An Old Testament Professor On Being Progressive

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Editor's Note: This article is part of the symposium, "What Is Progressive Christianity?" presented by the newly launched Patheos Progressive Christian Portal and in partnership with the Wild Goose Festival(June 23-26). Like us on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christianity.

When I was a teenager, growing up in Phoenix, AZ, my parents said to me, "You may stay up as late as you want, stay out as late as you want, but you must always fulfill your demands as a student and as a son." As I look back at that quite liberal way of child raising, it brings a smile to my face, since my parents were decidedly conservative when it came to matters political. They both voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 (among the few who did!), twice for Richard Nixon, both in 1968 and 1972, and twice for Ronald Reagan, both in 1980 and 1984. But when it came to child rearing they were progressive parents. And in the bargain, they created their son to be a progressive adult, whose voting record was precisely, in every case, the very opposite of theirs! If they had known the sort of monster they were fashioning, they might have acted differently!

So, I am grateful to my parents, however horrified they became watching me slide inexorably away from their views of the world. And slide I did, thoroughly toward the progressive side of things. And so, just what is that progressive thing? Perhaps a quotation or two might be helpful.

Henry George, an American reformer, said in his book, Progress and Poverty (1877), "So long as all increased wealth which modern progress brings, goes but to build up great fortunes, to increase luxury, and make sharper the contest between the House of Have and the House of Want, progress is not real and cannot be permanent." And from an Englishman, Lord Gladstone: "Liberalism (which I take to be a near synonym of progressivism) is trust of the people tempered by prudence; conservatism (progressivism's opposite) distrust of the people tempered by fear."

In these two quotations I discover the deepest roots of my progressivism. From George I take my central economic ideas; great wealth must be shared and has no value in and of itself. In short, the power of capitalism always needs to be curbed by the lives of those who do not share equally in its potent engines. One of government's most important roles is to see that wealth is not concentrated in the hands of a few. And from George I take my basic trust in people; I will not and cannot be ruled by distrust and fear when I make important decisions about my own resources, both physical and spiritual.

To be progressive is not to be bound by traditional ways and beliefs. Here my hero is Job, that loud-mouthed questioner, seated on the ash heap of his life. Job will have none of the facile nostrums of his so-called friends, mountebanks each one. He knows all too clearly that he has done nothing worthy of the disasters that have befallen him, and so roundly rejects the blame that his friends would pin on his filthy robes. But even Job, the titanic one, who calls the friends and God into the most serious question, himself is brought up short by the mysterious appearance of a God who flatly refuses to answer Job's arrogant questions by urging him to have a more careful look at the ostrich!

Whatever that means, it says that Job does not know half of what he thinks he knows, and that his obnoxious certainties about God and the universe were not viable after all. And so it is for those of us who are progressives. We must always test those things we think we know; better said we need especially to test those things we are completely sure of. And as the book of Job makes clear, the God we espouse likes that sort of thing. God at the very end of the drama turns to the chief idiot, Eliphaz, and lets him have it with both divine barrels: "You have not spoken to me what is right like my servant Job has!" Now there is a sentence to shut the mouths of all would-be conservatives who think that they know all things well. In short, they don't; in short, we don't.

6/22/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.