Monday, February 25, 2008

The Meaning of Progressive

Over on the VOS listserve (Voices for an Open Spirit, a progressive Church of the Brethren forum) naturally open to all voices a conservative asked for a definition of progressive Christian. here is the reply of one progressive, Ernie Barr:

1. What does "progressive" mean as applied to Christians? To me, the "progressive position" is in contrast to the "conservative" or "fundamentalist" point of view. Conservatives or fundamentalists generally hold to the literal interpretation of scripture. As a progressive, I understand the Bible, to a large extent, to be metaphorical. That is to say that even though the Bible sets a historical context, much of the detail is not factually true. For example, there is good evidence that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, but actually in Nazareth. Prophets foretold that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem and so the New Testament writers wrote it that way "in order that the scriptures might be fulfilled". It is no discredit to the Gospel writers that they took liberties with fact; they had a purpose in writing and a particular readership, so they wrote it that way. That surely sound heretical to many readers of this list, but one has to ask exactly what about the divinity of Christ is compromised by saying that he was born in Nazareth? One might ask what about the veracity of the Bible is lost in this example? Actually nothing, when it is realized that the Bible is written by humans for an express purpose to particular readers. The Bible is not, in my understanding, the literal word of God. This view makes the Bible more real and intelligible than to have to fit all the literal geographical and time sequences into place. There are many other examples I could cite.

2. To what are progressives progressing? My answer is a clearer understanding of the Bible's message. I would contend that the message of the Bible is seldom found in the literal understanding of the words, but the words of metaphor or figurative expression. For example: I believe that Jesus was born in the same way that each of us was born--he had a human father and a human mother. For reasons that others may know, Jesus was in such close relationship to God that he is rightfully referred to as "the Son of God". That appellation, I fully accept, but it is metaphorical. To say that "God sent Jesus into the world" is another such metaphor, because when one sees and experiences such a person as Jesus, how can one express that realization--a realization that is in fact inexpressible otherwise? There are many situations in the Bible where figurative expressions are used in an attempt to express inexpressible truth.

3. What will you find when you get there? How will you know when you get there? and IS there an end point? Let me try to speak to all three in one reply. We never "get there". What one finds is a glimpse of truth here and there--an insight that fits with other insights (As an aside: Pilate asked, "What is truth?" To me, "truth" is what agrees with other truths you have found--that is, does it all fit together under the most rigorous examination your beliefs.) There is no "end point" to our search for truth.

Let me add: What is really important to me is the words of Jesus, when answering the lawyer who came to him asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." Olden Mitchell pointed out to me that the admonition to "love the Lord your God will all your mind" is Jesus' addition to the original law (Deut. 6:5). This would suggest to me that, as Marcus Borg says on the first page of the preface to his book The Heart of Christianity (which I heartily recommend!) "The sacrifice that Christianity asks of us is not ultimately a sacrifice of the intellect."

Very Nice.

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