Why do I find progressive Christianity so (irrationally) annoying? A confession.

I have noticed again recently that I have an irrational unhelpful response to all manifestations of “progressive” Christianity. The term and anything I associate with it cause a rush of blood to the head and a strong desire to begin actually or virtually shouting: “you’re wrong, you’re so wrong, repent and return to orthodoxy now!”. Often when I take a few deep breaths and think again I find there’s nothing in what has provoked this response to justify it.

After all I agree with a good many things progressive Christians say and promote: I’m with them on the important presenting issue of homosexuality, having no problem with the ordination of gay and lesbian ministers and no desire to urge them to be celibate or otherwise reject their sexual orientation (I’ve written about this here); I regard attempts to resist the evidence on evolution as foolish and counter-productive (for this see here); I embrace enthusiastically all the various methods for studying the Bible developed since the renaissance and enlightenment (here); I am (more or less) a universalist of the hopeful Barthian kind.

It may, therefore, be a case of what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences”, where it is those most similar to oneself from whom one feels the strongest need to differentiate oneself. My own personal history passes through progressive Christianity (for a fuller account see here). It is quite credible to believe that the “progressives” and I share so much that I resist assimilation into their ranks at least in part as an entirely irrational and self-serving assertion of personal identity and uniqueness. I’m happy to concede that the irrational affect I feel is at least in part due to this.

However I also have some important (at least to me) theological justifications for my opposition to this current, so influential in my denomination. I think they make the following linked set of errors about what Christianity essentially is:

  • they (in my view) “moralise” the Gospel, turning it into an ethical system or teaching;
  • they politicise ethics;
  • they reject a theocentric account of the origin, nature and purpose of human existence;
  • they have an inadequate conception of the person of Jesus Christ.

Together these flaws turn the good news of our salvation into the bad news of ethical obligation, failure and condemnation. While I share a lot with them I find their teaching to be disastrously humanist and to deny the Gospel. That’s not so terrible in some ways since I don’t think, ultimately, that to be the most important thing, but together with my closeness to them on so many things it goes some way to explain my reactions, which I’m trying hard to control.

Moralising the Gospel: by this I mean the idea that Jesus’ main work was and is to tell us how to live, to teach ethics. On this account Christianity is a school of philosophy on the Hellenistic model, like the Stoics or the Epicureans, where one learns how to be a good person. I find this an almost infinitely depressing idea. What does one do, where does one go, how does one feel when one fails to do one’s duty? And how does one draw a boundary around what one’s duty is? These are the questions asked by Kierkegaard of this kind of teaching and there’s no good answer, in my view. The Gospel teaches that we’re all sinners, that God knows this, and that by grace we’re forgiven. Sin is defined primarily not by ethics (how we behave towards one another) but by religion (how we orient ourselves to God). (For a fuller exploration of this see here)

Politicisation of ethics: I don’t deny that  Christianity properly has an ethical dimension or consequences. When we respond gratefully to what God has done for us in creation and in our salvation by Christ we strive to live into the Kingdom. What I don’t accept is the characteristic short-circuiting of the work of discerning what this means that associates progressive Christianity with a moralistic left-wing politics. The world and God’s rule over it are more complicated than that. (See here for a denial of “Christian politics”, here for a negative assessment of “Occupy”, here for a defence of markets, and here for a discussion of providence and politics).

Nature of human existence: the key thing here is whether human existence can make any sense outside of a dependant relationship to God. My sense is that much of progressive Christianity has lost confidence in God and has turned to a humanist independence in which God plays little role. This is completely self-defeating, in my view. Human existence apart from God is utterly meaningless and desperate. Hope and comfort is to be found only in accepting our need for God’s help and God’s love and believing in the promise that they are available to us.

Jesus Christ, God and man: the mysteries of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension are what enables the restoration of this relationship, broken by our sin. I believe that only God’s action in Christ makes new life possible for us. The traditional orthodox teaching defined by the early councils at Nicaea and Chalcedon, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and that we are joined to him in the Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is absolutely necessary for me. Any departure from it leaves us without hope (in my view).

This brings me to the (possibly) rational element of my irritation. My impression is that progressives tend to think that their Christianity is more mature,  more thoughtful, more sophisticated than any alternative. I disagree. I think they haven’t thought it through to the bottom and would do well to spend some quality time with Nietzsche. He would show them that ethics cannot stand alone, that it is self-delusion and hypocrisy. The explicitly or implicitly claimed superiority of the language of “maturity” and “progress” annoys me.

This does not justify me in feeling that same thing in response and I am much attached to the idea that there are multiple vocations. I know that commitment to justice and to service are essential if the Church is to fulfil its mission and that its progressive wing has a marvellous record in this regard. I just wish its representatives didn’t seem quite so smug.

  1. peddiebill said:

    I appreciate the stimulus to thought in your post. I dont agree on every point. For example when I read the history of the development of the Trinity I cant help thinking it is a clumsy way of making sense of something that is dimly understood. (Eusebius was a strange figure) The notion of God the Father seems totally out of sync with what we now know of the processes of creation and the wonder of the Universe, and the notions of Jesus as the Son of God are similarly confused and half thought out. My own position is that I find much to support in the progressive camp but tend to the view that there is far more that we dont know than what we often hear claimed as knowledge to the extent that I suspect that even modern progressive theologians do little to help us understand the mystery of life and creation in the Universe (or should that be Multiverse). I like the attempts to distil meaningful ethics from its beginnings in religions like Christianity, but again most issues seem poorly defined and the implications still at a very rudimentary state.

    • I agree that the Trinity is a dimly understood mystery but I can’t agree that it is confused and half thought out. It has been reflected upon by many of the greatest minds of the last two millennia and to turn away from it is to cut ourselves off from the roots that can nourish us.
      The contemporary task for Christianity, in my view, is to understand how Trinitarian theology and the still emerging scientific world view can inform one another, not to abandon one for the other.
      This depends crucially on putting ethics back in its proper, secondary, place.

    • Thanks Michael, it’s always good to be reassured that one isn’t entirely alone!

  2. Sarah said:

    Thank you Nick. I found your article most helpful as I am with you but I needed your outline to articulate my own thinking. I, like you, want to hold onto the Trinity etc and I am in fact preaching on the Trinity at the moment and for the next few weeks. Bless you.

    • Oh! Thank you so much Sarah! I was rather nervous about this post and am very happy that some people have found it helpful.

  3. Laurie said:

    This dialogue is extremely helpful – my home congregation and pastor have affiliated with “Progressive Christianity” and now promotes the church as a Progressive Christianity congregation. See http://www.tcpc.org/about/8points.cfm. I am challenged by some of the 8 points they support/profess, especially number 2. Are any of you familiar with this organization? Feels more like they are supporting a Unitarian Universalism tenant.

    • No, I hadn’t come across this organisation before although I have read some Spong who seems to be associated with them. I agree with you that point 2 is deeply problematic. The other 7 are fairly unobjectionable in themselves (although point 1 is pretty feeble) but do not add up to a statement of anything recognisable to me as Christianity.
      My argument is that this moralising is utterly inadequate and doesn’t offer anything really coherent to anybody who subjects it to rigorous examination.

      • Laurie said:

        Thanks Nick for articulating something that I have had a hard time doing – guess it is time for us to find another church.

      • I can’t comment on what you should do, Laurie, but I’d think (and pray) long and hard about that decision. I believe strongly in the importance of sustaining community in the Church.

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