Friday, May 24, 2013

A Review of "Living the Questions"



JOURNEY TO A NEW PAGANISM:
The Folly of ‘Progressive Christianity’
A Review of David M. Felten and Jeff Proctor-Murphy, “Living The Questions”.

There is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9
Here is the first installment of a three part review of this introduction to "Progressive Christianity".

In recent years, a study and discussion course called Living The Questions has been conducted in some Brisbane Anglican parishes and advertised in Diocesan publications. The book Living The Questions, and the DVD course that accompanies it, are products of a movement or network which styles itself as “Progressive Christianity”.[1] The Living the Questions Course,[2] is aimed to be a liberal alternative to the Alpha Course. It seeks to expose lay people to “the best of contemporary theological thought as it presents ‘progressive Christianity’ ”.
“Progressive Christianity” is being promoted as a theology that is a legitimate variety of Anglican identity. There are self-identified ‘Progressive Anglican Christians’. My purpose in this paper is to see how the “Progressive Christianity” presented in Living The Questions compares to historic Christian tradition and the doctrinal identity of the Anglican Church of Australia. Does Progressive Christianity fall within the range of Anglican traditions and Anglican doctrinal boundaries?
The dominant theme of the LTQ book and course is the motif of journeying towards truth, of asking questions. As the epigraph states: “The beginning of true wisdom is asking questions for which there are no answers”. The book claims to represent those who are unsatisfied with old and failed dogmas, whose questions must be asked, even if final resolution or certainty is impossible to reach.
LTQ claims to be asking the hard questions.  The book plays a running contrast between negatively-depicted traditionalists versus open, creative, non-dogmatic progressives, between doctrines and dogmas contrasted with  “something deeper spiritually or thought-provoking theologically”.
Section one is titled “The Journey”. Let me say that I found material in LTQ with which I agreed fully. Observations in the chapter on “Compassion” were excellent and the treatment in “Creative Transformation” was valid and relevant. The observations about justice in the chapter on the Prophetic Jesus were apposite and timely. I am in full agreement with most of the book’s criticisms of fundamentalist doctrines. Many issues treated critically in LTQ are also of concern to theologians of orthodox historic Christian traditions, although this is not acknowledged in LTQ. LTQ takes issue with some doctrines on valid grounds, but does not acknowledge that there has been development and debate within orthodox traditions about these matters. There are a range of views historically, for example, about God’s omnipotence.
Nevertheless, this posture of LTQ – contrasting open-minded questioning with dogmatic traditionalism - strikes me as a pose adopted for rhetorical effect. It is ironic that the whole thrust of this book is dogmatic in assertion and dismissive of traditional formulations. For a treatment that claims to be asking questions, the treatment of contrary views is one-sided, with opposing views subjected to crude caricature. You would never guess from LTQ that there were scholarly, rational and credible explanations of the positions under challenge by the progressives. Not even in the footnotes or bibliography are references given to assist in a quest for truth from sources other than the LTQ-approved authorities.
LTQ is a course that presents one particular interpretation of Christianity – just like the Alpha Course or other materials condemned for being defensive or insecure. I don’t blame a course for promoting a particular line of teaching, but to claim openness and balance without presenting the contrary view fails its own standard.
Biblical and Theological Issues
LTQ is not a theological course or an apologetics seminar. Like other courses it is presents a message for belief. The argument of LTQ is comprised of a familiar list of liberal positions on Biblical, historical and theological issues.  On issue after issue I found myself in disagreement with positions about which there are contrary strong scholarly arguments.
To respond to the list of Biblical and theological issues would require more work than is possible in this paper and more knowledge than I possess. However, a few comments on some Biblical issues will illustrate my problems with the way LTQ handles the biblical-theological materials.
My problem with this retailing of this well-worn revisionism about the Bible and orthodoxy [3] is that they are asserted as if they are incontrovertible. The aim is to remove confidence in the traditional understanding of the Bible and the historic Christian faith, clearing the ground for its replacement by a new, ‘’progressive" version of Christianity.
Thus, LTQ surveys a large number of Biblical and doctrinal matters, pronouncing on them without arguing the case or evaluating alternatives. It may be asking too much of this book to want to see the ‘progressive’ interpretations demonstrated, rather than affirmed.  I found myself constantly irritated that a position was being simplistically stated as obvious and unchallengeable, as if there is no credible answer or alternative view in traditional terms. Unless a person is able to answer these viewpoints, confidence in historic orthodoxy will be undermined, which is the aim of the course, I presume.  Presenting a credible orthodox alternative explanation at each point would complicate the agenda of LTQ.
I also observe that the Biblical scholars upon whom LTQ draws its foundation are clearly not in the mainstream of Biblical scholarship on many issues; they represent a sceptical and radical fringe in the academic scholarly guild. Thus Marcus Borg pronounces that “we don’t have a lot of information about him” (i.e. Jesus), when we actually have the largest amount of ancient biographical material close in time than we have for any other ancient personage.
A third issue concerns the way that diversity and issues are explained. Difficulties in Biblical material have long been noted, and there are ways of understanding how they can be resolved or understood, without abandoning all confidence in their historical reliability. LTQ chooses to ignore any views other than those that rob the Biblical documents of historical grounding. Thus, Luke-Acts is held to tell us nothing about the real Paul, although a strong case exists for the traditional view that Luke was a colleague and acquaintance of Paul – a first-hand witness and contact. The chapter on Paul asserts that he introduced the idea of Jesus as divine saviour from sin, despite the evidence of the undisputed Pauline letters that he received his teaching from others (1 Cor. 15:1-7; 16:22).
The treatment of traditional Biblical and theological issues is black and white. The traditional views are presented in caricature or in gross simplification and then dismissed. In the treatment of the Atonement, we have certain traditional views crudely caricatured, (as they are often crudely taught), but without any presentation of carefully nuanced atonement theology, as say in P.T. Forsyth or T. Torrance. A false dichotomy is presented between crude caricature of Atonement theology (in fundamentalism or orthodoxy), versus no atonement at all (LTQ).
I wonder whether LTQ/’Progressive’ Christianity represents a reaction to a rigid and narrow fundamentalist version of Protestantism that has been rigidly and unlovingly applied without space for reflection and exploration. This movement seems to be reacting to a narrow view of atonement theology restricted to penal substitution as the reason for the Incarnation of the Son of God. In reaction to this reduction, it seems more spiritual to talk about the universal incarnation of the divine spirit. But ‘progressive’ Christians are missing the union of created being with God not just through the incarnation of the Son by also through a complete inter-communication (perichoresis) of the divine and human ‘energies’ without confusion of essence. The Transfiguration and Ascension of Christ are missing in this revisionism. If they were embraced, a richer connect ion of the transcendence and immanence embodied in the Incarnate Son would be seen. E.L. Mascall sums up this deep union of the Divine and the human in and through the Son:
“The truth is not merely that in Christ the new creation was effected on our behalf, but that through our union with him it is to be brought about in each one of us. Becoming a Christian means being re-created by being incorporated into the glorifies manhood of the ascended Christ, so that, in the words of the Epistle to the Ephesians, we are raised up with him and made to sit with him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus.”
It is also regrettable to see how Biblical teachings and doctrinal formulations are misconstrued and misrepresented. The repeated miscalling of resurrection as “resuscitation” was tendentious and incorrect in terms of St Paul. It employs a ‘straw man’ type of argument.
The authors seem to work on a number of operating principles. For example they use a principle of “contradictions from silence” (i.e. a writer who doesn’t mention a doctrine or matter must not have known about it), when it is quite conceivable that there were other legitimate reasons for omission. The simple reality of Biblical study is that there are multiple possible explanations for many issues. The scholars on which LTQ is based operated from a critical hermeneutic of suspicion, with a tendency to favour theories that negate historical reliability, early dating and theological compatibility among the documents. Other scholars come to different conclusions on reasoned grounds with sound arguments. With a range of views, what approach should be used? Will the operating bias move towards sceptical or naturalistic explanations, or will the texts be given the benefit of the doubt? I was reminded of Pascal’s observation that there is light (evidence) enough for those who wish to believe (the Bible) and sufficient darkness (i.e. uncertainty) for those of an opposite disposition.
The undermining of the historical reliability and doctrinal authority of the Bible by LTQ is the foundation for its revised canon, clearing the way for a new theology to be raised in place of orthodoxy. For this reason, the Biblical issues cannot be ignored in any reasoned response to ‘Progressive Christianity’.
The real question is the theological bottom-line of this revisionism of Biblical foundations. Where does it lead theologically? My main issue with ‘Progressive Christianity’ can be identified in the logical conclusion of their Biblical arguments. It is their view of God and how to know God that reveals the gulf between ‘Progressive Christianity’ and historic Nicene Anglicanism.


[1] “Progressive Christianity” denotes both a movement and a network of people who identify with a cluster of convictions about what Christianity means to them. The Center for Progressive Christianity has set forth ‘The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity’ (see http://www.tpc.org/about/8points) . There are other similar statements in related “Progressive” religious networks. LTQ cites The 8 Points in its references, so I will take LTQ to be an adequate expression of “Progressive Christianity”, as it claims in its subtitle – ‘The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity’.
[2] Henceforth,  referred to as LTQ. I am not able to give page references since I used the digital version of LTQ.
[3] Here is the familiar list of revisionist tenets presented in LTQ: The Bible is a chaotic set of human  writings, not an inspired book; there is little reliable history in the Bible, including the Gospels; Paul brought unhelpful ideas into the church; there were other “Gospels” rejected by the church in the later centuries to “spin the story of Jesus” the way the Church wanted; the Virgin birth of Jesus was a legendary accretion; Jesus was not the divine Son of God but a man in whom the Divine lived in real strength; Jesus didn’t die for our sins; his resurrection was really a kind of visionary experience by his friends. In short, all the historical doctrines and Biblical teachings of the Church are rejected.

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