Starting Points and End Points


It has occurred to me that it is possible to imagine coming to a progressive Christian theology from two opposite directions.

The first way is to start from the perspective of orthodoxy and work your way backwards. The second way is to start from scratch and build a do-it-yourself theology.

Both methods have their pluses and minuses. To start from the orthodoxy means that your theology is already complete to start with, and remains complete at all stages of its evolution. There are no holes or cracks to deal with; everything is already filled in at every step. There is always a default answer to any question, and if you don't like that default answer, you can always replace it with a better one. The questions you do like the answers to, or the ones you don't address at all, remain answered with those default ideas of the orthodoxy. You have simply taken a ready-made theological system and just patched over the parts that don't make sense to you. It's sort of like taking a working automobile, and replacing the engine and the radio and a few other parts with different parts. In the end, you still get a running automobile, but it might look different from what you began with.

To start from scratch is more work. You have to build the foundation yourself, and either fill in each crack you find or else leave it as an open question. The reward of this method is that you are liberated from the tyranny of dogma. You accept nothing at face value; you let no one else do your thinking for you. Some of those open, unresolved questions may not bother you because you don't feel a need to work everything out. The potential for uncertainty is seen as a virtue rather than an impedance. And because you are not just rebelling for the sake of rebelling, you are always free to borrow from a preexisting theological precept when it suits you.

Both approaches can come from different directions and, at least in theory, meet in the middle. Both methods can arrive at a progressive theology. Starting from the orthodoxy allows you to benefit from the accumulated wisdom of centuries of religious thinking. Starting from nothing allows frees you from the accumulated dogma of centuries of religious thinking.

My preference has been to start more or less from scratch. Because I was brought up in a fundamentalist environment, Christian orthodoxy left its scars on me, and I preferred not to begin there. I saw the accumulated centuries of Christian wisdom to have become encrusted under the weight of its own mythologies. Christian orthodoxy didn't allow enough room for the innovation that I felt was necessary. Others, however, find comfort in those same mythologies. Different people, different preferences.

I started almost from scratch, but I still borrowed from Christian wisdom when necessary. I also assumed that I would be borrowing from Christian wisdom instead of, for example, Hindu wisdom, because that is the religion where my comfort level lies. I cannot escape my upbringing. Thus it is better to say I "almost" started from scratch, because I did accommodate my own cultural affinity for Christianity from the beginning. So I started with a belief in God, but also with a belief in post-Enlightenment rationalism. I decided that I could not deviate from the latter if I was to pursue a belief in the former. I reviewed scholarly opinion to get a sense of what I could and could not believe about the historical claims of Christianity. I learned about the history of the Bible, and integrated it into my thinking. I saw no reason to accept certain tenets of Christian theology that had developed over the years--the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, or his literal resurrection, for example--but I still built my monotheistic religious system around the life and teachings of Jesus and the relationship with God that I believe he disclosed as a model for others. There may indeed be cracks in my theological system, but they are not filled with what I see as the dirt and grime of old dogma. And that's the way I like it.

When all is said and done, I find myself often having ideas in common with those who started from the orthodoxy and worked in the opposite direction.