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Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

Dear John,

You said, "Fixed religious beliefs of any kind are considered to be a nuisance."

Yes, it is a nuisance; that is the nature of Theology. This is also about the same as those who claim that "they are not interested in theology." It is still a contradiction because every person as a theology = worldview = belief system. When that theology = worldview = belief system comes into contact with what the Bbile says, then what that person does in response to the claims of the Bible and of Christ will very much determine what will happen in their life.

Furthermore, this almost sounds too close to Neo-Gnosticism or Neo-Marcionism: the God of the OT is not the God of the NT, etc.

BTW, you are right about the Progressives contradicting what Jesus said in Luke 24 with regards to the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms.

Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

smijer

Is there a difference in your mind, or in the minds of the adherents, between "progressive" and "liberal" Christianity? I have noticed that the most liberal of liberal Christians are indistinguishable from atheists in their propositional beliefs.

On the other hand, I have noticed a fair set of supernaturalists who believe God and Jesus are in heaven interpret or apply the Bible in very non-traditional ways.

Do you think, in principle, the Bible and a Christian ethic derived from it can be privileged outside the context of language like "God's word", or even outside the context of belief in God?

A big point of divergence between me and more conservative Christians is my constant advocacy that "right and wrong" must trump any religious consideration, including the notion of "Biblical"... if a person is to truly prefer right to wrong. That isn't to say that a person cannot work through their moral intuitions in part by reflecting on religious considerations that help clarify thought. But at the end of the day ethical considerations duly reasoned must be the standard by which any religious position is judged - and not the other way around. Doing it that way gives hope of getting the "right" answer. Doing it the other way only gives hope of getting the "religious" answer.

smijer

To clarify what I said above: when I said the point of divergence between me and "more conservative Christians"... I did not mean to imply that I was a "less conservative Christian". I meant to say that this was a point of divergence between me a subset of Christians who were "more conservative". As you know, but other readers may not, I am an atheistic non-Christian Unitarian Universalist.

Ryan

Well said. And I agree with you, for the most part about my church. The Bible is seen as something that must be eventually progressed past because it is, as Barth said "a strange new world" that is not consistent with mainstream understandings of society or "progress" as such.

Having said that, many supposedly bible-centric Christians appear to be mere pale imitations of their liberal counterparts--especially those who see voting Conservative as some sort of subversive act against the secular society. The Bible "says what it says" and only speaks to personal stuff like homosexual intercourse and "believing in Jesus" without radical transformation or incarnation. They are against gay marriage and abortion, but live lives exactly in the same way that most Canadians do. They go to work for X Corp, drop their kids off at daycare, and go to Sunday to sing songs and think happy thoughts about how much Jesus loves them.

The same goes for "progressive" Christians who are pro gay marriage and pro-choice, but only take the bible seriously on things that a moderate social-democratic state can do--such as welfare programs and environmental legislation. There is no radical critique of the consumer society or global capitalism, of the commodification of sexuality, gender, childhood or anything else.

Both groups live lives of alienated production and consumption, worshiping Mammon 7 days a week. They are not called out to be the people of God or Christ's body on earth. To merely give assent to the Creeds doesn't seem enough to me. A mechanical exercise isn't any better than not doing it at all.

What's the solution? In speaking with some UCC ministers (lay and otherwise) on a course a couple weeks ago, I found complaints similar to the ones that you've made--especially on Greta Vosper. There is an openness to the Bible as transformative text within the congregation--I just don't see the so-called "conservatives" you mentioned embracing this. Rather, it might be neither the regular social-justicers or "the bible says what it says" types leading the charge, but those who are dissatisfied with both.

JohnFH

Ryan,

I'm going to begin with your comment because I really like this remark of yours:

"many supposedly bible-centric Christians appear to be mere pale imitations of their liberal counterparts--especially those who see voting Conservative as some sort of subversive act against the secular society. The Bible "says what it says" and only speaks to personal stuff like homosexual intercourse and "believing in Jesus" without radical transformation or incarnation. They are against gay marriage and abortion, but live lives exactly in the same way that most Canadians do. They go to work for X Corp, drop their kids off at daycare, and go to Sunday to sing songs and think happy thoughts about how much Jesus loves them."

That's very insightful. The whole idea that voting for anyone is a subversive act is plain pitiful.

I try to vote responsibly, but I believe that, from the viewpoint of the politics of God, what the slavegirl does in 2 Kings 5 is more important than anything she might have done (and of course couldn't) in the strictly political sense.

Somehow we have to recover this insistence on the primacy of healing and sheer counter-productive grace which is the opposite of self-help and feel-good therapy. Voting against the party you love to hate falls into the latter category.

JohnFH

Bryant,

I hear you.

Smijer,

You say,

"[T]he most liberal of liberal Christians are indistinguishable from atheists in their propositional beliefs."

I'm sure that's true, that one shades into the other. But that is only because, where we are, atheists are, culturally speaking, Christians. That's what Dawkins says, that he is a cultural Christian. There is a lot of truth to that.

However, other atheists are in the Nietzsche mold; the Ayn Rand mold; or the Hitler/Stalin/Mao mold. From the point of view of right and wrong (admittedly now, I am speaking out of the common denominator of which Dawkins speaks), these folks make the average Christian look pretty good. Though they are soul mates, some of them, of Torquemada. So it depends.

You ask:

"Do you think, in principle, the Bible and a Christian ethic derived from it can be privileged outside the context of language like "God's word", or even outside the context of belief in God?"

I certainly do. The Bible really is too good to be true in the best sense of that phrase. Even if by some quirk of biography the God of whom the Bible speaks doesn't exist in your mind, it makes sense to let the Bible, its apocalyptic for example, but also, its ethics, meta-critique society and you as an individual. This is easier to do now for atheists than before. No one is forcing you to do it. It's your own choice.

Think Zizek; Taubes; Walzer. Note how many of the serious atheists, Eagleton, Paglia, to name two very different examples, have Bible-envy and/or Jewish and Christian envy.

For the rest, smijer, you are a UU who knows your Bible very well. I think you know how to read it on its own terms, even if you don't buy it. That's a rare gift.

smijer

Well, I was only dealing with propositional beliefs about external reality - not overall world-view, values or ethics. It is in those terms that is difficult to draw a distinction between any given atheist and certain among the most liberal of Christians.

JohnFH

That's true. Transcendentals of all kinds, not just God but embodied mind, are out of the question for atheists, and don't fit well with liberal/progressive versions of Judaism or Christianity either.

I would also add that there are plenty of atheists who see eye-to-eye in terms of values and ethics with (so-called) *conservative* Christians.

My grandfather, a self-made millionaire when a million was a lot of money, was an atheist. He was a Goldwater Republican. I'm not sure which caused him greater distress, my Christianity or my namby-pamby politics. He was somewhat relieved when I married a beautiful, vivacious Italian who looked very good in a bathing suit at poolside at his home in Tucson AZ. I hadn't completely lost my head, apparently.

G. Kyle Essary

John,
Anglicans in SE Asia (and there are a lot), believe the creeds. Your comment seems only to work with a sunset in England, Australia and of course the Episcopalians.

JohnFH

Kyle,

And of course, there are plenty of Anglicans everywhere who believe the creeds. I didn't mean to imply otherwise. All I wanted to say is that Anglicans, not to mention Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, are happy to recite the creeds even if they wouldn't necessarily claim to thoroughly understand them, even if they don't believe them but only want to believe them, even if they don't believe them but are convinced enough of the value that others do that they go along.

All of the above has its own authenticity, which is very different from authenticity as understood by standard-issue progressive Christians. If they can't explain it, they won't affirm it. The older way is to affirm something in the conviction that, if not in this life, it will come to make sense in the next.

Muscat

I think the picture you paint of progressive Christianity is a bit broad of brush. It seems a bit like the mirror of liberal Christians painting all conservative Christians as knee-jerk fundamentalists. Both are caricatures, at best. Bishop Robinson has certainly been influential on progressive Christianity, but I would venture to guess most contemporary progressive Christians are more familiar with figures such as Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong. Spong being much akin to Robinson but Borg not so much (for example, Borg affirms the primacy of the Bible in Christian practice, is fairly comfortable with affirming Mystery that can't be explained/understood easily, etc, albeit in a different way than more conservative Christians), and most progressives in the circles I travel in being much closer to Borg than Spong. But perhaps this just means that progressive Christians are predominantly "inconsistent" in your estimation.

Perhaps this is beside the seeming main point of your post, which is to say that progressive Christians are guilty of keeping the parts of the Bible they like and throwing out what they don't like, and therefore do not allow the Bible to critique their own lives and the society they live in. But, I don't think this accurately describes a fair number of progressive Christians, and perhaps more to the point progressive Christians are not particularly guilty of doing either of these things - they are rampant in all quarters of modern Christianity, and I think this is really where your critique becomes problematic.

JohnFH

Muscat,

Thank you for offering nuance to my admittedly broad brush description. Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong have less and less in common as time goes on, since the latter shows less and less respect for the Jesus of Scripture.

It is possible, I think, for a classical Christian to find common ground with Marcus Borg (as Tom Wright did in a famous work), but that is much harder to do with Spong. His stuff is so off the wall that it does not rise, as others have noted, to the dignity of heresy. It is twaddle pure and simple.

That progressive Christians take Spong seriously is a sign of what might be called intellectual suicide. Will Willimon has spoken of the intellectual death of liberal Christianity.

Nothing you note convinces me that progressive Christianity has a future. UUism is far more coherent as a proposal, though it doesn't have long legs either. Vacuousness is a problem for serious souls. A very earnest young woman I know switched from UUism to Bahai. That makes perfect sense to me.

I am happy when progressive Christians meta-critique traditional Christians from Scripture. Preach it. But I see this happening less and less. The deprivileging of the Bible among progressives has reached the point that they are becoming incapable of offering a critique of traditional Christianity. Their historical raison d'etre is vanishing. And they are vanishing with it.

Tim Bulkeley

John, I don't want to discuss whether "Progressive Christianity" has a future, but I to ask about your picture of Robinson. I have not read any of his works since the 70s, and not much since the 60s, but back then it did not seem to me he was ditching much of traditional Christianity except the notion of a god in the sky with a long white beard, a ditching which seemed and still seems to me thoroughly in line with the Bible - just see Solomon's prayer for the dedication of the temple... Is this a case of people taking someone as a poster child who is actually not as like them as they think? Or is my memory of Robinson plain wrong?

JohnFH

Hi Tim,

I'm thinking a little of both. I remember reading Robinson with pleasure but I may have been reading him over-sympathetically if that makes sense, from a classical Christian position.

There is so much I can agree with in detail in Robinson. But his deprivileging of the Bible IMO sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind. The full harvest is ripe, I think, among up-to-date progressive Christians like Vosper.

As for the future of progressive Christianity, blogger Drew Tatusko is worth reading on this. He is a committed progressive Christian but absolutely realistic about its ongoing and inevitable decline.

Charlie J. Ray

Justification by good works and antinomianism are flip sides of the same coin.

Justification by faith alone produces good works which are acceptable to God. A "changed" life may be a good witness and pleasing to God but ONLY after one is elected, regenerated, effectually called and given the gift of faith.

The sovereignty of God is the solution to modernism, progressive Christianity and various other departures from biblical and Reformation Christianity.

Although you're one of those Methodists, I do like your blog and what you have to say about the objective genitive and the New Perspectives on Paul.

I'm not a scholar in biblical languages but I do read Koine Greek and biblical Hebrew with the help of my Logos software and the lexicons.

I became a Calvinist while I was a student at Asbury Seminary. Go figure.

Anglicans in general are just as confused as the Methodists--or maybe more???

Charlie

JohnFH

Hi Charlie,

I would also point out that God seems to elect, regenerate, call and give the gift of faith to a lot of people, beknighted Methodists and Anglicans included, who are not very good at putting those things into words. It's amazing what God gets away with.

I'm a Waldensian (a kind of paleo-Protestantism, our confession of faith is old Reformed, like the Gallican Confession of Faith), but that's how I got started: in a revivalist setting drenched in Arminian theology. But that's the thing: God sees to it that preaching brings about the obedience of faith even if that preaching is faulty from more than one point of view.

I am not indifferent to questions of doctrine in the least, as this post exemplifies. But if the history of the church teaches anything, it is that God so loves the world that he ministers to it through an entire zoo full of distinct Christian traditions, each of which gets some things right and some things wrong, in theory and in practice.

Brooke

John commented:
All I wanted to say is that Anglicans, not to mention Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox, are happy to recite the creeds even if they wouldn't necessarily claim to thoroughly understand them, even if they don't believe them but only want to believe them, even if they don't believe them but are convinced enough of the value that others do that they go along.

Volunteering myself as a token Anglican, I can affirm this. Sometimes I think I most enjoy saying the creeds when I am most in doubt about some element of them. I realize that this sounds odd to some folks, and the only reply I can offer is, "Isn't this at least a part of what church is for?"

JohnFH

I agree with you, Brooke, and I'm not even Anglican.

As I see it, belief and doubt are contiguous; in the opposite corner, "I don't know," ennui, and acedia are contiguous. Faith is described well by, "I believe, help thou my unbelief."

Jonathan Bartlett

John -

Having just graduated from a progressive seminary, I think you might be a little off the mark of what they believe.

First of all, what they are committed to is not so much the *things* that Jesus taught or the *things* that the Old Testament taught, but rather their mode of critique. They love Jesus because he fought for the poor and elevated them above the rich. They love Jesus because he was subversive against the religious leaders of his day. They love the Old Testament because the prophets cried foul against their governments, and God's blessing was always toward those unfavored by the culture.

In addition, since they see the early church as having remolded Jesus into a character that matched their circumstances and problems, so they view that their own *responsibility* is to remold Jesus into a character that speaks into our present day.

As for "miracle", I think that the progressives are quite divided on this. One common opinion I've found, however, is that all matter is spiritual and in communion with God. Therefore, there aren't "miracles" per se because God isn't any more-or-less active at any time than any other time. God is always working, teaching, speaking; but to elevate any particular event as being a "miracle" is simply to misunderstand the way nature works. Thus, science and faith get blended in an interesting way - science sets the limits for which miracles can occur.

JohnFH

Hi Jonathan,

I agree. The Jesus and the prophets progressives love is the one that puts them in the right. Progressives love to elevate the poor above rich - not in everyday life, but in terms of political choices. They are big on subverting Christian tradition if they are Christians; Jewish tradition if they are Jewish. They like to cry foul against their governments, especially, as is usually the case, the people in government are more conservative than they are. So progressives think of Jesus and the prophets along these lines.

It makes me want to be careful, as a pretty thoroughly self-conscious traditionalist, not to fall into the same trap from another direction.

Angela Erisman

Is it possible to be progressive and Bible- (or tradition-)centric? I suspect it is. But it means accepting the good, the bad, and the ugly in the tradition as part of your inheritance and finding something to learn even from the bad and the ugly. Perhaps, as with our personal histories, we must embrace, own, and learn from even the parts where we go wrong - or we cease to be whole.

JohnFH

I think you're right, Angela. At the very least, it is possible to be fully modern in some sense and yet deeply traditional.

It's just that progress, historically considered, is a very mixed bag. It runs from increased rates of literacy to mass ennui; from contraception to Hiroshima; from equality to a crisis of authority and one-sizes-fits-all solutions. I don't know if you are familiar with Walter Benjamin's definition of progress. It rings true to me:

Benjamin begins by quoting a poem by Gershom Scholem in which a painting by Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, is the focus:

My wing is poised to beat,
gladly would I turn back;
were I to stay for endless days,
hapless I would remain.

-- Gershom Scholem, “Greetings from Angelus" [my translation, indebted to that of Richard Sieburth]

Benjamin comments:

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

(Thesis IX in “On the Philosophy of History.” I reproduce the translation of Lloyd Spencer (which depends on earlier translations, like that of Harry Zohn, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4: 1938-1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Pres, 2003), 392-93). For Walter Benjamin’s 1940 work, "On the Concept of History," see idem, Gesammelte Schriften I (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1974) 691-704. Scholem's poem on the Klee painting was written for Benjamin's twenty-ninth birthday -- July 15, 1921. Sieburth's translation is found in Gershom Scholem, The Fullness of Time: Poems (Jerusalem: Ibis, 2003.))

The New Testament analogue to Benjamin's philosophy of history is found in Paul: “[H]owever much sin abounded, grace abounded even more” (Romans 5:20).

Frank

Radical spiritual transformation is almost impossible until one goes beyond a common, traditional-Christian, understanding of the Bible.

As a member of fundamentalist churches for thirty-eight years, I could easily wish this were not true. but belonging to a conservative Christian church can be a hindrance to being "born again."

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    seeking to retell the biblical story in the difficult transition from the centre to the margins following the collapse of Western Christendom, by Andrew Perriman, independent New Testament scholar, currently located in Dubai
  • PaleoJudaica
    by James Davila, professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland. Judaism and the Bible in the news; tidbits about ancient Judaism and its context
  • Pastoral Epistles
    by Rick Brannan and friends, a conceptually unique Bible blog
  • Pen and Parchment
    Michael Patton and company don't just think outside the box. They are tearing down its walls.
  • Pisteuomen
    by Michael Halcomb, pastor-scholar from the Bluegrass State
  • Pseudo-Polymath
    by Mark Olson, an Orthodox view on things
  • Purging my soul . . . one blog at a time
    great theoblog by Sam Nunnally
  • Qumranica
    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.