Sunday, July 10, 2011

Progressive Christianity

I wanted to blog about 'Progressive Christianity', but maybe I should have blogged about it two weeks ago when it was simpler. What is Progressive Christianity? It seems to be where many emergent/emerging Christians have gone. It seems to be where Brian McLaren has gone. It seems to be a reigning in of 'lets kick premodernism in the the teeth and redefine everything without rules'. Now there are rules. But different rules.
Two or three weeks ago I thought that this might make a good landing place for people seriously wanting to talk about universalism and decentre-ing the Bible without throwing out Jesus altogether. I thought that it might force (or allow) a theology and praxis to develop that wasn't dependent on the traditions and foundations and structures of evangelicalism and orthodoxy.
You see, I read some of the articles at the Patheos Symposium on Progressive Christianity when there were only a few contributions and I thought I could see a focus. Going back now, I find many more articles and a growing confusion.
We need to be clear for ourselves whether we are seeking new expressions of church and gospel or whether we are seeking a restatement of the gospel, a redefinition. I think that Brian McLaren and those tending towards universalism are looking for a redefinition and I would like them to find space to do it. Maybe Progressive Christianity would be that space. I, myself, would like to see evolving expressions of church and gospel that are culturally relevant, but that retain the centrality of the Bible and of the cross.
We muddy the water too much in our desire to . . . what? Follow the trends? Jump on the bandwagon. Let's look where these bandwagons are going and choose constructively. We can't all be everything.
So, I'm not really clear on what Progressive Christianity is, but seems to be something to watch! 


Steve Hayes said...

Perhaps it is akin to what in the 1960s used to be called "relevant theology".

The problem back then was that nobody bothered to say what it was relevant to.

I think Chesterton put it rather well:

"Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter the test instead of trying to pass the test. We often←
hear it said, for instance, "What is right in one age is wrong in another." This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times
and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil; if it were so, we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them. How can you overtake Jones if you walk in the other direction? You cannot discuss whether one people has succeeded more in being miserable than another succeeded in being happy. It would be like discussing whether Milton was more puritanical than a pig is fat."

Anonymous said...

I can't help but be puzzled by the seeming identification of "pre-modern", "traditional", "evangelical" (in the movement sense), "orthodox" (presumably in the small "o" sense) and, well, anti-"universal". That's something I've seen on various Protestant blogs, and particularly in relation to the whole Rob Bell hell saga. And it just seems very odd. Evangelicalism strikes me as a decidedly "modern" movement and its view of "tradition" and "orthodoxy" as something that would not have been terribly recognisable to Christians in earlier periods, and certainly not in the first millenium.


Jenny Hillebrand said...

Thank you for your comments, Steve and Macrina!
Macrina - I'm not sure that I fully understand what you are saying, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to see things through Orthodox eyes! Please don't read too much into the way I lumped things together in my post; I was being half intentionally erratic in my categorisations, I find it so hard to really put us into boxes.
I think that the concept of universal salvation goes against pretty much any theology that could be considered orthodox in the last several hundred years? Am I wrong? I agree that Evangelicalism is decidedly "modern", but - and maybe I'm off on my own bent here - couldn't one say that the philosophy of the Greeks and the Christian theological discussion in the first 500years AD were pretty modern themselves?
I agree that tradition has changed vastly. I wonder if you and I mean different things by orthodox?
I think might have just made already mirky waters even more muddy! I'd like to hear more about what you are saying.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jenny,

In reacting to the identification of traditional, evangelical, orthodox, etc, I wasn’t only reacting to what you’d said here. In fact, I’d just been reading another post that did that, almost reacted but didn’t, and so when I saw your post probably over-reacted. Having said that, I still find it puzzling – perhaps I’m just very out of touch with Protestant and/or evangelical circles.

For the record, I wouldn’t want to be identified with what seems to be considered universalism, and am most uncomfortable with the doctrinal fuzziness and relativism that seems to be associated with emerging church and post-evangelical discourses. But the problem, from an Orthodox perspective, is that they are reacting (in some respects rightly) against what clearly is a distortion of Christian tradition, but without the rootedness in tradition to sustain such a critique from degenerating into a sort of woolly liberalism.

Regarding hell and universalism, we seem to be speaking a rather different language from much of western Christianity because we do not see hell as something that God threatens us with, as rather something that He saves us from. Or, at the risk of over-simplification, salvation is therapeutic rather than juridical. Christ has descended into hell, conquering it, and thereby enabling our ascent to God. Now that salvation is not automatic, and it is much broader and deeper than simply getting a ticket to heaven! And the question remains whether we can reject it. Generally speaking the Church has been hesitant about positive affirmations that all people will ultimately be saved because that would seem to deny our free will, although there have been saints of the Church (Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian) who have affirmed it. But, while we cannot speak with certainty about the ultimate salvation of all, we are certainly called to pray for it, and each Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all.”

You may be interested in a short video (there is also text) by NT Wright (who as you no doubt know is not Orthodox, and neither is he a "universalist") on how the ideas on the hell of the last few centuries are hardly traditional, here. Highly recommended! There is also a longer and quite academic paper on Christ’s descent into hell by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alveyev) here.

Regarding the comparison between the modern period and the early patristic period, I would have to think more about that, although in some ways I think that our own period has more in common with the first centuries of the Church. But the two differences that spring to mind regarding the modern era are: Firstly, Christian theology in the modern period had moved into largely cerebral mode that is alien to the early Church, having lost much of its connection with a life of prayer and with a bodily rootedness. (Of course, the roots of this can be found earlier). And, secondly, theology, and in particular understandings of salvation, had become increasingly framed in juridical terms. I don’t want to overstate the differences between East and West in this regard, but there are real differences in the way the West developed after Anslem although this also has earlier roots.

I don’t know if this helps, but it’s probably already rather long for a combox comment!


David Miller said...


I found your comments to be extremely helpful.

Thank you.


Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Macrina - you are really challenging me to put my thoughts in a new framework! Thank you.
tradition, evangelical, orthodox - I think what we (Protestants?) are talking about are evangelical orthodoxy and evangelical traditions, where evangelical here, loosely means not Roman Catholic (and not Orthodox? I don't know). Thus the history is very much more recent than when you talk of the traditions of the Church Fathers and Orthodox orthodoxy (I hope I am making at least vague sense here.)
Woolly liberalism - the hope that I see for Progressive Christianity is that they seem to be rejecting 'woolly liberalism'. But the question is what will form the foundation for belief and praxis? Tradition? Scripture? Both of those answers are too simplistic for the here and now and that is part of the struggle.
Hell and universalism - here I think we need to identify different evangelicals. There are those who are Reformed and I would agree that the juridical approach describes that section. I would choose to call myself Wesleyan here and say that I am more comfortable with your approach than a Reformed thinker would be. In fact, I think we could with value put more emphasis on it. The imagery of Christ descending and people ascending is a little alien to our tradition.
NT Wright - I will still visit the links. I like the way Bib studs scholars are starting to point out how many of our 'Biblical' ideas are actually based on art or literature or conjecture from 1000AD (or whatever period).
Modern-patristic You are so much better placed to comment on this than I am! So I largely agree with you. It would make an interesting study. Would you not see the identification of heresies as a very cerebral thing?
Your comment on juridical has really got me thinking. It is definitely more a feature of Reformed theology than Wesleyan, but because Wesleyans are a little more forgiving about doctrine we don't announce it as loudly as do the Reformed crowd. That is affecting the general perception of evangelical theology.
Thank you - further response is welcome!

David Miller said...

Wesley's articulation of the order of salvation, which includes sanctification and glorification, is very much indebted to his reading of the Eastern Orthodox theology of theosis, which itself is rooted in a theology of incarnation, in which God-in-flesh has descended to earth so that humanity can ascend to heaven (not understood necessarily as afterlife but as union with God beginning in the here and now).

Anonymous said...

Thanks, David and Jenny.

Jenny, I'll try and respond more but it will take me a day or two to get there. Getting my thoughts into some sort of order on these things is quite challenging!

Hope you're feeling a bit better!


Jenny Hillebrand said...

Hi Macrina - I'm much better thanks. There's no rush for thoughts - we can also communicate further thoughts through posts on our blogs.

David - thanks for that. Just to clarify what I said about alien imagery (I'm not sure if I need to) but just that we don't dwell much on the thought of Jesus going into Hell in the Protestant denominations. We are very clear about the importance of the incarnation!
It would be cool to collect all the books Wesley read (that we know of); I suppose someone has done it.

David Miller said...

That Jesus descended to the dead is in the United Methodist Hymnal and Book of Worship, but only in a footnote, in I remember correctly. :-)