Failure of nerve


I have, over the last several months, become increasingly disillusioned with this whole enterprise of trying to find a form of worshipful, progressive Christianity that is both intellectually viable and at the same time spiritually deep. A recent posting by the blogger Pluralist Speaks only confirms my worst suspicions.

It seems that he had submitted an article for publication on a website sponsored by the Episcopal Church. The article, titled "Easter as Myth", said nothing that is particularly startling or unusual to anyone who has read Spong (an Episcopalian), Borg (an Episcopalian), Ranke-Heinemann, or anything published by the Jesus Seminar. And yet, the article was rejected on doctrinal grounds--because the editor "cannot publish and give tacit support on a website sponsored by The Episcopal Church" to the views that the resurrection is an unhistorical myth. It seems that progressive Episcopalians are free to express their views on their own, but God forbid that their views show up on any officially sponsored Episcopal website.

All of which shows that the Episcopal Church, despite all its reputation as a progressive church, is, when push comes to shove, steeped in orthodoxy. Christians in mainline denominations may flirt with progressive ideas. They may dance with Spong and Borg. But when all is said and done, at the end of the dance, they go home with the same old theology. This was pretty clear to me already when Bishop Gene Robinson recently insisted that his being gay had nothing to do with those "essentials" about the Divinity of Christ and so forth. It is all a game, this flirtation with progressivism. You can question the party line all you want, but the church will make it clear that people who hold such views are second class citizens within the theological community, and always will be.

Sure, the scholars may know that the resurrection stories in the Gospels are contradictory and mythological, that they were part of an evolving tradition, and that Jesus could not have literally ascended to the sky because that whole story was based on a primitive three-tiered cosmology that is now known to be false. And the priests in turn may learn in seminary what the scholars know. But this is all a case of "wink wink, nudge nudge". Let's just pretend that none of this is really known, and go on as if mythologies were history.

I think I have been holding out a false hope. What I saw as a burgeoning movement within existing denominations that could perhaps evolve towards a new, rationally supported and demythologized Christianity, turns out to be dead on arrival. Progressive Christianity is largely a sham. Supposedly liberal denominations are just as beholden to fear as the conservative ones are. For both the liberals and the conservatives, there is the same dread that if the church officially sanctions free, open discussion of these issues, then their entire Nicene edifice will come crashing down--and we can't have that, can we?

The rejection of Pluralist's article has been for me a kind of wake up call. It confirms for me that I will always be, as Spong puts it, a believer in exile.


Chris said...

You're right; even the mainline denoms are freaked out by this. And can you blame them? Even just flirting with progressivism has led to tanking membership numbers. Try a Unitarian church.

liberal pastor said...

I don't think it is fair to say that progressive Christianity is largely a sham. There is a movement of progressive Christians that cuts across denominational lines. There are many progressive churches. But there are not many progressive denominations. But within many denominations there is an inevitable shakeout coming that will eventually result in some more progressive denominations.

I might add that there is also a varied understanding of what it means to be a progressive Christian. I find that for many it means being open and affirming to glbt folks, good on social justice issues, but fairly traditional in bible and theology. A smaller number are working with more liberal biblical studies materials like the Jesus Seminar. And an even smaller number are thinking about God outside the box of traditional theology.

Bruce Ledewitz said...

Somewhere, C.L. Lewis told a story in which God said that Christianity indeed was a myth, but that it was God's myth.

PrickliestPear said...

The problem, I think, is that the leaders of the various denominations know that progressive theology, if actually preached from the pulpit, will drive conservatives away.

I think you have to take into account the fact that the diversity of religious perspectives is not simply the result of different tastes, or similarly "horizontal" variables. Much of the diversity is the result of people being at different stages of development. As people develop, they become less and less dependent on institutional authority. Church leaders cater to the people of at conventional (and pre-conventional) stages of faith, which is kind of annoying to those of us (i.e. progressives) who have moved beyond those stages, but it's also okay, because we really don't need them as much (if at all). And nothing is stopping us from reading progressive books, writing our progressive blogs, and participating in the progressive community. Progressive Christianity is not a sham, it's just not happening at the institutional level. But so what?

As a Catholic, I have much less optimistic expectations when it comes to institutional reform within my own church than progressives in Protestant churches often do. Undoubtedly that has shaped my own perspective on institutional leadership. I certainly don't mean to imply that we should ignore what church leaders do or say, because they have a lot of influence on a large percentage of the population within the church, and when they go wrong, they end up cementing people in their conventional ways. That has to be resisted.

But if leaders of mainline denominations introduce progressive reforms too quickly, they will just drive more and more people into more conservative denominations (or schismatic divisions, as the current situation in the Anglican/Episcopal church demonstrates, as did the emergence of traditionalist Catholic sects in the aftermath of Vatican II in the 60s). The last thing the world needs is more fundamentalists, right?

I like your blog, by the way. Good, thought-provoking stuff.

Mystical Seeker said...

Chris, I've tried Untarian Universalism. I haven't found one that is focused enough on the Christian tradition, and I've just never found their services fulfilling.

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliestpear, thanks for stopping by my blog. Good point about people being at different stages of development. The question is whether a church can openly and simultaneously accomodate people at various stages.

PrickliestPear said...

Mystical Seeker,

Very good question. I would say that it is theoretically possible, but not likely to happen any time soon. Church leaders tend not to be at the highest stages, or even at a high enough stage to be able to appreciate the significance of stages. I'm going to be exploring this a bit on my blog in the near future.

Toby said...

To borrow from the title of an earlier post on this blog, is intrafaith dialogue possible when you think most of your coreligionists are stuck at an "underdeveloped" stage of faith?

Mystical Seeker said...


Church leaders tend not to be at the highest stages, or even at a high enough stage to be able to appreciate the significance of stages.

I think you're right about that. Why that tends to be the case is an interesting question.

Frank said...

The bad thing is that orthodoxy is often held hostage by reactionaries.

The good thing about orthodoxy is that it is not going to be held hostage to the latest trends of individual theologians.

I do think people should be careful not to destroy theology out of anger. "Easter as Myth" may make for some intellectual discussion, but its a pretty poor topic for a general audience article (I didn't read the article, just basing this on the title). To go around trashing beliefs because you somehow know better may reflect a high level of intellectual development, but there are miles to go in spiritual maturity.

Mystical Seeker said...


I don't see this as a matter of trashing anyone's beliefs. Some people consider the Easter stories to be literal; others do not. We've got two different interpretations of a Biblical story, and one is allowed to be expressed while the other one is being censored. The one that is being censored takes into account things like biblical scholarship and probably comes close in at least certain respects to the views of a certain segment of the denomination, including at least one retired bishop and a prominent theologian.

My feeling is that if someone is not interested in the subject matter of the article, they don't have to read it. I don't necessarily read every article that is published on my favorite web sites or in my favorite magazines. But my guess is that there are people out there who would be interested in serious discussion of that topic. The reason the article was censored was not because people weren't interested in it though, but because theological discussion about this issue--despite its importance to a lot of people--was just deemed off limits, period. This is not a way to go forward for a faith that, in my view, needs to remain dynamic and vibrant.