Who gets to define the boundaries of faith?


I ran across the blog of an author named Bruce Ledewitz who promotes something that he calls "Hallowed Secularism". Ledewitz rejects organized religion but sets himself apart from militant atheists of the Hitchens variety, instead advocating a sort of secular spirituality that is disassociated with the dogmas of traditional religion, and which allows itself to conceive of God in metaphorical terms, or at least as a kind of "shorthand way of claiming a kind of meaningfulness and order in the universe." You might think that I would be in broad sympathy with his goals, but in fact he wrote a critique of progressive faith that, unfortunately, reflects a set of assumptions about what constitutes "legitimate" religion that comes right out of the orthodox party line.

I do give him credit for noting the fact that "progressive" religion actually refers to two different kinds of faith--one that is theologically orthodox but politically progressive, and the other which is progressive theologically (and probably progressive politically as well). But when he discusses the latter form of theologically progressive faith, he unfortunately trots out the typical conservative assumptions about the nature of "true" religious faith--characterizing progressive religion as "insubstantial", having "few followers", and--this is where he goes badly off course--he goes on to assert:

It does not work as Christian thought because the empty tomb cannot be regarded as mere metaphor. It does not work as Christian thought because the empty tomb cannot be regarded as mere metaphor. That Christian truth is meant to be historical, even if mysterious. Jesus really must have arisen from the dead. Discovering Jesus’ remains would be a Christian catastrophe.
Naturally, he is just taking for granted the definition of "Christian" faith that certain defenders of orthodoxy proclaim. In particular, in parroting the notion that a Christian faith cannot exist, or cannot somehow be legitimate, without a literal resurrection of Jesus, he seems to have let orthodox Christianity decide for him and the rest of us what kind of religious faith we are allowed to have.

When the pastor of a church that I sporadically attend was conducting sessions based on the "Living the Questions" DVD, I recall when she was concerned about how the people in attendance might react to Marcus Borg's statement on the video that it doesn't matter whether you choose to believe that Jesus was literally, physically resurrected or not. She had no problem with that statement, herself being a fan of Marcus Borg, but she was afraid that some of her congregation in the audience might find that statement unacceptable, or that it simply called into question their fundamental presuppositions about Christianity. Instead, it turned out that no one there seemed fazed by Borg's remark.

The very existence of people like Marcus Borg--who sells a fair number of books, who travels around the country speaking in churches, who blogs on the Washington Post/ Newsweek web site "On Faith", and so forth--calls into question Ledewitz's assumptions about what kind of faith can and cannot exist, and in turn it calls into question his assumption that the only way to find a "hallowed" life when you reject orthodox faith is by rejecting all forms of organized religion. Since progressive religion doesn't fit into his paradigm, he disses it as having no legitimacy or substance. This is a problem not unlike seen with militant atheists, who also casually dismiss progressive faith because it doesn't fit into their own paradigm.

The comment about having "few followers" is rather interesting in and of itself. (I wonder how many followers his "hallowed secularism" movement has.) In any case, this is not a race. There are no winners and losers here, based on who gets the most to sign up. Those of us who choose a path that is meaningful for us may just happen to do so because it speaks to our spiritual condition, not because we want to be on the winning team.

I suppose that the lesson to learn from Ledewitz's remarks is that it isn't just the militant atheists among the non-faithful who seem to have allowed a certain kind of religious dogma decide what is a legitimate form of faith or not.


Harry said...

He is another binary thinker.

Bruce Ledewitz said...

Fair enough criticism. But I wish you had added something about the rest of the blog entry. I don't understand how Christians and Jews can sit in the pews and listen to religious rhetoric they must constantly translate in their heads. I tried to do that for years and finally gave up. But in no way do I mean to criticize those who are able to do this, including Borg. I am aiming at naturalists like myself, especially among young people. But I don't mean to define what is acceptable Christian or Jewish practice. It's not possible for me. But if it is possible for you, why does the blog refer to the category "heretic"?

Mystical Seeker said...


I think it is a worthy goal to try to discover a meaningful philosophical approach for people who are turned off by the trappings of religion, so if I misinterpreted what you were trying to accomplish, then I offer my apologies. I really do like what Borg has to say in his books, and he has been hugely influential for me, and for that reason I consider myself a follower of Borg--albeit with a big caveat.

I consider myself a heretic in the Christian tradition because I do not believe in most orthodox Christian doctrines--the Trinity, a literal resurrection, and so forth. And I don't believe in a theistic God who performs miracles. But I still find myself drawn to the Christian tradition. It was through the books of people like Borg (and also process theology) that I was able to find a way for the Christian traditions to work for me--at least in theory.

Your comment about doing translation in your head does ring true for me. One of the biggest problems that I personally have with attending progressive Christian worship is that even in churches which are very progressive theologically, a lot of the language and liturgy continues to be spoken as if the religious myths were literally true (e.g., in the case of Christianity, the resurrection.) Where I part with Borg is that he has no problem, for example, reciting traditional Christian creeds in church, even though he doesn't take them literally. Hence your comment about doing translation is something I can agree with--I am not interested in that sort of translation either.

So I do think that your goal of finding something that can work for naturalists is worthy. But some of us find ourselves more drawn within the orbit of Christianity, even if it is in the far outer boundaries of that orbit. I think that whatever works for one person doesn't necessarily work for everyone else. I do think that many people are finding value in progressive Christianity and are still in a process of working towards something new. Where it will be in another 100 years is an interesting question.

Bruce Ledewitz said...

Dear Mystical Seeker:

I would like to continue this exchange in a slightly less public forum. If you wish, you can contact me via e-mail.