Tuesday, September 15, 2020

What Is "Progressive Christianity?"


Someone asked me this week about "progressive Christianity." I'm glad they asked, because I've read, for decades, authors who are said to be aligned with progressive Christianity.

My brief answer is: Progressive Christianity is not Real Christianity.

Why would I say that?

Because of what authors associated with Progressive Christianity declare. (Note: I am concerned with their core, dogmatic beliefs. Of course someone who calls themselves a progressive Christian can make some good statements, and ask some good questions.)

For example, John Shelby Spong. I read Spong in the 1980s. He got some attention because he denied the historical resurrection of Jesus. For Spong, Jesus was not, in history, raised from the dead.

Pause here. 

The resurrection of Christ is core, essential Christianity. Like C.S. Lewis wrote, the resurrection is Mere Christianity.

Were someone to try and sell me a car that had no engine, I'd say it's not a real car. By analogy, do not try to sell me a "Christianity" without a resurrection." The apostle Paul thinks similarly in 1 Corinthians 15:13-18. He writes:

13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Put existentially, if I did not believe in the historical resurrection of Christ, there is no way on this planet that I would self-identity as a Christian.

And, I have studied the historicity of the resurrection since 1970, when William Lane Craig was my campus pastor. My PhD dissertation at Northwestern University employed German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg's reasoning about the resurrection. 

While I am not to judge, I cannot help but wondering if someone who denies the resurrection is not actually a Christian. Since Paul, again, writes in Romans 10:8-9, If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

I've got two of Spong's books on my shelf. I read them, years ago. If this is progressive Christianity, then it's not actual Christianity.

John Hick is another writer often associated with progressive Christianity. Hick is famous (in philosophy of religion, at least) for his argument for Universalism; namely, that there are many paths to God, and that all eventually will be saved. I read his materials in the 1980s, and taught them in my MCCC Philosophy of Religion classes. Also, my friend Bill Craig did one of his two PhDs under John Hick.

Is Progressive Christianity universalistic? It seems so. Here's a website called progressivechristianity.org. The website lists "8 Points of Progressive Christianity."  

Point number 2 is this:

"We affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience “God,” the Sacredness, Oneness and Unity of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom, including Earth, in our spiritual journey."

There are so many things non-Christian in this dogmatic statement that I don't know where to begin. Note how "God" is in italics. Why? Because the word "God" is just one way of pointing to something, whatever, maybe "Oneness," which smells like metaphysical monism, even pantheism.

My academic studies tell me it is foolish to try to conflate the major religions. On this see (the Non-Christian scholar) Boston U's Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One. Prothero convincingly and correctly argues that the idea that the major world religions are different paths leading up the same mountain is sophomoric.

The claim of Christianity is that - like it or not - Jesus is the only Way to God. Any reductionist, or deconstructionist version of Christianity is not, as I see things, the real thing. And, as Prothero admits, even though he is not a Christian, it is insulting to the world religions. Even unloving towards them. 

Walking hand-in-hand with a denial of the resurrection and a belief in universalism is an eisegetical misreading of the Bible. The Bible becomes a pretext for what culture moves one to believe, rather than an authoritative narrative. (On this see, e.g., N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.) Progressive Christians have a low view of the Bible. I read them as reading into the biblical texts that current "evolving" beliefs of culture. On the other hand, I, and many New Testament scholars, are involved in a renaissance of historical Jesus studies. In many ways, this is a wonderful time to be a New Testament scholar! (And, BTW, the Bible is not just a collection of poems. For example, the four gospels are widely acknowledged as examples of ancient biographies. That is their literary genre, and they are to be read that way.)

Point #5 on the progressive Christianity website is this:

"Find grace in the search for understanding and believe there is more value in questioning with an open mind and open heart, than in absolutes or dogma."

As a philosopher, this is puzzling, even eliciting a smile. This belief statement is an absolute. This is progressive Christian dogma. And, no, “questions” are not of “more value” than answers. See, e.g., science. In science, questions may lead to answers. The quest of science is not to simply question, but to discover answers. (Any student of the philosophy of science knows that "dogma" exists in science. See, for example, Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.)

I find this entire belief (it's a statement, and statements are beliefs) incoherent, even though flowery and poetic.

More could be said, e.g., about Nadia Boltz-Weber's progressive Christianity and her affirmation of nonmarital sex, attempting to use the Bible to support nonmarital sex. Because, believe it or not, to abstain from sex before the wedding night might make the wedding bed more challenging. As if that was the point of it all, right? 

Bolz writes, "Why do you think it is that the church has tried to control human sexuality so much throughout the ages?" Wow. The fallacy here is that the question assumes the church has tried to control human sexuality through the ages. Such a broad, sweeping claim cannot be historically supported. As if people like myself, who embrace sexual purity before marriage, are doing this because we are trying to control people - ha!

I see progressive Christianity as not fitting into the biblical text, but reinterpreting the Bible through the lens of an ever-evolving culture. "Ever-evolving" seems to be a popular term for progressive Christians. So, because history demonstrates ethical cycles, perhaps Puritanism will one day make a comeback, and be popular. If that happens, I assume some ever-evolving Christians will embrace it. And the Puritan Christians will attack the Progressive Christians as being outdated and controlling. This is possible, since in naturalistic evolutionary theory "evolving" has nothing to do with necessary "progress" towards a desired goal.

If this is at all close to the truth, I confess that I cannot affirm the core dogmas of progressive Christianity. For ethical, existential, and intellectual reasons. 

And, in my study of history, I find nothing "progressive" about it at all.


And, BTW, I have read certain progressive Christians who mock evangelical Christianity. That's people like me. Not very loving, or "progressive," right? So I recommend - go deeper than the labels.