17 November 2009

Confessions of a progressive Christian

My recent reading of the Progressive Revival blog provides a good opportunity to explain my own identity as a progressive Christian. Of course I must immediately point out that what the larger society deems progress may not necessarily be genuinely progressive, which raises the central issue of what makes for progress. How do we know it when we see it? How do we know what to work for?

The followers of the various ideologies have their own definitions. Marx famously believed in the inevitability of a global movement towards the classless society. History moves in a single direction through the mechanism of the class struggle.

Nationalism believes that the liberation of the nation from foreign control (however the words nation and foreign be defined) is a progressive development.

Liberalism has moved through more than one stage beginning with Thomas Hobbes and culminating in its most recent manifestation in North America. The eschatological vision of liberalism may be less obvious than in Marxism, but it can be said to consist of a society in which everyone acquires equally a maximum degree of personal autonomy, by means of either a small government getting out of the way or, more recently, an expansive government actively intervening to increase the range of personal options available to all.

From a Christian perspective, all three approaches are fundamentally flawed because they fail to account for the givenness and stability of human nature, and because they at least tacitly assume that all obligations not incurred voluntarily are intrinsically alienating and oppressive. Progress is mistakenly deemed to entail ever greater degrees of human autonomy over against such “oppression.”

Although this is a vast topic requiring considerably more than I can give it in this space, I believe that there are two basic ways of measuring progress. The first of these is rooted in the biblical motive of creation, fall and redemption. The second is based on what Reformed Christians call the cultural mandate, as found in Genesis 1:28 and following. There is a tendency in some circles to conflate the two, as found in this wikipedia article, where the human task of developing creation is erroneously identified with “redeeming the culture.”

First, all Christians are aware of the ways in which our culture falls short of God’s intentions. Here genuine progress would entail God’s image-bearers increasingly living up to their pluriform responsibilities in the various spheres of life: husbands and wives remain faithful to each other; parents do not abuse their children; governments refrain from oppressing their citizens; church attendance goes up; the gospel is preached; governments stop pursuing policies that, while pretending to enhance individual freedom, actually contribute to social anomie; political corruption decreases; people use technical developments for good rather than for ill.

Many Christians properly focus on the above, because they know that the proliferation of evil has deleterious effects on the social order. Christians on both right and left try to bring the larger society into conformity with the expressed will of God in, e.g., the Decalogue or the Sermon on the Mount, by focussing on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, alcoholic beverages (a century ago), or poverty.

Second, I would argue for a reading of the cultural mandate that recognizes that the divine call to form culture exists even apart from the post-fall realities of sin and salvation. We image-bearers are not called to redeem our cultures. Only God in Christ can do that. But we are called to develop culture. Here I would strongly recommend a reading of Andy Crouch’s excellent book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. While Jacques Ellul, George Grant and others view technology as nearly a fall from grace, I am persuaded that we should view our cultural creativity as rooted in our God-given nature. Certainly such developments are subject to abuse, given our sinfulness, but this cannot discredit the developments themselves.

Some possible examples of such progress include representative government, constitutional federalism, modern banking systems, the market, the limited liability corporation, improvements in transportation and communication, refrigeration, improved agricultural methods, international organizations, mass literacy and education, the welfare state (but not an omnicompetent one) and even the softening (though not the elimination) of gender roles. All of these arguably, if not incontestably, can be said represent positive developments of general benefit to humanity. Their absence centuries ago did not represent evils from which our ostensibly more enlightened contemporaries have recently liberated us. Their presence now simply represents legitimate uses and improvements of what God gave us from the outset.

However — and this must never be forgotten — the legitimate development of God’s creation is not itself redemptive. This is where both Social Gospellers and “Save America” types often go wrong. The invention of time-saving devices has freed both men and women to pursue life paths not open to their forebears. Yet this greater range of options in no way brings people closer to living obediently in the light of God’s word. In fact, it may tempt us to assume that we can easily cushion ourselves from the destructive consequences of living as we please. This points to the grain of truth in the negative assessment of technology in Ellul and Grant. We cannot redeem ourselves and we are guilty of overweening pride and idolatry if we assume otherwise.

To call ourselves genuinely progressive requires no small measure of discernment. We cannot afford to bypass this discernment process by assuming that we can accept the larger culture’s definition of progress and go from there. This is the error of many of our self-proclaimed progressive Christians. So, yes, with all these qualifications in mind, I am pleased to call myself a progressive Christian.

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