The Catch-22 of Progressive Christianity

The Catch-22 of Progressive Christianity June 2, 2015

An editorial by Damon Linker explores the “catch 22” of progressive / liberal Christianity, in the light of Ireland’s historic popular vote to approve same-sex marriage. This triumph of liberal, Enlightenment progress for equality exposed the weakening of the traditional (and conservative) Catholic church’s social influence in that country. And the logic goes: if it can happen in Ireland, it can (and will) happen eventually throughout the West. The spread of equality is inevitable–at least in settings deeply influence by both the Enlightenment and by Christianity.

The Christianity Linker applauds here is the Christianity centered on Jesus Christ (always a good place to put the emphasis). Jesus was very much interested in affirming all people’s humanity and in uplifting the 267224402_c69175af39marginalized and socially outcast. In other words, whereas Paul and others might not have always been so keen on equality, Jesus advocated it pretty consistently. I’m co-authoring a commentary on Matthew currently and I just want to say that Linker is right about that. This notion is not a imposition of Enlightenment principles upon the Jesus of the gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, the community Jesus establishes and affirms is one in which all persons are considered equal, everyone should look out for the needs of the other, and no one should claim a position of privilege over others. There ought be no “outcasts” in Jesus’ community of disciples. If anyone is excluded, it’s the religious hypocrites that deem themselves inherently or religiously better or more pure than others.

In any case, Linker also sounds a kind of warning here. As the culture of a society (and its moral/ethical principles) moves in the same direction as progressive or liberal Christianity, there will be a increasing inability to distinguish that expression of Christianity from the larger culture in which it resides. Linker writes,

As observers and critics have long pointed out, liberal Christianity tends to downplay the importance of formal worship, set liturgy, fixed traditions, and the imposition of sanctions for bad behavior. In their place, it substitutes a moral critique of existing norms and practices that is easily dispersed throughout the wider culture. That’s why it’s perfectly possible, and even predicable, that at a time when liberal Christian moral ideals are gaining in influence and cultural power, the actual churches that preach liberal Christianity are in steep demographic decline. (This might also explain why Pope Francis’s enormously popular, non-judgmental, pastoral approach to the papacy hasn’t translated into any measurable uptick in mass attendance or other forms of religious observance among Catholics.)

And therein lies institutional Christianity’s catch-22. Conservative churches are in decline because they’re so far out of step with the liberal Christian moralism that increasingly permeates public life in the West (and has helped pave the way for the stunningly rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage). But liberal churches are also in decline — because liberal Christian moralism has no need for religious institutions or forms at all.

There’s just no winning for institutional Christianity.

So the catch 22 is that, as long as the culture and the (progressive/liberal) church is moving in the same direction, and working toward goals of justice, fulness of life, equality, and so on, progressive Christians will experience that movement both as a success and as a challenge. But the challenge simply means that the institutional forms of church will need to articulate the reasons why it is still needed. And there are reasons. Tony Jones, for example, writes about this problem and suggests that the future of progressive Christianity depends upon its ability to articulate a theologically progressive vision of the gospel that incorporates the cross. That is true. An important benefit of articulating a theology of the gospel and of the cross, within progressive Christianity, is that progressive Christianity can contribute to the larger ongoing, public quest for justice, by offering a theology that is both constructive and capable of ongoing critical reflection and analysis of the larger sweep of culture. Because while there there is overlap between, say, the Enlightenment emphasis on equality and views of humanity discernible in the gospels, there are also strong points of tension. For just one example,  the roots of modern racism and ethnocentrism came from early Enlightenment anthropology. A Christian theology rightly centered on Jesus and the cross lodges a critical word against racism, ethnocentrism, but also against naive optimism. And to the list, we could also add common elements of contemporary culture that continue to require critical reflection: individualism, materialism, nationalism, etc.

Progressive Christianity, as Linker points out, is under a new kind of pressure to find its place in coming days. This may mean fewer resources–fewer people–and less power. But the possibilities are there for contributing in fresh ways to the great changes that are taking place all around us. Perhaps the best way to focus the potential distinctive contribution of progressive Christianity (that “culture” itself doesn’t always do so well): How can the Church deepen people’s relation to God, or what Kierkegaard called the “primacy of the God-relationship,” and in conjunction with that heighten their love for their fellow human beings?

The coinciding of progressive Christianity and of the larger cultural ethos need not mean the death of the progressive church. But it might mean a different kind of life than it had before.



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