I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum. That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have). But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains. Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion. Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism. It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.
Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”
Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later). On my reading, these 8 points say:
Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
We should all be really, really nice to each other.
Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful. Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs. And of course, no mention of the Trinity. Which brings me to…
Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity
Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:
“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”
Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on. Did it take a while to work out? Yes. The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia. No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that. Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course. But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us. Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.
There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days. Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge. I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”
Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge
I have many friends who are progressive Christians. By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus. Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church. They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.
But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity. Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found. They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.
That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity. Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union. Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal. Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.
So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you. The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”
A False Choice
Do the oppressed care about my ideology? My conservative friends talk a lot about Christians in Northern Iraq who are being persecuted – even crucified – by a self-declared Islamic state known as ISIS. My progressive friends have been writing and reflecting a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. By and large, the right doesn’t seem to care about the Palestinians and the left doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Christians persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere.
I’m not sure why this is. My best guess: this is just another instance of how all-encompassing the conservative and progressive worldviews tend to be. There is a set of issues that the right is supposed to care about and a set of issues the left is supposed to care about. Ergo, if I post about Iraqi Christians being persecuted, I am dismissed as a conservative. If I express concern about suffering Palestinians, I am dismissed as a liberal. I am willing to bet, though, that the oppressed don’t care what our ideology is.
Since both Western culture and Protestantism largely assume the liberal/conservative paradigm, most of our conversation and debate is not aimed towards truth, but intended either to show which “side” we are on or why the other “side” is wrong. It’s more ping-pong than discourse. So we become traitors to our team to express concern for the wrong subset of the oppressed.
But if, as James Cone and other liberationist theologians have argued, God has a particular concern for the oppressed, we should refuse this choice. We should reject an artificial bifurcation of God’s hurting children, because they are all beloved.
Reclaiming Our First Family
Instead, I think Christians should reclaim a particular concern for our own (a choice based on God’s own revelation and salvation history itself). In a sermon based on the famous Mennonite slogan, “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other,” Stanley Hauerwas defends just this concern. When criticized for such a special emphasis on the welfare and actions of other Christians, Hauerwas’ usual reply is: “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but we have to start somewhere.” (1)
Indeed, if we take Scripture seriously, Christians are to consider the Church as our “first family.” We are to do good to all, but especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal. 6:10) After all, God’s concern for the oppressed is especially directed towards His people, Israel and the Church. It is Israel that was redeemed from Pharaoh, and “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4, NRSV) The Church was established to point to the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, and this beloved Body suffers as she awaits the return of the her Head.
In fact, God’s concern for all is expressed through the bonds he makes and covenant he keeps with the particular people who belong to Him. Likewise, our empathy as Christians should be first and foremost for our sisters and brothers in the Church and Israel (though I do not believe the biblical covenant people should be identified exclusively with the modern nation-state). Let charity start at home. As Hauerwas put it, we have to start somewhere.
In Revelation 6, the souls under the altar who cry out for justice are not just any oppressed persons, but those who have suffered for the Lamb. They cry out, “How long?” How dare we pick and choose among them. All of them, not just the ones beloved by the left or remembered by right, have an equal share of God’s justice and mercy. Each and every one are given white robes and told to wait just a little while longer. God has no side when it comes to the martyrs who (literally) bear witness to Him: they are all precious. If their blood, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the church – it is all held dear by God. And it should be by us.
Meanwhile, we Western Christians need to remember that some of our sisters and brothers experience oppression of a kind we cannot possibly comprehend, no matter how much CNN we watch or how much we would like to be in “solidarity” with them. Sometimes, it appears we desperately want to be part of that group under the altar – not by seeking actual martyrdom, which we aren’t supposed to do – but by re-defining oppression. Thus we conflate the relatively minor injustices and inconveniences we may face with the experience of suffering Christians around the world, which is a sad, self-aggrandizing form of moral equivalency.
The Seed of the Church
I recall a story told by Cardinal Dolan in a recent sermon. He shared with his parishioners at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that he now dreads Mondays, not because of complaints from bishops and priests based on Sunday’s activities, but because of a phone call he usually gets from a colleague. Most Mondays, said Dolan, his friend, the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria calls to inform him of yet another attack on the Christians of his archdiocese. Regularly, in that part of Nigeria, Catholics on their way to mass have been targeted for vicious attacks by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram (this sermon was before the gang became internationally infamous for kidnapping innocent young women). Nigerian Christians are the victims of wanton murder for no other reason than their identification with the Crucified. Diocletian would be proud. Most astoundingly, though, the Archbishop from Jos also reported that his people are still coming to Sunday mass. Not only that, but their numbers are swelling. “Our churches have never been more full,” reported the Nigerian church leader.
The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church. But let us not make martyrs of each other. What if Christians agreed not to harm each other? How might that change the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose Christian victims often go ignored? How might that change relations between Russia and Ukraine, or our approach to the children at the US border? If the church really is our first family, we should not be willing to see any of our own harmed, marginalized, or killed. Sounds like a good start.
In the meantime, we can rejoice in God’s power to work despite and even through oppression, such that the witness of those who die for the faith of the apostles are honored in this life by the faithfulness they inspire, even as they wait under the altar for justice to be done. Let us be thankful for that faithful cloud of witnesses who have suffered and continue to suffer, that their deaths are not in vain, that their patience will be rewarded, and that God has not forgotten. And may our prayers and concern be for the whole company of martyrs, for all the oppressed, suffering, and slain of the church, and not merely for those whom we are supposed to remember according to the artificial dictates of 21st century political culture.
And, finally, let us take heart: as the words the words of Samuel Stone, drawing on Revelation 6, remind us:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!
1. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, 63.
My recent post questioning the conservative UMC schismatics garnered a wide range of responses, including many who called on me, in the name of fairness, to ask similar questions of those progressives in the UMC breaching covenant in various ways. Though I had at least hinted at the end that I saw their actions as equally schismatic, I did not have time and space to then go into my questions for the left in a similar fashion. So, in this follow-up, I offer some questions to my liberal UMC neighbors:
1. What ever happened to doctrine? Progressive Methodists excel at talking about and advocating for social justice, inclusion, tolerance, and diversity. These are wonderful things, of course. But often these terms are simply lifted from secular culture and deployed in progressive Christian circles with little to no theological content. There are strong theological voices for progressive Christians to draw on, in the sexuality debate and beyond. However, the seeming lack of interest that many progressives have in basic Christian orthodoxy gives moderates and conservatives concerns about the presence of foundational Christological and Trinitarian affirmations among our more left-leaning neighbors. A little doctrine and theology would go a long way, not just in building trust in the church but in making your own arguments more plausible. If you talk like a Unitarian Universalist, you can’t expect to be taken seriously in any discussion about church beliefs and structure.
2. When did celibacy become oppression? I believe that there are valid concerns that the sexuality clauses of the Book of Discipline (BOD) are unevenly and unfairly enforced against our LGBT members and clergy candidates (outside of answering one written question that was not discussed, sex was not brought up at all throughout my ordination process). It is fundamentally unjust to hold LGBT persons to the “celibacy in singleness, fidelity in marriage” clause (as marriage in the church is not, at present, an option) if we also do not take celibacy equally seriously among unmarried heterosexual Methodists. By so doing the church is, quite literally, placing “burdens too heavy to bear” upon our LGBT members and clergy candidates to which we are not willing or able to hold heterosexuals accountable (Acts 15:10).
That said, Christians have always – since Jesus and Paul – held that celibacy was a valid Christian vocation. No doubt, in a world that idolizes sex, we need to be much more proactive in providing resources and showing grace to persons called to a single life, but this should be viewed as a positive vocation with a long history among our monastics, clergy, martyrs, and saints. By itself, the Church’s call to celibacy in singleness is not oppression; our highest calling as a people dedicated to sanctification is not expression or intimacy but holiness. In that regard, the Church of the 21st century would do well to recover the witness of celibate persons and lift up singleness in all the possibilities that it offers. The debate over who should be celibate will and should go on, but celibacy as a valid calling for Christians should be unquestionable. We worship Jesus, after all, not Freud or Kinsey.
3. Have you counted the cost? Some folks did not like when I brought this up at the New York Annual Conference forum on Clergy Covenant and Human Sexuality, but it needs to be considered. The regions where progressives dominate the church are not the healthiest parts of our communion. There are more United Methodists in North Georgia than the whole of the Pacific Northwest. A member of the Connectional Table informed me that many Annual Conferences have pension funds that are unsustainable. Many others Annual Conferences can’t even pay the full bill for their episcopal leaders. Meanwhile, the churches that are leading the charge for a formal schism in reaction to breaches of covenant by progressive UMs are mostly within (and would likely draw many supporters from) the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions. These two jurisdictions alone “pay in” through apportionments a much larger percentage than their numbers represent – a rough estimate I’ve heard was that these regions represent 40% of the church numerically, but pay 70% of the apportionments. How much will your ministries of justice, peace, and mercy – not to mention all those boards and agencies that we fought so hard to keep intact in 2012 – suffer if some of our largest churches pull out? This is not to defend the tactic – even though it seems to be getting popular with progressives now, also – but simply to say: you may get what you want, but at what cost?
4. Can people of good will disagree with you? Part of the trouble with binaries like liberation/oppression and justice/injustice is that they create a very simple narrative world in which those on one side are righteous and those on the other side are evil, if not sub-human. I have seen traditionalists, the Book of Discipline, and even the UMC as a whole labelled “homophobic,” “ignorant,” “oppressive,” “hateful,” and the like by those on the left. At the Connectional Table dialogue last month, someone stated that “violence” had been done, presumably because one (fairly tepid) panelist kinda sorta defended the BOD. Violence? Hatred? Oppression? Those are a very broad brushes with which to paint.
I have many conservative friends and colleagues. I’ve sat down with some of the leading evangelical pastors in our denomination. These are not people who fear or loathe LGBT persons. You certainly won’t win them to your side by declaring that they do. But this rhetoric persists.
Now, of course, homophobia, discrimination, and hate speech should have no place at all among God’s people. Even Christians who do not see lesbian and gay relationships as valid expressions of God’s will should, in the name of Christian love, defend the persons in them from abuse. Likewise, I believe (and think it should be a no-brainer) that the church should support efforts to make sure that gay and lesbian partners be given civil and legal recognition in matters of inheritance, visitation, etc. on par with heterosexual couples. But on the matters of church discipline vis-a-vis marriage and ordination, I ask: is it possible to disagree with you about sexuality and still recognize each other as sisters and brothers in Christ?
5. What else is up for grabs? I sense a concern from moderates and traditionalists about deeper divisions among us than just matters of church discipline and sexual ethics (see #1). If whole conferences and jurisdictions feel justified, on principle, to ignore or disobey certain clearly defined parts of the BOD, what else can be ignored? Progressives will sometimes argue that their current breaches of covenant “do no harm” to the rest of the UMC, and so should be allowed to follow their own path. But if this persists – absent an agreement similar to Bishop Coyner’s recommendations – what else can be ignored, and how is the rest of the church to trust that this is the only area of the BOD that progressives will seek to pressure until it breaks? When even left-leaning bishops do not seem particularly interested in listening their peers, there seems to be a legitimate concern that progressive United Methodists have no concept of authority outside of personal conscience. A church full of self-appointed Luthers (of whatever ideological stripe) is going to find it difficult to live together and serve God’s redemptive and healing mission.
6. What is your end game? I believe the vast majority of UM progressives, like their conservative neighbors, sincerely love Jesus and feel caught between their personal convictions and their love for and commitment to the UMC. Those of us who disagree with their beliefs and/or actions should still be in prayer for them, as they are our beloved in Christ. So I ask you, my progressive friends, the same question I asked the conservatives: what is your end game? It seems pretty clear to most observers that, given the demographics, General Conference 2016 has little chance of removing the language related to marriage and ordination. So, barring that, what can you live with? Is an “agree to disagree” statement worth pursuing? Could you live with a United States Central Conference, that could have more flexibility (as all the other Central Conferences have presently) with what language to adopt around sexuality? I hope, for the sake of a church that I truly love and that still has much to offer the world, that there is something short of full victory (represented by a full excision of the LGBT clauses in the BOD) you are willing to accept – because continued “biblical obedience” may tear the church apart to such an extent that, like Humpty-Dumpty, it could not be put back together.
Ultimately, I don’t want to be in a church of only personal holiness or or only social justice. As Methodists in the lineage of John and Charles Wesley, I think we really are at our best when we strive to have our cake and eat it. And so in asking tough questions of the schismatics on both ends of the spectrum in the UMC, it is in the service of this goal: that we might be one.
The old song was wrong: breaking up is not hard, it’s easy. It’s what the rest of the Mainline has done.
Good News, a conservative evangelical caucus, is not pleased with how things are going in the UMC. A statement following a recent board meeting, denouncing our current state of affairs as “untenable,” read in part:
“We see the present situation as untenable. We are aware of conversations taking place among leading pastors and other groups around the country to examine what options are available for those of us who are biblical Christians and who have agreed to live by TheBook of Discipline. Those options include sweeping reform of the church or the creation of a different kind of future. If we are one church, we cannot act as if we are two. If in reality we are two churches, it may not be wise to pretend any longer that we are one. Many are discussing the wisdom of churches continuing to fund a denomination that is unwilling to live by its policies and whose chief officers do not enforce its beliefs. Some have already curtailed their financial support in protest. Concrete and dramatic actions are likely to come out of those conversations in the next few months.”
Notice the vague language: “We are aware of conversations”; “leading pastors”; “some” and “many,” etc. This got me thinking about how complaints and controversial matters are handled on church boards. One of the rules that any healthy church holds among its decision-making bodies is something like “speak for self, use only ‘I’ statements.” This is because often times people will attempt to manipulate a process of discernment by implying that untold numbers of persons have a problem with thus-and-such. You’ve probably heard of conversations like this. “Pastor, a bunch people are really upset about [x].” Or, “I’ve been talking to a lot of people, and they are thinking about leaving unless you do something.” Oftentimes, the unnamed masses are really just one or two ornery troublemakers who are attempting to augment their influence by claiming others as anonymous co-conspirators.
I would hope that Good News, composed as it is of many who serve in various leadership capacities in local churches, would be astute and honest enough to avoid this kind of power play. These kinds of veiled threats are, on the whole, unbecoming of the body of Christ. What is true at the local church level is equally, if not more so, true at the level of denominational advocacy.
A particularly troubling tactic is the threat of withholding funds unless the one gets their way. An all-too-common ploy, this is often reserved by power brokers in a local church to use when all else has failed. Again, what is true of the parish is true of a caucus; hostage-taking should be beneath an organization dedicated to the renewal of the church. It is, pure and simple, a manipulative tool unworthy of Christians in covenant together. Apportionments are not dues paid when all is well, but the shared burden that makes shared ministry possible. As I would say to someone in my church, you aren’t withholding from the local church, you are withholding from the God to whom you have promised a portion.
One last request: can we stop resorting to the self-righteous rhetoric that declares some Christians “biblical” and others (by default) “un-biblical?” Perceiving oneself as following Scripture on a particular ethical question probably doesn’t mean that one follows every jot and tittle of Scripture at all times. In that sense, none of us are “biblical.” This is the conservative equivalent of the Christian left accusing anyone who questions their agenda “homophobic.” Both are often crass and self-serving adjectives that say nothing helpful in furthering a conversation.
Perhaps the time has come for the people called United Methodists to withhold their funds from these caucus groups, which seem to be more and more intent on running headlong toward a cliff. They don’t seem to be getting us anywhere: they aren’t sharing good news, they aren’t interested in reconciling, they aren’t confessing anything interesting, they only want love to prevail through bullying and intimidation, and rather than “religion and democracy” they are promoting idolatry and ideology.
Mind you, this is just a humble proposal. I’m not aware of any others expressing a similar desire. So I won’t promise you that incalculable legions have my back on this.
Recently, Roger Wolsey (known for suggesting that fish should kiss) blogged about the distinction between liberal Christianity and progressive Christianity, and why progressive Christians aren’t necessarily progressive politically. Reading his piece, I had the overall feeling that he “doth protest too much,” but at the end of the day I don’t have a big dog in that fight. My canine did enter the fray, however, when he identified progressive Christianity – again, as distinct from liberal Christianity – as a “post-liberal” form of Christianity. I quote him here with his own emphases included and at length to hopefully avoid the charge of prooftexting:
“Progressive Christianity is the evolution of liberal Christianity. Liberal Christianity was a modern-era movement that was a fruit of the Enlightenment, which embraced academic biblical scholarship, and deferred to the authority of contemporary science. While open-minded in many ways, it was patriarchal, elitist, colonial, and ceded too much clout to the tentative insights of science. It also over emphasized the intellect and reason an minimized passion and the heart. It missed out on the beauty of embracing the apophatic (the ultimate unknowableness of God), paradox and mystery. In so doing it missed the forest for the trees – albeit missing a different part of the forest than fundamentalists do.
Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened. Progressive Christians are open to the reality that God is vitally at work in other world religions; that Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth; and that it’s best to take the Bible seriously, but not always literally.”
Notice the logic: liberal Christianity is Enlightenment Christianity, and “progressive” Christianity is post-modern Christianity. Of course, the problem with this is that the very idea of “progress” is an Enlightenment construct; this line runs right through the scientific revolution, receiving (for instance) theological expression in the social gospel of the early 20th century and political expression in the “war(s?) to end all wars,” and continuing in our various modes of discourse to today. The basic narrative: “we” (and Wolsey is right, this is a privileged “we”) are advancing in knowledge, morals, wisdom, art, etc. and – because this is a quintessentially modern construct – we are doing so by the power of our own sublime rationality. The conviction that we must be more enlightened than those who have gone before is also why we moderns have made tradition and authority (and, above all, traditional authorities!) the boogeymen (boogeypersons?) of our cultural landscape. As David F. Watson so aptly described in a recent post, the actual line between “liberal” and “progressive” is hardly as firm as Wolsey suggests:
“At some point, liberal Christians stopped using the term ‘liberal’ and started using the term ‘progressive.’ I’ve really never understood this move, except that the term ‘progressive’ expresses a positive value judgment that ‘liberal’ does not (at least, in our current context). Progressive Christianity now includes a very broad range of positions influenced by a existentialist, process, and identity-based theology. It is still the dominant form of thinking in mainline Protestant traditions and theological education.”
So, if progressive Christianity really is just a more fashionable name for classic liberal Christianity, then it becomes somewhat obvious why it can’t also be “post-liberal.” We’ll circle back to that momentarily. It is worth noting, for fairness’ sake, that postliberal theology is notoriously hard to define (not unlike the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul). Associated with the Yale dons George Lindbeck and Hans Frei (many of whose students were my teachers), the postliberal approach is more about method than content (though, because of that method, it tends to yield particular kinds of content). As John Webster puts it,
“…there is, once again, no ‘school’ here, held together by a firm dogmatic frame. Postliberal theology is more a set of projects than a position…it is not so much an investment in specific doctrines which characterizes postliberal theology as a particular family of approaches to the task of doctrinal construction.” (Webster, “Theology After Liberalism?” in Theology After Liberalism: A Reader [Oxford: Blackwell 2000], 54, emphasis added.)
In his seminal work The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age, Lindbeck named the two primary ways of theologizing and of conceiving doctrine and, based on their inadequacy, proposed a third: “The difficulties cannot be solved by, for example, abandoning modern developments and returning to some form of preliberal orthodoxy. A third, postliberal, way of conceiving religion and religious doctrine is called for.” (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine [Philadelphia: Westminster Press 1984], 7, emphasis added.)
He would go on to name the two primary paths something like cognitive propositionalist (denoting pre-modern and related approaches) and experiential-expressivist (following the modern “turn to the subject” emphasizing experience). For our purposes, his dialogue with the liberal, i.e. experiential-expressivist modes of doctrine is most important. Lindbeck puts the difference between liberal and postliberal (which, following Clifford Geertz and others, he names a “linguistic-cultural” model) in stark terms:
“It remains true, therefore, that the most easily pictured of the contrasts between a linguistic-cultural model of religion and an experiential-expressive one is that the former reverses the relation of the inner and the outer. Instead of deriving external features of a religion from inner experience, it is the inner experiences which are viewed as derivative.” (Lindbeck, 34.)
This is the exact opposite approach of people like Freud who insisted that religion originates from interiorized fears and anxieties, or of Christians like Schleirmacher and Harnack who made inner experience the key to the kingdom in their systematic theology. Perhaps the best nail in the coffin of Wolsey’s argument comes near the conclusion to Lindbeck’s dense little volume, when he argues
“…the crucial difference between liberals and postliberals is in the way they correlate their visions of the future and present situations. Liberals start with experience, with an account of the present, and then adjust their vision of the kingdom of God accordingly, while postliberals are in principle committed to doing the reverse…Postliberalism is methodologically committed to neither traditionalism nor progressivism…” (Lindbeck, 126.)
Liberals start with an account of the present and adjust accordingly, whereas postliberals do the reverse. Note Wolsey’s own description of “progressive Christianity” (given in full above) once more: “Progressive Christianity is a post-liberal movement that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, “progressive” Christianity looks around, “experiences” post-modernism, and makes the necessary changes. While on the surface this looks like a “post-modern” move, in actuality it lines up perfectly with Lindbeck’s general description of liberal Christianity: it surveys the landscape, and then alters itself as necessary.
The promise of a postliberal approach is precisely not that, having gained insight from post-modernism, it can tweak Christian faith and practice to better fit the challenges of this new world. Postliberal method seeks to make Christian faith, and the Christian narrative, confident in itself. It does not look outside for cultural credibility, whether to modern or post-modern norms, but rather seeks to maintain the integrity of Christian doctrine by aggressively avoiding the prostitution that entails from seeking legitimacy from outside authorities. Liberal Christianity has, for centuries, specialized in seeking its authority from extra-Christian sources and translating its content through these foreign modes. However, as Lindbeck argued, “To the degree that religions are like languages and cultures, they can no more be taught by means of translation than can Chinese or French.” (Lindbeck, 129.) Something is always lost in translation. Thus the answer, simply put, is that one must instead retrain the tongue and learn new words if one wishes to “speak” and live Christian-ly. The late William Placher, a great advocate for and practitioner of postliberal theology, narrated the gains of this understanding of doctrine and religion thus: “In the world of academic theology right now, helping Christian theology speak forcefully in its own voice seems to me the most pressing task, and I think the postliberals therefore put the emphasis in the right place.” (Placher, Unapologetic Theology [Louisville: WJK 1989], 20.)
The church, as well as her theologians, owes a great debt to Lindbeck, Frei, and other voices within postliberal theology. There is much work yet to be done. Part of that work is – and I suspect will continue to be – continuing to define the cultural-linguistic/postliberal approach over against the cognitive propositionalists and experiential-expressivists who attempt to Robin Thicke everything (blurred lines, anyone?) and put the genie back into the bottle.
I have dealt here with heavy, complex notions, and I am sure I have been unclear in some places and left important pieces out in others. Nevertheless, I believe I have demonstrated that which I set out to: a postliberal approach to theology is wholly different from anything that would call itself “progressive” Christianity. As we’ve seen, this is just liberal Christianity with different window-dressing.
As I close, hear me out: I have no beef with someone wanting to identify as some iteration of progressive or conservative Christian. In fact, one can be a progressive/liberal or conservative/traditional Christian and have a postliberal understanding of doctrine. But – and this is crucial – neither progressive, nor any iteration thereof (and ditto for conservative and its instantiations) is a synonym for postliberal.
If you’ve hung on this long, color me impressed. If you think I’m wrong, tell me how and where, and I’ll look forward to the dialogue. For now, though, I am happy to declare: “mischief managed.”