Thursday, January 28, 2021

Deconstructing Progressive Christianity: Point #2



I am a husband (to Linda, since 1973). A father. A father-in-law. A grandfather! A pastor (since 1970). A professor (taught at several seminaries around the world; taught philosophy at Monroe County Community College for 18 years). A philosopher, and a theologian. (PhD, Northwestern University, in Philosophical Theology, 1986).

I have studied people, and biblical and theological issues, and culture, for over fifty years. I am a constant reader and observer. 

I present to you a series of posts I am calling "Deconstructing 'Progressive Christianity.'" Here are reasons why I could not be a "progressive Christian." The first two posts are especially about this, using semantics and some deconstruction thrown in. (See here.) Post #1 was: "'Progressive' is not a word that fits into a Christian eschatological worldview." Post #3 will be - "Progressive Christianity Wrongly Diminishes Confidence in the Bible." In the third post I will critique progressive Christianity's approach to the Scriptures. I am still putting together Post #4, and maybe a fifth post.

A final note before I begin this first post. I have read, as a theologian myself, several of the theologians who are usually associated with progressive Christianity. (Postmodernism, deconstruction, critical theory, linguistic semantics and philosophy of language (my dissertation was in this area), and, yes, political progressivism.) Some of them have written books and articles that I have benefitted from. But then, along the way, some of them turned away from some core beliefs that I see as important to our faith. Some of them were "deconverted" from evangelical Christianity. That has saddened me. 

I want you to know that there are many theologians and biblical scholars, such as myself, who have not departed from what we see as essential. This is not out of ignorance. We are quite familiar with, and have wrestled with, all the questions progressivists raise. And wow! We see things differently. Which means: we disagree with each other. Which means: we think each other is wrong about some things. (For example, see Brian McLaren's vicious disagreement with The Nashville Statement, where he even brings in the KKK, implicating the 24,000+ theologians and biblical scholars, and even Francis Chan, J. I. Packer, and people like me, who agree with the Statement.)

I hope you gain from these posts. I will do my best to revolve around one main point per post. I'll do my best to make it accessible. 


John Piippo

Redeemer Fellowship Church, Monroe, MI


POINT #2 - The term 'Progressive Christianity' is woefully vague, and therefore cognitively useless. 

I could never refer to myself as a 'progressive Christian', for several reasons. In my first post I questioned the word 'progressive' as not fitting a Christian eschatology. And, I questioned the idea of moral and spiritual progress in the human race, over time, finding the idea of moral and spiritual progress mythical and utopian.

In this second post, I find that the term 'progressive Christian' is unacceptably vague, and therefore not useful. Basically, my point is simply this: I am unable to identify with a group if the meaning of the group is vague and amorphous. 

In this post I am going to explain why I believe this. And, I will again suggest removing 'progressive Christianity' from our theological vocabulary. Instead, I choose to self-refer as 'follower of Jesus'. This term is focused and clarifying and, therefore, helpful. It does not suffer the interminable vagueness of calling oneself a 'progressive Christian'.

Let me define "vague'. It's a term encountered in Logic texts. (Note: I had a self-identified progressive Christian tell me they didn't like logic. I asked, why not? They then used logic to make an argument that logic was just another social construct. Which is, of course, self-contradictory. But this is what we are today dealing with.)

It was my great joy to teach Logic for eighteen years at our local community college. At universities, Logic is also called Critical Thinking. Critical thinking is needed to excel in any field. We want our physicians to be able to reason clearly. The same goes for our auto mechanics, psychologists, computer technicians, home builders, political leaders, chefs, sports coaches, parents, economists, lawyers, scientists as they develop vaccines, and more. 

The more there is clarity of reasoning, the less there is vagueness.

So, what about 'vagueness'? 

In my Logic classes I used Patrick Hurley's A Concise Introduction to Logic. Hurley dedicates an entire chapter to linguistic errors, and how they contribute to faulty reasoning. One such error is vagueness. Again, my point in this post is to establish unacceptable vagueness about the term 'progressive Christianity'. 

Hurley writes:

"Now that we have distinguished emotive meaning from cognitive meaning, let us explore some of the ways that cognitive meanings can be defective. Two of them are vagueness and ambiguity. A linguistic expression is said to be vague if there are borderline cases in which it is impossible to tell if the expression applies or does not apply. Vague expressions often allow for a continuous range of interpretations. The meaning is hazy, obscure, and imprecise. For example, words such as ‘‘love,’’ ‘‘happiness,’’ ‘‘peace,’’ ‘‘excessive,’’ ‘‘fresh,’’ ‘‘rich,’’ ‘‘poor,’’ ‘‘normal,’’ ‘‘conservative,’’ and ‘‘polluted’’ are vague. We can rarely tell with any precision whether they apply to a given situation or not. How fresh does something have to be in order to be called fresh?" (7th edition, p. 79. Emphasis mine.)

A "continuous range of interpretations." (Think of the postmodern, progressivist word 'fluidity' here. Think also of the cognitively challenged word 'affirmation'.) Let me illustrate, this time using 'progressive Christianity'.

Linda and I worked as campus pastors, for eleven years, at Michigan State University. I was a member of MSU Religious Advisors group. We had every Christian denomination represented, plus Hindus, Muslims, Jews (the rabbi became a good friend of mine), Buddhists, Bahais, and an atheist group. The group was, to say the least, theologically diverse! And, I enjoyed meeting with all these people. The truth is, I have spent a lifetime studying religions, whether they be major or minor. I love doing this!

We were all under the umbrella 'MSU Religious Advisors Association'. But, because the diversity of beliefs was so vast, we did not have a theological umbrella, or a worldview umbrella that, by our own admission, contained us all. In this group there was a "continuous range of interpretations," often conflicting and contradicting each other. 

Now, imagine this group was called "MSU Christian Advisors Association." This would mean that Buddhists and Hindus and atheists would be excluded. If everyone, regardless of their beliefs, was a 'Christian', the term would diminish in its cognitive meaning. (Note: anyone who believes "all the religions lead up the same mountain" simply has not actually studied the comparative religions. See, e.g., Boston University scholar Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The 8 Rival Religions that Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter.)

That's how I see it when I research progressive Christianity. There is too much theological and even non-theological diversity to make the term meaningful. This does not mean that God does not love all these people. It does not mean several of these people have not said some true things, or done some good things. 

Sociologist Laura Edles has identified a spectrum of identities within Progressive Christianity, with "self-proclaimed spiritual progressives" like John Spong or Marcus Borg on the far left and "prophetic/progressive evangelicals" like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo on the far right of the progressive spectrum. (See Edles, "Contemporary Progressive Christianity and Irts Symbolic Ramifications." Edles writes:  "I argue that in addition to their structural disadvantages, progressive Christians face thorny dilemmas regarding authority/legitimacy, rationalization, de-mystification, disenchantment, charisma (or the lack thereof), and profanation that, though not insurmountable, are not easily resolved.")

When I research 'progressive Christianity using Google, the first item to appear is I scroll down a bit and see a recommended book called With or Without God. It's by Gretta Vosper. I typed her name in the website's search engine and came to this. To Vosper, "god is a metaphor for goodness and love lived out with compassion and justice, no more and no less." (See here.) 

Well, I don't agree with that. I would never teach my people that. I cannot affiliate with that. Plus, I like metaphors. My PhD dissertation is "Metaphor and Theology: A Multidisciplinary Approach." (Northwestern University, 1986)

Alisa Childers writes: "Progressive Christianity is tough to define, because there isn’t a creed or list of beliefs that progressive Christians officially unite around." I agree. 

I know there are progressive Christians who do not agree with Vosper. They still believe in the God of theism. Nor would they agree with Michael Gungor, who testifies to no longer believing in the theistic God. But that's my point. Gungor says he now is an “apophatic mystic Hindu pantheist Christian Buddhist skeptic with a penchant for nihilistic progressive existentialism.” (See here.) 

Really? I'm now restraining my philosophical impulses. Note that Gungor uses 'Christian' and 'progressive' in the same self-description. I have studied (doctoral work) on apophatic (and kataphatic) mysticism. But... he has a leaning towards "nihilistic progressive existentialism?" Really? 

Gungor's self-definition is, I assume, his embracing of universalism. Even though I know of a few PCs who deny being universalistic, my intuition is that there is some kind of path that easily runs from PC to universalism.

I here confess that, as for me, I just don't belong here. It's not helpful. 

Vagueness is, analytically (in Kant's sense), obfuscating, or non-clarifying.

Still, I can love all these people. But I cannot wear the progressive Christian t-shirt. 


My next "Deconstructing Progressive Christianity" post shows why I could not identify as a PC because of its way of utilizing the historical-critical method in biblical interpretation. Greg Boyd expresses a similar concern in his new book on the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Greg defines progressive evangelicals as:

"A very diverse group of people who continue to embrace many of the distinctives of evangelicalism, including the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus, but who tend to emphasize the social justice aspect of the Gospel while embracing at least aspects of the historical-critical approach to Scripture." (Boyd, Gregory A.. Inspired Imperfection, p. 177) 

I'll explain in the next post, coming sometime before summer.  :) 

You can read my first post HERE