The Scylla of Orthopraxy and the Charybdis of Orthodoxy

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John Cobb addresses the relationship of process theology to progressive Christianity in his latest column on the Process and Faith web site. In so doing, he describes what he sees as two primary streams of thought within progressive Christianity. I find this interesting because I don't find myself entirely comfortable with either of these streams.

One of them, which he identifies with Jim Adams and the Center for Progressive Christianity, reacts to the rigidity of conservative theology by virtually rejecting the usefulness of any kind of theology whatsoever. As Cobb puts it, from this perspective

Beliefs are less important than commitment to the common good. People in this stream believe that ethics is far more important than doctrine.
Jim Burklo, who is also associated with the Center for Progressive Christianity, was until recently the pastor of a church that identified itself as being about "deeds rather than creeds". Put another way, this type of religion emphasizes orthopraxy as the alternative to orthodoxy.

The other stream that he identifies, which he associates with Delwin Brown, focuses more on the social gospel. Cobb also makes the important point that this second group "takes theology seriously."

Cobb writes that the first group of progressives, those who have reacted against theology, have not responded very positively to process theology. This is understandable. Those who have little use for constructing any kind of conception of God's nature would certainly not have much use for a metaphysical system like process theology. My own sympathies for process theology probably explain why I don't see the appeal of recently prominent expressions of progressive Christianity along the lines of Greta Vosper's. It probably also explains why I am uncomfortable with John Shelby Spongs' continual denunciations of "theism" without his actually specifying what kind of theology he offers in its place.

Cobb sites an article by Gene Marshall in the May-June issue of The Progressive Christian as another example of this what this stream of thought entails. I fished out my copy of that issue and took a look at the article in question. Marshal writes,
There can be no beliefs about God because God is not an object alongside other objects about which beliefs can be held. God, the God witnessed to in the Bible, is a Presence, a mysterious Presence about which the mind has no information and can have no information whatsoever.
I can see why Cobb objects to what Marshall wrote. I would myself argue that to claim that we can say nothing whatsoever about God is an extreme conclusion to draw from the mere fact that God belongs to a different ontological category than ordinary objects that we experience in everyday life. Yes, I agree that God cannot be completely or accurately characterized by our own finite human imaginations. But I do believe that it goes too far to say that we can say nothing whatsoever about God. This gets back to the Blind Man and the Elephant analogy that I frequently make about human religions. It is not true that the blind man who feels the trunk of an elephant has "no information whatsoever" about the elephant, as Marshall claims; rather, the information that he does have is provisional and limited. The power of progressive theology at its best lies precisely in its understanding of the provisional nature of our God-concepts. It is why our concepts about God evolve over time--because humans are always developing new insights about the nature of their encounters with the Divine.

Cobb also notes a discussion between none other than the aforementioned Adams and Brown in that same issue of the magazine. Adams in that conversation criticizes Brown for suggesting that God could play any sort of role whatsoever in human creation. While acknowledging that Brown "has reduced God's role from designing to nudging, " Adams complains that "he still seems to agree with the creationists, the sworn enemies of evolutionary science, that God intervenes in the functioning of nature."

Again, I can see why Cobb objects to Adams's comments here. For Adams, the idea of Divine participation in the activity world of any sort whatsoever, even non-coercive participation, is fundamentally no different from traditional interventionist theism. He has thus conflated two radically different conceptions of God--the coercive and interventionist God of traditional theism, and the non-interventionist God such as outlined by process theology. (The activity as described in process theology is not really "nudging", I might add, but rather "beckoning". ) Ultimately I think that Adams's objection represents a sort of dogmatic thinking that I might expect from a militant atheist or a religious fundamentalist; but coming from a self-described progressive Christian, it is truly disappointing. In fact, there is more than one way of reconciling a post-Enlightenment understanding of an ordered and rationally operating world with a belief in the existence of God. Adams's insistence that the only way to reconcile God and science in the modern world is by rejecting any concept of divine participation in nature shows a failure of imagination on Adams's part.

Delwin Brown responds to this in the following way:
The crucial issue is, what does it mean to belief in God? What difference does it make to life? What is at stake when people say that God is, or is not? And to answer questions like these we are forced to ask a clarifying question: What do we mean by "God"?

If we are talking about the totalitarian deity so sharply criticized by Sam Harris and others, then I, like them, am an atheist. I do not believe in that God. That concept of God leads to, and supports the continuation of, unjust social hierarchies, blind indifference to modern science, the abandonment of careful thinking, and the privileged manipulation of power by a divinely favored few. And this illustrates my point: The important thing is to ask, what does belief in God mean for understanding and living life.
Even though I have had some reservations about Delwin Brown's formulation of progressive Christianity in his book, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?, I am more sympathetic to Brown's view than I am to Adams's. I just don't see the point in believing in a "God" about whom we have no conception and who seems to make no difference in our lives or in the universe. On the other hand, the biggest problem that I see with the stream of progressive Christianity that believes that theology does matter is that, in practice, I have found that it often accepts many of the premises of traditional Christian orthodoxy too readily, and is too unwilling to take Adams's concerns about modern science to heart. Thus we have many self-described progressive Christians who still believe in Divine miracles or that Jesus was literally resurrected, which is not something that I can go along with. Adams is correct that traditionally conceived divine interventionism is unacceptable to the modern ears of many. The way that I found out of this dilemma was through process theology. Via process theology can we believe that theology still matters, and can we embrace a conception of Divine participation in the world, while at the same time rejecting classically conceived Divine interventionism.

I think that Adams and others who claim that orthopraxy is the sole alternative to orthodoxy ("deeds rather than creeds") are missing the point. Giving up on orthodoxy does not have to mean giving up on theology. A dynamic, living faith can be still about theology without being dogmatic. Giving up on dogmatism, rigidity, and theological authoritariansim doesn't require giving up on language about God altogether. There is indeed a middle ground.

So yes, for me, theology does matter. But the key point is this: for me, the real value in progressive Christianity is not that it offers a final word on these questions of theology, but that it offers a platform upon which a dialogue can be built. For me, religion is a continual act of dialogue by people within religious communities with each other and with God. Rather than giving up on God-talk, we embrace it in an open, dynamic fashion. If theology did not matter, then the dialogue would of course be pointless. But by the same token, this dialogue recognizes differences of opinion that necessarily exist among people of faith. An interest in theology does not necessitate an imposition of orthodoxy. We can have an orthopraxy that is rooted in a theology.

21 comments:

Matthew said...

Seeker,

>>But the key point is this: for me, the real value in progressive Christianity is not that it offers a final word on these questions of theology, but that it offers a platform upon which a dialogue can be built.<<

Many religious traditions participate in dialog with other 'faiths'. Traditions have done this for many years. What's the point of having another 'tradition', subtradition, or cult that "offers a platform upon which a dialog can be built"? Let's simply drop the categories and 'cut to the chase'...just accept that each person has their own unique variation of 'a tradition'. Now, If each person is willing to be in dialog with all others, you've got the solution! But here's the real question, 'Then what?"

Peace,
Matthew

Mystical Seeker said...

Matthew, I am in this case not talking about dialogues between traditions, but dialogues within traditions. I would argue that intrafaith dialogue is a natural process within a faith tradition. That is why the Bible, for instance, is often contradictory; the contradictions represent in and of themselves the sort of intrafaith dialogue that took place within the Jewish and Christian traditions. There is nothing new about this. The real problem is when religions try to suppress this natural process of intrafaith dialogue by imposing dogmas and creeds that suppress the free interchange of ideas within a faith community.

Harry said...

The real problem is when religions try to suppress this natural process of intrafaith dialogue by imposing dogmas and creeds that suppress the free interchange of ideas within a faith community.

Why is this a problem?

Frank said...

The problem with orthopraxy is that there is an implied creed/dogma.

For example, if I say that "I don't need religion, all I need to do is be a good person" well that is based on the "dogma" that love, goodness, ethical behavior are somehow a key point to the religious/spiritual life.

It is based on the idea that somehow love is the axis on which the universe could or should revolve--such as the notion that "God is love".

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, I suppose you have a point, although I would rather see a religion that is based on love than one that isn't.

Matthew said...

frank (Frank)

>>The problem with orthopraxy is that there is an implied creed/dogma.<<

Isn't this putting the 'cart before the horse'? When you only allow 'things' that fit into categories you alienate that which may not.

Perhaps 'Lao Tzu' had something important to say with, 'The eternal Tao cannot be spoken.'

Peace,
Matthew

Harry said...

Frank:

What is the problem with an implied (or explicit) creed?

What doctrine of yours does it violate to have an implicit creed?

PrickliestPear said...

Seeker,

Something that might shed light on this diversity within progressive Christianity is an understanding of spirituality as something that develops through stages. A lot of religion, probably most, is largely pre-rational. Even if someone is capable of rational thinking, there are things in some traditions that prohibit the exercise of that rationality is matters of religious belief.

Some people start to move beyond the conventional level, but they don't make it very far, as they can't let go of some of their pre-rational beliefs. Others go farther, but end up with a merely rational faith. I think Spong and Vosper fall into this trap, which is why their visions are so dry and unsatisfying, at least in my opinion. They seem to accept the flatland worldview of modernity, but still want to hold on to some elements of religion.

Some go further, and find the trans-rational divine reality. Here theology becomes an issue again, because one recognises that ethics are not the whole story.

I think the theories of spiritual development (by people like James Fowler, for example) explains a lot of the diversity within the church, and within every tradition. Even among those who have moved beyond the conventional level, there are still numerous stages, each quite different from the next.


Frank,

The problem with orthopraxy is that there is an implied creed/dogma.

Obviously everyone has a belief system, and if someone holds that orthopraxy is of greater import than orthodoxy, presumably they will have other beliefs to support that. But beliefs and dogmas are not the same thing. Beliefs are an unavoidable part of life, dogmas are not.

Mystical Seeker said...

Prickliest Pear,

Interesting points. I think that the idea of stages is useful, although there is the question of just how many stages there are. Marcus Borg basically talks about just three stages--pre-critical naivite, critical thinking, and post-critical naivite. It seems like people like Vosper and Spong lie somewhere between those last two phases that Borg describes. Borg is really talking about the stages that he himself went through, and it seems likely that not everyone progresses in the same way. My own progression comes close to Borg's own, I think.

Gary said...

Prickliest Pear, you haven't been reading Ken Wilber by any change, have you? ;)

Frank said...

Harry,

What is the problem with an implied (or explicit) creed?

What doctrine of yours does it violate to have an implicit creed?


It's actually not a "problem" for me. What I meant was that there is no such thing as "orthopraxy" because all practices are based on a belief system, as Prickliestpear mentions.

I think it is somewhat ironic when people say "I don't need religion, all I need to do is be a good person" they are actually operating out of a world-view informed heavily by the Judeo-Christian tradition, which culminates in the idea that "God is love". So to me, it is disappointing for people to be operating within a theology but not acknowledging where it comes form.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think there is a huge difference between just saying that God is love on the one hand, and on the other hand affirming a whole set of elaborate and arcane theological propositions about supernatural events, about Jesus's supposed nature, about what transpired after Jesus died, about God's supposed Trinitarian nature, and about life after death.

The former is focused on how we live our lives. The latter is focused on esoteric assertions about historical events, divine intervention, miracles, and God's nature, and is highly specific.

To say that "God is love" is a theological proposition is indeed true. But to affirm that doesn't require signing onto a lot of things that a lot of people simply cannot believe and which many people consider unnecessary for their faith. It is a theological proposition that is still squarely focused on how we live our lives.

Matthew said...

Frank-

>>...there is no such thing as "orthopraxy" because all practices are based on a belief system....

...to me, it is disappointing for people to be operating within a theology but not acknowledging where it comes form.<<

Your views fit orthodoxy quite well. Here's a definition of orthodox from Wikipedia-

The word orthodox, from Gk. orthodoxos "having the right opinion," from orthos ("right, true, straight") + doxa ("opinion, praise", related to dokein, "thinking")

This definition fits your 'rational' world view quite well. I suspect you also adhere to the collected set of beliefs that go along with rational thought (it does claim 'truths' that have been handed down from earlier times.) I've noticed how you describe other's ways of seeing and talking about reality by reasserting them from your 'correct' world view...everything must fit into the rational. All these point towards orthodoxy, don't you agree?

Prickliestpear makes a good comment with 'trans-rational'. Have you considered this as a valid way to 'see' reality?

Peace,
Matthew

Frank said...

Matthew,

You continually make comments that my worldview is this or that, but to my eye I don't see you make a case for it. I'm willing to hear it, but I have no idea why you believe the comments you quoted of mine fit wikipedia's definition of orthdoxy. Apples to oranges or maybe automobiles.

The moon, Matthew, the moon... do you see it? Can you see it? Are you willing to see it? Or is it more "safe" for your to paint me as some rationalist so you don't have to challege your own worldview? Do you see the moon, Matthew, or do you just see my finger (no pun intended)? :-)

Frank

(Pardon my last paragraph, it was fun to speak in Matthew-eqsue language.)

Harry said...

Hi Frank:

(Guess I'm still part of this community, travelling together to different places, or something like that. It is curiously stimulating to be the heretic in a community that celebrates heresy.)

If you read the original article, Adams seems to disagree with both you and PP. He asserts that beliefs follow values.

For example, the Progressive values equality, therefore God is gender-neutral.

Beliefs are post-hoc rationalizations of values which are by their nature irrational. You want what you want because you want it. Very post-modern, very nihilistic. And this, we are told, is progress.

Contra PP, it is certainly possible to act in this world without beliefs. Action can be, and often is, motivated by appetite, not ideals.

In the orthodox community, there is much speculation as to whether or not Progressives are completely cynical or not, i.e. motivated completely by the Will To Power.

Frank said...

Harry, those are fine questions, and I am not settled where I sit among them. However, the gender-neutral God can be explained through other ways. For instance, people have had an experience of an infinite, immense, mysterious God. Gender identification of God doesn't make sense in that light.

A male God made more sense in a world where patriarchy made sense. God, the ultimate male, made sense as a way to understand God in a culture that saw maleness as supreme. We don't see it that way anymore, so the idea of a "male God" doesn't strike peopel as awe-inspiring, it just seems rather dated and limited now.

Matthew said...

Frank,

>>You continually make comments that my worldview is this or that, but to my eye I don't see you make a case for it. I'm willing to hear it, but I have no idea why you believe the comments you quoted of mine fit wikipedia's definition of orthdoxy.<<

Orthodoxy = Right thinking. Isn't your claim to right thinking by way of critical/rational means?!

>>Or is it more "safe" for your to paint me as some rationalist so you don't have to challege your own worldview? <<

I'm not painting you as a rationalist, it's how you talk about things. If I've misunderstood your position please let me know.

>>The moon, Matthew, the moon... do you see it? Can you see it? Are you willing to see it? ...Do you see the moon, Matthew, or do you just see my finger (no pun intended)? :-)<<

Of course the pun was intended. We all know that. Why resort to ridicule? Isn't this community about sharing and being in dialog to help each other on our journeys? I've made a point and it's up to you to see the landmarks and decide how to continue your journey.

Perhaps it's time for me to stop posting? My perceptions don't seem to be welcome.

Peace,
Matthew

Harry said...

Frank:

A male God made more sense in a world where patriarchy made sense. God, the ultimate male, made sense as a way to understand God in a culture that saw maleness as supreme. We don't see it that way anymore, so the idea of a "male God" doesn't strike peopel as awe-inspiring, it just seems rather dated and limited now.

I think this is what I meant to say. Progressives value equality, and in fact think males are kind of unpleasant, so they fashion a gender-neutral God. A male God is no longer impressive.

Or what is worse, dated. Kind of like wide ties or bell bottomed jeans.

Oddly enough, people have had an experience of an infinite, immense, mysterious God for quite a while, and gender identification did make sense.

The Christian God is personal, and persons have gender.

-------------------

Matthew, of course Frank thinks his views are the right views, or they wouldn't be his views.

You think your opinions are the right opinions, or they wouldn't be your opinions.

Fortunately, my opions really are the right opinions. They really are Orthodox. So I'll answer any questions you might have.

And I'll call your transrational and raise you a suprarational.

------------------------------

For the curious, from the Wiktionary


transrational

1. (of thought etc.) Beyond the rational; believed without logic or evidence.

Usage notes

* This word often seems to be a wooly word that is defined afresh by anyone who uses it. Using it may cast doubt on the referent and the referrer.

Matthew said...

harry-

>>Fortunately, my opions really are the right opinions. They really are Orthodox. So I'll answer any questions you might have.

And I'll call your transrational and raise you a suprarational.<<

Ha, ha, you're fun!

I'll call your suprarational and raise you a noetic experience.

Jesus told some wonderful parables and I doubt many, if any postmodern rational people, could make heads or tails of them. ;P

Peace,
Matthew

PrickliestPear said...

Gary:

Prickliest Pear, you haven't been reading Ken Wilber by any change, have you? ;)

I have read a few books by Wilber (and agree with some of what he says), but I read Fowler's Stages of Faith as an undergrad, long before I ever read anything by Wilber.

Seeker,

I think that the idea of stages is useful, although there is the question of just how many stages there are. Marcus Borg basically talks about just three stages--pre-critical naivite, critical thinking, and post-critical naivite.

Actually it was Paul Ricoeur, not Borg, who came up with that particular scheme. It's appropriate for Borg to use that, as it is particularly concerned with interpreting texts. But it's far too crude for understanding a person's faith as a whole.

SocietyVs said...

“The Christian God is personal, and persons have gender.” (Harry)

So by your rationale here Harry – is God a male? Plus the logic is rather – suggestive and not very deep. Being personal – well both man and woman can do that…and God is a Spirit – I am guessing God has this aspect also.

“Fortunately, my opinions really are the right opinions. They really are Orthodox. So I'll answer any questions you might have.” (Harry)

Orthodox = right opinions – according to Harry. Now that is facetious. Even if orthodoxy were right – how can one be sure they hold to it correctly? Also orthodoxy is quite a movement away from what we find Jesus teaching anyways – in my personal and studied opinion – since orthodoxy seems to think ‘what you believe concerning the character/make-up of God is more important than your actions from believing in that God’.

Find me one place Jesus even so much as does this concerning God – where is his 11 articles of faith concerning what God looks like, the bible, and what atonement means. He never lays one down – unless we count the beatitudes? And the beatitudes are not like articles of faith I have seen in any orthodox church – they actually ask something of the reader (ie: a behavior – like mercy or peace).

The articles of faith – and the orthodox creeds – are beliefs in the sense – we can choose to believe these things about the character of God. But they are not beliefs – in the more gospelic sense – in that they ask not a single thing of you (as in an action).

EX: God is 3 in 1, born of a virgin, and was resurrected after 3 days.

Those beliefs are fine – but they are not beliefs – they are facts or are not facts. These are things that either happened or did not happen. The gospel is not so much concerned with these type of things – as it is with actual beliefs that produce something (ie: a behavior).

EX: God is love, blessed are the merciful, and repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand

These are beliefs that require an action. There are the kinds of ideas we find in the gospels all the time. The beatitudes being a prime example.

So for ‘as right’ as you think you are Frank – because you are orthodox – well it doesn’t mean much in some senses – since orthodoxy is overly concerned with facts (and the right to not question those) and not beliefs (which are about morality).