Sunday, October 26, 2008

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.

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