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.