The Divine Comedy: Week 28, Born to Love (PS. If You're Not Reading Fridays, Start Now!)

Finally! We've arrived at the part of the Purgatorio and The Divine Comedy that I've been really wanting to talk about. The point, really, of why we're spending Fridays with Dante. So if you've checked out on Fridays, check in during the coming weeks.

What I want share is Dante's theology of sin, virtue, and spiritual formation as it is unpacked upon the slopes of Mt. Purgatory. We're going to go slow, building this vision up piece by piece over the next few weeks.

Dante's first move is anthropological. We are, Dante asserts, born to be lovers. As Virgil shares in Canto XVIII:
The soul at birth, created quick to love,
will move toward anything that pleases it,
as soon as pleasure causes it to move. 
This "quickness to love," that we experience first as desire and pleasure, turns the heart and mind toward objects in the world. As Vigil continues:
From what is real your apprehensive power
extracts an image it displays within you,
forcing your mind to be attentive to it;

and if, attentive, it inclines toward this,
that inclination is love...
Love draws us toward the world, toward the objects of our desire. And behind all those desires is the Love that is drawing our loves. Our deepest, truest Desire. We are born to love, and our loves are naturally drawn back toward the Source of Love: God. As Augustine prays, "Our hearts our restless, until they rest in Thee." Virgil uses the image of a flame. Our love burns upward, turning our hearts and minds toward heaven:
Just as a fire's flames always rise up,
inspired by its own nature to ascend,
seeking to be in its own element,

Just so, the captive soul begins its quest,
the spiritual movement of its love,
not resting till the thing loved is enjoyed.
This is such a beautiful anthropology, one of the richest visions of what it means to be a human being I've ever encountered.

We're born to love, quick to love, our hearts, like flames, rising up, seeking and searching upward, not resting until the spiritual movement of our love is enjoyed.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 12, Progressive Christianity or Something Else?

This series could be extended in various ways, but we'll wrap it up right here. Let me gather the posts below so you can share and refer to this series more easily. The posts elucidating what I'm describing as a post-progressive Christianity are:
Part 1: Moving On
Part 2: Reconstruction
Part 3: Church
Part 4: Bible
Part 5: Enchantment
Part 6: Love
Part 7: Salvation
Part 8: Science
Part 9: Sexuality
Part 10: Class
Part 11: Hope
Some of these posts have resonated more that others. Some have been ho-hum, well trod ground, and some more controversial. The posts, good and bad, simply represent locations where I, as a progressive Christian, have had theological concerns with progressive Christianity.

By far the biggest pushback I've gotten about the series is if the label "post-progressive" is really warranted. Readers have argued that many progressive Christians share, if not of all, many of my concerns, and who embrace, if not all, much of the vision I've been articulating.

Have I been picking on a few extreme cases within progressive Christianity and using those bad apples to tar the whole?

We can discuss that point. Are the good apples representing the mainstream of progressive Christianity? Or are the good apples the growing exceptions?

If the good apples are at the heart, and I've been picking on the extreme bad apples, I agree, the label "post-progressive" isn't warranted. These posts, in that instance, would be representative of the mainstream heart of progressive Christianity. That would delight me. In that instance, read the posts like that, as calling the extreme voices back to this healthy place.

But if the good apples are more on the margins, more the exception than the rule, then the mainstream center of progressive Christianity would be looking more problematic and unhealthy to me. In that instance, the label "post-progressive" seems more apt. If only to name something shifting within progressive Christianity, an umbrella label cracking up a bit.

So it seems to me that the landscape of progressive Christianity is a bit of a Rorschach blot right now. We'll each, I expect, read it differently, and depending upon how you read it you'll take my posts as a representative specimen and healthy reminder or as a call toward something moving and afoot.

A quick summary and overview of what I take to be the main points from each post:
Christianity isn't agnostic. Deconstruction must be followed by reconstruction. 

We fight for social justice, but the hope of the world is the church.

The Bible requires a non-violent and liberationist hermeneutic, but it is lovingly and devotionally embraced as the sustaining and startling Word of God.

Christianity is more than being a good person, morally or politically. Christianity is an encounter with the Living God.

Christian love demands more than humanism and tolerance.

Jesus died on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for sin. Salvation involves justice, but it also means you are a sinner saved by grace.

We embrace science, and read our Bibles accordingly, but science doesn't trigger faith crises.

We fiercely embrace the LGBTQ community, but resist modes of advocacy that ignore or stigmatize the graces of incarnation and creation. Love is all we need to fight for justice  and inclusion.

Liberation theology began and will end with this: God has a preferential option for the poor.

In the face of death, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
Now, is this list capturing the pulse of progressive Christianity? Does the list, or much of it, sound like what you're hearing from progressive Christianity on podcasts, blogs, Twitter, and at conferences and from pulpits? Because if this list, or much of it, is being consistently and enthusiastically preached from mainstream progressive Christianity, well, then sign me up! I will happily call myself a progressive Christian.

But if the list above seems a bit off, not what you're seeing and hearing from progressive Christianity, not capturing the pulse, well, maybe the label "post-progressive" is warranted.

And so, the nagging question we carried through the whole series: Is the list above progressive Christianity or something else?

Dear reader, I leave that for you to decide.


Post Script:
If you missed the joke in the picture. It's a post.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 11, Hope

I've written about this topic before, regarding how progressive Christians tend to react in the face of death, from that post with some editing and additional reflections:

Something is happening to how Christians relate to death, especially progressive, liberal Christians.

There's a famous text about death and hope in 1 Thessalonians 4.13:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 
Christians do not grieve in the face of death as others do, Paul says, because Christians have hope in the resurrection. But it seems, more and more, that many progressive Christians are grieving as those who "have no hope."

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.

Why?

First, as I have written about before, the modern world has has drastically changed our relationship with death. Two examples illustrate this. First, our relationship to our food has changed. Rarely to we see or participate in the killing and the blood that brings protein to our tables. Second, modern medicine has made the prospect of living to a ripe old age a real possibility for most of us. For generations in the West life expectancies have been steadily rising. Consequently, any death that comes before our sixties or seventies appears to us as accidental, as if some cosmic agreement between us and God has been broken. In short, modern medicine has caused us to feel entitled in regards to our life span. To die "early" or "prematurely" is now an existential shock, a cosmic effrontery, God reneging on an agreement we felt we had. And this existential shock triggers faith crises, accusations directed toward God about why a person died, especially if they died young.

In short, one reason death is increasingly triggering faith problems--causing us to walk away from God in anger rather than toward God for comfort--is how death is no longer experienced as a regular feature of daily life. Death is now experienced as an intrusive, unexpected shock. Consequently, we've lost a degree of stoic equanimity that our forbears once possessed in the face of death.

But beyond our altered relationship with death, there is a second reason why it seems many progressive Christians are grieving without hope.

Specifically, as this series has repeatedly pointed out, progressive Christians struggle with disenchantment. Many progressive Christians report doubts and skepticism about the supernatural, the miraculous, the spiritual, and the metaphysical aspects of the faith. Experiencing and expressing these doubts is almost a definition of what it means to be a progressive Christian. As Peter Rollins puts it, for these disenchanted Christians "to believe is human to doubt, divine," as Peter Enns puts it, it is sinful to be certain.

Unfortunately, however, belief in the resurrection and heaven are a part of the supernatural, "enchanted" worldview that many progressive Christians have doubts about. Consequently, many progressive Christians are actually grieving without hope because they don't have hope, or at least they entertain serious doubts about the reality of the hope.

In short, pervasive disenchantment among Christians has altered our relationship with death. Doubts about the afterlife have undermined Christian hope. No wonder mentions of heaven are increasingly ineffective, and even insulting.

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.

Another way to describe what is happening is that progressive Christianity is losing or has already lost an eschatological dimension. Doubting the existence of anything "beyond" time and space, progressive Christianity focuses its attention upon this world without remainder. Salvation and restoration have to occur within history or it will not happen at all.

To be sure, this "this-worldy" vision of salvation motivates social and political activism, but it struggles mightily to say anything hopeful in the face of death, or about other aspects of restoration (or failed restoration) that requires an eschatological aspect, a new heavens and a new earth.

In summary, lacking an eschatological aspect progressive Christianity cannot articulate a theology of hope, politically or in the personal experience of death.

And so, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe "other-worldly" consolations, especially facile and too-quick-and-easy consolations, in the face of death and failed politics can discount our pain in the face of loss and sap the energy of political engagement. Death and failed politics requires hard lament.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe that Christianity must be driven by a "theology of hope," rooted eschatological expectations for a "new heavens and a new earth," that consoles and comforts us in the face of hard lament and gives us confidence and patience in the face of political failure.  

Post-Pogressive Christianity: Part 10, Class

I won't rehash it all here, but there's been a lot of commentary about how liberal politics has shifted over the last twenty years. Painting with a broad brush, classic liberalism focused on issues of class, about wealth and its uneven distribution. However, since the '90s liberalism has shifted away from class to focus more on identity, with a particular focus on race, sexuality and gender.

In fact, I'd argue that the change of labels from "liberal" to "progressive" reflects this change. The label "liberal" hearkens back to the days when the Democratic Party was the party of the blue collar working class, the party aligned with organized labor. The ascendant label of "progressive," however, points less to labor than to a greater focus on issues of race (e.g., support for Black Lives Matter) and sexuality/gender (e.g., advocacy for the LGTBQ community).

To be clear, this is not a hard and fast distinction. Classic liberals have always pushed for racial justice and have advocated for gay and transgender rights. Conversely, progressives care hugely about economic inequality. However, there has been a shift away from class to identity on the political left which has created conflict.

If you'd like an illustration of this divide go back to the 2016 Democratic primary and ask why Black Lives Matter protested Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton. As Vox explained at the time, Sanders was acting as a liberal, focusing on economics, while Black Lives Matter was progressive, focusing on race. From Vox:
The activists didn't feel that Sanders — and, just as importantly, his supporters — are keeping racial justice front and center. Sanders has become a progressive hero for his economic populism, but at the beginning of his campaign he talked about racial inequality, if at all, as a symptom of economic inequality.

To Black Lives Matter activists and sympathizers, who've spent the last year or more calling attention to the deaths of young black men and women (many at the hands of police), Sanders's attitude toward race was all too familiar: Generations of white progressives have kept economic issues at the center of progressivism and issues that affect mostly nonwhites at the margins. They've challenged Sanders to make racism and mass incarceration as important to his campaign as Social Security.
For a longer meditation on this clash between class and identity on the political left, see also Mark Lilla's book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

To be sure, these are troubled waters as many class-focused liberals (like Lilla) have criticized the identity-focused progressives for opening the door for Trump's economic populism, which gave Trump a boost in Rust Belt states in 2016, traditional bastions of organized labor. Obviously, progressives don't appreciate being blamed for Trump, and since many classical liberals are white men (see, for example, Bernie Sanders and Mark Lilla) the accusations are doubly galling.

All that to say, this class vs. identity clash is a real thing that does divide the political left. I don't think I'm making this contrast up.

Which brings me to my post-progressive shift.

As progressive, I applaud the rise of intersectional analysis, bringing into view the interlocking and intersecting matrix of oppression, how oppressions related to race, sexuality, class, and gender "stack up" and reinforce each other. Truly, oppression is a multi-headed hydra.

And yet, as a post-progressive I contend that class has far too often been left out of the intersectional conversation. More, I would argue that when it comes to resisting the matrix of oppression economic justice is by far the greatest route to liberation and emancipation. Racial bias and animus is almost impossible to banish from the human heart, no matter how often you tell white people to "check their privilege," but economic reparations is something that can help move us in the right direction. Sexism will likely always be found in the workplace, no matter how many HR sensitivity trainings we make people attend. In the meantime, given the wage gap between men and women, we can fight for strengthening our equal pay laws.

My point here is that, by ignoring class and focusing so much on identity, progressives often falter or sputter when it comes to concrete policy recommendations. And let me push even harder here. Many progressives decry moral solutions to address systemic injustices. And yet, when you look at what many progressive recommend by way of justice they tend to recommend what they object to: Moral imperatives to solve systemic problems. For example, the frequent calls to "check your privilege," "educate yourself," "be a better ally," or "stand in solidarity" are moral imperatives rather than systemic policy fixes. Shifting focus to economics may look like you're taking your eye off the intersectional ball, but I'm convinced that economic justice is the quickest, most effective, and most direct path toward empowerment for all oppressed groups.

To be clear, this isn't to say we reconcile ourselves to prejudice and bias in the world, just the simple observation that prejudice and bias dwell in the human heart. Prejudice and bias are moral problems that require moral solutions. We call this in the industry "repentance." No policy or systemic fix can forcibly reach into the human heart to change it. 

Let me also shift gears to raise another point. Many diverse progressive spaces are often very homogeneous when it comes to class. I once heard a progressive Christian author, an expert on race and a racial minority himself, confess and lament how he attended a very multiethic and multiracial church, but that the church was very homogeneous when it came to educational level and income. I've been to a lot of diverse, progressive churches who are very homogeneous when it comes to class. It's a huge progressive blind spot. Two people of different races or sexual orientations can quickly find lots of things in common when they are wealthy and share graduate degrees compared to two people of the same race or sexual orientation who are from very different economic strata.

And lastly, on another different note, a focus on class brings us closer to the imagination of Jesus. As has been pointed out a million times, Jesus talked about money more than anything else. According to Jesus, liberation theology begins with economic inequality. Woe to the rich, Jesus preached, and blessed are the poor. 

And so, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe there is a intersectional matrix of oppression at work across race, sex, gender, age, and class. Liberation work must focus upon all these vectors of power, oppression, and privilege.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe the reigning intersectional consensus at work among progressive Christians has tended to ignore or marginalize the role of class and economic inequality. Taking our cue from Jesus, we should restore and privilege the role of class and economics in justice work, not at the expense of identity, but as the systemic lever that is the most concrete, practical, effective, and direct route to justice and emancipation for all oppressed groups.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 9, Sexuality

My guess is that this will likely be the most provocative post of this series as I'll be wading into some troubled waters.

Perhaps the most obvious moral/political contrast between progressive Christianity and evangelical Christianity is in the progressive acceptance and embrace of LGBTQ persons. For post-evangelicals, their journey into progressive Christianity is often triggered by a change in their attitudes toward the LGBTQ community, a journey from exclusion to embrace.

As a post-progressive, I also embrace the LGBTQ community. And yet, as a post-progressive I have some concerns with how the case for this inclusion is sometimes argued among progressive Christians.

Because cisgendered heterosexuality is rooted in a statistical biological norm within the human species (more on that in a minute), it has become a moral norm within many human cultures. And that moral norm has been used to oppress and stigmatize sexual minorities.

Now, wanting to undermine that moral norm, as a location of oppression, many within progressive Christian circles push to undermine or deny the biological norm. When careful, progressive Christians hold to the distinctions between sex and gender. Sex is biological, rooted in our genes and their phenotypic expressions (e.g., primary and secondary sexual characteristics like genitalia and reproductive anatomy). Gender, by contrast, is a social construction, cultural norms and expectations about what is or is not appropriate for sexed persons.

By "biological norm" I simply mean the biological complementarity between genotype and phenotype (primary and secondary sexual/reproductive characteristics) necessary for human  reproduction. For example, it's a "biological norm" that humans have two kidneys, though not everyone does (1 in every 750 people is born with only one kidney).  

Again, when careful, progressive Christians police the sex/gender, biology/culture, distinctions. But in my opinion, progressive Christians are increasingly less careful, leading to my post-progressive stance on this issue.

Specifically, the progressive rejection of a "gender binary" (e.g., cultural norms governing roles and  behavior for sexed persons), is increasingly sliding into a denial and/or stigmatization of the "sexual binary" at the heart of human reproduction. This rejection of the genetic and phenotypic complementarity involved in human reproduction generally manifests in the shaming of or moralizing cisgender heterosexuality, and sometimes manifests in an outright denial of biological facts.

Let me be clear, I appreciate the social justice goals behind these efforts. Again, as a post-progressive I applaud efforts to embrace the LGBTQ community. And yet, I find this particular trend within progressive Christianity--undermining, stigmatizing, or denying the biological complementarity at the heart of human reproduction--to be very problematic. As a post-progressive Christian, I think we can get to the moral position we want to get to without denying some very obvious facts about human biology, sexuality, and reproduction.

Let me say this bluntly, I think there's some science denialism at work within progressive Christianity, similar to what we see within evangelicalism. Reproductive biology for many progressive Christians is similar to climate science for evangelicals. For both groups, facts are denied in order to support a moral/political agenda.

Now, a quick comeback response to this observation about genotypic and phenotypic biological complementarity is this: What about intersex persons? Doesn't the existence of intersex persons undermine any claim for "biological norms"?

This common objection regarding intersex persons reveals the degree of scientific illiteracy (and denialism) at work in progressive circles. Again, it is akin to climate change denialism within evangelicalism. Specifically, normativity is a statistical concept regarding the distribution and frequency of observations. Think of the bell curve. You can't draw an observation from the tail end of the bell curve and use that observation to deny the existence of the bell curve. That's like an evangelical Christian looking at snow falling and saying, "See, there's no global warming!" A statistically infrequent phenomenon doesn't change the distributional realities. Normativity, as a statistical, distributional concept, doesn't mean universal, holding in every single instance. A cold winter day doesn't change the distributional climate data. A person born with a single kidney isn't an argument that the great majority us don't have two. And neither do intersex persons change the statistical frequencies of XX and XY genotypes and phenotypes within the general population, that the majority of the population is biologically/sexually born male or female. 

Now, it's at this point where we can launch into a long and complicated conversation about three huge, complex and interrelated issues: nature vs. nurture (e.g., the impact of environment upon phenotypic expression), the impact of culture on sex and gender, and the fact that there is significant statistical and cultural variability in gender expression, sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and cultural norms regulating sexual ethics and family structure. Issues, concerns, objections, and questions can be raised all over the place, but I can't and won't chase down, qualify, and nuance everything I've said or am about to say. I know there's a lot to talk about and debate, but I don't want push this post into TL;DR territory.

So let me just say this: The genotype/phenotype complementarity necessary for human biological reproduction generally (i.e, statistically) produces the psychological and behavioral expressions we label "cisgender" and "heterosexuality." That is to say, the phenotypic expressions we label "male" and "female" correspond to an underlying genetic complementarity that makes human reproduction possible, behaviorally (e.g., sexual desire), anatomically (e.g., genitalia), and chromosomally (e.g., sperm and egg cells). In short, cisgender heterosexuality is rooted in a biological norm of genotype/phenotype complementarity.

Given the state of the conversation today about gender and sexuality, it seems risky to say something like that, something that seems so factual obvious, that men and women, sexually speaking, have intercourse to create babies. Across the vast expanse of human history, the vast majority of us--gay, straight, cisgender, transgender, intersex, and on and on, from drag queens to Southern Baptist pastors--came into existence because a XX human had sexual intercourse with a XY human. We call this in biological sciences "human reproduction." You can look it up, it's a real thing.

All that to say this: To ignore, question, or doubt that biological/sexual complementarity, in both its genotypic and phenotypic expressions, sits at the absolute heart of human reproduction and sexuality borders on the delusional. Again, it's akin to science denialism.

Now the worry, again, the reason why people flirt with delusion, is because these obvious biological facts are leveraged for moral and political ends. The very word "norm" makes us queasy because it implies there's an "abnormal," and it's a short train ride from "abnormal" to diseased, pathological and sinful. I get that, I really do. I see the concern that admitting to biological realities gives too much of the cultural argument away. Granting the facts, it seems, is too risky and dangerous an admission.

But there is a cost to ignoring or stigmatizing the facts. In debates you come across as crazy rather than reasonable, making it hard to persuade people. I think there are better ways to make the argument for the church to embrace LGBTQ persons than denying or stigmatizing biological facts. For example, if God knows your name and the number of hairs on your head then God cares about your unique particularity. God doesn't just love "the majority," "the norm," and all those within a standard deviation of the mean on the bell curve. God loves you, in all your one-of-a-kind statistical uniqueness, genetics included. In some metric or another, we're all "abnormal" to some degree. And that "abnormality" doesn't affect God's love for us one whit.

See? We can make good theological arguments admitting and using the statistical and biological facts. We don't need to deny the obvious. The existence, say, of intersex persons doesn't refute the factual reality that genetic and phenotypic complementarity is the biological, reproductive norm. And the existence of a biological, reproductive norm doesn't refute the fact that every particular instance of God's very good, originally blessed creation, such as an intersex person, is loved by God exactly as they are, in their uniqueness. Statistical frequency is never evidence for or against divine favor or disfavor. If anything, all through the Bible we find God loving the tail ends of the distribution, the edges, the leftovers, the margins, the remnant. God leaves the ninety nine sheep to find the one. God doesn't love according to the bell curve.

But beyond looking delusional, there's another risk of denying or stigmatizing the reality of biological complementarity, and it goes to the heart of this post. Again, across the vast expanse of human history the vast majority of us came into existence because, in the words of Genesis, God created them "male and female" and said to them "be fruitful and multiply." This creational and incarnational grace brought us into existence, gave us life. And to deny, discount, demean, shame, stigmatize or demonize this grace does great damage to our theologies of creation and incarnation. To demonize the grace that gave us life is, I would argue, edging very close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit. I think it's possible to say "Thank You" to this grace while still fighting for social justice for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. It's as simple as calling home on Mother's Day.

And even if our evangelical parents rejected us because our sexual orientation or gender expression, there's still gratitude to God for the sperm and egg biology that gave us life. 

To be clear, this is not to say that the creational and incarnational grace that gave us life hasn't been used to hurt, marginalize and kill sexual minorities. Those texts in Genesis have been used as weapons. And that is also blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, taking the good and making it evil. Genetic complementarity along with its cisgendered heterosexual phenotypic expressions has been and is used to justify evil against LGBTQ persons. That evil needs to be fought and resisted. Lives are a stake.

And yet, shaming cisgender heterosexuality as "problematic" is a very poor tactic, scientifically and theologically. Scientifically, you come across as delusional, as denying some very obvious biological facts necessary for human reproduction. And theologically, you demonize the creational and incarnational grace that gives us life. So in my opinion, I think there are better arguments for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church.

And so, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I fiercely embrace my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe that any vision of sexuality that denies or shames the biological complementarity involved in human reproduction is an example of science denialism and does great damage to our theologies of creation and incarnation. I reject a Christianity that cannot say a joyful "Thank You" in celebrating the creational and incarnational grace that gives us life.

The Divine Comedy: Week 27, The Seven Deadly Sins

Virgil and the Pilgrim finally enter Purgatory. And as the Pilgrim enters, the angelic gatekeeper cuts marks on the Pilgrim's forehead with his sword:
Then with his sword he traced upon my brow
the scars of seven P's. "Once entered here,
be sure you cleanse away these wounds," he said.
The letter P stands for the Latin word peccatum, which means "sin." The seven P's on the Pilgrim's forehead, as we'll soon see, stand for the Seven Deadly Sins. Each terrace of Mt. Purgatory is devoted to the purgation of one of these sins. Upon leaving each terrace, as the Pilgrim moves upward toward heaven, a P is removed from his forehead, symbolizing the cleansing of that particular sin. When the Pilgrim reaches the top, all his sins will have been cleansed, no more P's left upon his forehead.

In the posts to come we'll dig into the rich theology behind how Dante structures and envisions the Seven Deadly Sins. In my opinion, this moral theology is the crown jewel of The Divine Comedy. There's so much more going on than a listing of seven naughty things people might do. Dante's theology of sin and virtue will occupy us shortly.

But for today, what are the Seven Deadly Sins? If you're Protestant, you might not be able to tick these off as expertly as a Catholic. The Seven Deadly Sins are, in the order the Pilgrim will encounter them on Mt. Purgatory:
Terrace 1: Pride
Terrace 2: Envy
Terrace 3: Wrath
Terrace 4: Sloth
Terrace 5: Greed
Terrace 6: Gluttony
Terrace 7: Lust  
What's interesting is that the list here is theological. It's not a list that we find in the Bible, though you can gather illustrations and admonitions for each from the Bible. This list came about pretty quickly, originating with the desert father Evagrius the Solitary (345–399 AD), who described eight evil thoughts that could assault the contemplative. The list went on to feature prominently in Catholic moral teaching. And Dante is an example of this.

One fanciful way to communicate the Seven Deadly Sins was to associate them with animal prototypes, likely helpful in teaching children. One mapping of animal/sin associations, though there are others:
Toad = Greed
Snake = Envy
Lion = Wrath
Snail = Sloth
Pig = Gluttony
Goat = Lust
Peacock = Pride

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 8, Science

By and large, progressive Christians have a high view of science. For post-evangelical progressives, their embrace of science was one of the triggers that caused them to leave behind the flat, literal readings of the Bible, Genesis in particular, common within evangelicalism.

As a post-progressive, I agree with this, I also have a very high view of science. And science does affect how I read the Bible.

But that said, my take is that science does more to progressive Christians than just affect their hermeneutics. Science plays a huge part in producing the disenchantment and doubt ascendant in progressive Christian circles. Their strong, positive, enthusiastic embrace of science causes many progressive Christians to doubt basic tenets of the Christian faith, from the resurrection of Jesus to the existence of God.

In short, among progressive Christians, science regularly bullies, intimates, and pushes faith around.

But for my part, as I've journeyed into a post-progressive Christianity, my attitude toward science has changed drastically.

That change can be summed up in an attitude. Faith has nothing to apologize for in the face of science. If anything, faith pushes science around.

I appreciate science, and stand in awe at what it has accomplished. I am deeply grateful for what science has done to eliminate pain and suffering in our world. And yet, when it comes to the deepest things, the parts of life that make us deeply and fully human, science just falls silent. And it's in those spaces and places where science steps aside and faith takes center stage. Human life, truly human life, requires meaning, morality and metaphysics. And science can't help with any of that. If anything, science erodes all of it. Drill down deeper and deeper into the equations and laws of physics the more devoid of meaning, morality and metaphysics the world becomes. The products of science are life-giving, yes, but science itself, as a guide to what's true, beautiful and good? It's anti-human.

To be clear, I do think there are many progressive Christians who, as progressives, are growing more confident in letting faith push science around. But it's not the most common move.

And so, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I fully embrace the fruits and findings of science and happily work to reconcile the Bible with those fruits and findings.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that science does not trigger doubt or skepticism about God or the metaphysical aspects of the Christian faith. In fact, when it comes to what makes us fully human and alive, how we should live and make beauty and meaning, when we arrive to face the deepest, most important things in life, it is science that steps aside as faith steps into the spotlight.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 7, Salvation

I'll just come right out and say it, but progressive Christians seem to be very confused when it comes to salvation.

On the one hand, because of its inclusive, tolerant, liberal, and humanistic approach to the world, progressive Christianity has a difficult time envisioning the world as "lost." And if no one is lost, there's no need for salvation. By and large, progressive Christianity doesn't know what to do with texts like Col. 1.13: "For he has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son." Progressive Christians don't like to see the world as "the kingdom of darkness" ruled over by Satan (2 Cor. 4.4). The world is understood to already be loved and in a state of grace. And while I agree with that, when that notion isn't nuanced it leads to the conclusion that we're already saved and require no rescuing. And again, where no one is lost or in bondage no one needs saving.

A related problem here is how progressive Christians struggle with Jesus' death on the cross as a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice. To be clear, there are visions of the atonement that are highly problematic. For example, when atonement is viewed through a penal, forensic lens. I think progressive Christians are justified in raising serious objections to penal substitutionary atonement. That said, the biblical witness is clear that Jesus' death on the cross was both substitutionary and atoning. Because of Jesus' death our sins have been forgiven. Our guilt has been dealt with. We have been given the gift of grace. Because of his wounds we have been healed.

But on the other hand, it's not like progressive Christians ignore the cross. Progressive Christianity does have a vision of salvation.

Specifically, the progressive Christian view of Jesus' death is that Jesus is a moral exemplar. Jesus shows us how to love, and if we love the way he loved that will save us. Loving like Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth just as it is in heaven.

The trouble with that idea, if left unqualified, is that salvation is wholly up to us. According to progressive Christianity, we have to save ourselves. We have to love like Jesus and restore justice on the earth. If we do that, we'll be saved. If we don't, we'll be damned. Beyond pointing us in the right direction, God is irrelevant to this vision of salvation. It's all on us.

All told, then, the progressive Christian vision of salvation is a confusing stew. On the one hand, progressives don't like to talk about sin, guilt, and shame. Sermons about God's judgment are pretty rare in progressive Christian circles. Progressive Christianity gets dinged all the time for never talking about sin. And if you're never talking about sin you're never talking about salvation. Relatedly, progressive Christians aren't all that evangelistic. They don't think their neighbors are lost, not in any way that would motivate them to share Jesus with them.

And yet, progressive Christianity does preach a vision of salvation. Salvation comes to us when we seek social justice.

But without grace and atonement the pursuit of social justice tips into darkness. Salvation becomes the Revolution, and the Revolution will always end in blood. Grace is the only thing that can save social justice. Knowing that we ourselves are forgiven sinners is the only thing that keeps our pursuit of justice human and humane.

And so, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe that salvation in inherently political, social, and economic, that salvation involves, in the words of Jesus, release of the captives and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4.18).

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe that we are all sinners in dire need of grace. Every one of us is lost and trapped within "the kingdom of darkness." And not just politically, but emotionally, spiritually, and metaphysically. I believe that our sins have been forgiven and that grace comes to us in the substitutionary and atoning sacrifice of Jesus' death on the cross. And I believe that the grace and mercy we receive in Jesus is the only thing that can keep the pursuit of justice on earth free from darkness and blood.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 6, Love

The moral default of progressive Christianity is liberal humanism. That is to say, progressive Christianity prizes tolerance and inclusion. Progressive Christianity generally adopts a non-judgmental posture toward the world. By and large, in contrast to evangelical and conservative Christianity, the ethic of progressive Christianity tends toward the permissive.

As a post-progressive Christian, I highly prize tolerance. Where many evangelical Christians see liberal humanism as a great enemy, I tend to see it as one of the great moral advances in human history. It's hard not to read a book like Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature and not come to the conclusion that the liberal values of the Enlightenment have had a salutary effect upon human moral development. Tolerance toward our neighbors and acceptance of their differences, especially in an increasingly pluralistic world, are vital aspects for creating a more just and peaceful world.

And yet, tolerance is a far cry from the sacrificial, cruciform love that sits at the heart of the Christian ethical vision. Christian notions of agape demand a bit more than "I'm okay and you're okay."

There are many contrasts I could make between love and tolerance, but let me focus on one in particular. Specifically, the Christian vision of love involves love for our enemies. Jesus, from the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6.27-29, 35-36):
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.

Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked."
That's a wee bit more than tolerance! And few of us, progressive or conservative, are eager to sign up for that sort of lifestyle. This is why I described Christian love as cruciform. Christian love is cross-shaped. And few of us are eager to carry the cross. I know I'm not.

All that to say, progressive Christians, because they preach inclusion and tolerance, tend to see themselves as lovers in contrast to their more judgmental evangelical counterparts. And in the eyes of the world, yes, progressive Christians are more tolerant and inclusive, more likely to welcome the "sinners" who are shunned by evangelical churches.

And yet, when it comes to cruciform love, loving our enemies, progressive Christians are no more loving than evangelical Christians. That's a hard thing to say, but are progressive Christians doing a better job at loving the people they consider wicked? As we are all well aware, there is an intolerance associated with tolerance, and this intolerance has left its mark upon how love is expressed with progressive Christianity, although many try valiantly to resist this influence. The sad irony is that an ideal of tolerance simply creates a new definition of "evil." And once that "evil" group is identified, it becomes really hard to love them. In fact, it's downright immoral to love them. Spend ten minutes on progressive Christian Twitter and you'll see what I'm talking about. Tolerance also tends toward demonization and dehumanization. In the end, even humanists are haters.

So, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe the inclusion and tolerance preached by liberal humanism has been one of the great moral advances in human history, values that should be embraced and preached within the Christian community. Humanism is our friend, not our enemy.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe that the Christian ethic of love involves much more than tolerance, and that progressive Christianity and liberal humanists struggle to love as much as everyone struggles. We're all haters. The call to be kind to the evil and wicked, for both progressives and evangelicals, is a message that remains as hard, foolish, seemingly immoral, and counter-cultural as when Jesus first taught it. Consequently, no progressive Christian can preach cruciform love on social media without being mobbed. If Jesus were on Twitter, he'd be crucified.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 5, 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.

Again, as a post-progressive Christian I am sympathetic to these disenchanted understandings of Christianity. During a season of deconstruction these disenchanted understandings are very helpful. They make the burden of belief lighter for the doubting believer. An excellent example of this method is "Science Mike" McHargue's book Finding God in the Waves, a book that has been a lifeline for many Christians who are struggling with faith. Mike's strategy in the book is to give a disenchanted definition and description for a variety of Christian beliefs and practices. Mike doesn't want to wholly reduce faith to this bare, disenchanted minimum, but uses the disenchanted understandings to lay a foundation upon which faith might be rebuilt.

And yet, while I'm sympathetic to disenchanted visions and understandings of Christianity, especially during seasons of deconstruction, I'm increasingly skeptical that a wholly disenchanted Christianity is sustainable. As mentioned in Part 2, 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. Like believing in God, for example. The death of God theologians might disagree with me on this point, but if the point of Christianity is atheism, as they'd argue, I think I'll rest my case.

Basically, the point I'm making here is similar to my observations in Part 2, that deconstruction must be followed by reconstruction. In this case, disenchantment must be followed by re-enchantment.

Now I will admit that this is tricky business. How does a doubting, skeptical believer bring himself or herself to believe again in supernatural and metaphysical realities?

My recommendation here is to focus less upon belief as intellectual assent, as propositions to be asserted, than upon the emotional, experiential, behavioral, social and aesthetic aspects of faith. We believe with our bodies, hearts, habits, and relationships as well as with our minds. We can re-enchant through art, rituals, and practices. We can dance rather than think. Faith is also carried by the community and the tradition. We can believe for each other.

All that to say, I think there are some things we can do to bring enchantment back into life and faith.

So, the contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe that disenchanted visions of Christianity are important for struggling, doubting Christians and are vital understandings in efforts to resist overly spiritualized and escapist visions of Christianity.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe a wholly disenchanted Christianity eventually dilutes and destroys faith. Consequently, disenchanted Christians must be actively and energetically engaged in efforts to re-enchant their faith.

The Divine Comedy: Week 26, The Three Steps of Repentance

After encountering the angelic gatekeeper in Canto IX of Purgatorio, the Pilgrim must ascend three steps to finally enter Purgatory.

Each step is different. The first step is polished white marble. The second step is black and crumbling. And the third step is a vibrant red, like fire or blood.

Commentators tend to associate the three steps with the three stages of repentance. The polished, mirror-like first step represents self-examination. The black and crumbling second step represents grief and sorrow for sin. And the final, flame-red step represents penance and purgation.

Examen.

Sorrow.

Penance.

These are the three steps into Purgatory, the three steps of repentance, the preliminary requirements that set up the purification that is to follow as the Pilgrim ascends the mountain.

In my daily prayer discipline, I struggle with that first step, examen. I dutifully pray the Evening Office, but I don't regularly take the time to add the prayer of examen, going back over the day and meditating on consolations and desolations, where I drew close to God and where I moved away from God. Because of this, I think my prayers don't impact me as much as they should, from a spiritual formation perspective.

All that to say, this bit of the Divine Comedy reminded me how important it is to take that first step of self-examination. Nothing changes if you don't take the time to look closely at yourself.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 4, The Bible

As I described in Part 2, progressive Christians have a fraught relationship with the Bible. During the post-evangelical season of deconstruction the Bible looms large as a faith challenge.

There are two main challenges:

First, there's a lot of violence in the Old Testament that seems to be sanctioned by God. The herem texts are the key area of concern, the texts where during the conquest of Canaan God commands the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the conquered towns.

A related concern here is how violence is implicated in the atonement, in Jesus' death on the cross. Why does salvation require a killing?

Second, the ethical witness of the Bible on the issues of slavery, gender and sexuality, if read in a flat, literal way, is problematic for many progressive Christians.

Consequently, progressive Christians spend a lot of time struggling with the Bible, devoting great energy on hermeneutical approaches that allow them to read the Bible non-violently and in a way that supports a liberal, humanistic ethical vision.

As a post-progressive, I agree with all this. I read the Bible non-violently and from a liberationist perspective (as good news for the oppressed and marginalized). That said, as a post-progressive I have concerns with how progressive Christians approach and handle the Bible.

First, many progressive Christians are biblically fragile. Almost every page of the Bible triggers a faith crisis, every Bible study getting stuck on what is "problematic." The Word of God isn't enjoyed as a location of delight and joy. The Bible isn't a daily source of life, comfort, and sustenance.

Second, because they are so biblically fragile, progressive Christians focus so much on hermeneutics--ways to read the Bible progressively--that they are prone toward idolatry. Put bluntly, progressives don't read the Bible much because they already know what the Bible is supposed to say. God is always being judged, criticized, and indicted by a progressive moral vision. Progressive Christians believe in morality rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And when that happens the Bible is thoroughly tamed and captured by the progressive moral and political imagination. The Word of God is stuffed into a progressive moral box and is not free to startle, surprise, challenge, criticize, indict, unsettle, disturb and interrupt us.

And so...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I read the Bible non-violently and as a word of good news for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe the Bible must be a devotional source of comfort, joy, delight, and spiritual sustenance. Daily devotional reading and Bible study are vital spiritual practices and disciplines. From a prophetic aspect, while I still have questions and concerns about the Bible, as a post-progressive I spend less time questioning the Bible and more time letting the Bible question me.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 3, Church

As I mentioned in my last post, progressive Christianity is associated with progressive politics and social justice activism.

This impulse is rooted in the Old and New Testament prophetic traditions. The Hebrew prophets ("Let justice roll down like a river!"), Mary's Magnificat ("He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty."), and Jesus' Nazareth Manifesto ("He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.") are all examples. Building upon these biblical foundations, liberation theology is a dominant impulse within progressive Christianity.

Because of this, progressive Christianity focuses a great deal upon oppressive politics and economic systems. Activism, in various forms, is used to change these unjust systems. Consequently, progressive Christianity is very focused upon controlling and changing the state. As is often pointed out in progressive Christian circles, we must do this work because lives are at stake.

And yet, because of this focus on social justice, progressive Christianity is tempted to reduce to and equate itself with progressive political activism. By and large, progressive Christians don't have much to say or offer that isn't already being said by progressive activists. There is very little, if any, daylight between Progressive Christianity and the Democratic Party (in its traditional or most progressive stances) on any political or economic issue.

As a post-progressive, this situation is worrisome for three interrelated reasons.

First, when equated with political action--control of the state--progressive Christianity is reduced to the science of power. And as important as power is, power alone cannot save the world.

Second, when reduced to progressive political activism progressive Christianity loses its prophetic capacity to criticize the political left when it falls short of the kingdom of God. Some of this is the loss of a theological capacity, the inability to see any daylight between the kingdom of God and progressive polices. Some of this is the loss of a moral capacity to love our enemies as the political struggle tempts us to demonize and dehumanize political opponents. And some of this is a loss of courage, failing to speak out prophetically to secular progressives for fear of the social media backlash. 

Third, when reduced to political action progressive Christianity turns toward the state rather than the church as the hope of the world. For many progressive Christians, the church is irrelevant. In the end, our actions, passions, focus and energies speak louder than our words: We believe Babylon will save us.

So, another contrast...

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that Christians must prioritize social justice, seeking to reform and resist policies and economies that oppress, harm, and exclude. Lives are at stake.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN in that I believe that the kingdom of God cannot be reduced to grasping and wielding the power of the nation state. Lives are at stake, but Babylon will not save us. I believe the kingdom of God speaks prophetic words of rebuke to the political right and left. I believe that the church, rather than the outcome of a presidential election, is the hope of the world, and the investments of my energy, time, emotions, and resources reflect that conviction.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 2, Reconstruction

The label "progressive Christianity" is vague. I hope to offer some clarity regarding that label as this series goes on. Today gets started on that work.

Some of the confusion is how post-evangelicals get lumped in with mainline Protestants under the umbrella "progressive Christianity." Both groups are "progressive" in two main ways.

First, both groups tend to adopt a demythologized reading of the Bible. Compare, for example, Rob Bell's post-evangelical What Is the Bible? with the books of John Shelby Spong from a mainline perspective. Lots of convergence between how post-evangelicals and mainline Protestants read the Bible.

A second way post-evangelicals and mainline Protestants overlap is in how they embrace Democratic Party policies along with social justice activism. Both groups tend to be politically progressive.

Those comparisons made, there is one place where a contrast can be made between post-evangelicals and mainline Protestants.

Given that they come out of evangelicalism, post-evangelicals by and large go on a spiritual journey often described as "deconstruction." As noted above, this journey tends to involve two big things: a hermeneutical change (how we read the Bible) coupled with a political change (a shift towards progressive politics and social justice activism). The hermeneutical and political changes tend to go hand in hand, each fueling the other.

This change is described as "deconstruction" as previously held evangelical beliefs are questioned and dismantled. For example, literal readings of the Bible are questioned in the face of science, patriarchal gender roles are criticized as being oppressive, and sexual minorities are fully embraced and included. This season of questioning and change is both destabilizing and exhilarating. It can also be heartbreaking as one experiences rejection from evangelical families and faith communities. Many post-evangelical memoirs document the highs and lows of this journey. For example, see Rachel Held Evan's Faith Unraveled and Searching for Sunday.   

By and large, cradle mainliners don't have or share these stories of deconstruction. Cradle mainliners have always been "liberal" and "progressive," so they lack the scars and stories of emerging out of evangelicalism. There hasn't been a season of "deconstruction."

I've gone into these contrasts to set up my first progressive vs. post-progressive contrast. I want to be clear that when I talk about deconstruction in the progressive Christian experience I'm talking mainly about the post-evangelical side of that group. That said, on to the contrast...

For post-evangelical progressives deconstruction is such a defining, seismic, earth-shattering, and paradigm-shifting experience that deconstruction has become the spiritual foundation and defining impulse within the post-evangelical experience. And this has become problematic for two reasons.

First, deconstruction continues to make evangelicalism the frame of reference, making post-evangelicalism a Christianity of negation, a faith defined by what you reject and don't believe in. This creates the unlovely scene on social media where post-evangelicals spend most of their time talking and tweeting about what's going on with evangelicals rather than about what's going on with Jesus. Post-evangelicals are stuck in a posture of negation and critique.

That fuels a second problem. Doubting and questioning are critical tools during a season of deconstruction. As Peter Enn's puts it, to be certain is sinful. Peter Rollins describes his pyrotheology as inherently destructive, a theology that burns old dogmas and convictions to the ground.

The trouble with all this, speaking as a post-progressive, is that a faith that becomes stuck in a posture of negation, critique, and doubt is not a sustainable Christianity for the long faithfulness required to carry faith through the lifespan. To be sure, there are some who are able to maintain this posture over the decades, but the general course is to either lose your faith or to practice a faith that is functionally atheistic. Many have noted these trends and outcomes as they've watched the post-evangelical faith journey unfold. Many have suggested, and I think rightfully so, that post-evangelicalism is just a rest stop on the way to agnosticism and atheism.

Again, I've become convinced that this is, indeed, the case. A faith built upon doubt and negation is a recipe for losing your faith. And to be clear, I'm progressive enough to not freak out about that. If losing a toxic faith is the worst thing that happens I'd take that as a win. I'm progressive enough to know I have much more in common with liberal humanists than with evangelical Christians.

And yet, I think liberal humanists desperately need the gospel. Atheism isn't the worst outcome, but I don't think it's the best. So I reject a Christianity that facilitates and enables, even if unwittingly, losing Jesus and the church.

And if that's so, then post-evangelical progressives need to become post-progressive. They must journey though the season of deconstruction into a season of reconstruction. The season of doubt and negation needs to be followed by affirmation and conviction.

All that leads me to the first affirmation and contrast of this series:

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe that doubting, questioning and searching is a legitimate and mature expression of faith, and that for many Christians a season of deconstruction is a necessary and vital part of the faith journey.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe a faith journey that terminates and exhausts itself in doubt, negation, and deconstruction will eventually lead to a loss of faith or to a faith that is functionally atheistic. Deconstruction must be followed by reconstruction, and while seasons of deconstruction will continue to play a vital and necessary role going forward, and dark nights of the soul always a live possibility, the reconstructed Christian experience should become increasingly characterized by positivity, joy, affirmation, praise, hope, and faithfulness.

Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 1, Moving On

I've been increasingly describing my current faith journey as "post-progressive." That's not a label in common use, so I'd like to take some  posts to describe what I mean by post-progressive Christianity. I'm curious to see how many might be attracted to what I aim to describe. As the series goes on, I'd be interested in you making your own contributions to the description, here in the comments, on your own social media platforms, or in your conversations with fellow Christians on this journey.

The reason I'm describing myself as post-progressive is that enough alienation has built up between myself and progressive Christianity that I've come to recognize that when I hear progressive Christians talk I tend to have as many objections and concerns about what they are saying as I do affirmations. In some important way, I've moved to a different location within Christianity and I'd like to map out where I stand in some detail.

Beyond making a contrast with progressive Christianity I find this task necessary for another reason as well. I've shared many of my criticisms about progressive Christianity on the blog and a few readers, in reading these criticisms, have said that it sounds like I'm becoming more "conservative." I get why they think that. When you hear criticism of progressivism that's mostly coming from a conservative person or viewpoint. So it's natural, when you hear my own criticism of progressivism, to assume that I'm drifting back to the "other side," back to conservatism.

But that is not what is happening. I'm not moving back to conservatism, I'm moving on from progressivism into a new, unoccupied space. What I aim to describe is post-progressive, a view still rooted in progressive Christianity but distinct from it as well. I'll make this clear in the posts to come, how I'm still progressive, but have moved on in some important ways. 

The Divine Comedy: Week 25, Peter's Keys

In Canto IX of Purgatorio Virgil and the Pilgrim have ascended the lower slopes of the mountain to finally reach the official entrance to Purgatory. The gate is guarded by an angel who can open the gates to Purgatory with keys given by St. Peter.

That's a small detail that doesn't get a lot of commentary from Dante in the Comedy. And yet, it's something I've been thinking about a lot lately due to some discernment issues our church is facing.

Protestants don't think about this a whole lot, but Jesus appears to give the church the authority to forgive sins, or not. After his resurrection in the gospel of John, Jesus says this to his disciples:
John 20.21-23
Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
This notion is paralleled in the Synoptic gospels, where Peter is given the authority to "bind and loose" with the "keys of the kingdom":
Matthew 16.19
"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
But this power isn't restricted to Peter. It is, rather, a power held by the church when "two or three gather" in the name of Jesus:
Matthew 18.15-20
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” 
Again, for Protestants the ordering here seems all wrong. Our impulse isn't to take the lead, but to follow the dictates of heaven. In our discernment we generally ask, "What does the Bible say? What does God bind? What does heaven forgive?"

But in the gospel accounts this order is reversed. Heaven follows our choices. Whatever we forgive on earth will be forgiven in heaven. Whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Catholics get these texts, believing that the church does, in fact, have both this power and responsibility. Protestants, by contrast, have no idea what to do when handed Peter's keys.

It seems that heaven hasn't given us a strict rulebook to follow. We have to make decisions as we go, making choices about what is or isn't a sin, what should be bound or loosed. Heaven then follows our choices.

That seems crazy to us, God waiting on us to make a call. But that seems to be the situation we're in.

Not Damned, But Damnable

[T]o a Christian existence is a STORY, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he MIGHT be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man, not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn't. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man "damned": but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.

--G.K. Chesterton

On Genesis 22: Give the Story a Little Respect

A few months ago, our Bible classes at church were studying Genesis 22, the story about God testing Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice Isaac.

This is, of course, a hard story for modern readers, and even more so for modern progressive readers. Later that evening, during our small group, the text came up again and people shared just how horrified they were by what God asked Abraham to do.

I get the horror, but I said this in defense of the story.

My main argument was this: This is the story that gave birth to our modern moral imagination, and then we use that imagination to judge the story. Instead of being grateful to the story for our moral imagination, we use that imagination to reject the story.

Here's what I mean.

Child sacrifice was the norm during the time of the story. Today it isn't. So, yes, if your neighbor said that God told them to sacrifice their child we'd have this person arrested or committed. But at the time of the story, this was common practice, a normal thing. In fact, we know that the Israelites themselves began to engage in this practice, sacrificing their children to pagan gods. This is one of the main reasons God sends Israel into exile, that they were sacrificing their children.

Given this context, the big moral takeaway from Genesis 22 is that YHWH does not want child sacrifice. At the end of the story a ram is sacrificed in place of the child. And that substitution establishes, in contrast to the demands of the surrounding gods, the "we don't sacrifice our children" norm in Judaism. This is the primal narrative, the testing of Abraham, that introduces and establishes a new moral foundation for the Jewish faith. In distinctive contrast in the midst of the ancient world, the Jews will sacrifice animals to God, but never their children. And that's a moral revolution in the history of the world.

Christianity inherited that moral revolution, and the modern world inherited it as well. The moral revolution inaugurated in Genesis 22 makes us properly horrified by the prospect of child sacrifice, and then we use that horror to judge the story that set the revolution in motion.

Which is, I think, a profoundly ungrateful thing to do.

Genesis 22 gave birth to your horror at the story. So give the story a little respect.

Ends and Desires

"Your life is shaped by the ends you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."
—Thomas Merton, from "Thoughts in Solitude"

Merton describes here one of the reasons for why I'm a Christian: Christianity selects the ends that I live for and the liturgies that shape my desires.

Ends and desires. Your life is shaped by the ends you live for, and you are made in the image of what you desire.

On Holiness

I've been reading Eugene Peterson's The Message and got to the book of Isaiah. In his intro to the book, Peterson has some really delightful things to say on the topic of holiness:

The more hours we spend pondering the words of Isaiah, the more the word "holy" changes in our understanding. If "holy" was ever a pious, pastel-tinted word in our vocabularies, the Isaiah-preaching quickly turns it into something blazing. Holiness is the most attractive quality, the most intense experience we ever get of sheer life--authentic, firsthand living, not life looked at and enjoyed from a distance. We find ourselves in on the operation of God himself, not talking about them or reading about them. Holiness is a furnace that transforms the men and women who enter it. "Holy, Holy, Holy" is not needlepoint. It is the banner of a revolution, the revolution.

The Divine Comedy: Week 24, Purgation and Fitness for Divine Community

Evangelical theology struggles with the idea of purgation. In evangelical theology we are made holy and pure by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Our own moral efforts count for nothing in this scheme of grace. All our righteousness is borrowed, accepted by faith.

I confess I've always found the idea of imputed righteousness hard to believe. Reading George MacDonald in college deepened my prejudices here. It never has rang true to me that God would impute a holiness, purity and righteousness to me--seeing me through "Jesus-colored glasses" as the sermoners like to say--yet leaving me constitutionally the same wretch I have always been. Imputed righteousness seems the most bizarre switcheroo.

Consequently, though Protestant and evangelical I was raised, I've always found purgation more plausible than imputed righteousness. Holiness wasn't imputed or borrowed in some strange metaphysical shell game, holiness was actual effort and work, the journey of having my life purified from the inside out.

To be sure, there are just as many theological problems and issues with purgation as there are for imputed righteousness. I'm not making a theological argument here, I'm just sharing which theology rings more true to me, which feels more right to me in my gut. If I snap at my son today, I'm happy to believe God sees Jesus' holiness in me rather than the "filthy rags" of my many failed moral efforts. Still, what I really want in this instance, as George MacDonald taught me, isn't the forgiveness for the consequences of my sins (e.g., the wrath of God) but freedom from my actual sins. I'd like to become the father that doesn't snap at his son. I don't want an imputed purity. I actually want to be, myself, pure.

Of course, one doesn't have to choose here. Grace and purgation can and do go together. They actually need each other.

A really lovely way to think about this is to view purgation as becoming more fit for divine community. That's really the idea at the heart of the Divine Comedy. The Pilgrim is climbing Mount Purgatory to prepare himself for entry into Paradise, into the life of the Trinity. And we can't just be dropped as we are today, snappish, selfish and irritable, into the middle of that divine dance. We're radically unfit for divine communion. So we have to be made more fit. That's a large part of what we're learning in this life, especially within the community of saints. We're preparing ourselves for participation in the Triune life and love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And as we climb the mountain of holiness, the way becomes easier and easier. As Virgil shares with the Pilgrim in Canto IV:
This Mount is not like the others: at the start
it is most difficult to climb, but then,
the more one climbs the easier it becomes;

and when the slope feels gentle to the point
that climbing up would be as effortless
as floating down a river in a boat--

well then, you have arrived at the road's end,
and there you can expect, at last, to rest.

On Pornography: Part 3, Why Change?

After stating my assumptions that my audience are people who are (1) consuming pornography and (2) are entertaining some thoughts about reducing consumption, I then went on to list reasons why people might wish to reduce consumption.

The reason for the list was twofold.

First, the list is just descriptive, a survey of the common reasons people give for wanting to reduce or eliminate pornography consumption.

The second reason is motivational. A detailed survey of all the reasons people give for changing their relationship with pornography should have a cumulative impact creating an increased desire for change. This is a technique common in motivational interviewing. 

So, what are the reasons for why people want to reduce or eliminate pornography consumption? Here was the list I shared:

1. Conscience
Evangelical purity culture gets slammed a lot for creating shame and guilt in regards to pornography and sexuality. But some people feel legitimately guilty for consuming pornography. Consumption wounds and troubles our conscience. I certainly feel shame and guilt, and I'm not in thrall of evangelical purity culture. Shame and guilt can be healthy, life-giving emotions. There's a reason we have them. Sure, shame and guilt can become toxic and debilitating. But let's not think that there's something unhealthy about feeling shame or guilt when you do something that violates your conscience. That's called being a human being. And for many people, pornography consumption troubles their conscience. They think it's wrong. And that's a healthy and legitimate reason.

2. Justice and Exploitation
Many people want to reduce pornography consumption because they don't want to support an industry that exploits and harms people, women mostly, but also men. And this isn't just about online pornography but the way pornography intersects with sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation for profit. The issue here is less about maintaining personal sexual purity than refusing to be complicit in a system causing harm.

3. Over-consumption and Addiction
People may want to reduce pornography consumption because they think it's taking up too much of their lives, leaving too large a footprint on their day. Consumption may be becoming habitual, obsessive, or compulsive. Feelings of being out of control are emerging. An addiction is forming or has formed.

4. Perceptual Damage and Objectification 
Pornography can damage the way you see others. Your social perception becomes "pornified." When you look at people sexualized images intrude upon and assault your imagination. You objectify the bodies you see. All that to say, you may want to reduce pornography consumption because it increasingly sexualizes the way you see other human beings.

5. Moral Darkness on the Horizon
You may want to reduce your pornography consumption because your consumption is starting to scare and worry you. Your clicks have taken you into areas that are darker and darker. The videos you consume are tending toward, or explicitly depicting, rape. The female actors in the videos are getting younger and younger. The stimuli you are seeking are getting more and more extreme. All that to say, the content of your pornography may be increasingly a concern for you. You're starting to bump into some pretty dark stuff and want to stop and turn around.

6. Negative Impact on a Relationship
If you are in a long term romantic relationship, especially if you're married, your consumption of pornography may be having a negative impact on the relationship. For example, by sating your sexual drives with pornography you've become less interested in sex with your partner, negatively impacting the emotional and physical intimacy you once or could be experiencing. Also, your romantic partner may think your consumption of pornography is a form of infidelity so your usage is causing conflict and hurt, perhaps even to the point of breakup and divorce.

7. You Take the Science Seriously
Psychological studies have shown that pornography, and especially violent pornography, is associated with decreased relational satisfaction, decreased sexual satisfaction, and increased aggression, especially for men. In short, science shows that pornography negatively impacts well-being. So, you may want to reduce or eliminate pornography consumption because you take science seriously.

After this list, I concluded with some comments about how a Christian sexual ethic is a process of transforming eros into agape. Eros has a greedy aspect: We consume people. And porn is a liturgy that habits us into this greedy, consumptive posture.

Agape, by contrast, is self-giving for the other. Agape doesn't consume others, it gives and sacrifices for others. Romantic love, therefore, is a journey from eros to agape in a relationship.

That's a nice ending, but the heart of the talk was simply the list I shared above. Why?

Again, instead of issuing imperatives, by listing reasons for change I was trying to create, through cumulative impact, a motivational state, a desire for change. As I mentioned above, this is a technique common in what is called motivational interviewing, a therapeutic technique that works to move people through the stages of change. And one way to move people from "pre-contemplation" to "contemplation," or from "contemplation" to "preparation" and "action," is to make a list of all the reasons for change. In short, I was using my Belmont talk as a group therapy session using a motivational interviewing technique.