Progressive Christianity (Part 3 of 3)

This is my last post on Progressive Christianity. Part one is here, and part two here. These are not meant to be exhaustive treatments, but sketches.

In the past I’ve insisted that the church is an inherently conservative community because by its very nature it tries to conserve and hand on the tradition it received from its founder.

But it can also be said that the church is an inherently progressive community because it hopes for the future coming of the Lord, the fulfillment of all history, and actively works to bring this about.

In fact, it can be argued that the Progressive vision is a sort of secularization of the Christian vision of history moving towards a goal. Progressive thought has roots not only in the Enlightenment confidence that science would eventually solve all problems, but also in the philosophy of Hegel which interpreted history as the inexorable working out of the laws of the spirit, which for Hegel was an attempt to reconcile Enlightenment thought with a Christian concept of history (though Progressives mostly get their Hegel through the materialist Marx.)

But while for the Progressive the fulfillment of history is achieved by tinkering with the mechanisms of government or using civil power to push the culture in one way or another, for the Christian it is achieved by sanctity of life; faith, prayer, works of charity, preaching the Gospel, and suffering are how men cooperate with God to bring about the fullness of history.

The works of charity are where the Progressive Christian sees an overlap between the ideology of the age and his faith. If an order of nuns founding a hospital and caring for the sick builds the Kingdom of God, then isn’t a government run hospital system doing the same thing, but on an even grander scale?

The answer of course is no, because (according to the Gospel) God looks at the spirit with which the act is done, not the results. That isn’t to say the government run hospital system is a bad thing, it might be a quite good thing, but it is not for that reason a work of God.

The Progressive Christian has a hard time not trotting in God to endorse his pet political projects and people instinctively recoil from it, though to be fair other Christians do it too. Arguing that God wants me to support government run hospitals in a nation (the U.S.) where the government can’t do anything without deceit, graft and gross incompetence sounds (to me) like blasphemy.

God’s bringing about the fullness of history, also, for the Christian, implies heartache, persecution, and defeat. When Jesus spoke of the end times it is hard to distinguish references to the siege of Jerusalem from his own distant return. (Maybe the events were somehow conflated in his own mind?) But if the church is called to somehow imitate its founder who died in defeat and humiliation, then it would be natural for the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God to come about mysteriously through the defeat and humiliation of the church.

Defeat and humiliation does not play a role in the progressive vision, except perhaps as a dramatic speed-bump on the way to power. It isn’t popular to talk about “Christian pessimism” but it should be a Christian attribute to take a long view of history and be sober about its ups and downs.



  1. Thanks for these thoughts

  2. peddiebill · · Reply

    The weakness in your argument is that you are setting traditional beliefs against a version of progressive Christianity that doesn’t quite fit with what I observe in the teachings and behaviour of its followers. I cant equate Marcus Borg’s teaching with the version you have presented. In any event true religion is not in expressed piety – at least not according to the Book of James. For example traditionalists claim they follow Jesus – which is great except for one small point. Forget for a moment what they say. They only follow Jesus if their behaviour and life choices follow Jesus. My reading of the polls is that evangelicals usually support Donald Trump. Trump is all in favour of success measured by money. Jesus on the other hand doesn’t want his followers to store up treasures on Earth and tells parables to show where he places the foolishness of pursuing wealth ahead of the principles of Love. Trump is all in favour of smashing opponents…eg talking of killing even the families of terrorists. What happened to forgive your neighbours. Trump is all for guns in the community. Why do evangelicals tend to support guns in the community. I cant find anything in the Sermon on the Mount about this as a priority. Trump doesn’t want refugees or Muslims or Mexicans in the country. Trump and his followers reject notions like the Good Samaritan even if silly Jesus thinks caring for neighbours matters even if the heretics are doing the caring. (I actually quite like the idea of a pet project which helps people!)
    I note that you imply Progressive Christians are “trotting out” God to endorse pet projects…eg getting medical services to the poor? What about trotting out God to invoke a reason to invade Iraq which is what the traditional Christian George W Bush managed to do.

    1. Hmm… smug moralising and political posturing… why, you must be a Progressive Christian!

  3. peddiebill · · Reply

    If you were to show me where I am wrong in my understanding there may be some hope I would change my view. Calling me names is hardly calculated to make me think I am wrong.
    I did my PhD on the creation evolution debate and a conservative Christian on the staff told me what I had written was all rubbish. I offered to show him the completed manuscript so that he could show me where I was wrong. He replied he would be happy to do so. I handed him the manuscript and he flipped through the pages in less than half a minute – then handed it back and said: “See – I told you it was all rubbish” (Fortunately the experts in the field appointed by the University did not agree and passed the Thesis) but can you begin to understand why I didn’t modify what I had written as a result of the self appointed critic’s evaluation.
    I accept you are sufficiently set in your mind not to bother to answer my “smug moralizing and political posturing”. A shame in a way because it actually confirms a prejudice I have about the way Conservative Christians handle criticism. Why not visit my site and do a critical evaluation on one of the many articles or sermons there?

    1. I’m not trying to disprove you, I’m making an observation on the nature of your statements.
      You confuse political platforms with Christian charity (posturing), look down on Trump voters as being inferior Christians (smug), and of course “but BUUUSH!!!” which isn’t an argument as much as a seizure disorder.

  4. peddiebill · · Reply

    I would have thought that since Christian charity should be expressed not merely in words but in action, that in my country at least, this inevitably involves interacting with political platforms. For example in New Zealand we have a gap between the rich and the poor which means a large number of children being brought up in poverty. Individual Christians and individual churches can do a little by themselves (eg food banks etc) but this is only playing with the problem. Accordingly, where the church is concerned with social action, a concerted and integrated inter-church dialogue takes place with the Government to mobilize appropriate responses so that individual families might have their needs (eg housing, education and welfare) better met. If you separate Christian charity from political platforms you achieve a situation where whole areas of cities turn into ghettos, where poor sick families suffer and where there a large differences in standards of living. Are there any examples in your nation? If not then you must have the balance right.

    You scoff at my bringing up George W Bush as if this has no relevance today. Surely you are aware that the invasion of Iraq increased annual world terrorism by a factor of more than three – and you must have at least partly noticed the consequent increase in refugees. If terrorism is an issue, surely causes should be of interest. Where one of the causes is someone who seriously misrepresents conservative Christianity (ie in the case of GWB stating God told him to do it!) then surely Christians have a responsibility to speak up, (which by in large they didn’t). Or do you instead prefer not to worry about refugees on the grounds that you would prefer they just sit in what is left of their homes and quietly starve to death? – If you care isn’t there at least some point where you need to engage with political platforms – and indeed have a Christian responsibility to do so.

    In no way am I sure Trump supporters are inferior Christians, yet nor do I hear his supporters questioning the parts of his policies that seem far removed from Christian principles. My concern is that if I am right about some of his policies and attitudes as being non Christian, surely those who are Christian supporters should stand up and point this out. On the other hand what we hear in this distant corner of the world is moderated by the media, so I may well have missed noticing the kinder side of his policies. Perhaps in reality Trump exemplifies everything Jesus stood for, although I confess the article I wrote on my blog, questioning that very issue, came to rather different conclusions.

    1. I sincerely doubt there are poor people in New Zealand the way there are poor people in the developing world but that is completely besides the point. Let us grant that New Zealand is a hellhole of poverty and human misery which christian acts of charity are incapable of alleviating in any measurable way. Well, you are correct that out of simple patriotism all people, not just Christians should be concerned. But why should all the Christians of New Zealand have one, and only one solution? What makes the Christian who says “Lets increase taxes so the government can feed everyone!” any more of a Christian than the one who says “Lets deregulate the farming and fishing industries to increase production resulting in lower the price of food?”

      Nobody I know is under the illusion that Trump is a good Christian. During the primaries he preformed poorly in counties that have high percentage of churchgoers. But now that the election is down to two people and faced with voting for blowhard game-show host or a felon whose only political accomplishment is destroying the reputations of women who accused her husband of rape and sexual assault, I know many evangelicals who are voting for the gameshow host. It is a judgment call they are making.

  5. peddiebill · · Reply

    I am more impressed with this answer than your previous replies which I had interpreted as totally judgmental which seemed calculated to offend rather than convince.

    Your last paragraph certainly explains the curious degree of support for Trump and if accurate seems to me a sad commentary on the state of US politics.

    At this safe distance I would wonder why you say that Hilary Clinton only has one political accomplishment to her name (smearing the reputations of her husband’s accusers)when I would have thought being a hardworking Secretary of State (who like all her predecessors failed to avoid mistakes), being an effective representative for New York and someone who has assisted women and underprivileged children better their lot are all actually Political accomplishments – and are even eclipsed by getting to be the first woman to make it through as a genuine candidate for the presidency. This last, to me, is her greatest political accomplishment.

    If only the negatives count, all I can say is that the US system must be what Fox would have me believe.

    1. Clinton married well and has used her husband’s political machine, hence her Senatorial career where she worked hard for the poor starving children of Wallstreet bankers (there is a reason Sanders supporters hate her). There is no evidence she was a hard-working Secretary of State, and if she was hardworking it was in the wrong direction, the world is less stable today than the world she inherited. Making mistakes is one thing, intentionally skirting the law and lying about it is another.
      I fail to see how being nominated to run for public office while not having a penis is an accomplishment. I suppose you are a big fan of Sarah Palin, Margaret Thatcher and Benazir Butto.

  6. peddiebill · · Reply

    Your title for your website is curious. Tolerance?

  7. peddiebill · · Reply

    While it is true that I don’t know a great deal about Clinton, I did at least look up her Senate Career on Wikipedia and am seriously puzzled by your condensing her Senate career down to “Working hard for the poor starving children of the Wall Street bankers” I know Donald Trump doesn’t always bother to check his facts but surely anyone who read the complete entry (or even the bits under “First Term” and “Second Term”) couldn’t ignore the rest completely as you appear to have done. Are you seriously suggesting that the whole of the Wikipedia entry is made up and that therefore I should prefer your summary?

    1. She was a regular boring senator from New York protecting regular boring New York interests, among them finance.

  8. peddiebill · · Reply

    I am surprised that for someone who claims to be championing tolerance you make your judgements by only considering issues like Hillary being boring – or doing stuff for protecting New York interests when as New York Senator she was appointed to do just that. Because I already had a low opinion of the way in my experience conservative Christians often turn a blind eye to seeing obvious good in anyone who is not a conservative Christian, I don’t no whether to be shocked or disappointed that despite trying to present authoritative articles, you appear unwilling to do any serious research if it should uncover anything which runs counter to your assertions.
    Remember I am not from the US but when I checked out your assertions about Clinton I came across the following:

    During the time she had a key role in managing the State Department I thought there seems to have been a 50 per-cent increase in exports to China. She got involved with work on climate (particularly at Copenhagen), and the effort to create and implement the toughest sanctions ever on Iran helping to lead us to the agreement currently on the table. She was a key organizer of the normalization of relations with Cuba, Way back when she was First Lady, she helped create and guide through Congress Children’s Health Insurance Program, a key program that brought health care coverage to millions of children (Nation wide not just New York. As a Senator, she worked cross party to provide full military health benefits to reservists and National Guard members.

    Secretary Clinton was also an outspoken champion for women around the world. She set records for travel while leading the State Department and used most trips in part to every trip to empower the women of the 112 countries she visited. Under her guidance gender equality became a priority of U.S. foreign policy. Remember when she created the ambassador at large for global women’s issues, a post charged with integrating gender throughout the State Department. She was a major architect of the SCHIP program which expanded health coverage to millions of lower-income children. First Lady Hilary Clinton ended up being the White House ally and inside player who worked with Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch to create the SCHIP program in Clinton’s second term, which expanded health coverage to millions of lower-income children. Surely they were not all children of Wall St bankers as you imply in your earlier reply. She has other accomplishments but this SCHIP programme made a huge difference.

    Yes I know Hillary Clinton was instrumental in helping secure $21 billion in federal aid to help New York rebuild after 9/11. I am puzzled why you would dismiss this as boring or local interest only. I would have thought this was good because the Twin Towers affected the nation. She was certainly pivotal in the passage of legislation that helped those first responders who got sick get the care and treatment they deserved. This seemed to me to be rather better than focussing on imaginary mass Islamic celebrations which only Trump appears to have encountered.

    Clinton was primarily responsible for the Lilly Ledbetter Pay Equity Act, which I understand is now US wide. She negotiated the cease-fire in Gaza that stopped the Hamas from firing rocket after rocket into Israel. She helped secure the START treaty ratification. Don’t forget her authorship of the Pediatric Research Equity Act. This law requires drug companies to study their products in children. The Act is responsible for changing the drug labelling of hundreds of drugs with important information about safety and dosing of drugs for children. As a consequence this improved the health of millions of children who take medications to treat diseases ranging from HIV to epilepsy to asthma.

    Maybe you see Trump as being every bit as public spirited. If so I would be interested in what facts lead you to that conclusion.

    1. I’ve never defined myself as a champion of tolerance. One of the themes of the blog is maintain conviction in a relativistic culture.
      Clinton is unfit for office. You argue that mixed with the lying, law breaking, and covering for a sex offender there are some good things too, as if dog shit mixed with ice cream becomes edible.
      I’ve never defended Donald Trump as a candidate.

  9. peddiebill · · Reply

    OK – Not tolerance then. Why not make it easier for occasional visitors by placing a question mark after your title with the picture at the start which says TRUTH AND TOLERANCE. You certainly make it clear how you want Clinton to be judged. I prefer the Sermon on the Mount in terms of forgiveness and offering charity. Because – apparently unlike you – I definitely have my own faults, there is no way I could bring myself to describe a hardworking yet flawed politician in terms of dog-shit mixed with ice cream. I seem to recall a verse that says, judge not lest you yourself be judged. I am guessing this is not your favourite verse. I presume however if I understand you correctly, you are sufficiently blameless to cast the first stone and she with her no redeeming features is your appropriate target. One small point – I must have missed the good legislation you encouraged and achieved -in the absence of any non-flawed politicians – and in fact I cant even detect what you would even want to do in a practical sense to assist the refugees, the poor and under-privileged or what you are intending to do to encourage pacifism – always assuming you think that Conservatives should support the sorts of things Jesus advocated.

    Sorry that I assumed you would vote for candidate like Trump. I had unfairly assumed you to be a Republican, the majority of whom apparently want to vote for Trump. One of my afore-mentioned faults is that I get judgemental myself – particularly on those who are highly judgmental like Trump!!

    1. Invoking the sermon on the mount to justify your political choices – and worse attempting to inflict a guilt trip on those who make other choices – is exactly the sort of bait and switch thinking that plagues progressive Christianity. It is manipulative, thought-stopping, and dumb.
      This is not a question of Clinton’s eternal soul, this is a question of fitness for office. She has demonstrated a basic lack of integrity and competence that simply disqualifies her. If I call certain aspects of her record dog shit it is because I’m not sure what other fitting metaphor you can use to describe covering up sexual assault, intentionally mishandling classified information to avoid oversight, running a charity as a pay-to-play scheme, and constant lying. To trot in “forgiveness” to excuse the disqualifiers of a candidate for a job is to abuse scripture to score a political point. She is not my neighbor or my friend, she is a potential public employee and she is being judged as such.
      You could at least be consistent and argue that we should vote Trump, because forgiveness! Why, he gives you 7 times 70 opportunities to forgive him every single say! Jesus said turn the other cheek, and Trump will give you the chance! Trump says something outrageous? Judge not lest ye be judged!
      Now someone whose brain is not twisted into a pretzel by progressive-Christian cult thinking could come up with a morally coherent argument in favor of voting for Clinton as the lesser of two evils, admitting she is unfit for office and would represent a low-point in the history of America, but she is less unfit than Donald Trump who is a loose cannon with no relevant experience to speak of. Notice how that argument is clear-eyed, not sentimental or manipulative or invoking theological principles to settle political matters? How hard is that to do?
      Anyway, I’m still wondering why progressive Christians don’t advocate for a government department of exorcisms since Jesus told us to cast out demons.

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