Friday, December 18, 2009

Defacing the gospel with the brown paint of progressive Christianity

Yesterday's controversial billboard of Joseph and Mary in bed became a multi-layered news generator after an as yet unidentified man stood on top of his car and painted brown paint onto the billboard in full view of a TV One news camera. Much as I personally like Glynn Cardy and admire his commitment to exploring the edges of gospel and mission in a secular society, I remain troubled by what he says in explanation of his approach to understanding the gospel. Let me cite these words again,

"To make the news at Christmas it seems a priest just needs to question the literalness of a virgin giving birth. Many in society mistakenly think that to challenge literalism is to challenge the norms of Christianity. What progressive interpretations try to do however is remove the supernatural obfuscation and delve into the deeper spiritual truth of this festival.

Christian fundamentalism believes a supernatural male God who lived above sent his sperm into the womb of the virgin Mary."

We can hardly disagree that making the news at Christmas is possible by questioning the literalness of a virgin giving birth. I think, however, there is a debate to be had about whether many do think the norms of Christianity are challenged by challenging literalism, and what it is that Christian fundamentalism actually believes re the supernatural character of God (I have never ever heard or read of any fundamentalist, Protestant or Roman Catholic, who thinks that Mary's egg was fertilized by God's "sperm". The crude anthropomorphism alleged by Glynn Cardy at this point may be a projection in his mind which does not accord with reality). The deep question raised by the citation above lies in this sentence,

"What progressive interpretations try to do however is remove the supernatural obfuscation and delve into the deeper spiritual truth of this festival."

Here's a problem with this statement which progressive Christianity continually overlooks: the source of the deeper spiritual truth of Christmas is the same source which provides what is here described as 'supernatural obfuscation'. Thus to divide the 'supernatural obfuscation' from the 'deeper spiritual truth' within the source (i.e. Scripture) involves an implicit claim that progressive Christians know more about Jesus and his significance than the gospel writers themselves. Also implicit as well is the claim that the 'supernatural obfuscation' is not necessary for the truth of that significance.

In blunt summary terms, progressive Christianity always proclaims hope for the world on the basis of a God without power to effect actual change, for God did not make Mary pregnant, did not raise Jesus from the dead in a concrete manner (so that, for example, the tomb was emptied of his physical body), and did not impact the world between Jesus' birth and death with miraculous signs of his transformative power at work in the world.

Progressive Christianity spiritualises Jesus and his message while urging his followers to make that message concrete in the world with good deeds to change the world in revolutionary ways. The transformative power of the gospel is its ethical imperative, according to progressive Christianity, not the power of God to make change to the world. Orthodox Christianity is quite different from progressive Christianity at this point because orthodox Christianity accepts the power of God at work in the world: that God makes a virgin pregnant with the body of God's Son growing within her contributes as much to the belief that Jesus Christ is God's Son as the evidence of the deep spiritual unity between Jesus and God as his Abba. Fundamentalism may misconstrue the significance of God's power when it leads to statements such as 'Jesus is God's Son because he had no human father', but it is in fact closer to the spirit of orthodox Christianity than progressive Christianity declaring that belief that Jesus had no human father is 'supernatural obfuscation'.

Progressive Christianity offers a superficial attraction to a world in which many like nothing better than to think that the future of the world lies in our hands: "What can I do to make the world a better place?" receives a ready answer from progressive Christianity. Orthodox Christianity by contrast witnesses to a harder message to accept: "God has done a great work in the world by acting concretely through Jesus Christ to change the world. Entrust your life to God in Christ and allow the same transformative power at work in the Incarnation and the Resurrection to work in your life ... and the world will be changed."

In the end, when all is said and done, progressive Christianity defaces the gospel of Christ with the brown paint of its denial of the historicity of God's supernatural action in and through Christ. According to the NZ Herald St Matthew's-in-the-City is willing to press charges against the man who defaced its billboard, should he be identified. But are not the clerical leaders of St Matthew's themselves in a place where charges of defacement may be pressed against them?


Richard said...

I think there is a deeper issue here. It seems to me that 'progressive Anglicans', to quote their own rather curious name for themselves, have a problem with integrity. "Progressive Anglicans' were presumably ordained in the Anglican church when they would have assented to and affirmed the doctrines of the church, shared in the Creed, and given glory to the Trinity, yet clearly did not believe much of it. I asked an ordained person who would describe himself as a 'progressive Anglican' about this little problem and he affirmed that he indeed did not believe the Creeds or the Trinitarian faith of the church's doctrines, but at his ordinations, had said he did, to 'respect those who did believe'. I have considerable difficulty with 'progressive' people who make such public and serious affirmations in intentional dishonesty. Or perhaps eager work is done on expanding or reducing the meaning of the words to suit the theology...'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

MargaretG said...

I have problems with the underlying assumptions of the billboard -- and not just the assumption that God used a sperm.

Joseph was told by an angel that he was to marry Mary. This billboard seems to assume that God would have left him in a situation where that marriage was inevitably unfulfilling and unhappy. Given that Jesus clearly taught that marriage was intended by God to be for the benefit of humankind this seems at very least an unwarranted assumption.

I think this is a classic case of a "progressive" church doing anything to make itself feel "relevant", and in the process made themselves look like a whole lot of sniggering kids behind the bike shed.

Anonymous said...

I don't know why you use that self-designation "progressive" without speech marks. They seem to be simply extreme religious (rather than secularist) liberals of a Rousseau-esque stripe. I see nothing progressive about that mindset: more a regressive stepping away from the truth than advancing towards it (Lat. progredior).
Mark Steyn ( in the US has picked up on the story and calls it another instance of Anglican despair. "Archdeacon" Cardy should be disciplined for blasphemy and false witness.

Fonofale said...

Very well written opinion. Thanks

Peter Carrell said...

I am happy to go with Glynn's own preference to call himself a progressive Christian!