by Aaron Edwards.
The logic of western colonialism in Christianity is often summed up via a pithy quote from Desmond Tutu:
‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.’
Whether the missionaries used the colonisers, or the colonisers used the missionaries, is another issue for another time. Whichever way one interprets the motivations of the missionaries, Christian theology rightly winces at the logic of colonialism, particularly under the aegis of Scriptural authority. Those Christians who felt able to justify colonialism theologically were able to do so because they believed they knew things that the colonised did not know, and that the imposition of such things would be ‘good’ for them, in the end. As many have since observed, such condescension was not unlike the way a parent makes decisions on behalf of young children.
Yet this logic is alive and well today, not only in the places you might expect to find it, but especially within the logic of ‘progressive’ Christianity. Any progressive Christian, of course, would recoil at being associated with colonialism. But that’s the thing about logic: wherever you hide from it, in deeds, intentions, statements, or hashtags, it will find you in the end. Indeed, it is quite possible to be so committed to ‘postcolonialism’ as to become guilty of colonialism 2.0. I speak, of course, of the western reinterpretation (and exportation) of a positive Biblical view of same-sex relations.
I spent a delightful few days in Nigeria last year with twenty bishops and archbishops of the Nigerian Methodist Church talking about preaching. I showed them how many western Christian leaders and theologians now interpret passages of Scripture on sexuality. Most were aghast that it was even possible to believe that such views could be claimed as having come not from western secular culture but rather from textual exegesis. I tried to play Devil’s advocate for a while, describing the arguments about historical context, and the views that speak of the Spirit’s varied illuminations in various moments, etc., but it wouldn’t wash. These bishops were well taught to ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2Tim. 3:14-15).
The Biblical hermeneutic that accompanied the first western missionaries was by no means infallible, but neither was it easily separable from the spiritual fruitfulness wrought in those churches, a fruitfulness which endured and now sends many impassioned African missionaries back to the west today, to reconvert what has long been forgotten. African churches legitimately ask why they should listen to any wholesale western reinterpretation of Scripture which requires new western commentaries which it would never have occurred to a non-western Christian to write.
The progressive view is underpinned by a belief that the colonial imposition upon land/rights also entailed the imposition of particular approaches to Biblical interpretation (and thus, to sexuality). When I have challenged postcolonial missiologists on the fact that the vast majority of African Christians willingly accept such Biblical interpretations, I have actually been told that such beliefs are merely a kind of ‘mimicry’ of what the colonial missionaries once told them. I once observed a conversation where a West African woman was passionately opposing the progressive western view on same sex marriage and was met with barely concealed wry smiles and bitten lips by her western counterpart, as though this person was just waiting for the penny to finally drop. This is not an unfamiliar recurrence. The assumption is that once the African churches have encountered the books that we have read, imbibing the deeper nuances of postcolonial contextual hermeneutics, they will be liberated from their childish reasoning (cf. 1Cor. 13:11). The implicit assumption is that African Christianity is founded upon a form of ideological brainwashing, and generations later has yet to realise this for itself. The logic is precisely this condescending, and precisely this shocking. The end-goal of colonialism has always been to civilise the uncivilised.
The curious notion of ‘living in contradiction’ has been much touted in recent years to suggest that there is, of course, no such imposition implied by the progressive view. Today, the progressive Christian calls for unity and genuinely respects the conservative’s right to disagree. Tomorrow, however, the logic will begin to catch up: perhaps some ‘further education’ would improve the quality of this unity? The day after that, it may be realised that such unity is only truly possible if there is mutual agreement over the Scriptural validity of both views, thus gradually removing the possibility of genuine opposition.
As Tutu demonstrated, the genius of colonialism was managing to achieve large-scale conquest whilst avoiding large-scale conflict. There was no war, but there was a very definite victor. To adapt Tutu slightly, this is what the vast majority of African Christians rightly fear when unity is spoken of in contrast to functional submission to Scriptural authority:
‘When the missionaries came back to Africa they had the hermeneutic and we had the Bible. They said “Let us interpret.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the hermeneutic and they had the Bible.’
23 thoughts on “Colonial Logic and Progressive Christianity”
Yes, too many progressive Christians think they are more forward in their thinking than others and everyone will eventually catch up with them. But equally there are also too many traditionalists who thinking that they have the unchanging truth and that their interpretation of scripture is the only acceptable one. In my experience those who think that they have all the answers haven’t yet found half the questions.
An eminent and revered science professor was retiring. At the end of his final lecture, delivered to a packed audience, he said, “Before I go, I have two confessions to make. The first is that within the next 50 years half of what I have taught you will have been shown to have been inaccurate. The second is that I haven’t a clue which half that will be.” If only we had the same humility and openness to new discoveries and revelations within the Christian church!
I wonder what your African bishops make of the fact that the Southern Baptist Union, at the very heart of the USA bible belt, was originally specifically set up to fight for the “self-evident truth in the bible that slavery was ordained by God.” – a truth that those wicked progressives from the northern states were trying to abolish. I wonder whether they are aware too that Dutch Reformed theologians justified Apartheid by quoting bible passages showing that God wanted the races separated from one another.
I wonder why you chose to focus on same sex marriage. The largest Christian churches are still adamant that the bible excludes the ordination of women. Even within the Church of England, male clergy can refuse to accept the authority of a woman bishop but have to obey male bishops. 500 years ago, after 1,500 years of Christianity, the church was burning alive homosexuals and witches and people who read the bible in their own language. We have come a long way since then, but we have still far to go before we stop using the bible to condemn those who are different from us and use it to challenge ourselves, and to make sure that the gospel does indeed become good news for ALL people, and not just those like us.
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Thank you Pavel. Some interesting thoughts there. I have responded to a few of the key ideas below. (Though I clearly do not have your gift for brevity, as I seem to have written another whole essay, sorry! Hopefully it is worthwhile, anyway).
On the notion of certainty/arrogance in traditionalists, yes I really like your phrase, “those who think that they have all the answers haven’t yet found half the questions”. I agree with this. My argument was precisely that progressivists are in fact traditionalists of this very kind too – without knowing or admitting it – which is why I find it all the more troubling. Not that the progressive approach believes it has all the final answers, but it does believe it has the right approach to the questions, in believing that certainty is a vice rather than a virtue; and this itself is a very definitive answer which disallows other approaches from the outset. If the progressive approach were indeed progressive rather than committed to an a priori “tradition”, there would be less correlation and more variation between a progressive hermeneutic and the ensuing doctrinal beliefs that emanate from it. But this is almost never the case. I am rarely, if ever, surprised by the fundamental conclusions of progressive hermeneutics, and that ought to be strange. i.e. It ought not to be the case that “progress” always tends in a leftward direction. If I saw more people with a progressive hermeneutic occasionally realising that they are wrong about a hermeneutical/doctrinal issue which would then embarrass them before the western postmodern Zeitgeist, that would at least be one indicator (even if just a small one) that there is less ideology behind their convictions. But again, that almost never happens. This, for me, is the aporia of which progressive Christians ought to be especially aware. It doesn’t mean the progressive view is somehow *necessarily* wrong as a result of this problem, but that it is as at least as ideologically conditioned as it believes the traditionalist-conservative view is. The difference is that the progressive view thinks it is “merely” holding truth lightly, being open to wherever the Spirit may lead them, “rather than” looking through a preconceived and manifestly preconditioned lens. This is simply not true. There is a very defined “direction” to the perceived progress of the progressive. Regardless of the complex factors that may lie behind why someone holds such a view, the progressive view is not a mere meandering adventure into wisdom wherever it might be found; it has an observable telos for those who hold it.
To take the example I referred to in the original (much shorter!) post, the only way for the conservative hermeneutic on SSM to be seen as not inherently “arrogant” at root would be for them to agree with the concept of a simultaneous openness to the *validity* of alternative views. This requires a fundamental “assent” to the basis of progressive logic, and is different from saying: “I believe that X view is wrong, and Y view is right, but I will be civil to person with X view and hear them out, and love them, even if they see me as an enemy.” The progressive logic will want more than that in the end because the conservative view will often be, de facto, a binary view, and thus, de facto, an offence to the progressive view and to those who hold it. We all know plenty of examples of idiotic, ideological and belligerent conservatism in *how* the conservative view may be held (or, wielded!), but that is not my point here. The progressive response loses its integrity if the only way to truly embrace dialogue is for the conservative to give up the foundations of their view in order to enter the conversation without being thought of as arrogant for the certainty with which they hold it. That is not to say that the progressive view explicitly demands this of the conservative in all cases, but that they are usually unaware of what is at stake for the conservative when asked to accept a multiplicity of views on X topic when holding an exclusive view on X topic is integral to what it means for that person to hold it. What the progressive view often fails to recognise is that to embrace contradictory openness on X view is not only *easier* for the progressive than it is for the conservative, but it is *essential* for the progressive and often *impossible* for the conservative. This is why I believe the progressive logic is surreptitiously “colonialist”, whether or not it explicitly recognises these implications.
This is also why I agree with you entirely that the Bible ought to challenge us, not merely prop up our preconceived and/or convenient viewpoint. Wherever apparently professing Christians have used the Bible to support the likes of chattel slavery, apartheid, witch-burnings, misogyny, homophobia, or colonialism, these are quite obviously abuses of the Bible, and abuses which do not thereby prohibit appropriate uses. The reason we can likely agree that such things are “quite obviously” abuses without a long and complicated conversation about contextual hermeneutics is because we can read Scripture clearly, and observe that such things cannot be (and never were) integral to orthodox Christian belief. Moving “away” from such practices is, of course, the narrative onto which progressive logic likes to attach its newly discovered exegetical insights, which would totally transform such things which are (and always were) integral entailments of orthodox Christian belief. If there was obvious textual support for such new views that did not require elaborate hermeneutical gymnastics in order to find them in the text, this would be less open to the charge of ideological imposition given that such views are *already* widely championed within the very culture from which those insights have emerged. Such hermeneutical gymnastics have historically only been accessible (and to some extent are *still* only accessible) to those within wealthier (mostly western) contexts who can afford expensive commentaries or degrees which show them things that it had not occurred to most others beyond such contexts to see.
By all means we should converse on such things, but we ought to do so with a clear understanding not only of first century contextual nuances, the twenty-first century contextual nuances too. If the progressive logic does not believe it has the one hermeneutical approach to rule them all, it might want to ask why these same new exegetical insights did not also occur to the majority of the Church in the majority of the world for the majority of history. The underground churches of 1970s China, for example, many of whom read Scripture so voraciously that they could memorise Genesis to Revelation outright, never seemed to have discovered anything akin to the progressive exegetical conclusions on sexuality. The progressive response to such examples (there are, of course, innumerable other examples) can only be to decry the ideological lenses under which such churches read the text. The so-called “traditionalist” approach to Scripture is often presented as though it were “easy” to hold it, and that those who often held it did so in order to wield power over “others”. No doubt many people have done this, but for the majority of the Church it has been a very different experience.
Such “conservatives/traditionalists”, when asked at some point in history to conform to the momentary moorings of their culture above Scriptural authority (cf. Rom 12:2), have often paid for it with their freedom or their lives, and continue to do so to this day. Their endurance of such persecution usually stemmed not from a belief in one particular issue but from a more fundamental belief in the authority of Scripture which undergirded their approaches to all issues. Again, the progressive logic is colonial because it claims to tie itself to this very same belief in the authority of Scripture, only merely “properly interpreted” (that is, according to the party line). This is actually the very logic under which many of the heinous actions committed by the Church throughout history were sanctioned, a logic that was imposed upon Scripture from without, rather than a logic that emerges from within. Scripture resists (ideo)logic under whichever name it pertains to operate (conservative, progressive, or otherwise) because it heralds a king other than Caesar. Progressives might make far more progress if they realised that on some key issues they are especially at risk of following Caesar’s crowd, and to allow this awareness to better inform their critiques of those who cannot follow the logic of their logic. I expect there might be a few more surprises if they did.
Thank you for taking the time to respond, Aaron. I admire both the passion and insights with which you write.
My friend, Bill Jones, was a wonderful Evangelical Christian; his confident, cheerful and infectious faith shone out of him. One incident that had particularly thrilled him during his later years was a brief encounter he had with a Muslim during a stop on a tour. It seems each recognized a kindred spirit, and, knowing Bill, it would have been an enthusiastic conversation. At the end of their short chat the Muslim reached out his hand and said, “’Shalom’, my friend.” So here were a Muslim and a Christian sharing a Jewish greeting, because it conveyed such a wealth of meaning. In addition to complete peace, it infers contentment, wholeness, well-being and harmony. These two strangers from very different cultural and religious backgrounds recognised these qualities in each other, showed each other complete respect; and appreciated that the spiritual enthusiasm and openness they shared were far more important than anything that divided them.
Sadly, this kind of mutual respect is often lacking between different sections within our church; and too often we manage to hurt others because we are so keen to prove that we are right in our views.. One of the causes of this is that we have allowed intellectual beliefs to dominate our approaches. Many Christian organizations define themselves by what they believe and only accept those who sign up to their specific set of beliefs. Yet there is no mention of love, of feelings of hope or of joy, or of actually doing anything in the creeds and very little attention is given to these in most groups’ lists of beliefs. What a contrast with Jesus’ declaration that everything hangs on the two great love commandments, which don’t just ask for an intellectual response; but demand a commitment of the whole person.
Faith in its full meaning is active; it is about making a loving commitment, trusting and being faithful. Faith is so much more than an intellectual assent to religious propositions; it is more a spiritual adventure than a state of mind; a vision and a way of life rather than a creed. Beliefs are our best (but always inadequate) attempts to describe that relationship in words. To paraphrase St Paul: “I may believe every word in the bible (or my interpretations of texts are really innovative) and I have a wonderfully thought out theology, but if I don’t have love and compassion, it all counts for nothing.”
In the current difficult circumstances, we need a relationship with God that is strong enough to withstand all that life throws at us. That doesn’t come from intellectual agreement with religious ideas about God; rather it is based on the heartfelt commitment to a life of love and service which comes from knowledge of God’s love and creative power that one feels from the very centre of one’s being. That’s what we need to share with one another and with those who are seeking meaning in their lives. We need to stop priding ourselves on our individual theological stances and remember that “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
Thank you Pavel. I understood and agreed with your comments. Thank you, again.
Thanks again, Pavel. I expect I may now fall into the trap of providing an “intellectual” response… But if I heard you right, you weren’t trying to convince me that you were “right” anyway so I presume that’s ok 🙂
It never ought to be in doubt that faith is more than mere propositions. I too grow tired of merely propositionalistic approaches to faith which fundamentally neglect heart and soul, and I have experienced the brunt end of such approaches on many occasions. But it doesn’t in any way make me want to undermine the importance of intellectual love for God and neighbour. There cannot be love for God without love for truth. Relationship requires truth, always. As a charismatic, I have also seen an overemphasis on feelings “rather than” truth to be equally destructive to a person’s faith and their relationship with God. I have seen many friends who have walked away from their faith because they were taught that relationship was not as important as doctrine; but I have seen far more walk away because they were taught that doctrine was not as important as relationship, which in the end meant they were free to do without God altogether. The problem of not loving our neighbours will only be worsened if we make false distinctions between inseparable things. Truth and love must flow out of one another, and be celebrated together.
You are right that Christian organisations often require mere assent to a belief statement, but this doesn’t mean they really care about belief. Much of the time it becomes just a tick-box exercise anyway. To care about belief, to argue for it, defend it, etc. is to live it out too. If someone isn’t doing that, it’s not a failure of feelings as much as it’s a failure of belief; because. As you rightly said, faith is nothing if not active. But even to critique a propositional-heavy faith with no action still requires propositions. If I told you that I agreed with what you said in your post with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength, it will have meant that I believed that what you said was propositionally true, that it wasn’t something that had no basis in reality or lived experience, etc. Just as we say “amen” together when we pray, we are saying “Yes! This is true!”. And “Amen-ing” a prayer is something we often feel just as much as think. Much of the issue, I’m sure, is that theological debate often happens in a disembodied way (e.g. in comment threads!), which makes arguments appear entirely personless. As John knew, theology ought to be done ‘face to face’ (2Jn. 1:12). But we still need to get by with written words and arguments too, especially when love and action are threatened by beliefs that might nullify them. That’s why Paul wrote that very long and argumentative letter in which he proposed all those wonderful things about love.
Yes, truth is immensely important. But for those involved in discussing religious faith with others, it is well worth remembering the wise words of Peter Vardy: ‘The pursuit of truth matters tremendously. But humility, gentleness, compassion, love, forgiveness and concern for others may be even more important. …… When we lose sight of this in our rush to judge others on the basis of our certainty about objective truth, we may lose sight of the most important thing of all.’ (1) That applies equally to progressives, to traditionalists and to all shades in between.
As a simple man, I won’t blunder into an amateur attempt to discuss the nature of truth, where, with your academic background, you would rightly eat me alive. At a practical level, I have taught 2-year-olds to 19-year-olds and also adults with very mixed educational backgrounds. I have always attempted to present information in all these very different contexts in a way that’s appropriate to the learners; in a way that both stimulates interest and enables them to take the next step forward from where they are at the moment. I find that this is also the best approach in the spiritual realm. Our aim shouldn’t be to try to get people to where we are in our faith but to help them to take the next best step from where they are towards God. That might mean encouraging them to deepen their existing faith; it might mean, in the case of someone struggling with the beliefs with which they have been brought up, introducing them to new approaches or perspectives. Some make spiritual progress through a greater commitment to their existing beliefs and how they can live them out; for some others the most helpful form of development may be like an upward spiral, sometimes appearing to take the seeker away but then bringing her/him back to examine familiar ideas anew with a higher level of perception and understanding. (The higher refers to their own previous understanding, not to a superior approach than others take! That’s the frequent misconception.) The form of spiritual development that is appropriate to an individual will depend on her/his personality, background and stage of spiritual growth. The right spiritual journey for someone else may be very different from our own experience
The assumption that two different ways of expressing a relationship with God, of conveying the truth about one who is far above all our expectations and our understanding, must necessarily be in conflict with one another is a failure of the imagination. As a poet, Aaron, you will know that poetry often conveys ideas much more effectively than history, science and religious propositions.
(1) Vardy P. (1990) – The Puzzle of God [Flame]
Our dialogue is in danger of taking over the site. I have your college e-mail address, if that’s o.k.
Interesting to read the discussion of the link between colonialism and hermeneutics. And I agree with Pavel that we should interpret the bible in such a way that it challenges us to be inclusive, making sure that the gospel does indeed become good news for ALL people. I especially like the emphasis on inclusiveness.
I agree with Aaron that there is a distinction between the biblical hermeneutics of conservative traditionalists and progressives, though it is often the case that progressives are actually traditionalists! Perhaps I would say “generally” rather than “often”! What I am not sure about is limiting biblical hermeneutics to a choice between that presented by traditionalists and that presented by progressives. What about a hermeneutics of suspicion? Paul Ricoeur distinguished two forms of biblical hermeneutics: a hermeneutics of faith which aims to restore the obvious or self-evident meanings of the text and a hermeneutics of suspicion which attempts to decode meanings that are disguised, even if they turn out to be unpalatable. The downside to this hermeneutics of suspicion is that it questions the authority of the bible and many would not countenance that, after all it is God’s Word, Holy and comes with a capital B. The upside is that it leads us to use secular language, universalises the Good News and therefore makes the interpretation inclusive.
An example that comes to my mind is Matthew 25:31–46: “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”. My suspicion is that this was added later. The Jesus I meet in the bible was radically inclusive, non-judgmental and forgiving, even speaking to Samaritans, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, women and people who keep asking questions! So, for me, this passage was written by a first Century traditionalist.
When the missionaries came back to Africa again they brought with them a hermeneutics of suspicion and we had the Bible. They said “Let us interpret with suspicion.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we all had the hermeneutic.
PS. This conversation is only just starting, so please “take over the site”!
Both Aaron and Pavel have things to say which are helpful to us all to set us thinking in order to put our faith on an ever more solid footing. So as Robert says “Please ‘take over the site'”.
John Vincent, a past president of conference, told me that his Ph.D studies were in Switzerland and the external examiner was Karl Barth. John’s thesis was on social justice in Mark and Barth spent 11/2 hours putting alternative interpretations on the texts John had quoted. The young John was mortified, “Are you asking for a complete re-write,” he ventured. “Of course, not,” said Barth. “You’ve passed with flying colours. But I had to fight for my views. You jolly well go out there and fight for your views.”
Responding to the question – “What is a Methodist?” Wesley wrote in a letter: “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart.” Whenever we cherish conformity over compassion, whenever we laud liberalism over love, we’ve lost our sense of perspective.
I agree Pavel, but there would be no point in discussing theology if we didn’t have opinions.
We can have conformity AND compassion. We can have liberalism AND love. It doesn’t have to be either/or.
When compassion and love are the common denominators, our beliefs and opinions lose their power to divide.
Following the level of intellectual discussion on here this week, a lot of which is completely over my head, I felt a bit intimidated and wasn’t going to comment but, seeing today’s reading on AWIT, I decided to offer my simplistic thoughts anyway, for what they’re worth.
I suggested that Aaron’s distinction between progressive hermeneutics and traditional hermeneutics can be divisive and that the hermeneutic of suspicion, proposed by Paul Ricoeur, deconstructs that division and gives an interpretation that affirms the utter inclusiveness of God’s love. So, in the context of colonialism it is not enough to replace white supremacism with black supremacism (Black lives matter v White lives matter). What is needed is to go beyond such exclusiveness and affirm that all lives matter – we are all children of God.
An appropriate analogy to this deconstructive process may be evident in feminist theology. Toril Moi pointed out that there are, or were, three waves of feminism. Rather simplistically, in the first wave women protested that they were treated as second rate citizens. In the second wave women went beyond parity and affirmed that men are actually second rate. In the third wave there is the recognition that we should deconstruct the metaphysical distinction between women and men because all lives matter – we are all children of God.
Philosophically this deconstructive process can be applied to every duality and the ways in which we tend to categorise, alienate and often discriminate against people. (That’s interesting by the way that “discriminate” has two meanings; the benign idea of identifying particularity, and the unacceptable immoral sense of alienating a person!). The point I am making is that the end of colonialism and patriarchy depends on a theological deconstruction because this invariable leads to a more inclusive dialogue.
In the literature it is evident that Paul Ricoeur owed a considerable debt to Paul Tillich, particularly in using his Method of Correlation: This means to correlate insights from Christian revelation with the issues raised by existential, psychological, and philosophical analysis. Correlation does not mean connecting a passage of scripture with the rest of scripture – that leads nowhere – but opening up scripture to secular hermeneutics.
So what happens to God! I suggest that there are secular words that carry excessive and absolute meaning because they reflect our ultimate concern and therefore are of God (that comes from Tillich). Words such as inclusiveness, responsive love, forgiveness, justice and hope. For me these words imply the divine; they are somehow of God.
So I propose that a hermeneutic of suspicion where we attempt to correlate biblical texts with existential, psychological and philosophical analysis should identify dualities that need to be deconstructed and texts which categorise, alienate and discriminate against people. What’s left should be the core Christian spirituality exemplified by inclusiveness, responsive love, forgiveness, justice and hope. If it is of any interest I feel that the biblical scholar John D. Caputo has achieved this, and there may be others.
All this boils down to the simple fact that what motivates us, what really matters in life is to love and be loved. The really complex metaphysical stuff in the bible and creeds, like the Trinity, Heaven and Hell, sin, earning salvation, doing a deal with God etc seem inconsequential when we reflect on God’s unconditional love for all people.
As you probably gather I am a bit out of my depth here. So here are a few questions.
Is it true that theological deconstruction of the bible is our only access to the divine?
Does God only come to mind in the context of our ethical concern for others, as Levinas was fond of saying? Or, to correlate this with biblical terminology does God only arise as we endeavour to love our neighbour.
Is the distinction between motivation and practice, implied by the above, tenable?
“Freud and Philosophy”: by Paul Ricoeur
“The Courage to Be” by Paul Tillich
“Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory” by Toril Moi
“The Weakness of God” by John D. Caputo
“Cross and Cosmos” by John D. Caputo
I don’t know why all the wise men have to make it so complicated!
Jesus couldn’t have made it any simpler ‘Love God and love each other.’ End of.
He did also give us the Lord’s prayer, ‘Our Father, who art in Heaven ….’ which suggests that his (our) Father is an entity in his own right and not just the manifestation of human kindness.
Yes, Yvonne. Karl Barth wrote the massive and profound 13-volume work Church Dogmatics. It is said that when he was asked to sum up the work, Barth replied, “The most profound thought I have ever known is the simple truth: ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’”
With this in mind, the frail old lady murmuring a familiar prayer as she lights her candle to her favourite saint is at least as close to God as many of our eminent theologians.
I couldn’t agree with you more! “Love God and love each other”. Yes! Things got complicated because I was trying to find a way of understanding Aaron’s question. Why have people used the bible to justify slavery and patriarchy when this is so obviously wrong? I also agree that God is far more than a manifestation of human kindness. All I know about God is that there is a demand written on my heart that I take responsibility for others, particularly strangers. This is a demand, not a polite request.
I don’t hear demands from God, just gentle invitations. God gave us free will. We have a choice.
Good to see the conversation has continued on! I’ve probably said enough already, but I do feel the need to return to a key point that seems to have re-emerged within most of the responses on the notion of love and inclusiveness. I feel that these terms can often appear like a trump card which dictates the outcomes not just of all theological discussions, but of all theological conclusions too. This ought to be troubling to anyone concerned about love or inclusiveness.
I agree that love and inclusiveness are central to Christianity, that Jesus spoke about and embodied them often, that he calls all his followers to do likewise, and that many of his followers who seem to enjoy arguing for the correct ways to understand doctrine have not always been quickest to *do* likewise. But it’s also quite obvious that in the 21st century, the concepts of love and inclusiveness have been hijacked to mean something very different to what Jesus meant when he spoke about and/or practiced them. Love and inclusiveness today, particularly as understood by most progressive Christians, carry all sorts of further implications that most Christians (living or dead) could never reconcile with Christianity. This is no small thing.
If you believe that Christianity is summed up by loving God and loving neighbour (as in Jesus’ summation of the Old Testament, in Matt. 22), you presumably believe this because you think it matches up with the Jesus you know and see elsewhere in the Bible. i.e. You do not believe you have somehow made up this lovingly inclusive Jesus out of your head; rather you believe he is the real Jesus depicted by the authors of the gospels, the one that the rest of the Church ought to see when they read those same gospels (if they have eyes to see). That is, you believe that at the end of the day the most important thing in Christianity is love and inclusiveness because the Bible tells you so, and because you don’t think those bits about love and inclusiveness were added in by some zealous scribe at some point beyond the second century. On this, I’m sure we agree.
The problem is, that very same Jesus in that very same Bible said many other things that do not sound particularly loving or inclusive to the 21stC progressive imagination (to say nothing of the other NT writers). One of the many non-inclusive things he said was that his sheep hear *his* voice and do not listen to the voice of strangers (John 10:5,27). This is not an inclusive thing to say if you happen to be one of the strangers, or if you happen to be one of those who do not hear his voice. And this is by no means the most non-inclusive thing Jesus is reported to have said or taught. The progressive response to such examples is often either to ignore them, discredit them, or devalue them as being less fundamentally important than love God/love neighbour.
This is where I have often found that progressive Christianity wants to have and eat its own cake by deciding that its own preference is the one view to rule them all. It imposes itself upon those who disagree without thinking (or owning) that it is doing so. Whether this approach is communicated simply or complicatedly, academically or childlikely, in propositional arguments, or in poems, songs, or Tweets, the underlying logic will be the same, that love and inclusiveness (as *they* understand those terms, with all the further implications) is *the* correct way to understand and live out Christian discipleship. Those who think otherwise, by this view, are deemed to be wrong, to have an incorrect view of what is most fundamental to Christianity. Such people, of course, find this imposition to be extremely exclusive, divisive, and condescending.
I don’t think most progressive Christians intend to exclude or patronise people. However I too rarely see that they have tried to fully understand where those who disagree are really coming from. Most Christians (that is, “conservatives”) do not want to be hateful or exclusive to other people in the views they hold; they do not believe they are being non-inclusive. They are trying to be faithful to the Jesus they see in the Bible; they are trying to love God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their mind, and to love their neighbour. And it is precisely because they are trying to do these things that they see the need to reject the progressive interpretations of Scripture, including the new conceptions of love and inclusiveness that are imposed on it by contemporary cultural pressures. This *is*, for most Christians, precisely the way we ought to love God and neighbour, even if it gets us into trouble with those who tell us we’re not allowed to think that anymore.
I agree, Aaron, that too many Progressives misunderstand the stages of faith development. They move away from traditional thinking and adapt new ideas, and then assume that they have moved to a higher level of faith and have a superior understanding and better interpretation of scripture than those who keep to traditional thinking. There is far more to faith development than this. Many Progressives simply remain at the same stage of faith development with a different paradigm.
What many traditionalists, however, fail to realise when they claim to uphold the plain simple truth of the bible is that they too interpret the bible every time they read it. The impact made by the bible, as with any book, article, or poem, depends on the interplay between the original events or ideas, the way the writer expresses them, and the very important contribution of the reader and his/her response. Indeed, the way the reader interprets a passage and the meaning s/he takes from it determines the effect it has on the person. If we interact with the bible and explore its meaning for our personal lives, we bring to our reading our upbringing, our education, our experiences, our values, our personalities, our hopes, our fears and our prejudices. These all impact on the meaning we take from a passage or text. Indeed Oskar Pfister, a pastor and a psychiatrist, commented, “Tell me what you find in the bible and I’ll tell you what kind of person you are.”
The bible itself makes clear that Jesus is the Word of God. The bible is a witness to the Word; it needs to be read through the lens of Jesus. The bible might be the most important witness but it is far from being the only witness. God didn’t stop speaking to us 2,000 years ago. God can only reveal himself to us in terms that we can understand and so we will always be limited in our understanding of him. But surely that doesn’t that mean that we are tied to the understandings that prevailed in the Middle East 2,000 years ago or to the understandings in Mediaeval Europe, when most of our doctrines were developed amid great disputes? (Do we still believe with Anselm that one of the joys of Heaven is being entertained by watching sinners being tortured in Hell?) We revere Martin Luther for his role in making the bible the main authority in Christianity. Yet in 1543 Martin Luther produced a book full of selective bible quotes called “On the Jews and their lies” which took hatred of the Jews to a new level. He proposed burning down synagogues and Jewish schools, seizing their homes and possessions, destroying their books, forbidding them to pray or teach, or even to utter God’s name. Luther wanted to “be rid of them”. He wanted them transferred to community camps and forced to do hard manual labour. He went so far as to claim that “We are at fault in not slaying them” to avenge the death of Jesus Christ. The Holocaust fitted Luther’s desires to a T.
Are we tied even to the views of our 19th century Methodist forefathers? – (During the American Civil War, 5,000 Methodist ministers owned 219,000 slaves between them. In 1836 the South Carolina Methodist Conference declared that: “The Holy Scriptures unequivocally authorize the relation of master and slave.”) If we have learnt anything from Christianity’s chequered history, it should be that whenever individual quotations from scripture are used in order to oppress, to exclude or to discriminate against any one group, loud warning bells should clang. Jesus came proclaiming a truth that would set people free. How can we continue to use the bible to claim the right to oppress minorities in his name?!
The claim is made that Progressives change their interpretations of scripture to fit in with current culture. That may well be true. But later rather than sooner Conservatives usually quietly drop their opposition to these innovations and suggest that it was only ever a minority of their number in a previous generation that ever understood the bible in the old way that oppressed others. It took 1,800 years for the church to accept that slavery was wrong (and the Black Lives Matter issue shows that it is an issue that it is still not fully resolved), 200 years for the church to drop its opposition to Galileo’s heliocentrism which appeared to contradict the bible, and we are still waiting for the largest Christian denominations to give women equality within the church, because Traditionalists cling to the Chauvinist bible interpretations of past ages.
One of the reasons the bible is such a rich source of spiritual inspiration is that each individual can derive from it the meaning that s/he needs at that moment, and can be comforted, encouraged or challenged in their own particular situation. For both Traditionalist and Progressive the bible presents a vision that invites us to respond. We show our understanding of the bible not through our ability to quote texts from it or discuss it in a learned way but in the way we experience it, respond to its challenge by reflecting its central message in our daily lives, developing our understanding of God and helping others in their search for spiritual fulfilment.
Thanks again, Pavel. Again, I agree with you that many Christians have abused the Bible historically, even if some of what you have implied there is certainly exaggerated/hyperbolised (e.g. that Luther would be pro-Holocaust, or even pro-Kristallnacht, as the Nazi propaganda attempted to say at the time; or that the Church somehow supported the equivalent of imperialist slavery for 1800yrs as though there was an ecumenically recognised “doctrine” of slavery that had been a part of orthodox Christian belief – this is manifestly untrue). What is clear is that all doctrinal formulations and Scriptural interpretations are affected by what they are responding to in their context, including the creeds themselves. However, this does not mean that orthodoxy is ever-oscillating, ever-progressing; rather, it means that the tenets of orthodoxy are applied differently and/or accentuated differently according to different challenges in different eras. It does so whilst managing to hold an objective line as being representative of that which accords with the teaching of Scripture. Wherever we default to the line, “Isn’t everything just a matter of interpretation?” that just shows how much we have been influenced by our own (postmodern) philosophical climate.
There have always been different interpretations of Scripture. Orthodoxy, inclusive of the work of the Spirit, and of canonicity, is how the Church discerns whether the sheep do, in fact, hear His voice. There have always been strangers with different interpretations of Scripture. This is no surprise to the authors of the NT. In the first century Paul could say: ‘The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths’ (2Tim. 4:3-4). A respondent might easily tell Paul: ‘Sure, but only according to *your* view of “sound teaching” or “truth”, which just so happens to be what *you* believe; isn’t that convenient for you, Paul…’ Such responses are distractive of the reality that there really *is* such a thing as sound or unsound teaching. The Church receives Scripture as a gift from God for our edification (cf. 2Tim. 3:16), not as a mere hermeneutical playground where we can forever challenge every conceivable tenet with suspicion. The Church rightly strives for clarity and certainty, and it is precisely because of this that we are able to challenge the abuses, such as many of those you listed.
The problem is where the narrative of abuse ends up challenging orthodoxy itself. Where you have said, for example, ‘Jesus came proclaiming a truth that would set people free. How can we continue to use the bible to claim the right to oppress minorities in his name?!’, this implies to any non-western conservative that if they continue to oppose SSM (because they believe it to be consistent with orthodoxy) they are an oppressor of minorities, because you or others have decided so. There is no other way around the awkward implication that the progressive hermeneutic on that issue can only be heeded by the other via domination, even where it sets out to offer a wide-armed welcome. I am always grateful for the way progressive Christians attempt to look out for the oppressed, especially where they do so in ways that cohere with orthodox Christian belief and practice; I remain wary of the ways such approaches will inevitably oppress more people by doing so, and in many different ways.
I didn’t naïvely fall for Nazi propaganda, although the Nazis did delight in quoting Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic rants. I quoted Martin Luther’s own words from his own book. The last time I was in Germany, they were celebrating a Luther anniversary and many Lutheran churches had displays on Luther’s life and influence. Both of the two churches I visited included in their displays an acknowledgement of the anti-Semitic comments made by Luther, including the quote I gave – in the original German, of course.
There may not have been a specific Christian doctrine on slavery, but that is because slavery was accepted by most white people, including church leaders, as part of the culture. Most saw nothing wrong with it and many personally benefited from it. That is why in a debate in 2006, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to issue an apology for the church’s role in sustaining the trade. The then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, told the debate that the Church ought to acknowledge its corporate and ancestral guilt.
During the Methodist Conference debate in 2019 on ‘God in Love Unites us’ it was suggested by one speaker that the first of the two great love commandments must have precedence over the second one. (The implication was that obeying God’s rules in the bible is more important than showing compassion.) Yet Jesus’ words suggest that it is not that simple, and that these two commandments are neither as hierarchical nor as distinct as we might assume. In the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus praises the Samaritan who involved himself in the messy, uncomfortable and costly business of caring for others rather than the priest and the Levite, who were concerned to keep themselves pure so that they could serve God in the temple. In the parable of the sheep and goats we have “whatever you did or didn’t do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did or didn’t do for me.” Are divorcees, separated couples, cohabitees and homosexuals perhaps among the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters? Many of them feel like that within the church. In many churches they are refused communion and other sacraments – including marriage – as being ‘unfit people’. Yet Jesus spent much of his ministry reaching out to those regarded as unclean by the religious leaders of the day.
For many years I worked with broken families, when I ran the local child contact centre. I know all too well the hurt a church can add to an already painful situation by making pronouncements about a family’s situation without making any attempt to understand the underlying circumstances. In the last few months alone half a dozen people have told me how they escaped from an unhappy, unhealthy and even downright dangerous domestic situation, only to be told by their vicar or priest that they were unacceptable to God until they (and their children) returned to the marital home; the explanation being – “because that is what the bible says.” If these people later find happiness with someone else, many clergy will refuse to recognise their second marriage. “Love your neighbour as yourself,” must surely include “Don’t apply rules and judgments to others that you wouldn’t want applied to you.”
I want to sign off with a story:
Towards the end of the second world war a platoon of American GIs was making its way eastward through France when one of their number was killed by a sniper. The men, who had been together for many months, were really upset. Knowing that their fallen comrade was a devout Christian they approached the local priest and asked if their friend could be buried in the church graveyard. “Was he a Catholic?” asked the priest, “Because the rules are very strict about only baptised Catholics being buried in consecrated ground.” The soldiers admitted that their friend had been a Protestant. The priest compromised by offering to conduct the committal service and arranged for the soldier to be buried on waste land just outside the graveyard boundary. Afterwards the platoon sadly went back to war.
A few weeks later the war ended. Three of the platoon decided to visit their friend’s grave before they returned to the USA. However, when they searched just outside the graveyard they could not find the grave. Angrily, they approached the presbytery and saw the priest hurrying towards them. “I’m so glad you came back,” he said. “I saw how upset you were about your friend and my decision; and it troubled me. When I got back inside I prayed long and hard and then I had a period of meditation. During that, I looked up at the face of Christ on my crucifix, and then I knew what I had to do. I went out the next morning and bought that piece of wasteland. Then I pushed the boundary outwards. Now your friend is included within the church boundary; he lies in consecrated earth.”
It seems to me that there is something fundamental about forgiveness, responsive love and hope that cannot be relativised. God’s love is unconditional and we are encouraged to love others unconditionally which of course, means being inclusive. There are no “ifs” and “buts”, no deal involved and in no way can we partially forgive or love or have hope. They arise as a demand and as we respond to that demand we live more authentically, because we come to know that we are going in the same direction that God is going. As I see it this is the spirituality that motivates most people irrespective of religion, although I choose to believe that Jesus lived out that spirituality. Such anarchic love and forgiveness and hope where there is none is what makes Jesus unique. So I make a distinction between motivation and practice. The motivation is to be inclusive but there are situations in which exclusion is the right thing to do. We put villains in prison! I agree with you that in practice inclusiveness does not always work! However the statement about separating the sheep from the goats implies judgmentalism that excludes sinners from the love, forgiveness and hope that motivated Jesus. And since we are all “sinners” to some extent we are all “goats”! This is just bad theology!
This distinction between motivation and practice is my way of approaching the bible and I wonder if this hermeneutic of suspicion can progress the discussion about alienation, exclusion and colonialism from how bad things are to what can be done about it.
Been thinking about hermeneutics. Applied it to the Lord’s Prayer. Here are three versions. The first is one I wrote years ago. In my inner life God as a person is and always has been female. That’s just the way it is.
Our Mother, ever here amongst us
Hallowed be all your creation
May we always respect ourselves, our neighbours and our world.
Give us this day our daily bread
Forgive us when we abuse or neglect the web of life
As we forgive others
Lead us to wholeness, communion with our neighbours and unity in our world
Deliver us from anxiety, fear, ignorance and arrogance.
For your presence is the love that surrounds us
For all the days of our lives.
The second is by Nathan Banana, who was the Methodist Minister and theologian who became President of Zimbabwe.
Our Father which art in the ghetto
Degraded is your name
Thy servitude abounds
Thy will is mocked
As pie in the sky
Teach us to demand
Our share of the gold
Forgive us our docility
As we demand our share of justice
Lead us not into complicity
Deliver us from our fears
For ours is the sovereignty
The power and the liberation
For ever and ever, Amen
These are not inclusive but neither is the Lord’s prayer – addressed to a father. Can’t remember where I found this third one but I like it because it is inclusive.
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and will come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and forever.
I am one of those who where pleased that this conversation has continued, not only because it has been fruitful but also because I did not have time to reply at first and I wanted to. However, given time I have now written far too much in a draft which would be of no benefit to anyone. I suspect that this iteration of the discussion has run its course, but of course it will be back.
I did never the less want to make two points on the original post which I don’t think the discussion has really covered.
Firstly, thank you Aaron, you have highlighted some very real dangers that what you call progressive Christians can fall in to. Despite the brevity of this first point it is at least as important as the second.
However, secondly for me (by which I mean as much my failure to understand as any failure of explanation on your part) your logical conclusions do not ring true. I know it was only a short article but doesn’t something purporting to be taken to logical conclusion need rather more precision. Whilst ‘progressive Christian’ clearly had enough meaning for the discussions that developed I couldn’t help feeling at times it seemed to mean those who had the faults you describe. If it means literally Christians who are progressive then your comment about left leaning makes no sense. It clearly had elements of being liberal (theologically), but then what of Conservative (theological) Christians who are politically and/or socially progressive or the liberal Christians who are conservative politically? The thesis that a particular hermeneutics might be designed to reach progressive conclusions seems absurd to me (again, by which I mean it may well be my understanding that is at fault). You postulate that holding views in tension is an illusion and then use that idea that everyone is really absolutest to reach the conclusion that everyone is absolutist.
It is my view that the distinction between conservative and progressive hermeneutics is false: Any interpretation of the bible is inevitably “progressive” in that it is an interpretation. There is no absolutely true hermeneutic of the bible that anybody can claim is the only (traditional) Christian hermeneutic. As I see it this is just the way things are. If I am right then all interpretations are inevitably progressive. So I agree with Aaron that conservative and progressive views must be held in tension, but wish to move beyond Tom’s deconstructive critique of this distinction. I wish to suggest once again that a hermeneutic of suspicion about biblical texts (following Tillich, Ricoeur, Caputo and others) is a fruitful and meaningful way of relating the bible to our lives. I wrote of this earlier and tried to apply this approach to the sayings about the sheep and the goats and the Lord’s prayer, but got the distinct impression that this postmodern, deconstructive approach is too anarchic for readers of this website.