More on progressive faith

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The discussion in my previous posting between myself and Bruce Ledewitz was picked up by the blogger XPatriated Texan (XT) of the Street Prophets blog at Daily Kos. I would have left a comment there, but I first had to sign up at Daily Kos, and then I was informed that there is a ridiculous 24-hour waiting period before I could even leave a comment there. In the blogosophere, 24 hours might as well be an eon.

In my blog response to Bruce Ledewitz, I had alluded to his comment that "progressive faith" seems to have two meanings--one referring to those who are theologically orthodox but politically liberal or progressive, and another referring those who are theologically progressive (such as Marcus Borg or Dominic Crossan.) That distinction wasn't really the focus of my posting, since I agreed with him on this point (and I had discussed this earlier in response to a blog posting by Jim Burklo of the Center for Progressive Christianity). However, XT wanted to focus more specifically on the what progressive faith really means. He defines it thusly:

"Progressive Faith" is simply those of us who seek to further the tradition of revelation by reconciling it with reason and science. It does not mean, necessarily, that earlier thinkers were wrong, only that they were not entirely correct.
Where things get interesting in my view is what happens when you actually do seriously undertake the process of reconciling revelation with reason and science. Once you go down that road, I would argue that a paradigm change becomes absolutely necessary. Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. I think that paradigm changes are just as much a part of religious history as they are of scientific history. Christians who honor their roots in the Hebrew Bible no longer believe that Yahweh is a tribal Deity, or that dead people go to Sheol. It is almost trite to cite Thomas Kuhn here, but I would argue that the Enlightenment brought on a crisis in the Christian faith that is still being played out, one that can only be resolved by a paradigm change that re-examines the traditional assumptions about a theistically interventionist God and about the more extraordinary and miraculous claims that are often made in the name of faith.

Of course this process of reconciling faith with reason and science means accepting the tools of modern scholarly biblical research. But I believe that in a post-Enlightenment world it also means looking at God in a different way, and at the stories and myths of Christianity's founding traditions with new eyes. The implications for me are that we cannot believe in a world of supernatural theistic intervention that violates the normal physical laws of nature. It means not believing that Jesus's corpse was resuscitated and that he therefore walked around on earth for 40 days after he was crucified. When John Shelby Spong says that "Christianity must change or die," he means that for it to remain an intellectually viable faith, we need to accommodate theology with a post-Enlightenment understanding of the world.

Pastor John Shuck has offered some sage words to offer on this subject. He recommends the book Jesus is Dead by Robert M. Price for this Easter season,
as a service to preachers who are trying to figure out ways to proclaim this mystery and as a service to churchgoers who dread attending another sermon in which the preacher berates people's intelligence by telling them that in order to be a Christian they have to believe that the corpse of the historical Jesus came back to life."
Yay, John! He goes on to say that, as Presbyterian pastor of the Reformed tradition,
I make that extravagantly humble and unprovable assertion in part because our deeply rich, varied, and open-ended tradition is always in danger of being hijacked by those who lack adequate understanding of science, history, and theology.

For instance, if Christians want to make the theological claim that God creates the world, that claim will lack any credibility unless they also affirm evolutionary theory.

If Christians want to make the theological claim that Jesus is alive, that claim will lack any credibility unless they also affirm historical scholarship of the New Testament.
John then lays it out beautifully:
[Price] shows throughout these essays that the "resurrection accounts" are fictions. It is really pretty obvious. The Jesus Seminar scholars concluded the same thing. The more bashful scholars, once you finally get them to move beyond their dissembling, also affirm that, yes, the accounts of the empty tomb are more indebted to creative storytelling than to historical reportage.

It is difficult for many Christians to accept that. A Jesus who is not "historical" cannot be real and worthy of Christian worship, so the argument goes. For some, that is true. Price is an atheist. That is his choice. I don't think one has to make that choice. I do not.

In a similar way, some scientists are atheists. Some are not. Whether or not one chooses to be an atheist or atheist, or a person of a particular covenant or not, is independent of science and history. I simply argue that the church is not served by bad science (ie. creationism) and bad history (ie. false claims for the historicity of the resurrection).

If the church can't take it, it deserves to die. Those of us who proclaim the theological mystery of the Risen Christ would do well to make that claim credible by appreciating true scholarship of Christian origins.
I agree with John that rejecting bad science and bad history lie at the core of progressive faith. So for me, progressive faith isn't just about accepting evolution or the Big Bang theory; it also inevitably must move beyond any literal acceptance of mythological stories about a physically resurrected Jesus walking on the earth. This is not something that I have seen in a lot of churches that describe themselves as "progressive", although there are exceptions, as Jim Burklo and John Shuck demonstrate.

21 comments:

Harry said...

MS:

The implications for me are that we cannot believe in a world of supernatural theistic intervention that violates the normal physical laws of nature. It means not believing that Jesus's corpse was resuscitated and that he therefore walked around on earth for 40 days after he was crucified.

It wouldn't be supernatural theistic intervention if it didn't violate the laws of physics.

Your refusal to entertain the possibility of miracles is a dogmatic refusal. There are plenty of documented miracles which scientists dismiss out of hand out of a dogmatic commitment to materialism.

The Christian faith requires miracles.

Your faith does not.

Ergo, yours is not a Christian faith.

How's that for binary thinking?

Andrew said...

I would disagree with Harry on the point of your's not being a Christian Faith. However I do wonder if some of your assertions have moved over into the realm of dogma:

"must move beyond any literal acceptance of mythological stories about a physically resurrected Jesus walking on the earth."

Must? Why must? Why can one not believe in the "happenedness" of it? (as Wright would say). I don't understand the need for things to be such a strong either/or on either side. If you believe one side you are being spiritually dishonest and if you go for the other side you are being intellectually dishonest? One side shouts heretic, the other side shouts buffoon!

I entertain the thought that there simply may have been no miracles. However, I do happen to believe there were. Regardless, that doesn't change my view of loving God and loving neighbor in any case. My view of Jesus proclaiming a message of peace contrary to Empire remains the same.

I don't think it is the church stance on miracles that prevents it from bringing the Kingdom of God in our midst. It is the escapist,fire insurance, and need to be in the right group mentality that prevents us from having his will done on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Chris said...

I don't think that it's right to make rejection of the resurrection the litmus test of theological progressivism. In my experience, rejection of the resurrection is the very last step in progressivization. (Yes, I did just make that word up.) In other words, there's a spectrum from theological conservatives on the right to theological liberals on the left, and rejecting the resurrection is about as far left as one can get. There are a number of lefties who aren't quite that far over.

John Shuck said...

"Sage words" LOL!

Thanks, Seeker.

My first blog post posed the question, "What if they found the body of Jesus?" Is the Christian faith based on the whither of his remains?

For some it is.

For me it is not. Resurrection is a mystery conceived of in many different ways within the tradition of the gospels and Paul's letters let alone the documents that didn't make the cut.

The idea of the empty tomb narratives as historical reportage is a problem for those who take history seriously.

It is a also a problem for those of us who come from a literary bent. These narratives resemble stories and legends.

If these narratives are to qualify as history then they should be embraced by historical scholars regardless of the particular religious bent of the scholars. They are not, of course.

You know, Seeker, your vote on our JSOR poll got 3 others. Hey, you are not alone! : )

That topic, Jesus Cradle to Grave is an important one.

Harry said...

Rev. Shuck:

Oddly enough, C.S. Lewis who was professionally "of a literary bent" went out of his way to point out that the gospels did not at all read like mythology.

And the Gospel accounts of the Empty Tomb read historically enough for me, who does take history seriously (confounding your suggestion).

For those who quibble about inconsistency of the various Gospels, I ask: how many shooters were they in Dealy Plaza?

Mystical Seeker said...

Andrew and Chris,

You may both be right that I am generalizing too much from my own theological perspective in what I am describing as "progressive". What I am more accurately describing is my own faith perspective, and I am probably expressing my frustration that it is a perspective that I rarely find articulated in church services, even in those that do describe themselves as "progressive". I am probably sounding a little too Spongish in my pronouncements, but that is more out of a feeling of being unconnected to a lot of broader faith communities.

John, I would agree with you that the resurrection stories have the quality of legends. And thanks for the update on the JSOR vote. It's good to know that at least somebody voted like I did! :)

WES ELLIS said...

I rally appreciate Andrew's thoughts here. I tend to lean in the direction he is leaning. I'm ok with the thought that, for example, miracles as we know them didn't, and don't actually happen (though I have trouble denying people's experience based on a lack of experience on my part: i have many very intelligent acquaintances who'd swear that they've witnessed miracles). It doesn't destroy my faith. I appreciate Borg, Crossan, and others don't buy into miracles. But at the same time I can't help but go more toward where Wright goes.

Grace said...

Mystical,

I think it entirely possible for someone to be a Christian believer, and to interpret the resurrection of Jesus in a spiritual sense.

I definitely can't agree, and think more along the lines of N.T. Wright in this whole issue. The important affirmation for Christians is that this Jesus is alive, and that in Him we're made a new creation.

But, Mystical, and I'm sharing with you from my heart. There are no Christians out there who reject the reality of the incarnation. This is the very center of Christian faith. We are not liturgical unitarians.

All of the liturgy of the church, the recitation of the creeds, our participation in holy communion center in the literal worship and fellowship of Jesus Christ.

If the historical Jesus were merely a man, however good and sagelike, however spirit-filled, all this would be sheer idolotry and nonsense, totally irrational.

We are all simply wasting our time, and would be fools, really.

In a deeper sense, apart from the unique divinity of Jesus Christ, everyone is not even speaking of the same Jesus, or the same gospel at all.

Christians can disagree about tons of matters, including the literal interpretation of the virgin birth, and even the physical, bodily resurrection of the Lord, not to mention a plethera of social and political convictions.

But, Mystical, the unique divinity of Jesus Christ is truly a church dividing issue.

Any leader in the institutional church who is teaching otherwise is a false teacher, has actually left the Christian faith, and his/her ordination vows.

I know you don't like to hear this, Mystical, and I"m sure are feeling deeply offended by now. But, I care enough to open my mouth.

(I also want to add that I think God cannot be made to fit into the box of our own philosophical presuppositions. But, that's another issue that we've discussed before.)

I won't keep commenting, though, unless you want to talk, Mystical.

Sincerely,
Becky (aka. Grace)

Mystical Seeker said...

But, Mystical, the unique divinity of Jesus Christ is truly a church dividing issue.

Any leader in the institutional church who is teaching otherwise is a false teacher, has actually left the Christian faith, and his/her ordination vows.


Grace, the unfortunate thing is that a lot of people who reject Christian orthodoxy--everyone from spiritually inclined religious seekers to atheists--have allowed people who feel the same as as you do to you decide for them what is and is not legitimately part of the Christian faith tradition. And in my view that is a great tragedy. It is, I think, what leads people like Bart Erhman, who realized that they could not accept orthodox Christianity, to just give up and leave the religious life behind them.

I would happily make a deal with orthodoxy Christians: I won't tell them that they aren't Christians if they won't tell progressives that they aren't either. But not being able to act as gatekeepers is not part of the package for them. So there you have it.

Grace said...

Mystical,

I'm not sharing though, my personal, subjective view, but the historic corporate witness of the Christian church.


I may be wrong, but I think that Bart Ehrman comes from a background that almost makes into an idolotry the "inerrancy" of the Scripture. So, when he found what he felt was an apparent discrepency in Scripture, this whole house of cards collapsed.......

But, as Christians our lives our hid with Christ in God, not centered in a certain view of the Scripture.

Mystical, I know that you can't see this because your heart and mind have not been totally captivated, and sold out to the center of Christian faith...

But, I'll tell you the truth, Myst.

So strongly do I feel in what I'm sharing, that I would sooner see my own children be truly seeking, and honest atheists, than to ever darken the door of a church that pays mere lip service to the "good news," ... retains only the outward form of Christian faith and worship, while in reality rejecting the cross of Christ.

What hypocrisy!

I think in these type of settings people are in a very real sense "inoculated" against the gospel, and are found even less likely to come to relationship with Christ as Savior and Lord.

Rather be an honest and sincere "unbeliever" truly looking for truth, and seeking the kingdom, any day of the week, in my book.

Mystical Seeker said...

I'm not sharing though, my personal, subjective view, but the historic corporate witness of the Christian church.

So you say. But there is no "historic corporate witness of the Christian church". In fact, Christianity was a diverse body of beliefs from the beginning, and some of those beliefs were suppressed. The so-called "corporate witness of the church' is a pure exercise in propaganda, a concept meant to suppress dissent from the standard party line.

So strongly do I feel in what I'm sharing, that I would sooner see my own children be truly seeking, and honest atheists, than to ever darken the door of a church that pays mere lip service to the "good news," ... retains only the outward form of Christian faith and worship, while in reality rejecting the cross of Christ.

Yeah, this was the same kind of crap I was taught to believe when I was brought up in the Christian church. This is the claim that says that that so-called "false Christians" are even worse than atheists because they call into question the whole "either-or", binary system of faith. If you allow any diversion from the dogma, the whole system will collapse. This is a familiar story. And what really makes this so tragic is that so many people who aren't even Christians have been brainwashed to believe that people like you get to decide what Christianity really is.

Somebody is a "hypocrite" because they don't see Christianity the way you do, do they? Grace, by questioning the honesty and sincerity of progressive Christians, you have shown your true colors.

And how dare you make assertions like "I know that you can't see this because your heart and mind have not been totally captivated, and sold out to the center of Christian faith." What the hell do you know about my background with the Christian faith, anyway? The reason I don't see it is that I outgrew your brand of Christianity long ago. If you think that I don't "get" how you see the world, you are badly mistaken. I was brought up to see the world like you do. And I know how damaging this is to people who are seeking an intellectually viable faith but who think that it isn't possible because the only legitimate brand of "Christianity" is what you claim it is.

I am tired of the way that society has deferred to religious conservatives and granted them the right to define what the word "Christian" means.

Harry said...

Mystical:

So you intend to drive people like me from the Church to satisfy your own selfish conceit?

Because I and most other Christians would be forced to leave a Church where people like you are in charge.

We Christians have our own faith, and our own history too. And we know how to survive persecution from atheists.

Do your worst.

Mystical Seeker said...

to satisfy your own selfish conceit

Ah yes, anyone who doesn't subscribe to the orthodox dogma is only satisfying their own "selfish conceit". I'm glad we've settled that.

Connor said...

I'm very sympathetic to what you have written Mystical Seeker but I do think that some of the commenter's do have a point.

It is a big question. What constitutes a Christian? For it to be meaningful some definition has to be put in place and many will disagree with each others definitions.

For instance if one holds that one must believe in the literal resurrection to be a Christian then obviously you wouldn't make the cut. You might ask who are they that get to decide, but who are you to get to decide.

Could it be that progressive Christianity and traditional Christianity are two different religious systems?

Mystical Seeker said...

Hi Connor,

What constitutes a Christian? For it to be meaningful some definition has to be put in place and many will disagree with each others definitions.

You raise good questions. My personal answer to this is that it may not be possible to give a definition of "Christian" that is both meaningful and comprehensive.

I'm not sure how to give you a short explanation of what I mean by that. I wrote about this last September in some detail, and what I wrote then basically captures in detail my philosophy on this subject which I won't repeat all of here, but I did cite Wittgenstein as an influence in my understanding of how to approach this problem. Wittgenstein argued that many concepts in human language are more akin to a rope with intertwined strands, no single strand of which completely captures the meaning of the term.

I then wrote, I would argue that the so-called "essentials" of the Christian faith are like those strands in Wittgenstein's rope; and thus I believe it is a fruitless endeavor to try to reduce Christianity to a single set of "essentials". The strands of the Christian rope do not reach from end to end; any single strand or even set of strands is intertwined with further strands, which in turn are intertwined with additional strands. But no individual strand is the rope itself. Using another one of Wittgenstein's analogies, Christianity is like a family, with its various elements bearing family resemblances to other elements of the faith, but it is not always the same trait in every case.

My point is that rather than trying to reduce Christianity to a single, comprehensive definition, I think it is better to see it as a family of traditions, or a collection of related streams of religious traditions, all relating to the person of Jesus.

Religions do not fall from the sky and then remain unchanged. The theology of the Judaeo-Christian tradition has a long history of evolution (and revolution) in thinking. Amida Buddhism is not the same as Theraveda Buddhism. This is part of the process of religious development over history. I think we would be better off not trying to decide who is "in" and who is "out" of a given religion, like it is a country club, and instead just focus on our communication over our respective ways at discovering our respective relationships with God.

Mike L. said...

Bob Price is a wealth of knowledge. Thanks for posting that info.

I'm reading Bishop Spong's "Resurrection: Myth or Reality". I wasn't expecting to hear anything new, but I was mistaken. It is wonderful. I'll be posting about it on my blog soon.

Mystical Seeker said...

Mike,

Spong's book on the resurrection is the first Spong book I read, and in a lot of ways I think it is his best. It influenced a lot of thinking on the resurrection. I'd be interested to hear what you have to say on the subject.

Harry said...

My point is that rather than trying to reduce Christianity to a single, comprehensive definition, I think it is better to see it as a family of traditions, or a collection of related streams of religious traditions, all relating to the person of Jesus.

You think it is better?

You think it is better?

What about the vast contingent of Christians who think it is very, very much worse?

Andrew said...

Harry,
I think the solution is that the "vast" contingent get over it and move on. Live your traditions according to your conscience, but don't get too shook when others don't see it your way.

Going back to Connor's point:
"You might ask who are they that get to decide, but who are you to get to decide."

MS gets to decide for MS, Harry for Harry, Connor for Connor, me for me. I think there is room to have discussion to help others understand where we are coming from, perhaps for attempting to influence to our view. But to become the arbiter of who is "acceptable" to God is problematic at best, and blasphemous at worst.

Bruce Ledewitz said...

Boy, this blog really resonates with people. The question related to whether one is still a Christian became so problematic for me that I felt I had to leave Judaism. But, unlike Bart Erhman, this did not lead me away from the biblical tradition and into a vague spirituality or simple atheism. Can one be a biblical non-believer? I think so. Hence Hallowed Secularism. This position may be closer to the young, who have never learned the Christian or Jewish practice and story.

Mystical Seeker said...

Bruce, I can see where people who were not brought up as Jews or Christians may be less likely to be drawn to any kind of progressive form of faith, and may not see the point of getting involved in internecine squabbles over what constitutes "legitimate" Judaism or Christianity. I can thus see where your concept of Hallowed Secularism might have a better appeal for people in those circumstances. My own attraction to progressive Christianity has a lot to do with my Christian upbringing--I find myself drawn to Christian traditions and am engaged in an effort to try to make it somehow work, although to be honest it has not always been a completely satisfying exercise. If I had not been brought up as a Christian, my story might have turned out quite differently.