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.

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