We haven’t quite been able to keep up with each of Richard Beck’s posts in his series on being a “post-progressive,” but today I’d like to make just a few more comments about some of what he says. I know a number of you have been reading Beck regularly and pondering his critique of his progressive Christian friends. I think it’s important stuff, not least because it reminds me that life moves on.
The evangelical Christianity of the mid-20th century morphed into evangelicalism, which produced a flow of people moving into post-evangelicalism, some of whom embraced “emergent” Christianity and more “progressive” forms of faith. In recent years progressive voices have come to the fore primarily because of the increasingly partisan political divides in the U.S. As evangelicalism became more thoroughly connected to the religious and political right, so progressives reacted against that and became more vocal, supporting ideas and positions identified with the religious and political left.
But now some people, specifically Richard Beck (a self-identified “progressive” Christian), have begun to question the direction this movement is taking and to suggest that it might be time for a “post-progressive” perspective, offering course corrections and, indeed, some fundamental reworking of so-called progressive Christianity.
Here are the links to Richard Beck’s recent posts on this subject:
I would like to conclude my reflections on Beck’s critiques by considering what he says about “enchantment” and “hope.” As one who works as a hospice chaplain, these two areas were of great interest to me because they speak to the heart of what I encounter every day.
The Need for Re-Enchantment
By and large, progressive Christianity is characterized by disenchantment, a skeptical stance toward robustly metaphysical and supernatural expressions, experiences, events, and beliefs within Christianity.
I’ve described already how many progressive Christians struggle with doubts concerning the existence of God. But it’s not just God, it’s a whole suite of supernatural beliefs: the activity of the Holy Spirit, miracles, the power of prayer, angels, demons, the Devil, and the existence of an afterlife.
And when progressive Christians do use supernatural language, it’s generally given a disenchanted meaning. For example, prayer is largely understood with progressive Christianity as being a therapeutic exercise. We don’t expect miracles from prayer, but prayer, as a form of meditation, can be an effective coping strategy in facing life stressors. In a similar way, visions of evil are also disenchanted. Evil isn’t caused by supernatural agents like the Devil, evil is caused by systemic forces of oppression. Similarly, heaven isn’t an otherworldly destination or reward, heaven is a political vision, the kingdom of God manifested in a just and peaceful world. And a final example. The death of Jesus on the cross didn’t fix any metaphysical problem regarding our sin and God’s righteousness. The death of Jesus is primarily a moral demonstration we follow and emulate, an example of what love looks like. Jesus only saves us through moral persuasion and emulation.
In short, progressive Christianity tends to unpack faith in disenchanted ways, either therapeutically, morally or politically. No reference to metaphysical or supernatural realities is required.
H. Richard Niebuhr once critiqued “modernist” Christianity by saying, “A God without wrath brought human beings without sin into a kingdom without judgment through ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In other words, he thought they had removed the very aspects of the faith that made it the faith. In the midst of the great fundamentalist and modernist schisms among Presbyterians in the early 20th century, J. Gresham Machen wrote Christianity and Liberalism, in which he argued that “liberal” Christianity was not just incorrect at the margins but so devoid of the actual teachings and traditions of the church and the Bible that it amounted to a different religion.
Richard Beck is more generous to progressive Christianity than that, however, he sees in the movement many of the same problems. For Beck, disenchantment is a step on the way — a necessary step for many — but not a place to call home. It’s part of the “deconstruction” process we talked about in an earlier post (see also HERE). As Beck warns, “…the general trajectory here is toward a loss of faith or a faith that is functionally agnostic or atheistic. I also think that it’s impossible to be a Christian without some metaphysical and supernatural beliefs and commitments.”
For some of us who chose a different post-evangelical path, namely a more “ancient-future” one, I can testify that re-enchantment has come about primarily through embracing a sacramental view of life and by celebrating that with the actual practices of sacramental faith in a historic and liturgical faith community.
If one can simply come to the Table and find that Christ is made known to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:31), if one can dip a hand into the basin and know that this water is for us “the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” (Titus 3:5), if one can learn to follow the liturgical year and walk with Jesus through the Story of salvation year after year after year, then one’s spirit may become re-enchanted with the fact that, as Fr. Stephen Freeman says, “We live in the altar.” The sacraments don’t make things into what they are not, they reveal them for what they truly are.
Progressive Christianity, Richard Beck complains, has essentially bought into the Enlightenment worldview that virtually eliminates imagination in favor of empiricism. But “Christ plays in ten thousand places” (Hopkins), and for all our social justice work and political action, the world will be none the better if we do not join him in his play.
The Need for Hope in the Face of Death
In Richard Beck’s final post on the post-progressive perspective, he writes:
In countless talks with progressive Christians who have lost their faith, or who are on the edge of losing their faith, I’ve observed that death is increasingly triggering massive faith crises. Especially the death of children, teenagers, young adults, and even those in middle age. When death comes to anyone who has not lived into old age trust and faith in God is increasingly shaken.
Something about our relationship to death has changed, and this seems to be a modern phenomenon. To be sure, death has always been a challenge to faith. But for most of Christian history, the faithful have turned toward God and the hope of the resurrection for solace in the face of grief. Today, many progressive Christians don’t turn toward God for comfort, we turn away from God with angry accusations.
In fact, the reigning pastoral advice among progressive Christians is to avoid all mention of heaven in comforting the bereaved. To mention heaven to the grieving is increasingly taboo, and often described as hurtful and harmful. To be clear, I’ve seen the consolations of heaven deployed clumsily, too hastily, and too tritely, in ways that, yes, have been hurtful and harmful. Still, among progressive Christians it’s getting to the point where any mention of heaven is considered problematic and unhelpful. Again, in the face of death it seems progressive Christians are increasingly grieving as if they had no hope.
This is a subject that goes far beyond the bounds of critiquing progressive Christianity. But it is related to the disenchantment discussed above. The ultimate test of whether we have a “disenchanted” or an “enchanted” faith comes when we face death. Death presents us with the ultimate unknown and the ultimate unseen, impossible to measure empirically. It brings us face to face with the most fundamental and most “enchanted” of Christian teachings — that Jesus rose from the dead, giving us the hope of life in the age to come.
Beck summarizes well how our view of death has been altered dramatically by our isolation from it in the modern world. Our very unfamiliarity with death tends to cause us a greater angst when it invades our lives. We are more fragile and it causes us to question God in ways heretofore less common.
But it’s the lack of a genuine eschatological perspective that gives progressive Christians, in particular, trouble. Expressing doubts about the unknown and the unseen, as well as the traditional Christian teachings about such matters, is almost a badge of honor among progressives. It is the very definition of who they are. As a result, as Beck says, “In the disenchanted, progressive Christian experience the only comfort we are allowed to offer each other is therapeutic. We can listen to each other. Sit in silence with each other. Carry each other. Be there for each other. But we cannot offer hope.” As you know, listening, sitting in silence, and supporting others is at the heart of what I do and encourage others to do, but Beck is right. There is more. There is Christ. There is resurrection. There is hope. No matter how poorly it has been presented by Christians, the hope of the gospel remains.
Now I happen to think that the teaching of Christian eschatology has gone off the tracks in a thousand different ways, and that we must present a far better vision of the Christian hope than we have been given. In particular, dispensational and other popular versions of the future hope have promoted cartoonish visions of escapism that are now — rightly — scorned as silly and unhelpful. That many of these have been co-opted for political purposes is a shameful and, frankly, embarrassing legacy of American evangelicalism. And I can testify firsthand to the ground level misuse of trite religious clichés to batter the grieving into submission.
Progressives have a right to react to all of this. Deconstruction of “Christian hope” as it has been promulgated is inevitable in such a wasteland. But once again, this is a stop along the way, not the destination. As people like N.T. Wright are doing for us in recent years, we must work hard at rebuilding a robust sense of what Christian hope means and imagining that hope in more fruitful ways.
And, as always, learning to love those who are struggling with all of this.