Toeing the party line (a response to Derek Rishmawy)

The Party Line

One of my new favorite bloggers is Derek Rishmawy. He’s a young Calvinist, but not in the “cage-stage.” He’s an academic, but refreshingly relevant and reachable.  He’s conservative but he hasn’t blocked me on facebook.

As any of you who know me can imagine, he and I disagree on quite a few things. (We also agree on some things, particularly how to behave and disagree with one another on the internet.)
Anyway, yesterday he posted a blog on Mere Orthodoxy covering a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently- tribalism and group-think.  I’ve stopped blogging entirely and have mostly been able to keep my big mouth shut on facebook recently in an attempt to not be so combative, but Rishmawy’s newest article (found here) has got me thinking.  This seems like an opportunity to examine our beliefs and why we hold them, as well as looking at the culture we may or may not identify with.

To begin, I really think he is onto something here. Humans are an odd mix of social and stubborn; so it makes some sense that we would adopt the views that surround us, and then fiercely defend those ideas. It’s exhausting (and impossible) to be fully informed on every topic so we tend to find people who we trust on the topics we are educated and passionate about, and eventually trust them on other topics as well. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided we understand that we are doing it and are doing so responsibly.
For example, recently I have realized how unjust and ineffective our Justice system in the US really is. I didn’t discover this by going to prison, but by listening to those who have earned my trust and helped shape my faith in other areas, namely Shane Claiborne, Cornel West, and several members of my small group. I’d like to think I’m not just following the crowd here, but if I’m honest that’s exactly how it started at the very least.

Anyway, the article as a whole is solid and should be read by everybody as it can apply to any group.  However, I think that the part that focuses on seven topics that progressive evangelicals are “toeing the party line on” requires more scrutiny. His intent is not to refute any of these ideas, merely to point them out. (To show my hand, I think his phrasing betrays his intent, but we’ll get to that later.)  I’d like to avoid this turning into a debate on specifically which positions a Christian should hold, and focus instead on how we come to those positions.

I’m going to reproduce the seven points of what Derek has dubbed the “Progressive Evangelical Package”, each followed with my thoughts on it. My hope is that we can start a discussion about to what extent this is happening and how we are a part of it.

Pacifism – Pacifism/non-violence is growing as the default stance of many progressive Christians. Historically, pacifism has not always been linked with progressivism, but there’s a definite presumption against the just-war tradition in progressive circles. This is less likely, though, among those who have a more radical, liberationist streak in them.

This is a view I hold and one I admit is gaining quite a bit of steam, though it’s still pretty far from being ubiquitous even among progressive circles. It’s a hard teaching and not one that somebody adopts flippantly, in my opinion. In addition to that, I’m not sure how “progressive” it is. Pacifism may have gone out of vogue for a time, but it is as rooted in the Christian tradition as anything can be.

Egalitarianism – For most progressive Christians, a complementarian view of marriage or ministry at its best is just patriarchy-lite and contrary to the gospel of equality in Christ. Again, there are exegetical egalitarians who are generally theological conservative, but it’s very rare to find a non-egalitarian progressive, unless they’re Catholic.

Besides the odd dismissal of Catholics, I think this is point is largely true. There are sure to be outliers, but I can’t think of any strictly complementarian progressive Christians that I know personally.  I had never even heard the word ‘egalitarian’ till I was almost 5 years into a functionally egalitarian relationship, so I’ll readily admit that I adopted this cause as I became more theologically progressive.

Arminian/Open Theism/Revised Theisms – Well, I mean, Calvinists are the worst. But really, Reformed or more classic-style doctrines of providence and sovereignty are very much theologia non grata in progressive wings. They are at odds with the kenotic, self-emptying, freedom-gifting God most progressives know. If you cop to any form of it at all, there has to be a huge amount of bending over backwards to downplay, sideline, or distinguish yourself from those Calvinists. In fact, much theological reflection in the camp works by way of contradiction.

This is the beginning of the main problem I have with this article: Describing a very wide spectrum of beliefs as “the party line” seems like inherently faulty reasoning. Perhaps I’m missing something but it seems like Rishmawy’s definition of progressive is essentially “not a Calvinist.” That’s like calling Royals fans “contradictory” because they aren’t Cubs fans. (That’s right- I’ve now made two sports references in the same year!)

Anti-Inerrancy– The rejection of inerrancy is as much a boundary issue for many progressives as the affirmation is for many conservatives. On their view, we don’t need an inerrant Bible. In fact, for many it’s an idolatrous position that gives us a flat text, open to the many anti-science, anti-gay, anti-intellectual approaches to Christian faith we’re struggling against that have killed the faith of a new generation.

Once again, disagreeing with a very specific position is not a position in and of itself. Aside from the many progressives who affirm the doctrine of Inerrancy, I think what progressive evangelicalism has actually accepted on a widespread level is not “anti-inerrancy”, but being honest about doubt. You can now say “I struggle with the violence in the Old Testament”, or “sometimes I doubt my prayers are being heard”, or “Historical CriticismTM” without a church elder showing up at your house with a coffee cake and a face full of concern.

Interpretive Pluralism – Connected to the defeat of inerrancy is a heavy emphasis on interpretive pluralism when it comes to the text of Scripture. I’m not sure which is greeted with more sneers: the doctrine of inerrancy, or the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture (which is usually quite poorly defined.)

I’m honestly not sure what to do with this one, but I think I know what he is referring to. I’d call this the death of unquestionable certainty, and I think it ties in with my previous thought about doubt. If that’s the case, I’d agree that this point is widespread within progressive christian circles. I just hope we aren’t sneering as much as it sounds like. That one is probably on me actually. (Progressives can have a cage stage too sometimes.)

Thoughts?

Anti-Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) – A non-violent, or peace-loving God would not ‘murder his Son’ or buy into the ‘myth of redemptive violence’ or engage in ‘divine child abuse.’ God is like Jesus (in the Sermon on the Mount, on a certain interpretation), so he doesn’t kill. Usually PSA is pitted against a Christus Victor model, though some sort of modified Girardianism seems to be the atonement theology du jour.

This one evokes a combination of my complaints about all the other ones. I’ll abridge:

  • “Everything except what I believe is really just a big rejection of what I believe.”
  • The idea of everybody “jumping on that Girard train to fit in with the cool kids!” is humorous to me.
  • I don’t want this to become all about Calvinism, but Christianity (and atonement) existed before the reformation.
  • …plus the whole paragraph sounds kind of bitter, especially compared to the rest of the article.

Marriage Revisionism – Finally, while most may not yet have accepted the revisionist take on same-sex relationships, struggling with the issue or defaulting to silence is the norm. The Progressive Gospel is radically inclusive, and generally so hyper-egalitarian to the point that an appeal to sexual difference as revealed in creation and clarified in Scripture is increasingly difficult and almost incoherent to make.

I’m not surprised to see this one on here, as it kind of seemed like the point all along, but I find this paragraph actually fairly confusing. “Struggling with the issue” is part of the default progressive evangelical package? Who isn’t struggling with this issue right now? According to the Pew Research Center, even young (political) conservatives are doing more than struggling with this.

Radical inclusion, on the other hand, is something that I feel belongs on this list, as well as a badge I’d wear with honor (or I would if I was actually living it.)

Derek,
All in all, I think that this is a conversation worth having but we need to have it better. As you pointed out, we are so used to the two-party, with-me-or-against-me, right-at-any-cost culture of politics that we don’t know how else to do business. I think you are right about progressives toeing the party line just like everybody else does, while pretending to be the rebels who don’t have any barriers, but I’m not sure you picked the right examples.
Please try again, as you have a perspective on progressive Christian culture that I lack as I’m inside the (admittedly very real) bubble.  Thank you for the way you have tempered my faith without knowing it and for your commitment to a better kind of conversation on the evangelical corners of the internet and the world.

Everybody,
What do you think?
Which positions or beliefs are we as a culture or we as individuals accepting without thinking?
How do we move forward?

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10 thoughts on “Toeing the party line (a response to Derek Rishmawy)

  1. Eric,
    I don’t read Rishmawy, but I happened to stumble across this post earlier today. (Maybe because you commented?) Anyway, I appreciate and resonate with your responses. Some of his descriptions are fairly accurate – at least in my opinion – while the others felt bitter – for the reasons you noted.

    Thanks for your generous spirit.

    • You should, he’s a great writer sometimes and has made me much more tolerant and understanding of Calvinist thought than I was for a long time after leaving it myself.

  2. Eric – I’ve never heard of this term (PSA), and even the description of it in your post, or Derek’s rather, has not ever really occurred to me. Is this something you’ve blogged on before, or is there another source I can familiarize myself with? Thanks!

    • Thanks for reading, but unfortunately I write very infrequently. I only wrote this here to avoid clogging up Derek’s facebook wall, which is where this conversation started. Feel free to check out some of my older posts from when I had more free time and less verbal restraint!

  3. Eric,

    Very briefly, thanks for the gracious response. I’m sure the post needs nuancing some and I’m open to other features. What I will say is that I think you might have missed a couple of my caveats and thereby missed the way the constituents on the list function together. As I said, each of these posiions, on their own, might be held for a number of reasons, some of them in a very conservative framework. What’s more, I said they were hot-button issues. They certainly don’t encompass the broader shared characteristics of progressive Evangelicalism. What I do think is that in the progressive community a number of them are functioning as boundary-markers, “badges” (in Wright’s terminology) of progressive righteousness.

    That’s where positions like “anti-PSA” and “anti-inerrancy” comes in. I know there’s a range of position being lumped together quite unceremoniously. In the community, though, they all have the shared characteristic of rejecting a position that is antithetical to the underlying ethos. In other words, there are various positions here, but it is the rejection of these points that actually functions as the boundary-marker. Does that make more sense?

    And yes, PSA is a bit of sore point as the criticisms on this issue tend to become particularly caricatured and unfair. This is especially the case for those who have adopted a Girardian totalizing hermeneutic. Believe me, I’m seeing it more and more. It’s cooler now than you think! ;)

    Also, minor note, I wasn’t trying to be “dismissive” of Catholics, merely noting that those who seem to be in the progressive Evangelical orbit would differ on this point.

    Thanks again.

    Best,
    D

    • Derek, thank you for your response! I did see your caveats, but still think that the phrasing of the hot-button topics was at odds with the rest of your article. I barely touched on this in my response, but I think the true “progressive evangelical band-wagon” is the abandonment of certainty.
      It’s not that we define ourselves by our rejection of (for example) PSA- but more that we aren’t confident that we aren’t missing something. Most progressives I know still affirm some form of PSA, (in fact, you’ve written some great things about how our patron saint of liberal academia- N.T. Wright, affirms PSA) though we also accept the possibility that God is doing more than just that. It’s not PSA that we largely reject- it’s “Sola PSA.”

      As far as the “anti-PSA” or “anti-inerrancy” crowds, I won’t deny that they exist (particularly within internet communities.) Since many progressives come out of Reformed backgrounds, a lot of the progressives you run into are just freshly-minted liberals who haven’t learned how to say “I don’t know” yet.
      I’m not innocent of this either. I became a Christian later in life and was very outspoken about my Reformed beliefs. As I started to become more progressive I was still very outspoken, but my beliefs were now defined but what they weren’t. This was not a short phase either, though I hope that I’m mostly over it.

      Since I’m now realizing that my post was mostly “anti-your examples” without providing my own concept of what the Progressive Evangelical package consists of- perhaps I haven’t changed as much as I’d like to believe. So here’s my version of what our list should consist of:

      Red Letters– For good or for ill, almost every progressive I know places special emphasis on the words and actions of Jesus. That is the lens through which all of scripture and history is viewed.

      The benefit of doubt– Another part of the package, and one that a lot of people find simultaneously appealing and difficult to adapt to, is the idea that our doubts aren’t sin. This one isn’t just a reaction to Calvinism, as I think doubt in the church has a long tradition of being viewed as a lack of faith.

      Mystery– This one is related to my point above about certainty. I believe this is what lies behind the renewed interest in the desert fathers and mothers. I’ll totally admit to following the herd on this one, I had never even heard of them till a few years ago, as I rarely looked at any non-biblical writings older than the reformation, let alone older than Augustine.

      The Imago Dei– One of the comments under your blog suggested that you add “a tendency to see human nature as good.” I think that comment is actually on the right track to the heart of the matter. We place a lot of importance on humans being made in the image of God, which can certainly lead to us being naive about human nature at times.
      Another way this plays out is in our views on egalitarianism and marriage- as what makes two people more equal than being created by God? As a Calvinist I might have said “Even my good deeds have wicked motives, surely others are the same?” and as a progressive I would say “God has used even my wicked motives to achieve good things, surely He will do the same with others?”

      As a whole, I think it is not specific positions on the hot-button issues or even rejection of the opposing positions that define and guide the progressive evangelical movement, but the worldview that leads to those positions.

      All that aside, I think you’ve struck on an important topic and I hope you continue to do so. We all need the clarity that an outside but interested observer can provide, and that’s something you have proven you can do well. I think you are one of the few voices I know of that has the experiences, education, and patience to stand between the Reformed and progressive portions of the church and remind us all that we are part of the same Church.
      Keep up the good work! Grace and peace,
      eric

  4. Pingback: Reformed(ish), Progressive or catholic?catholic Composing

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