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.”