Our concept of God...is always an interpretation, never a straightforward description of what is there for all to see. We certainly believe it to be a plausible interpretation of the world, and in our daily lives, if we are reflective Christians, we test the adequacy of our understanding of God. But it is never provable. For this reason, our view of God, though fundamental, is never, ever a legitimate source of absolute claims or absolute attitudes.To me, this is a brilliant passage that gets to the heart of what I think a progressive faith should be about. It seems to me that if there is one dividing line between progressive and conservative religion, it is (or ought to be) the question of whether faith is rigidly dogmatic or flexibly adaptive. It seems to me that absolutism goes hand in hand with a certain view of the nature of revelation that is not particularly tenable or historically valid. Whereas more absolutist forms of religion presuppose a naively unidirectional and absolutist conception of revelation that conceives of religious truth as having been disseminated from above and received without error by human beings, progressive religion by contrast understands that theology has always been an ongoing dialogue between members of a community of faith with one another and with God.
The "absolutizing" of religious belief is a sign of fear, a desperate attempt to hide the fact that our fundamental orientations toward life are always interpretive adventures, always a risk. Critics of religion are fully justified in denouncing its absolutistic expressions. They misunderstand religion, though, when they assume that the absolutistic impulse is essential to it. On the contrary, it is a corruption of religion precisely because religion is a standpoint of faith. All too often, however, Christians, still under the spell of a monarchical deity, illustrate that corruption vividly, and destructively. Christian faith, which ought to banish fear, becomes its mask. (pp. 54-54)
I would suggest that the overwhelming evidence from both the Bible and the history of early Christianity shows that diversity and dialogue has always characterized the faith. Instead of understanding this, though, the absolutist form of Christianity makes idols out of dogmas and the humans who formulate them.
Both Delwin Brown and Keith Ward, whose book Re-Thinking Christianity I recently commented on, have done excellent jobs of arguing on behalf of a progressive alternative to an ossified, absolutist Christianity. And yet there is a another aspect to this that concerns me. If it is true that new developments are not wrong simply because they are newer, it is also true that newer developments are not right simply because they are newer. I was thinking about this because both Brown and Ward praise the outcomes of the early ecumenical church councils and implicitly accept them as part of the Christianity that they endorse. I myself am not a fan of where those councils took Christianity. Brown, admittedly, gives rather broad interpretations of what these councils did in terms of theological development; for example, as far as I can tell, he views the incarnation to refer not just to Jesus specifically but to Divine immanence in general. Be that as it may, though, I think this is one area where I differ with a lot of progressive Christianity. Opposing an absolutism directed at a prior theology should not result in a different form of an absolutism directed at later theological developments.
Which is another way of saying that theological developments sometimes, but not always, represent theological progress. Theological development is not a straight line towards ever greater insight; sometimes, it can move backwards. I think that, in principle, progressives understand this.
It seems clear that Christianity underwent a lot of changes after the death of Jesus, changes that in many cases Jesus would not have even recognized as his own faith. He was a devout Jew, and yet eventually he became the basis of an entirely new faith that broke from Judaism. Perhaps the seeds of those later developments were found in his own teachings, and I am not saying there is anything inherently wrong with the fact that this evolution took place. But Christianity also developed in ways that may have contradicted his own teachings in serious ways. Jesus the radical inclusivist was killed by an Empire; later Christianity became exclusive and intolerant, and allied itself with an Empire. Do those represent improvements in the faith, or something else entirely? Many progressive Christians would say no.
And yet, what I wonder is why is so much of progressive Christianity, which is willing to be flexible and adaptive in so many other ways, seems unwilling to question the theologies produced by these early ecumenical councils? Why, for example, is the doctrine of the Trinity seen as off limits for discussion?