Category: Progressive Christianity

So opines an article by Ed Kilgore in New York Magazine on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On a variety of issues, the two camps have moved closer together theologically (see, for example, our article “Protestants and Catholics Celebrate Agreement on Justification”). Protestants have warmed toward some of the church’s historic liturgies and practices (such as the increasing popularity of observing Lent). The Roman Catholics have had their own internal reformations both in response to Luther in the 1600’s, and more recently with the reforms instituted by the Vatican II council.

Catholics have by and large embraced what might have previously been considered distinctly Protestant practices, like the use of vernacular languages in worship, personal Bible study (again, in the language of the reader rather than Latin), congregational singing of hymns, etc; and they have shed some of the more egregious practices that rankled Protestants (and also internal critics), such as the selling of indulgences. And as the article points out, “Moreover, virtually all Christians have abandoned some of the more unsavory habits of thought and deed they once shared, from aggressive anti-Semitism to active state-sanctioned persecution of “heretics.”

Today, the real divide is within denominations more than between them. “The difference among Christians these days tend to break along a left-right rather than a Catholic-Protestant spectrum,” says Kilgore.

The NY magazine article quotes Atlantic writer Emma Green, who observes the same shifts in an essay entitled “Why Can’t Christians Get Along, 500 Years After the Reformation?“.

Historian Mark Noll of Notre Dame notes that Catholics and Protestants have come closer together. “In my lifetime, there has been a sea change in Protestant-Catholic relations, opening up an unimaginable array of cooperation.”

Yet these denominations are beginning to fracture over LGBTQ issues and more fundamental disagreements between traditional Christians, especially in places like Africa, and the intellectual elites in the west who embrace a more worldly and progressive stance. In reaction,

A growing number of Christians are organizing themselves based on ideological convictions, rather than a shared confessional tradition. “As a lot of denominational traditions are experiencing pressure and even fracture,” said Noll, “so also [is] interdenominational cooperation amongst like-minded people growing in leaps and bounds.”

I came across an interesting essay regarding the powerful impact that a single generation has had on Christian life in the U.S. The author of “The Six Commandments of the Boomers” is Reverend Todd Wilken, a blogger, speaker, and pastor within the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.

Wilken, himself a member of the “Baby Boom” generation (those with birth dates between 1946 and 1964), begins his piece with a sweeping critique of his cohorts as being generally narcissistic and self absorbed. They are now 28 percent of the U.S. population, and all of our societal institutions and power centers are firmly in their control.

Their influence on the churches of our land has been no less sweeping than it has been on other aspects of life.

Boomers seek to recreate the institution in their own Boomer image. The Boomers have brought this imperative of the individual to bear upon the Church. The Church is here to provide whatever the Boomers want or think they need… The Church has undertaken more innovations in the last generation than in all the previous generations combined, mostly at the insistence of the Boomers.

One area has been music:

And in the Church of the Boomers music is THE issue. Music was the Boomers’ voice. In large part, their music was what defined them as “hip.” Suckled at the breast of what began as tinpan alley and quickly became the music industry, the Boomers can’t wean themselves. Their kind of music is hip and that imperative of hip extends even to the Church. Again, Veith observes:

“Certainly Baby Boomers often do demand their kind of music in church. This is another of their traits —to be demanding and self-absorbed and intolerant of other styles. The World War II generation never demanded worship styles with Big Band music.”

I have been fond of saying that we seem to be stuck in a dichotomy: Boomer theology and traditional music (your average mainline denominational church), versus boomer music and traditional theology (a typical evangelical church). I now realize that I underappreciated even the sinister influence that the “Boomer worldview” has had on theology that is otherwise outwardly orthodox:

In the Church of the Boomers this rebellion against authority manifests itself as a skeptical approach to the Church’s doctrinal standards, pastoral authority, and polity.

However, the bigger problem is that in the Church there is an unquestioned authority: the authority of the Bible. The Church of the Boomers rejects this authority in one of two ways; they either deny the authority of the Bible outright, as in liberal Churches, or they relativize the authority of the Bible, as in much of Protestant Evangelicalism. The first kind of rebellion against Scripture’s authority is obvious. The second is much more subtle, and therefore more dangerous.

The relativizing of the Scripture allows the Boomers to affirm Scripture’s authority in theory while denying it in practice. They can say that they are Bible believing, that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, and even authoritative. The problem isn’t in what the Boomers say about the Bible, the problem is in how they use the Bible.

When studying the Bible there is a big difference between asking, “what does it mean?” and asking, “what does it mean to me?” The former seeks objective truth, the latter seeks subjective, relative truth. The former affirms Scripture’s authority, the latter denies it. Bible study in the Church of the Boomers is mostly the latter. If the meaning of the Bible is determined by each individual’s private interpretation, then the issue of the Bible’s objective authority is rendered moot.

Read it all at the link above.

An interesting conflict has recently erupted within the hallowed halls of Duke University Divinity School. As I understand it, a renowned professor of Catholic theology, Paul Griffiths, was driven to resign, after daring to question the usefulness and political motives of a weekend workshop on racial reconciliation, to which all faculty were invited.

The problem began when he responded to an email circulated by a junior faculty member, Anathea Portier-Young, which sang the praises of the upcoming workshop: “Dear Faculty Colleagues, On behalf of the Faculty Diversity and Inclusion Standing Committee, I strongly urge you to participate in the Racial Equity Institute Phase I Training planned for March 4 and 5. … Those who have participated in the training have described it as transformative, powerful, and life-changing. We recognize that it is a significant commitment of time; we also believe it will have great dividends for our community. Please find the registration link below. Details about room location will be announced soon.”

Professor Griffiths apparently rolled his eyes and fired off a provocative, sarcasm laced email that exhorted his colleagues not to “lay waste their time”:

“I exhort you not to attend this training. Don’t lay waste your time by doing so. It’ll be, I predict with confidence, intellectually flaccid: there’ll be bromides, clichés, and amen-corner rah-rahs in plenty. When (if) it gets beyond that, its illiberal roots and totalitarian tendencies will show. Events of this sort are definitively anti-intellectual. (Re)trainings of intellectuals by bureaucrats and apparatchiks have a long and ignoble history; I hope you’ll keep that history in mind as you think about this instance.

We here at Duke Divinity have a mission. Such things as this training are at best a distraction from it and at worst inimical to it. Our mission is to thnk, read, write, and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession. This is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it. We have neither time nor resources to waste. This training is a waste. Please, ignore it. Keep your eyes on the prize”

Almost immediately he was in hot water with his Dean, Elaine Heath, who fired off her own email, praising the upcoming Racial Equity training and warning all faculty:

It is inappropriate and unprofessional to use mass emails to make disparaging statements–including arguments ad hominem–in order to humiliate or undermine individual colleagues or groups of colleagues with whom we disagree. The use of mass emails to express racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry is offensive and unacceptable, especially in a Christian institution.

The Dean then insisted on a meeting with Griffiths in which he would not be allowed a representative, and he declined, prompting sanctions that include restriction from faculty meetings and no access to research funding.

Subsequently, the junior faculty member, Dr Portier-Young, lodged a complaint of harassment against Griffiths, via the University’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). He is accused of “use of racist and/or sexist speech in such a way as to constitute a hostile workplace.”

More information is available at the New York Times and elsewhere. The initial breaker of this story, and principle source of leaked documents is the blog The American Conservative.

This story has begun to reverberate around the web as an example of an ongoing purge of conservatives from higher education, though I’m not sure whether Professor Griffiths fully fits the mold of “conservative” based on other controversial stances alluded to in the New York Times piece. I also see this being mentioned as a parable of the chilling effect of “social justice warriors” on free speech and academic freedom, and this is certainly disturbing. It should be noted that Professor Griffiths wasn’t actually fired, or directly pressured to resign; he could have fought on for his right to express his opinion, rather than quitting and publicizing the emails. Still, he seems to have accurately described the situation when he criticized the far Left’s “illiberal and totalitarian tendencies.” It is dismaying what an intellectual straitjacket one must wear in academic circles just to survive.

Reflecting further on the express purpose of divinity schools, which is to train pastors, it is also dismaying to consider the potential spiritual wreckage of rampant political correctness. How many intellectually and spiritually eviscerated seminary grads are emerging from places like this and being foisted upon the churches of our land?

Unsurprisingly, progressive church leaders were as taken with “el Commandante” as were progressive political leaders:

On 28 Feb 2006 Episcopal Church of the USA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold met Fidel Castro in Havana. Episcopal News Service reported on that glorious occassion, with what can best be described as a tin-ear to the human rights abuses and pervasive atmosphere of fear that pervades Cuban life.

Episcopal News Service reported on the meeting:

…The two-and-a-half-hour conversation — conducted across a long conference table with one delegation on each side — began as Griswold spoke of being a senior at Harvard in 1959 when Castro visited the campus. “You approached in a boat on the Charles River,” Griswold recalled. “I was among a group of students who waved to you from a bridge.”
Recalling the campus setting, Castro asked: “Has anyone blockaded you for 47 years? Has anyone blockaded your thoughts? Lies are an attempt to block people’s minds.
“No one has all the truth,” Castro continued.
“Truth is larger than any one perspective,” Griswold concurred. “The truth is always unfolding.”

Read more at Anglican Ink blog.

Canadian researchers David Haskell of Wilfrid Laurier University and his colleagues Kevin Flatt and Stephanie Burgoyne have conducted a study of churches that finds a strong correlation between traditional theology and numerical growth. The growing churches tend to be conservative:

Those in the growing churches are significantly more likely than those at the ones in decline to agree with statements such as “Jesus rose from the dead with a real, flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb,” and “God performs miracles in answer to prayer.” They’re also more likely to pray and read the Bible daily, the researchers found.

The authors surveyed 2255 attendees from 22 churches (13 of which were declining and 9 of which were growing). They also surveyed their church’s clergy (29).

“What we found is that the conservative theological positioning of clergy and attendees is a significant predictor of numerical church growth,” Prof. Haskell said.

On the subject of mission, unsurprisingly, the declining churches were more interested in social justice, and much less interested in evangelism.

Only 50 per cent of pastors in declining parishes agreed that it was very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians, compared with 100 per cent among the growing churches.

Read more at Globe and Mail. An abstract of the study is available here.

One of the more interesting and disturbing revelations from John Podesta’s hacked emails, is that he created fake grassroots organizations to try to subvert the Catholic Church from within. Two front groups were mentioned as Podesta responded to a suggestion that there needed to be a “Catholic Spring” in which lay people rise up in opposition to tradition minded bishops:

“We created Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to organize for a moment like this. But I think it lacks the leadership to do so now. Likewise Catholics United. Like most Spring movements, I think this one will have to be bottom up.”

You can read more on this from an editorial at Boston Globe. More information is available also from Catholic News, which provided a response from Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

“There have been recent reports that some may have sought to interfere in the internal life of the church for short-term political gain. If true, this is troubling both for the well-being of faith communities and the good of our country.”

Other information recently reported by Catholic News Agency indicates, disturbingly, that at least one of these two “grassroots” organizations received a large sum of money from everyone’s favorite atheist billionaire philanthropist:

The memo lists Catholics In Alliance for the Common Good under the section “grassroots organizing and civic engagement.” It indicates the group received at least $450,000 in financial support from the massive George Soros philanthropy network from 2006-2010, when the foundations also operated under the name Open Society Institute (OSI).

Wacky Episcopalian progressives are at it again. In a move that basically represents a middle finger to traditional Christianity, a controversial statue is again being installed at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. “Christa” is a 250 pound bronze figure of a nude woman, with arms outstretched to look like Jesus on the cross.

This is not the first attempt to install this statue at the Cathedral. In 1984, the bishop of New York stepped in and overruled the local clergy. As was reported in a previous edition of the New York Times:
Bishop Walter Dennis accused the Cathedral Dean, the Very Rev. James Park Morton, of ”desecrating our symbols.”
Biishop Dennis, who is in charge of the diocese while Bishop Paul Moore Jr. is on a leave of absence, said the display was ”theologically and historically indefensible.”

What has changed? The times apparently.

“We have people who worship here who expressed concerns,” Ms. Schubert said on Monday, as the statue was being put into place. Still, “the leadership of the cathedral said this is 2016, not 1984,” she added. “Surely we can have a woman on the cross.”

Read more at New York Times.

Of course, an old adage comes to mind: Those who marry the spirit of this age will find themselves widowed in the next.

Apparently a new “muscular” Christianity is threatening to shake the teacups out of the hands of our genteel British brethren.

The BBC’s head of religion has warned that Britain needs to address its “chronic lack of religious literacy” if it is to accommodate the rise through new immigration of “more assertive” forms of Christianity with “conflicting views” on same-sex marriage and other human rights issues.

Aaqil Ahmed, writing for The Independent, identifies a “more muscular Pentecostalism” emerging among African immigrants and an “upsurge in Catholic numbers” from Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. “Christianity may have been pronounced to be at death’s door in the last century but now it’s firmly back in the public space and how we deal with that is the real battle for Christianity here in the UK.”

You can read more at The Independent.

We have previously written of the case of a faithful priest forced out over gay marriage In the Episcopal diocese of Kentucky. I have also since heard privately from a friend about a Presbyterian minister in Montana who may be about to resign in a struggle with some liberal members of his congregation.

I know of a large moderate-to-conservative church in an eastern seaboard city, which hired a progressive pastor a few years ago; the results have been nearly disastrous. Once teeming with youth and boasting a Sunday attendance well over 1200, this number has since plunged nearly in half as the more conservative members have fled. The church is now struggling financially.

To those of you who happen to be in a successful traditionalist church: Do not be complacent! Your situation is only a fortunate accident waiting to be undone. If you are not on your vestry, or session, or board of elders, you should find the time to become more engaged. Sure, you are busy and don’t have time for this sort of thing; you have all consuming careers, and your plate is full raising your children. Left leaning activists are somewhat more likely to be childless, young, single, lightly employed–just the sort to have the time and energy to sit on and dominate committees.

Realize that progressive activists are seeking control anywhere they can get it. If you don’t have a seat on the search committee for your next pastor you may be disheartened by the results. You may come to realize too late the major betrayal that has occurred, as you start cringing at the “new thing the spirit is doing” at your church–at the heresy that is emanating from the pulpit and from your kids’ new Sunday school curriculum. You will find yourself gagging over the “breath of fresh air” touted by those who have been duped by the Evil One, and can’t recognize the stench of death.

We can no longer assume that the problem will be limited, or that things will get sorted out in the end. The head of the deacons at the aforementioned large church said, “sure he’s not a good pastor but we can wait him out.” The winners in these struggles will be the handful of LGBT activists who gained all the seats of power, and a few old people who just plan to be loyal to the end so they can be buried in the church yard. Everyone else will be worshipping in school gyms, joining different faith communities, or giving up on church altogether. Eventually the remnant congregation will be forced to sell the building, or it will decay to the point of being unsafe. Where your church used to be located you will someday drive past a church-shaped shell that has been transformed into a condominium complex, nightclub, or mosque.

We can no longer “play nice” or “just go along to get along”. The foe is ferocious, determined, and willing to stop at nothing to get their way. They’ll win or destroy a church trying. (Stepping aside and letting them win is no act of noble peacekeeping–destruction is also virtually assured if they win). To the left, victory must be total–there’s no room for compromise. Once they’ve won, there will not be any chance for a “do over” after the giving drops, and the majority of faithful Christians have left.

Ultimately, the victory is God’s, and those who tinkered with theology and wrecked the great churches will be called to account. We can and must pray for the churches that we love, and for the faithful who serve them. We should, of course, continue to hold in mind that the church is its people, not its wood and bricks. Our citizenship is a heavenly country where the buildings are everlasting. We know that if called to do so, then we may have to abandon these temporary structures to the enemy. But let’s not give up without a fight.

Does it Matter who Jesus was? (Or whether he was)?

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I have decided to revisit that Time article from 2014 to which this prior post referred. The article in question was titled “The Search for Jesus: Inside the Scholars’ Debate.” After rehashing various revisionist positions on Jesus, the article drew the following conclusion:

This time of year, many people will conclude that those scholars are asking the wrong questions. They’ll answer as one reader did in the letters to the editor following the 1996 story: “It doesn’t matter who Jesus of Nazareth was or what he was,” he wrote. “What’s most important is the lessons he taught.” (You can find this online at Time Magazine’s website.)

To this we have to respond, “Hell, yes it matters!” And I stick by the expletive here for its literal meaning, which is an evocation of an unpleasant afterlife for those who are destined for perdition. It matters, because nothing less than eternity is at stake!

What, after all, were the lessons that Jesus taught? While a tiny bit of what Jesus said can be viewed as isolated nuggets of wisdom, a la Confucius, the bulk of his teaching was about himself. If a theme could be slapped on what is recorded about the teachings of Jesus, it would be something like “The Father has sent me; the Kingdom of God is at hand”. He spoke much about the nature of that kingdom (try to count the number of times he launched a parable with the words “the kingdom of Heaven is like…”). He spoke a lot about his own relationship to the Father (“I and the Father are one”, “whoever knows me knows the Father”–See John 10:30 and John 14:7). He spoke of his future glorification. He claimed to be the “Bread of Life,” and the “Good Shepherd.” He claimed to be the “Resurrection and the Life”. He called himself by the title “son of man”, which ancient Jews would have understood to be a messianic title (for example, see Daniel 7)

If Jesus didn’t exist, then you aren’t left with many teachings that should be taken all that seriously. Maybe you can go ahead and take away the so-called Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”.

If he did exist (which in fact is the majority report among scholars), and taught all these things, but was wrong about himself, then you are left with a sad tale of a misguided man. You are left with a man who was wrong about himself, and about the Kingdom of God, and who was ultimately tortured and killed for no good reason. In this scenario the “good teacher” was wrong, and therefore isn’t all that “good” a teacher. You can still take away the Golden Rule as a bonus prize.

If Jesus really existed, and really was a “good teacher” who was right about the things he taught, then we need to treat his words with commensurate awe and reverence. We need to decide how to respond to “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”