rich country, textiles are certainly on it

      Typically ignorant libertarian bilge. Becoming a rich country requires acquiring capacity in the most technologically advanced economic sectors. Two centuries ago, that meant textiles. Now, it means information technology, biotechnology and finance.

      • So, how do you propose Haiti turn into Japan overnight?
        I’m really curious.
        Textiles weren’t the most technologically advanced sector when Korea began to be a major exporter of them, either.

        • Michael Wilson

          In the great sweat shop debates I find it interesting that people have such little historical memory. They forget how Korea, among other nations, were once considered places full of poor people that made cheap cloth, nick nacks, and crap.

          • Nick G

            I’m not sure who you think has forgotten that, but I suspect I have a much better historical memory than you. South Korea benefited greatly from being a key anti-communist ally of the USA, which ensured that it received large amounts of development assistance and foreign capital. Its governments (under both dictatorship and democracy) imposed import tariffs and “interfered” in investment decisions on a large scale, contrary to libertarian dogma, directing economic activity increasingly toward high-tech sectors; but even in the 1960s and 1970s, mid-range sectors such as shipbuilding and construction were key to economic growth.

          • Michael Wilson

            But it moved up. India is progressing to. The notion that third world nations are set to be the providers low value goods is false. I don’t think this progress is sped up by freeing workers their from their crummy low wage manufacturing jobs.

          • Nick G

            South Korea moved up because its position in the global capitalist system allowed it to. I don’t say all poor countries will remain poor, but capitalism appears to require a division into “core” and “peripheral” countries – the former being the site of the most technologically advanced sectors, the latter providing raw materials and cheap labour (Russia, since the counter-revolution, has been moving towards the periphery, to become a primary producer), and whether a specific country manages to move corewards is down to its history and its geopolitical position at least as much as to any policies it adopts. Large countries have greater possibilities for autonomy, and India may manage to follow China at least into the middle-income group; we’ll see. But its current progress results in large part from the existence of a large educated and English-speaking stratum of the population – the result of its history, and of the educational programmes of the early post-independence period.

            Tl;dr version: you need to consider the dynamics of the global capitalist system as a whole to understand anything about macroeconomics.

          • Michael Wilson

            Nick, the Marxist arguments to explain the failures of its predictions starts to feel like conspiracy theories and pseudoscience after a while. The division of core and periphery is pure fantasy.

          • Nick, how do you explain the post-Pinochet success of Chile and the pre-1973 success of Greece?

          • Yes, South Korea was very interventionist in its early stages of development. But it removed a lot of these direct interventions in later decades, as they became less useful. Hong Kong was always pretty lassiez-faire. And North Korea received at least as much foreign assistance and went nowhere after it was cut off. South Korea surpassed the North in pretty much all indicators from the 1960s to the 1980s (at various points for each indicator).

        • Nick G

          There is no way of turning Haiti into Japan overnight, nor did I in any way suggest that there was. Gross disparities in national wealth appear to be a central feature of capitalism, since they have persisted for centuries; and a key part of those disparities is that rich countries focus on high-technology sectors, while poor ones supply raw materials and cheap labour.

          Japan is in fact one of very few states that has managed to join the “rich club” in the last century (other than by the lucky chance of having a very large amount of natural resources per capita, like Saudi Arabia). The map here indicates that the only others are South Korea, Taiwan (about which I’m rather sceptical, having been there) and Singapore. All these are in East Asia, and a nodding acquaintance with economic history would tell you that this area was the most technologically advanced and commercialised part of the world outside western Europe in 1800. The “inferiority of laws and institutions” is a convenient excuse for persistent gross inequalities, but when Saudi Arabia gets rich, and the greatest achievements of poverty reduction in history have happened in Communist China, it doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination as more than a minor explanatory factor. However, it’s certainly true that no country has ever industrialised without the advantage of import tariffs to protect its nascent industries (this includes Britain, which excluded Indian textiles, and Hong Kong, which benefited from UK-imposed tariffs on its competitors).

          • Michael Wilson

            China rather purposefully began free-market reforms a while back that coincides with its growth. Asia’s entry into the first world is no small thing. Clearly south America and Africa have further to go, but are still better than a century ago. Gross disparities in wealth have always existed. Adopting liberal capitalism accentuates this as the adopting nation quicky surpasses neighbors. But as we see, growth has slowed for the first tier and is going fast in new adopters.

          • Nick G

            China’s economy is still around 50% state-owned, and that includes key sectors such as energy, transport and finance – that is not “liberal capitalism” by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, no country in the last century and a half has industrialised without heavy state intervention: extensive public educational programmes, import tariffs and direction of investment. Try looking at the real world for a change. Incidentally, China’s unprecedentedly rapid growth over the past three decades also probably has a lot to do with the (thoroughly illiberal) “one-child” policy, which greatly reduced the dependency ratio; growth is now starting to slow as that ratio begins to rise again as the population ages.

          • Michael Wilson

            Thanks Nick, that 50% move toward privately owned business is big step toward a free market over previous conditions. That states involve themselves in supporting their business doesn’t really alter my point. So you think China’s push for free market reform didn’t help and the growth was due the one child policy?

          • China’s percentage of the population between 15 and 64 in 2010: 74% (peak)
            In 1980: 60%.
            Yup, that sure has “a lot to do with” a 21-fold increase in real GDP per capita.

            By God, Nick. I expected a lot of your arrogant ignorance here, but this just takes the cake.

          • “There is no way of turning Haiti into Japan overnight, nor did I in any way suggest that there was.”
            “Gross disparities in national wealth appear to be a central feature of capitalism”
            -And socialism. And pre-capitalistic societies. And pretty much every system man has thought of.
            “indicates that the only others are South Korea, Taiwan (about which I’m rather sceptical, having been there) and Singapore.”
            -I’d add Italy. Maybe parts of Austria. Maybe Malta and Ireland. Israel?
            “All these are in East Asia, and a nodding acquaintance with economic
            history would tell you that this area was the most technologically
            advanced and commercialised part of the world outside western Europe in 1800”
            “The “inferiority of laws and institutions” is a convenient excuse for
            persistent gross inequalities, but when Saudi Arabia gets rich, and the
            greatest achievements of poverty reduction in history have happened in Communist China, it doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination as more than a minor explanatory factor”
            -Yeah, it does. Natural resource windfalls are, as you’ve stated, exceptional, and who says Communist China has laws and institutions any worse than those of Haiti, Indonesia, or South Africa?
            “However, it’s certainly true that no country has ever industrialised
            without the advantage of import tariffs to protect its nascent
            industries (this includes Britain, which excluded Indian textiles, and
            Hong Kong, which benefited from UK-imposed tariffs on its competitors).”
            -Correlation is not causation. And you haven’t even shown a correlation. No country has industrialised without air pollution and corruption, either.

          • Nick G

            Interesting that all your non-East-Asian examples are members of the EU. Some of the east European additions might join that group. Singapore was a major trade centre (founded to be such by the British). According to the wikipedia article on the country;

            The opening of the Suez Canal
            in 1869 caused a major increase in trade between Europe and Asia, helping Singapore become a major world trade center, and turning the Port of Singapore into one of the largest and busiest ports in the world. Prior to 1965, Singapore had a GDP per capita of $511, then the third-highest in East Asia.After independence, the combination of foreign direct investment and a state-led drive for industrialisation, based on plans by Goh Keng Swee and Albert Winsemius, started the expansion of the country’s economy.

            So, already with good prospects at independence, due to its position in the global capitalist system. This is one of my main points: that a country (particularly a small one) can’t just adopt the right institutions – or start making textiles – and expect to become rich. Both past history and current geopolitical economic position, as well as natural resources, make a huge difference.

            Natural resource windfalls are, as you’ve stated, exceptional

            I didn’t state that, and it’s not true. The United States, Canada and Australia all benefited from vast natural resources in proportion to their size – and as it happens, mostly stolen from previous inhabitants. Moreover, it’s arguable (see Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy) that the industrial revolution could only happen in Britain because of its readily accessible coal, and access to the natural resources of the Americas. Certainly such resources don’t guarantee wealth, and – at least for a few countries – have not been necessary, but they sure help.

            And you haven’t even shown a correlation. No country has industrialised without air pollution and corruption, either.

            Since you haven’t produced a counterexample, I’ve done a lot better than that: I’ve produced strong evidence that import tariffs are an absolute prerequisite for industrialization. As for your other correlates: pfft. On the whole, highly industrialised countries are probably the least corrupt, and air pollution is clearly a result of industrialisation, while the imposition of import tariffs has, AFAIK, always preceded it.

          • “So, already with good prospects at independence, due to its position in the global capitalist system.”
            -It’s always very easy to screw this opportunity up; c.f., Burma and the Philippines.
            “The United States, Canada and Australia all benefited from vast natural
            resources in proportion to their size – and as it happens, mostly
            stolen from previous inhabitants.”
            -So did Argentina. So did the DRC.
            “that the industrial revolution could only happen in Britain because of
            its readily accessible coal, and access to the natural resources of the
            Americas. Certainly such resources don’t guarantee wealth, and – at
            least for a few countries – have not been necessary, but they sure help.”
            -As Adam Smith pointed out, the British North American colonies were fast-growing in population, but they weren’t rich-that is, they didn’t have a very high GDP or GDP density. The U.S. economy did not surpass the British until the 1850s. Coal, on the other hand, was important.
            “I’ve produced strong evidence that import tariffs are an absolute prerequisite for industrialization.”
            -No you didn’t -Spain and Russia had high tariffs in the 19th century, too.

          • Nick G

            Nothing you say actually counters any of my points, except with regard to Pomeranz. You’ll have to read him for the full story, but he claims that the most advanced regions of China were on a par with those of Europe (in terms of standard of living, commercialization, security of property…) until around 1800; coal and colonial land enabled Britain (and then other western European countries) to focus on labour-saving rather than land-saving innovation. I should say I don’t think he has the whole story, but his argument that the industrial revolution required access to coal and colonies is convincing.

            As for your last sentence, I said import tariffs were a prerequisite for industrialisation, not that they guaranteed that it would happen.

          • China, at least by the 1780s, had generally low real wages, as both Adam Smith and modern research attest. Smith also says property rights were fairly insecure in the China of his day, resulting in 12% interest rates being common, but Smith never visited China, so I don’t know if he’s telling the truth. The colonies were always marginal to the British economy, and by the 1780s, the British population had begun to boom and the U.S. had become independent, which negated any possibility that the British population burden would become significantly lighter due to colonies. The Industrial Revolution also began in Britain, which was much more population-dense than the U.S., not the U.S.

            Smith says coal prices tended to have large regional variability, so I think coal was important for British industrialization.

          • I didn’t have enough time in the morning to address the last part of your comment. America was pretty corrupt when it was industrializing (e.g., spoils system, machine politics), as was Taiwan. Singapore had suppression of free speech and one-party rule, which is a form of institutional corruption. China has a lot of corruption today, as did Italy between the 1910s and 1980s. I know less about the U.K., but I’m sure there was quite a bit of corruption there during its industrialization as well. Also, the fact industrialized countries are generally less corrupt today tells us little about what happened earlier -America had many more trade restrictions before the 1930s, for example, so looking at its things as they exist now tells us little about what happened earlier.

            In any case, Japan began on its process of industrialization with a U.S.-mandated lack of protective tariffs from 1858 until 1894, with full tariff autonomy only being restored in 1911. Even the 1894 treaty with the U.K. mandated low tariffs on several key British manufactures:

  • If the textiles&apparel industry “maintains poverty”, so do all jobs poor people have.

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    The passage from Deuteronomy actually says that there will always be poor people in the land (of Israel), but the same chapter promises that there will not be any poor among the people (of Israel) if they follow God’s commands. This included the command that the people love strangers, those not of Israelite descent who would flock to the land and settle there seeking a better life. If all Israelites were rich that would likely draw more poor foreigners, who must be welcomed and entitles to gleaner’s rights and a portion of the tithes from the first fruits of the fields.

  • Jordan Hurley

    If Progressive Christianity doesn’t believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Then they aren’t Christian.

    • Andrew Dowling

      What progressive Christians would say is what does “Son of God” mean? Because if we’re going to be honest and look at phrases in the Bible through the language and norms of the people who wrote them (through higher criticism) and not layered with presuppositions from later theology, one finds out the term “Son of God” doesn’t mean what a lot of Christians assume it means.

      • Frank

        It means exactly what it says. Father, son.

        • Cardunculus

          It is not that simple – historically, there have been quite a number of theological kerfuffles about the very question of what “Father, Son” exactly mean.

          Just to name a few positions (and I’m not even vaguely attempting to be exhaustive here, and my summaries are hastily-written and quite possibly very imprecise), Christians have supported:

          Arianism: The Son is the first being created from the Father, before time began. He is distinct, subordinate and inferior to the Father, who is the only true God; but all things that the Father does, He does them through the Son.

          Adoptionism: Jesus began his life as nothing but a human being – an unusually gifted one, possibly, but not one metaphysically different from anyone else. Because of his piety and humility, God decided to adopt him as His son after his baptism in the Jordan, thus making him partake of His eternal and original divinity.

          Modalism: There is only one God. The “Son” and the “Father” (and the “Spirit”, for that matter) are simply ways in which we, as humans, use to talk about some aspects of His activity – we say that the “Father” created the world and the “Son” died on the Cross, but that’s like saying (forgive the irreverent comparison) that “the President” addressed the Congress and “Barak” had a sandwich.

          Nestorianism: Jesus is a composite entity. In Him coexist, separately, a “Divine Person” which is nothing but the Logos, the uncreated Wisdom of God, and a “Human Person” which is a simple human being, not metaphysically different (if far more saintly) from you or I.

          Eutychianism: Nestorians have it completely wrong. In Jesus, the human nature has been absorbed by the divine nature, “like a drop of honey in the sea”. While in some sense it is not incorrect to say that Jesus is a human being, His Divine, Uncreated nature has overwhelmed His human aspects pretty much beyond any possibility of recognition.

          Miaphysitism: Nestorians and Eutychians have it both completely wrong: in Jesus, the human and the Divine are “united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration”. They cannot be considered separately, but it is also incorrect to claim that Jesus’ human nature has been “absorbed” by His Divine one.

          Dyothelitism: Nestorians, Eutychians and Miaphysites are all wrong – the latter, in particular, fail in that they do not emphasize sufficiently the distinction between Jesus’ humanity and his divinity, whereas Nestorians overemphasized them. Christ possessed “two natural wills and two natural energies, without division, alteration, separation or confusion.” Note, I am pretty sure I do not understand very well the nature (heh) of the distinction between Nestorianism, Miaphysitism and Dyothelitism, so take these summaries with a healthy handful of salt.

          Death of God: In Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross, the Father – the transcendent entity that created the world – literally died and ceased to exist; and, with Him, died all possibility for power to be in any sense sacred, or for sincere devotion towards that which is beyond our world. What remains, what rose again, is Christ’s immanent presence in the world, in particular in the poor and the suffering. In this sense, Jesus’ death and resurrection are the final stages of God’s incarnation into the world.

          Process Theology (in its Christian form): Traditional Christian theology overemphasized the transcendence of God and deeply misunderstood the nature of His Power, possibly because of the influence of Greek Philosophy. God is not some sort of distant wizard/ruler thing, let alone some ultimately unknowable and infinitely transcendent (if somehow personified) “ground of reality”. He’s the immanent, non-coercive, relational force that seeks to bring into existence the potential for beauty and complexity inherent in our world; and the real meaning of saying that Jesus is “his Son” and “his Word” is that Jesus is the ur-example of perfect obedience to this non-coercive, hyper-benevolent God.

          • Frank

            No doubt people have been trying to force their own biases on the text and continue to do so in many different areas. And yet this is as simple as father and son.

          • Cardunculus

            I do not know which of the above interpretations (if any) you personally subscribe to. But I fail to see how any of them (or any other I know of) is “obviously right” given the textual evidence.

            I think that, with a bit of effort, I could argue in favour or against any of them – and, what’s more important, Christians far more learned and devoted than me have done the very same already!

            Christology is many things – fascinating, frustrating, politically charged – but “simple” is definitely not one of them.

          • Nick G

            What utter tosh. The doctrine of the Trinity holds that the Father and the Son are “the same substance” and co-eternal. Show me another father and son of which those things are true.

          • Frank

            Show me another God.

          • Nick G

            I can’t, because no gods exist. But the point is that you claimed the relationship is “as simple as father and son”, and now you imply that it is unique, and that comparisons with actual fathers and sons are invalid. Typical obscurantism.

          • Mark

            > Show me another father and son of which those things are true.

            The trinitarian doctrine is a strange bit of kabbalah, but on the classical doctrine, what Frank is saying is supposed to be cogent.

            The relation of generation ‘in the divine’ is generation proper. The relation between an amoeba and either member of the pair of amoeba that arise from it, or between either parent of a human being and the human being that comes to be, are secondary, analogical cases.

            In all these cases there is an ‘ousia’ that is the same, viz. respectively God, amoeba, human. The difference is that though there can be ‘other’ “in” God, there can’t be another God, it is excluded conceptually.

          • Frank

            I am sorry you are unable or unwilling to see the truth of God. You are the one who loses.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Oliver’s piece and his many other brilliant exposes show why the church is irrelevant in 2015. All of these entrenched aspects of systemic injustice . . causing the breakup of families, death, starvation. And what is making God angry? . . gay marriage. Cue the bagpipes.

    • Frank

      God is grieved over the attempt to make holy the union of two people of the same sex and the complete disregard for His created order for family and children. He also grieves over starvation, violence and many other things.

      • Nick G

        So why doesn’t he put a stop to them? He is supposed to be omnipotent, after all.

        • Frank

          Free will.

          • Nick G

            A typical non-explanation. No coherent account of free will in the necessary sense has ever been given, nor has it been explained why it is so desirable that it justifies the agony of quadrillions of sentient beings. Is there free will in heaven? If so, it is clearly compatible with an absence of suffering and evil. If not, it is clearly not necessary for the best of all possible situations.

          • Frank

            I’m sorry you cannot face reality.

          • This kind of short insulting comment is unhelpful. Please try to keep comments substantive!

  • Jerry Lynch

    The main difference I would note is the tendency of Progressives to listen and of Conservatives to tell. In general, the Progressive will say, “This is truth, as I see it now: tell me more.” and the Conservative will say, “This is the truth, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow: Listen.” Perpetual Seeker versus, in a way, Professional Knower. Each finds these dominant characteristics to be flawed.

  • Sheila Warner

    Regarding the video at the end: I heard a Conservative say that trying to end child labor overseas is the wrong thing to do, b/c the kids make more money in a sweatshop than they can anywhere else. What does that tell you? Who runs the world’s economies? What about our foreign policies, specifically when it comes to trade agreements with third world countries? It’s nauseating, isn’t it?

    • Why is it nauseating?

      • Sheila Warner

        Sorry, I just saw this. Multibillion dollar corporations could certainly afford to provide safe work places and good wages. We don’t insist on that with our trade policies. It’s all about how the deal will help us.

        • And you could “afford” to donate half your income to starving Congolese (if you were willing to live on even a hundred times their annual income). It’s not a matter of “afford”.

  • Nick G

    Most of the critical elements many in our time associate with atheism – challenging anthropomorphic depictions of God, not just embracing but promoting science… are in fact borrowed from liberal Christianity.

    There’s some truth to that, but these elements actually predate Christianity; most notably in the ideas of the ancient Greeks, as far back as the Ionian school of the 6th century BCE, but also in some of the ideas of Chinese Taoists and probably in the Indian Carvaka school of philosophy, although that is known almost entirely from works by its opponents. It was the rediscovery of ancient Greek philosophy and proto-science* – and the resulting heroic but vain attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Paul of Tarsus – that set western Christendom on the intellectual** road to both liberal Christianity, and modern science.

    *Some fragments of this remained available throughout the western “Dark Ages”, but only with the influx of much more from the Muslim world and Constantinople from the 11th century onward did substantial critical endeavour take hold.

    **Of course this was not a purely intellectual process: broader socio-economic processes and technological advances formed the necessary underpinnings.