Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Time for a Change

I must confess, enough time has passed since I left my former church that I have lost interest in the PC(USA). I want to make clear, this doesn't mean I don't care. It just indicates that I have a greater degree of distance. Basically, the organization will do what Presbyterian members tolerate. Those of a mind to leave will leave; those of a mind to stay will stay.

I have no idea how things will eventually play out there, and I'm basically OK with that fact.

Anyway, I started a new blog. There I hope to talk about a wider array of issues than I have done. (In this and in my other prior blog, I was kind of locked into PC(USA) related issues. And often that kept me from getting into some topics I find more interesting.)

Please visit me at http://wspotts.wordpress.com/ if you are so inclined.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Tenets of Progressivism and Biblical Christianity (2 of 4)

3. Progressivists tend to call human nature good, neutral, or perfectible in and of itself; for the progressivist, sin (if it exists) tends to be institutional flaw – whether inefficiency or systemic injustice. Biblical Christianity takes a rather dimmer view of human nature. In the ‘Reformed’ tradition we throw around the phrase ‘total depravity’. It is, perhaps, an unfortunate and slightly misleading choice of words, but the concept it describes is present in virtually all of historic Christianity. Biblical Christianity observes a universal bent toward evil. This does not mean that people are incapable of discreet good action; it does mean both that the overwhelming story of our lives is the choice of evil, and that the very best actions we can perform (comparatively speaking) are still tainted by evil. Personally, I find this to be accurate; the man who would deny it does not seem to know himself at all. But regardless of how I might feel about it, it is an unavoidable teaching of biblical Christianity.

The Psalmist says, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

Genesis informs the reader, “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

Isaiah says, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”

Jeremiah observes, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”

Jesus says, “There is none good but one, that is God.”

Paul partly quotes Psalms, “There is none righteous, no not one. There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” He goes on to say, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” He tells the church at Ephesus, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”

The entire concept of salvation as taught in biblical Christianity is pointless if there is no sin – or it must be entirely re-engineered to be at all compatible with progressivists’ preferred views of human nature.

When confronted with moral evil,
the progressivist who rejects the biblical view of human nature has relatively few choices – all of which have been attempted by some. The first is to deny evil's existence. Evil is a fiction, and guilt is an imposed construct created by the moralist to secure his domination over others and / or to bolster his attempts to believe in immortality. Here we encounter an element of truth: guilt can be a remarkably coercive mechanism and it can be falsely imposed on others. Yet one encounters a problem of consistency: one seldom sees a progressivist who does not appeal in some fashion to a concept of good and evil. The progressivist has his list of desirable and undesirable behaviors and attitudes, and the progressivist often seeks to impose that list on others through whatever means are available no matter how coercive. These include guilt and ostracism – and often the force of government. It is true that the progressivist may not find every element on his list of desirables and undesirables as absolute in the nature that the terms good and evil imply, but the net effect seems to be one of trying to inflict arbitrarily selected preferences upon others.

A second mode of dealing with moral evil is to regard it as a developmental stage. “Evil” is redefined as selfishness – another equally vague term suitable to accommodate almost any preference. Selfishness is seen as a naturally occurring self-preservation instinct that can be overcome through ‘spiritual growth’ and proper education. Empathy, for example, wars against selfishness; and empathy can be taught to and encouraged in children. Here again, there is an element of truth: empathy does oppose selfishness; and what most of us call evil often involves some form of selfishness. One encounters a couple of problems with this model, however. First, empathy is not a universal trait; some people do develop it over time; others do not. It can be taught in a sense; a person may not have considered the feelings and well being of others. But nothing can make a person actually be empathetic. In order for such an education to work universally – or even for the majority, some system of punishments and rewards (usually involving social acceptance and ostracism) must be put in place to reinforce it. Compound that with the inability of one human to accurately judge the internal life of another and you have created yet another arbitrary system. Then there is the question of whether empathy really equals goodness – and the readily observable problem of selective empathy (i.e. I favor those with whom I empathize – those I can’t understand, those unlike me, I have no obligation toward). On a pragmatic level, I personally remain skeptical about the benefits of this approach; but I also know that it conflicts with biblical Christianity’s notion of moral evil – which involves a rejection of the will of God (insofar as such a thing is possible) and hostility toward God.

A third (frequently employed) view of evil is that it is systemic. A flaw exists in structures of institutions that causes unfair treatment of some individuals and an unacceptable disparity of privilege. The laws, rules, customs, and policies of a given community (economic system, country, religion, education system, etc.) unfairly privilege some at the expense of others. These existing rules – the way things actually work – are often particularly hard on those in the margins. I am something of a margin dweller myself; for the most part, I have not fit well into any group with which I have been affiliated either by my own selection or external label. It will probably be unsurprising therefore, that I wholeheartedly agree with the observation about social systems. I do agree that where systems can be made more just, it is worthwhile to try to do so. However, as a definition of evil, I find this to be untenable; and I find the concept that this problem is correctable through the adjustment of systems to be flawed in itself. The true evil – as anyone who has been harmed by it will understand – is not the existence of an unfair system, but the exploitative actions individuals take against those who are not privileged in the unfair system. It is in the contempt with which people view their perceived lessers. It is in their failure to see those on the margins as having equal value with themselves. It is in the honor they pay to the privileged over the un-empowered. It is in the very concept of ‘important people’ and ‘unimportant people’: “Sit thou here in a good place;” or, “Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool.” The system itself is not really moral; it may be flawed, it may be unfair, it may be imperfect; but it is the actions of people that are evil.

Let us imagine for the sake of argument that one were to succeed at tweaking or reforming systems in such a way that they were more inherently fair or just. Let us set aside for a moment the possibility of unintended negative consequences, or the possibility of a system that was simply unfair or unjust in a different direction – one more amenable to progressivist sympathies, for instance.
Even if one actually succeeded at a genuine systemic improvement, would that eliminate the desire to exploit, the presence of contempt, partiality? Would it even address the aspect of human nature that prompts us toward exploiting, toward viewing others with contempt, toward being partial in our judgments? Progressivists who choose this option tend to envision an evolutionary process – one that involved perpetual tweaking and reform, one in which today’s system is less bad than yesterdays, and tomorrow’s will be a little better … ad infinitum. But, short of altering the actual tendency in human kind toward these abuses, this type of approach discounts the ingenuity of the dishonest. None of these approaches can or do anything to address either actual past guilt or fundamental human nature. They are inescapably at variance with biblical Christianity on this point.

Now I have to be clear – progressivists are certainly not the only people with problematic notions of sin and human nature.
Among those who hold theoretically biblical Christian views on human nature, there is still a tendency to warp, to abuse, or to misconstrue that concept. In doing so, however, we depart from the biblical Christian understanding – usually emphasizing only one element of it. Most notably, there is a tendency to be aware of actual sin, but to use this as a tool to measure and place value on people. There is a widespread failure among us to be aware of our own sinfulness – and for our attitudes to reflect this awareness. There is a readily observable tendency to view the sins of others as worse than my own. Even among those who affirm salvation “by grace alone through faith alone”, “right beliefs” are easily translated into the “good thing we do to deserve to be saved” or to make us “good people”. The reason I mention the failings of those who attempt to hold a biblical Christian view of human nature is this: there is an understandable reason that many people reject the concept of sin because of how they have seen it being used. If the biblical Christian view is rightly understood among Christians it should have the dual effect of greatly increasing an appreciation for the magnitude of God’s grace and of generating compassion and patience toward other people without ever excusing or justifying sinful actions.

4. Progressivists tend to see the ministry of Jesus Christ as one of example setting or as a testament to platitude love only; they tend to view a sacrificial atonement for sin as unnecessary and even sinister. This in part stems from the preferred progressivist view of human nature and sin. If one does not buy into the concept of individual moral sin then one does not acknowledge a need for any remedy for that sin. Biblical Christianity is overwhelmingly focused on repentance for and forgiveness of sin. We are reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, but the whole need for reconciliation presupposes alienation from God as a product of sin. If one takes the New Testament as a reliable source, all interpretations of Jesus that bypass his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of human sin fail. Even a very cursory examination demonstrates this fact.

Paul asserts, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” To the Ephesians he says, “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” To the church at Colosse, Paul declares, “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.”

Lest one foolishly think this is a Pauline construct, Peter informs his audience, “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.” Again Peter says, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins;” and also, “And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.”

The author of Hebrews says, “By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” and, “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh.”

John says, “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” And, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”

Many progressivists tend to find observation of the Lord’s Supper distasteful. Some of these have suggested the substitution of other elements that do not represent the body and blood of Christ. It is common among progressivists to interpret the Lord’s Supper as a metaphor for the vision of God’s feast for all peoples; references are often cited to virtually any biblical mention of food and drink to somehow add a shred of credibility to this interpretation. As a non-progressivist, I should refrain from commenting, but I am truly stumped by the self-evident falsity of such an assertion. In the Gospel accounts Jesus explains what the whole thing is about: “This is my body which is given for you.” “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” “This do in remembrance of me.” Paul says, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you show the Lord’s death till he come.”

Now it is clear that the atonement for sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a ubiquitous theme in the New Testament. Many progressivists find this doctrine distasteful for a variety of reasons (some more compelling than others). I don’t intend to address these reasons at this time – though I believe that is an interesting and needful task; but another question emerges:
if progressivists reject the atonement, how do they interpret the narratives of Jesus Christ? What do these things mean? Obviously progressivists offer a variety of views on this subject, but there are three prevalent ones.

a. Jesus was a political revolutionary; his subversive doctrines naturally resulted in his execution. Usually people who accept this notion tend to view the resurrection as either an early mistake popularized by a subset of his followers, or as a metaphor for the perseverance of his emphases. Naturally, modern political revolutionaries are successors to the Jesus movement. There are two elements of truth in this: the teachings of Jesus have radical implications for a society that embraces them; and a person who went around saying things like this would most likely get himself killed. Nonetheless, I do not find the Galilean Spartacus model persuasive. As radical as I find these teachings, I have not seen them imitated by any political movement in the intervening two thousand years; political movements of every stripe are still operate on the same worldly premises that the teachings of Jesus oppose. More significantly, that was clearly not the understanding of the early church, and it is clearly not the understanding conveyed in the New Testament. I question the ability of anyone who posits an equivalence between, say, Jesus and Che, to actually follow the teachings and example of Jesus. On one level, if the New Testament were so compromised on its presentation of Jesus, where might a person acquire the actual teachings of Jesus? But on a more fundamental level, those that are presented in the New Testament run counter to human nature. And also, as a model for successful revolution, it really fails. The fact is, were Jesus such a political figure, he has had an undeniable impact, but it has not been through the pragmatic success of his teachings.

b. Jesus died in order that God might be able to identify with us in our suffering. This has in common with biblical Christianity that it is at least an incarnational view of Jesus. Further, on one hand, it is a valid observation. But were it solely about identification – having nothing to do with our sin problem, one must wonder about its effectiveness. Frankly, what is the point? The Jesus presented in the New Testament was without sin; how can a God without sin identify with me? He can’t in the sense of sharing my experience. If the goal were solely identification, God would have to sin morally and fail through imperfection. Again, Jesus was a man; what about women? How could God then identify with women? Jesus was a member of a particular ethnic group; what about the rest of us? Many people have been crucified; many have been killed unjustly; many have experienced excruciating pains. On what level, and to what extent is this identification supposed to be helpful? It obviously has not prompted God to alter the universe in such a way that there would be no pain. I understand, of course, that sometimes pain has a purpose – but still, could not this purpose be accomplished in some other way? If that were God’s sole point in the incarnation, I fail to see its usefulness. It also posits a God who learns experientially. I’m certain we cannot make that statement without significant qualification; among other things it hinges on the (non-biblical) assumption that God is incomplete in himself. But it begs the question: if the whole “Christ event” were about God’s self-understanding, what has that to do with us? Sure, it is a powerful thought that God can identify with us when we suffer. But for this idea to be compelling enough to warrant practicing a religion (i.e. Christianity), that identification would need to be paired with some result. There would need to be some change; it would need to mean something other than, “Isn’t that nice. I’m still suffering, but God understands.”

c. Jesus was a template for the triumph of sacrificial love at reconciling all peoples and healing a broken world. I admit, I am tempted to dismiss this as a sentimentalist platitude – because on many levels it is. However, a number of people sincerely hold this view, and they are not without reason for doing so. The fact is that teachings of Jesus such as turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, love, forgiveness, and self-denial tend to spread – in much the same way that hatred, revenge, and bitterness tend to spread. I have two main objections to this view. First, a couple of elements of this view go against Scripture. The notion that this is the primary mission of Jesus is not really tenable because it ignores sin. The notion that reconciliation between people precedes reconciliation to God is not supportable. Yes, the two are inextricably linked – but there is a tendency to make the focus about human peacemaking while ignoring God. The Bible overwhelmingly rejects this. Similarly, there is a tendency to use this view but shift the focus from personal interactions to political objectives and agendas. One cannot honestly look at the teachings and actions of Jesus without seeing divisions between people. Second, this view overlooks just how radical and opposed to human nature the teachings of Jesus actually are. Without the constant help of the Holy Spirit, no person can practice this kind of love for any sustained period of time. The fruit of the Spirit are cultivated by the Spirit – not by our self-improvement efforts. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the vine, ye are the branches; he that abideth in me, the same bringeth forth much fruit, for without me, ye can do nothing.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Tenets of Progressivism and Biblical Christianity (1 of 4)

1. Despite claims to the contrary, progressivists reject (and must reject) the authority, reliability, and trustworthiness of the Bible. Biblical Christianity requires that the Bible be authoritative, reliable, and trustworthy. This is a tautology, of course – the inclusion of the modifier ‘biblical’ makes it so. But it is also required for a pragmatic reason: if the Bible is not authoritative, reliable, and trustworthy, then the practitioner of Christianity is unable to ascertain the actual teachings of Jesus and the events that comprise the Gospel. No matter how much a person uncritically may laud the advances of modern scholarship, all scholarship of this kind must have a source. When one examines the actual sources and how they are handled, a person’s faith in the current state of ‘biblical scholarship’ will wane precipitously. The point is this: once the ability to pick and choose which biblical teachings and events one will endorse, the temptation for one’s compilation to be ridiculously self-serving is far too great. I say this as an observer of myself and of others: intellectual honesty tends to give way to self-interest. One will assemble a ‘jesus’ and a ‘gospel’ one wishes; and in the process one will simply sanctify one’s own will.

Progressivism, on the other hand, requires the Bible to be non-authoritative, unreliable, and untrustworthy. This is a foundational premise. I want to be very clear here: it is not foundational in the sense that biblical authority is the most important element of Christianity; it is, however, foundational in that an unreliable Scripture is 100% necessary for many of the other tenets of progressivism to be true. Progressivists understand, of course, that their most cherished tenets cannot be true if the biblical passages that directly contradict them are also true. Of equal importance, progressivists realize that their most deeply held beliefs will not be persuasive to Christians unless they are able to inject large amounts of conflict, contradiction, and vagueness into the biblical texts that are not inherent in the texts themselves. No one is denying that there are some difficult to reconcile portions of the biblical texts. But those existing conflicts are not sufficient to render progressivists’ important beliefs persuasive. Instead, progressivists, though they make profuse claims to the contrary, must flood the Bible with uncertainty.

Many examples of this tactic exist; in the interest of illustration, I will offer a few of them that have the virtue of being frequently recycled. Pauline Christianity is often set at variance with the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the synoptics. The synoptics are often set at opposition to the Gospel of John. Opposition between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is frequently cited – while a vast ignorance of the very clear reasons presented within the New Testament that Christians do not follow portions of the Hebrew Bible is seemingly deliberately cultivated. Admittedly, this last dichotomy has been a struggle within church history, but in the case of progressivism, it is used solely to discredit those portions of Scripture progressivists dislike. Opposition within books is suggested by claims of multiple authorship. Here again, portions of the relevant texts sometimes do not preclude this option, or at least the handiwork of editors. Nonetheless, the speculative tissue often composed by progressivists about dating and authorship is used to deliberately introduce conflicting possible interpretations – which are not supported by facts. Cultural context is also frequently used to discredit texts progressivists find inconvenient. As with the last two, this argument contains a particle of truth; there is a cultural context that readers would do well to understand, and that can potentially shed considerable light on the meaning of a text. The problem with this approach is that very often the imposed cultural context is speculative at best; and one cannot help but notice that the speculative cultural contexts chosen always reinforce the prejudices of the progressivist. Additionally, cultural context is often used in a comparative fashion – examples from current scientific fashion are cited to suggest that the progressivist knows much more now than people at that time did; that he is more sophisticated; that she is less credulous. Aside from the conceit and arrogance that allows the current progressivist a privileged perspective, this also greatly underestimates the knowledge people have had at other times, and greatly overestimates the ramifications of the current scientific fashion. The net effect of all of these practices is to cast a shadow and a cloud over Scripture to remove the progressivist from its authority. On a functional level, progressivists treat the Bible as a record of certain people’s ruminations about God (or about ‘life, the universe, and everything’); as such, it is no more accurate – though sometimes less accurate – than other such ruminations.

2. Progressivism embraces the plurality of truth. Biblical and historic Christianity both make certain exclusive truth claims. Among other things, biblical Christianity claims that there is a God; that God created the universe; that God is separate from the universe. Biblical Christianity claims that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God; the phrase “only begotten” indicates a type of exclusivity: Jesus can claim to be the Son of God in a way no other human can. Biblical Christianity affirms the claim of Jesus that he is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through” him. Biblical Christianity affirms the claim of Jesus that he is the gate and that those who enter through him will be saved. Biblical Christianity asserts, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Biblical Christianity affirms the claim of Jesus that he is the bread of life, and “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats [his] flesh and drinks [his] blood has eternal life, and [he] will raise him up at the last day.” Biblical Christianity follows the commission of Jesus: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Christianity affirms of Jesus that, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Biblical Christianity affirms that, “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time.” Biblical Christianity teaches that, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Obviously this is only a very small partial list; biblical Christianity makes many other exclusivist truth claims that cannot be explained away. These may be distasteful to people, but biblical Christianity cannot evade them.

This is in no way unique to Christianity. People make exclusivist truth claims on a host of subjects – including religious subjects. Every religion does it; every person does it. There is nothing inherently wrong with disagreement; in fact, it is inevitable. Disagreement is not particularly disrespectful until its existence is falsely denied, until is used as a measure of a person’s value, until a person is assumed to be stupid or impaired for holding particular views, or until views are endorsed for false reasons … e.g. because of their presumed consequences rather than because the individual genuinely believes them to be true. It must be acknowledged, of course, that ‘pluralism’ accurately describes the state of affairs. There are a great variety of religions, and people hold views on every subject imaginable. This is simply a fact; and it has implications for public policy. Among other things, I imagine most of us understand that religious compulsion harms everyone. (I find religious compulsion at extreme variance with New Testament Christianity – but clearly, the church has not always held that view. Nonetheless, even if people do not hold that view for ethical and moral reasons, most accept it for pragmatic ones.)

Progressivism, however, goes considerably farther than recognizing the facts or resisting attempts at compulsion in religion. Instead, it embraces and celebrates pluralism as a virtue in its own right – a thing deliberately to be sought out and cultivated. This is, in fact, a sine qua non of progressivism. This philosophical tenet is couched in a variety of ways depending on the tastes of the speaker and the audience, but its meaning is functionally the same. Sometimes progressivists assert that what religions have in common is true … these are the great mystical truths that have inspired men and women through the ages … that have been expounded upon by the great religious leaders (like, for example, Jesus). At other times progressivists will assert that Christianity is true for you, religion b is true for its adherents. Generally a progressivist will attribute exclusivist truth claims to the arrogance of the adherent of the religion the progressivist dislikes; often the progressivist will wax poetic citing the latest quasi-scientific view of the universe to justify his or her opposition to the presumed arrogance of others. What the progressivist fails to acknowledge – either through conscious deception or self-deception – is that the embrace of pluralism is its own rigid dogma: it places the progressivist view above all other religions because the progressivist holds the singular, non-negotiable religious test that the progressivist then applies to everyone else. The embrace of pluralism is, in short, a childish way for the progressivist to feel morally and intellectually superior to others. Nothing more, nothing less.

Progressivism and Biblical Christianity (introduction)

Full disclosure:
For about ten years I was a budding progressivist. I can identify the moment when I lost faith in progressivism; truthfully, I remember the specific incident, but I can’t recall the exact date – just that it was between April 7, 2001 and April 30, 2001. I didn’t realize at the time the significance of the change, but I owe a large debt of gratitude to a non-Christian friend of mine for shaking me out of it. Yes, parts of progressivist thought I rejected at other times, both before and since; but the actual break was instantaneous. The irony is not lost on me that this also marked the time at which I became what is essentially a fundamentalist – or at least what people who despise what I believe (and who have contempt for everyone who believes as I do) mean to indicate when they use the word. I’d probably prefer the self-description, biblical Christian, but we don’t always get our druthers.

The fact is, certain quirks of my personality made the progressivist religious philosophy extremely appealing to me. I have always enjoyed paradoxes; I also have a facility for finding relationships between dissimilar things. I had (and continue to have) a distaste for the hypocrisies of ‘traditional’ Christians – as manifested by many individuals and even groups I knew; I disliked (and continue to dislike) limitations placed on my thinking. At the time I naively assumed that because ‘traditional’ Christians did these things, progressivists were somehow immune to them – though, like many assumptions, this one proved thoroughly mistaken. I was particularly annoyed when ‘traditionalists’ rejected ideas that I suspected they didn’t even clearly understand. It only gradually occurred to me that my suspicion was partly false: in many cases they (these ‘traditionalists’) understood very clearly what they did not believe and why. What tended to be lacking where there was a gap in understanding amounted to terminology rather than substance. They (these narrow minded ‘traditionalists’) would often not have read the same philosophers and theologians, and these would often not employ the clever words coined by those practitioners. [Again, this amounted to a quirk of my own personality: I have always loved reading philosophy and theology; other people do not share this taste. Shamefully, I have to also admit I derived a certain smug satisfaction (what I think John terms ‘the pride of life’) in thinking I could more fully understand and rightly value things that the majority passed by.] The truth is my experiences have left me with a rather strong bias: when I finally understood the world progressivists envision and the full ramifications of the philosophy, I recoiled in nausea and horror. To a degree that is a normal side effect of having dabbled in a philosophy and then rejected it; to a larger degree, everything that is human in me, and everything I identify as Christian is wholly and completely repulsed by and opposed to progressivism.

I want to be precise – when I use the use term ‘progressivist’ I refer to a religious philosophy rather than to a set of political opinions. Having no wish to confuse the two, I find I am obliged to employ ‘progressivist’ rather than ‘progressive’. Many people hold progressive political opinions who are not adherents of this religious philosophy; the truth be told, I hold a couple of views that would fit that political label. There is, however, a relationship between the two because in this time and place devotees of the religious philosophy very frequently regard progressive political activism as spiritual act. (At other times, people who held similar views were not necessarily political ‘progressives’ – but in its current manifestation, progressivism almost universally lacks politically conservative adherents.) Advocates of this philosophy have chosen for themselves the term ‘progressive’ – usually combined with their religion of choice or the word ‘spiritual’. So, before we proceed, I want to reiterate: I Am Not Talking About Politics.

I have termed progressivism a religious philosophy because it is a framework for viewing life that has a coherent handful of tenets, and because this framework superimposes itself on existing religions in spite of the truth claims of those religions. It is true that progressivism prides itself on its ‘inclusiveness’ and rejection of dogma so that an observer is thwarted in most attempts to actually describe it in detail as a consistent movement. (It is similar in this regard to the emergent phenomenon – which insists on labeling itself a ‘conversation’ because that is a more defensible posture.) In spite of this dogmaless approach, progressivism does have a number of non-negotiables; in other words, it is possible to talk about progressivism as a thing in itself. (Aside from all other considerations, self-identified spiritual progressives recognize and endorse one another, even across religious lines. Since progressivists clearly see a common philosophy at work across divergent religions, it follows that progressivists adhere to a common philosophy.)

Progressivism superimposes itself over an existing religion, freely using the metaphors and figures of speech of that religion, but imbuing them with meanings the progressivist values. I have no doubt that good progressivists actually believe in the truth of their tenets; in that sense they are honest in their advocacy. But it is in this practice of superimposition that progressivism completely loses any claim it might have to moral behavior. The purpose of such an action can be none other than wholesale deceit. Whether it is an attempt to transform the existing religion into a belief structure more amenable to the progressivist, or whether it is an attempt to mislead the adherents of the existing religion into abandoning their truth claims, or whether it is an attempt to co-opt the attachment people have to the name of the religion as if this good feeling could be transferred from that religion to progressivist philosophy, or whether it is an attempt to mislead those who are not affiliated with the religion in question as to the nature of that religion – all of these demonstrate the same ethical character: lying, theft, fraud. Unfortunately, there is no other option. People can put an attractive spin on it – perhaps asserting the right to name one’s own experience; perhaps opining on the nature and comprehensibility of truth; perhaps claiming the ability to define one’s own terms – but in the final analysis the progressivist must treat the underlying religion as distinct from all other things he or she encounters in the universe. [Imagine, for example, if the progressivist’s employer decided that, for him, a dollar – being an arbitrary definition – really indicated thirty cents and paid the progressivist’s salary accordingly. I would suggest to you that a certain rigidity of definition would rear its ugly head very quickly.]

It is important to understand that people within a religion who gravitate to some progressivist philosophies are not necessarily engaged in the same immoral practice. The question becomes this: what happens in those areas where progressivist religious philosophy is entirely incompatible with the religion it is attempting to parasitize? This is an instance in which no one can serve two masters – a choice must be made between the two. Not every element of the progressivist religious philosophy is incompatible with the underlying religion. It is completely possible for a person to adhere to certain progressivist claims while remaining faithful to his religion. While we may disagree on the merits of progressivist claims, I wholeheartedly concede that some such claims have validity.

I also feel obliged to point out that certain elements of ‘conservative’ Christianity come into conflict with biblical Christianity. I find these points of conflict to be considerably (by an order of magnitude) less frequent; but at times these are severe enough to run the risk of actually departing from biblical Christianity. While these points of conflict are often overstated by progressivists and others, they do certainly exist. I know that by positing a discrepancy in the frequency of such departures, I run the risk of being unfair; but I have to observe that ‘conservative’ Christianity’s view of scriptural authority provides a natural checking mechanism. In short, ‘conservative’ Christians are prone to err in terms of politics and cultural conservatism, but their dependency on Scripture renders them less persuasive in areas where Scripture does not speak, and in many cases renders their cultural ideas vulnerable to arguments from Scripture. It will be pointed out, of course, that ‘conservative’ Christians are selective in their appeals to biblical authority. That is true – though its frequency is often overstated, and examples provided are many times without substance. Such accusations of hypocrisy are damaging in the court of public opinion, of course, and they are gratifying to those who reject biblical Christianity; but such accusations do not speak in any way to the truth or falsehood of the Bible. It is intellectually specious, lazy, and a little dim witted, to assert: “See, you don’t follow the Bible, therefore the Bible isn’t true.”

Bottom line: I am persuaded that progressivism constitutes a coherent religious philosophy with a set of dogmata all its own. Progressivism has a habit of inhabiting existing religions and attempting to alter them to conform to progressivist dogmata. The progressivist religious philosophy is quite distinct from progressive or liberal politics. There is an overlap, but this is only a product of a quirk of progressivist dogmatics. Neither political and cultural conservatism nor political and cultural liberalism are immune from attempts to cynically use ‘Christianity’ for their own purposes. The progressivist religious philosophy, on the other hand, is explicitly opposed to biblical Christianity on a number of points – about which both views cannot be right. It is an either/or choice; both/and will not avail where the two are in direct conflict. I find the practice of substituting one for the other on the grounds of claiming the right to name one’s own experience to be morally repulsive at best.

Because progressivism as a religious philosophy transcends the individual religions it seeks to co-opt, its non-negotiable tenets are not limited by the religions it inhabits. However other religions might deal with this phenomenon, I am more concerned with the intersection between progressivism and biblical Christianity. I do not intend to trace the philosophical, theological, or practitional antecedents to post-modern progressivism, though I regard the task with keen interest. For one thing, these antecedents go back literally for thousands of years. For another, I’m fairly certain that specific historic statements, doctrines, and practices that led to post-modern progressivism really have much bearing on the thing itself as it is today. I also lack the space and time to address every conceivable (or even every significant) progressivist position. Instead, I would like to look at a few broad trends that, to varying degrees, display the disconnect between progressivism and biblical (and definitional) Christianity.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gustav Recovery

Yet another hurricane threatens the Gulf Coast; meanwhile people are still recovering from the last one.

Rev'd Bill Crawford at First Presbyterian of Thibodaux has set up a PayPal account where the church can process donations for immediate relief of victims of Hurricane Gustav.

Please help if you can - and keep the residents of the Gulf Coast in your prayers as they brace for Ike.

Speaking of Renewal

One of the more frustrating things for individuals within a mainline who desire renewal is the perceived lack of action. Any action that shows personal courage is profoundly empowering to those individuals.

For those who follow PC(USA) happenings, this one interested me.

There is a proposal coming before the Presbytery of Beaver Butler, "An Open Theological Declaration to the PC (USA) Explicating Major Errors of the 218th General Assembly as a Church Council and the means of Their Redress." The declaration's authors address the actions of the 218
th GA that concern them:

the formation of an extra commitment opportunity to raise a legal defense [/attack - given the context of paying for lawsuits against individual trustees of local congregations - w.s.] fund,

tactical errors concerning the removal of the 1978 AI,

judicial errors in using an AI to overturn the plain meaning of the constitution,

confessional errors in approving a changed translation of the Heidelberg Catechism.

biblical errors in encouraging Presbyterians to seek worship opportunities with Jews and Muslims

and the approval of a study guide for the previously received Trinity paper.

They go on to say, "
We cannot abide the ruling of any council which breaches Status Confessiones."

They also make the following commitments:

-We do not now and will no longer recognize ordinations that are constitutionally or biblically unsustainable.

-We will not seek common worship opportunities with Jews and/or Muslims. To do so would be to ask all parties involved to commit blasphemy since Muslims and Jews do not recognize the Divinity of Christ or the Holy Spirit and we cannot deny either.

-We refuse to act in accordance with the Authoritative Interpretations adopted by the 218
th General Assembly. They have no further force or effect in our Presbytery because they are constitutionally, biblically, judicially and tactically unsustainable.

-We further affirm that no Authoritative Interpretation, Advisory Opinion, alteration to the Constitution, or re-translation of our confessions can change the plain meaning of the Bible’s teaching concerning sexual norms, now accurately reflected in our Constitution.

-We do not and will not agree with Advisory Opinion #22 from the Stated Clerk’s office nor will we support it in our governing body. This ruling denies the plain meaning of our Constitution and wrongly rules that local option is now our reality in the PC USA.

-We will actively discourage our congregations from giving to the new legal defense fund Extra Commitment Opportunity created by this assembly as it encourages both our congregations and our upper governing bodies to be actively disobedient to 1 Corinthians 6:1-8.

-We will not work to promote same gender civil unions within our commonwealth nor encourage anyone else to do so in their states.

-We will encourage other Presbyteries and/or congregations to join us in this declaration.

-We will continue to publish the Gospel once and for all handed down to the saints, grow our members in the One Lord Jesus Christ, and continue to participate in the transforming work of God according to His Word within our denomination and Presbytery.

Whatever one thinks of the terms they employ or the conclusions they have arrived at, to make such a statement is done only at personal risk. It is clear - does not try to have things both ways. It is faithful to traditional understandings of Reformed and Presbyterian theology.

"Merely Confessional Presbyterians" is a website about the Open Theological Declaration.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Organized Renewal Movement

[The organized renewal movement exists in more than one of the mainline denominations. It has enjoyed some successes; but in a large measure, it has also met with considerably less success than circumstances warrant. In the prior series of posts on the renewal enterprise, I have considered a number of reasons why this seems to be the case. I’m very aware that the observation itself – of the lack of success, is offensive to a number of renewalists. It is not my intent to place blame; I fully recognize the sometimes heroic efforts of individual renewalists. Nonetheless, I would point out that the rank and file – ordinary members and pastors who have supported the renewal movement (as distinct from those who were uninvolved) – have the perception that it has failed. In the face of that widespread perception, it might behoove leaders in the various renewal groups to take that perception (no matter how hurtful it may feel) seriously. In my opinion, renewal in the American Church is certainly possible – though difficult; in my opinion, at least certain aspects of work toward renewal are certainly worthwhile. Nonetheless, if the organized renewal movement continues in the direction it has gone in the past, it will fail. If, on the other hand, renewal groups and individual renewalists rethink their operational philosophy and rebuild their strategy from the ground up, they may still fail, but it is not a foregone conclusion. In order to make progress, the renewal movement must cease to be reactive, must cease to focus on crisis management, must be transformed into a genuine movement in its own right. Many people are asking, “Where do we go from here?” While I am fully persuaded that all individuals who desire renewal in the sense of genuine revival need to engage in those practices biblically commended practices (some of which I mentioned earlier: prayer, reading and study of the Bible, fasting, seeking God’s face, preaching the Gospel, opposing the right enemy, and especially repentance), I am also aware that, when speaking of a ‘movement’ specific actions are needed. I therefore find myself in the unenviable position of offering a suggestion to renewal groups and individual renewalists. I do not submit a strategy or plan of action, but a reconsideration. How might one get from point A to point B?]

A. Renewal groups and individual renewalists need to engage in a brief but focused and purposeful “season of discernment”. This period must be brief because perpetual naval gazing is not an option if one wants to make progress. The first order of business during such a period of discernment must be to accurately assess the full extent of the crisis in the mainline denominations (and in the American church more broadly). It is true that many of us on the outside see the situation as more dire than it may actually be; that is a matter of interpretation combined with a perceived inability to actually do anything productive about it. Renewal groups tend to err quite significantly in the other direction; at least in their public statements many of them seem to fail to grasp the actual severity of the problems. Arguments about unity will be raised, or about focusing on mission rather than division. But these take for granted that the warring opinions within the American church are all actually Christian. If they are not, (a contention that is supported by the fact that these are mutually exclusive), then unity and common mission become impossible. Though it may sound ‘nice’ to focus on them, in that circumstance this would be delusional.

A second essential purpose of such a period of discernment would be to determine the goals of the ‘organized renewal movement’ in as specific terms as possible. One of the issues that have greatly hindered the effectiveness of renewal efforts has been a historic inability for renewalists to clearly articulate their goals and strategies to ordinary members. I believe this should be the first order of business for anyone serious about renewal in the legacy denominations. Whatever results might grow from such a period of discernment – the articulation of goals and appropriate strategies – needs to be simple and clear. Personally, I value precision, but I often sacrifice plainness for it; but that plain speaking should be maintained as much as is possible. Worry less about the nuances than about being honest and broadly understood. Avoid the use of poetic language and vagaries in some misguided attempt to gain a fictional unity. Avoid the use of current fashionable terms that can have multiple meanings; avoid the use of guild-speak and jargon – specialized language that has the function of cutting off ordinary people from the conversation. The objective here is to articulate the goals and beliefs of the renewal movement in such a clear way that these cannot be misunderstood by any serious questioner. No such plain spoken presentation will lack critics – many opportunities will arise to make the case in very detailed terms. (In other words, you’ll still get the chance for nuance; you’ll still get the chance for intellectually satisfying arguments; but not at the expense of common understanding.)

I grant that the logistics of this are problematic, but it would be good for representatives of renewal groups and renewalists to meet together in a kind of summit. It would also be good if such an event were not confined specifically to one denomination. At the very least, consultation together within a denomination or tradition (e.g. related denominations from the same ‘family’) is a must. I label this a must, but I’m also aware this would amount to the ecclesial equivalent of herding cats; I should say it would be extremely beneficial if everyone who was willing would meet together to explore ways to foster cooperation. Consultation of this type need not occur in person – other effective technological options exist. It may be that finding that much common ground will prove impossible; the current visible disunity within renewal movements, however, is counterproductive, and every effort must be made to overcome it. Additionally, various renewal groups (and individual renewalists) have different cultures, resources, and talents that enable them to do different things well. If these could ever be persuaded to operate cooperatively – so that renewalists were not constantly obliged to reinvent the wheel – the gifts they bring would greatly increase the overall effectiveness of the renewal movement.

B. Renewal groups and renewalists need to begin thinking long term. Certain groups – particularly single-issue groups – have done this. In the main, the renewal movements have tended to emphasize reversing the current crisis only, seeking a status quo ante that was anything but satisfactory to begin with. I realize, of course, that ‘energizing the base’ tends occur around the latest shocking event in one or other of the mainline organizations. This emphasis on the most recent problem takes advantage of human nature in one respect, but it overlooks human nature at the same time. Humans have an inherent tendency to try to mediate between extremes. If, on the one hand, you have the compromised position that represents fifty years of drift away from historic and biblical Christianity, and on the other hand you have the radical fringe progressivist philosophy – then the mediation between extremes position will be half moderate, half radical fringe. Focusing on the immediate prior state of affairs, as if this were a laudable goal, helps shift the attitudes of large numbers of ordinary members who are striving to moderate between ‘extremes’. The thing is, one pole is extreme; the other is already skewed in the same direction – just not quite as far. It is a functional unipolar contest whose results cannot help but be some (albeit mild) variation of progressivist religious philosophy.

To those on the outside this is what it looks like. The renewal movement draws a line: this far and no more. That line is breeched. The renewal movement counsels, ‘wait and see how the new situation will look … don’t be hasty … it might not be as bad as we think.” Eventually, when a certain number of renewalists have gotten used to the new situation, the renewal will draw a new, more modest line: this far and no more. That new and improved line is breeched. The renewal movement counsels, ‘wait and see … don’t be hasty ….’ Yet another line is drawn: this time we really mean it; this far and no more.

Renewal groups and individual renewalists would be well advised to remember that the only way out of this often repeated dance – that simply continually transforms the beliefs and priorities of large numbers of members in one direction only – is to reject the initial premise. Sure, fight against the latest outrage if you must, but don’t stop there; have more significant goals. Stop thinking small; decide what it is you want to see in your denomination and fight for that. I think it would be a mistake to select an idealized historic period within a denomination, perhaps fifty or a hundred years ago, as if there were no challenges then. Instead, I believe an unequivocal stand for biblical Christianity is what is called for. In that case, instead of standing firmly on the sand of the most recent state of affairs and unwittingly helping advance a progressivist agenda, renewalists would find their feet planted on the Rock – the faith once delivered to the saints.

C. Engage ordinary members and local leaders. At one time a person could accurately speak of a ‘silent majority’ of members whose views and beliefs differed greatly from those advocated by people in leadership positions within their denominations. Today, I suspect we’d be talking more in terms of ‘silent pluralities’ of members. These constitute, of course, a sizable group, but they are fewer than they once were. Whatever the case, no attempted renewal movement that bypasses these members and local leaders has any chance of success. There is, in some renewal groups, a culture of elitism – in which these solicit donations from the ‘silent plurality’ but insist on fighting ‘for them’. In effect, this does the same thing to members and local leaders that denominational bureaucracies do: it sidelines them. They send in the money, they add to the numbers, but nothing is required or desired of them – least of all their active participation and opinions. Renewal groups are not as openly contemptuous of ordinary member and local leaders as are denominational bureaucrats, but they still discount them. This is not universally true, but it is far more widespread than it should be. I don’t believe that such a movement is at all sustainable.

I have come to the conclusion that a two-fold transformation in renewal groups is the need of the day. First, the primary focus of the organized renewal movement needs to become advocacy for biblical Christianity. I do not mean this should be necessarily the singular focus of all renewal groups – just that it must predominate. In order to be effective, such an advocacy must include both the clear articulation of biblical Christianity and the identification of and opposition to the competing non-Christian philosophies that enjoy currency in the church. This is best accomplished by rejecting current trends among ‘evangelicals’ that have faddish components, by backing away from over-reliance on confessions and creeds that are already compromised, by sidelining secular politics in the vast majority of cases, and by avoiding adding to or taking away from biblical Christianity. Second, renewal groups need to see their role as one of empowering ordinary members and local leaders. Instead of working for ordinary members and leaders in local congregations or on their behalf, the focus needs to shift to facilitating these members’ own efforts at renewal. I say this for a number of reasons, but primarily I must observe: as the ones who pay the bills and make up the numbers of the denominational organizations, ordinary members are the ones who both have a right to be heard, and, though they may not know it, have the ability to make their presence felt in ways far more profound than any small group can ever hope to do.

> The case must be made to ordinary members and local leaders that they can have an impact in their local community AND in their wider denominational settings. These two are not mutually exclusive concerns, and in fact, they complement one another well.

> The case must be made to ordinary members and local leaders that advocating for biblical Christianity in their communities and more widely is a worthwhile pursuit. It must be seen not as a hassle, not as a call to endless fighting about irrelevancies, but as an invitation to an adventure. It is these ordinary members and leaders that are invited to become fishers of men.

> An accurate presentation of the real situations in the denominational organizations must be made to ordinary members. Such a presentation must be fair minded, but it must also never cringe from presenting a true picture. [Personally, I see this as one of the more difficult things for the organized renewal movement to manage because it must also come to terms with an accurate view of the actual situations.]

> Renewal groups ought to provide detailed, easily accessible materials to help ordinary members to become more effective advocates for biblical Christianity. A great many people are willing – and follow vaguely biblical Christianity, but have never thought some of their beliefs through in a coherent, systematic manner. (While such a scattershot approach to biblical Christianity may work in their lives, it often leaves them unable to put their beliefs into words in an effective way. It also often leaves them unable to precisely identify the flaws in philosophies that compete with biblical Christianity.) Similarly, many ordinary members are unfamiliar with potent challenges to biblical Christianity. Materials that help us work through these challenges could only be beneficial. Many such materials already exist, but renewal groups would do well to gather them and make them widely available.

> Renewal groups must educate ordinary members about their denominations’ historic teachings and their polity structures. It can no longer be assumed that the people in a particular denomination were reared in that denomination and understand its traditional teachings and polity. It would be helpful to prepare ordinary members not to be intimidated by leaders – particularly national leaders. It would also be helpful to provide clear, concrete actions that ordinary members and local leaders who are concerned with the direction of their denominations can take. Some that come to mind are polity participation where that is practical; observation of regional and national meetings – renewalist congregations should be encouraged to send observers to such meetings; communication with denominational leaders – sometimes, if enough people communicate their beliefs it may give national leaders second thoughts about ignoring those beliefs; genuine (actually signed) petitions have been underused – and could be effective at showing widespread support or opposition to a particular course; financial giving opportunities that would not violate these members’ beliefs – often denominations have some things they do well, but the average member usually lacks the information to sort one from another; speaking out in their communities against misguided actions of national and regional governing bodies. I mention these – but I remain aware that opportunities and ideas exist. The organized renewal movement would do well to encourage as much action on the part of ordinary members as possible.

> Renewal groups might want to consider providing opportunities for fellowship among biblical Christians. Sometimes these may find themselves in settings where they are rather strongly isolated. That condition can be completely demoralizing; and the conviction that one is ‘all alone’ is not accurate. Helping biblical Christians, renewalists, ordinary members to provide support – emotional and otherwise – for one another should be a priority. Technology can be a great help in this regard if it is correctly used.

> Renewal groups need to focus on formulating effective communication strategies. If these choose the route of trying to empower ordinary members, they need to be able to communicate with those members. In order to make a case that renewal and advocacy for biblical Christianity are possible, necessary, and worthwhile, you need to be able to get a hearing. In order to be responsive to the beliefs and needs of ordinary members, renewal groups need to have two-way communication. Currently, factors of inertia, clericalism, and greater denominational resources are rendering that communication difficult. This is an uphill battle, but several things will help: craft your message in clear, simple, and accurate terms; make your case about empowerment; and avail yourselves of all technologies that permit wider communications.

> Where your beliefs are compatible, do not be afraid to cross denominational lines. I am persuaded that denominational organizations are the way of the past. Progressivists seek organizational unity; biblical Christians seek organic unity around common belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ. Many of your goals are the same in different denominations; your opponents are the same in different denominational settings; the tactics employed against biblical Christianity are the same. It only makes sense for the response to be one of cooperation.

I realize what I am saying constitutes a restructuring of the organized renewal movement, but I am persuaded nothing less is called for. [When I was young, the popular term for this was perestroika – and it was paired with glasnost – openness. However that may have worked out for Russia, I think these two things will give legs to an almost moribund renewal movement.] Much is already in place that could be very beneficial; but there are many forces that work against those benefits. I am persuaded today’s need dictates that an effective renewal movement will form around advocacy for biblical Christianity, will stop thinking small, and will primarily be about empowering ordinary members and local leaders.

Will Spotts