The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity

We've all read about the problems related to the purity culture associated with evangelicalism. But recently I've been thinking about the purity culture that is found in liberal, progressive and/or radical Christian circles.

My thoughts here were spurred by the essay written by Aurora Dagny entitled "Everything is Problematic."

As someone who identifies as a progressive Christian I found Aurora's essay to be very thought-provoking. The essay describes Aurora's journey into radical, leftist activism and the reasons she eventually stepped away. If you're a progressive Christian like me I encourage you to read the whole thing.

The one thing I want to draw attention to his how a purity mentality ran through the leftist and radical groups Aurora worked with. Interestingly, this purity mentality was oriented around a set of "sacred beliefs"--an "orthodoxy." This is exactly what you see among evangelical Christians. More, this orthodoxy is used to separate "the good guys" from "the bad guys." Beliefs create warrants for social exclusion, expulsion and scapegoating.

Aurora describing this:
One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. Calling them ‘sacred beliefs’ is a nice way to put it. What I mean to say is that they are dogmas.

Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup — believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. “I hate being around un-rad people,” a friend once texted me, infuriated with their liberal roommates. Members of the ingroup are held to the same stringent standards. Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.

High on their own supply, activists in these organizing circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work. It isn’t about ego or elevating oneself. In fact, the activists I knew and I tended to denigrate ourselves more than anything. It wasn’t about us, it was about the desperately needed work we were doing, it was about the people we were trying to help. The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. 
What is fascinating to me is how this is the exact same psychological dynamic at work among conservative, evangelical Christians. It's just the progressive version of it. 

And this "will to purity" doesn't just manifest in protecting sacred beliefs, it manifests in behavior as well. Both evangelical and progressive Christians doggedly pursue a vision of moral purity.

For evangelical Christians moral purity will fixate on hedonism (e.g., sex, drug use).

For progressive Christians moral purity will fixate on complicity in injustice. To be increasingly "pure" in progressive Christian circles is to become less and less complicit in injustice. Thus there is an impulse toward a more and more radical lifestyle where, eventually, you find yourself feeling that "everything is problematic."  You can't do anything without contaminating yourself.

To be clear, I'm not judging any of this. I'm simply trying to trace out the contours of the purity culture at work among progressive Christians. Mainly because I think many progressive Christians have become burnt out by this psychology. Progressive Christians have become burnt out by the chronic anger produced by the "good vs. evil" Crusader mentality and burnt out by the chronic exhaustion of living in a world where "everything is problematic."

For most of us, the vision of progressive Christianity--as we took up the banner of social justice--started out so hopeful and joyous.

But for far too many, in the words of Aurora, the purity culture of progressive Christianity caused it all to "metastasize into a nightmare."


For a follow up post about the purity culture of progressive Christianity, responding to the conversation here and elsewhere on social media about this post, see The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity: Additional Reflections.

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62 thoughts on “The Purity Culture of Progressive Christianity”

  1. Yep, "... it's the exact same psychological dynamic at work." Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Too few liberals still believe in liberty.

  2. I went from being a pharisee to being what Paul Anderson Walsh called a "grace pharisee." its all caused me to come to the understanding that Christ in me is the only hope of His manifestation in this world. I'm simply a body, a vessel, a temple.

  3. Let me add some additional comments. I'm writing this as a progressive Christian. I'd trade in a heartbeat the way progressives strive for purity over the way conservatives do. I think we should strive toward being less and less complicit. And everyone should.

    What I'm talking about here in this post are the temptations that go along with that pursuit. These temptations seem to me to be judgmentalism, exhaustion and persistent guilt.

  4. I have found these reflections from Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople to be helpful in this regard. I try to offer this as a prayer as often as possible:

    I have waged this war against myself for many years.
    It was terrible.
    But now I am disarmed.
    I am no longer frightened of anything
    because love banishes fear.
    I am disarmed of the need to be right
    and to justify myself by disqualifying others.
    I am no longer on the defensive,
    holding onto my riches.
    I just want to welcome and to share.
    I don’t hold on to my ideas and projects.
    If someone shows me something better -
    no, I shouldn’t say better but good -
    I accept them without any regrets.
    I no longer seek to compare.
    What is good, true, and real is always for me the best.
    That is why I have no fear.
    When we are disarmed and dispossessed of self,
    if we open our hearts to the God-Man
    who makes all things new,
    then He takes away past hurts
    and reveals a new world
    where everything is possible.

    Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople

  5. Thanks for putting into words something I've been feeling for a while now. "Burnt out by the chronic exhaustion of living in a world where 'everything is problematic.'" - that's it exactly.

  6. I think your second paragraph here helps to put this into perspective. I unfortunately don't have time to read the whole of Dagny's post at this time, but it comes across to me as something that feels like a mixture of naiveté and simple pragmatism. If your one-sentence summary at the end is representative, I'd agree: we can't work ourselves to the bone to fix every problem in the world, in part because that simply creates a second problem (that we too, are now too tired to do any good).

    University students are often the most radical when it comes to social causes, as they mix a great deal of free time with a great deal of passion and a group of likeminded people. I think that lesson - that you need to have a balance - is one that everyone kind of has to learn for themselves, though.

    Well spoken.

  7. I've found Haraway particularly helpful on this, in the way she insists that there are no "positions of innocence." It's depressing, maybe, but it's also an antidote to feeling paralyzed.

  8. The "burnt out" feeling surrounding "everything is problematic" is definitely an issue that needs to be discussed. However, we should be careful not to create a false dilemma where we see the only options as a) play into the "nightmare" of progressive purity culture, or b) give up questioning where we are complicit with injustice. It's not an either/or. We can still find ways to fight injustice (and an important part of that is uncovering and recognizing how much of our everyday lives are built upon injustices) without a good v. evil crusade. There are many people doing that already.

  9. Thanks for this, Richard. The article and your reflections are helpful to me in trying to pay attention to ways that radical hospitality turn into inhospitality. Dogmatic policing and/or scapegoating seem prevalent in so many circles and seem connected to the ways we try to address our anxiety. I'll be chewing on this with the residents this week.

  10. You put my thoughts into words - burnt out from everything bring problematic - yes. And burnt out from the mentality that if I don't share a post about the latest social justice issue then I'm sinning, letting people down,

  11. For an insightful parody of the "everything is problematic" syndrome:

  12. Those principalities and powers are a real bitch, aren't they? You think you've left one behind only to find yourself in the arms of another...

  13. The law kills and the gospel makes alive. Not that our own congregations listen, but this is a consistent warning of Luther (Catholic) against the enthusiasts/radical reformation (montanists). Those enthusiasts/montanist forms just substitute a new law, while the church is the gathering of scapegoats and sinners. That is the only way it really works.
    My only question in regards to the post would be one of historical emphasis. The three great enemies have always been the devil, the world and our own flesh . The church, arguably the bible, has typically focused on hedonism or the flesh. Not that the powers and principalities aren't present, but I think here is where the theology of enthusiasm takes hold. Through the indwelling of the Spirit we are enabled to fight our own flesh. But the powers that be are actually the authority of this fallen world. Even Jesus acknowledged this before Pilate and in the temptation. The only way to fight them is to refuse to play their game. That is the path of the cross, of witness. You have been judged and your time is short. You no longer have absolute power of me because you can kill this body, but its coming back. I think the church in its wisdom has typically seen fighting the flesh as the call of every Christian, fighting the world as a sometimes call of saints and martyrs, and fighting Satan is Christ alone. If we take on the call of fighting the world, especially if we ignore the mortification of the flesh, have we not doomed ourselves to fighting what God has not desired? When God wants us to fight the World, he throws us before Kings and Princes and tells us not to worry. He'll give us the Spirit. And the biblical examples of people thrown such tend to be like Moses, "I can't talk, send someone else." The exact opposite of enthusiasm. The Word of God as burden. Or even Paul recovering from Jewish enthusiasm, "I'll show him how much he must suffer for my name."

  14. Yes! I ultimately left a community because of the snide comments about anyone who couldn't "cope with the hard calling" which was to live in community with all things in common. You weren't strong enough or good enough unless you participated in that plan.

  15. It was incredibly helpful to me to accept and embrace the reality that in this life, at least, nothing is pure - everything is "contaminated." It has become much easier to pursue and embrace the *good.* Grace covers the rest.

  16. Its an interesting observation. I think you can see the same dynamic outside of Christianity in just progressive and conservative behavior in general. You're very eloquent. Phrases like this hit the nail on the head:

    Progressive Christians have become burnt out by the chronic anger produced by the "good vs. evil" Crusader mentality and burnt out by the chronic exhaustion of living in a world where "everything is problematic."

    Though, in my mind, Christianity and social justice - at least, modern, radical social justice where everyone is oppressive, and there are microaggressions, and everything needs a trigger warning - that brand of social justice is at odds with Christianity.

    These types of social justice declare that everyone is oppressed - but Christ declares that you are more than a conqueror. This type of social justice tells me that I have too much privilege, but Christ tells me I am nothing outside of God.

    Just my thoughts.

    Good read!

  17. being complicit in injustice, though, isn't about moral purity but human degradation. injustice inhibits communal shalom among us; it harms *people* made in God's image. it's doesn't seem entirely honest to act as though a commitment to honor, center, and liberate "the least of these" is, at its core, about dogma or ideological purity--unless of course you want to name your preferred ideologies and values that are in conflict.

    i don't agree that these conflicts are at all about separating the good guys from the bad. there are no good or bad guys. christians believing in original sin and the Imago Dei should know that best of all! there are, however, systemic violence and structural sin, in which yes, we are all complicit. sure, we could let that slow us down or paralyze us, throwing up our hands at all the unpleasantness, but that response is socially located: existing hierarchies and injustices are considerably easier to bear for those at the top, for whom this work can be extracurricular instead of the stuff of daily life.

    and i get what you're saying about purity, but i don't think "purity culture" functions well as metaphor stripped of its gendered and racialized particulars and wielded as a critique of those same voices marginalized by evangelical purity culture.

  18. "Beliefs create warrants for social exclusion, expulsion and scapegoating."

    Creating an "us/them" dynamic/paradigm/world view is a good indication that your belief system has become abusive. No matter how much or how well we struggle for peace, justice, compassion, and community - if there is no room for questions or criticism, then something about our belief system and the actions provoked by that belief system is inadequate, even dangerously extreme and counter-productive.

  19. I get what you are saying. However, at the root I think both the 'camps' are in danger of making the cause the idol - whether it be fighting injustice (which starts as a noble cause indeed) or fighting permissiveness and hedonism (also can be a very noble cause). At some point, both camps lose sight of loving others and extending grace. It all becomes a fight. You get exhausted. You can't see the good anywhere. Anyone who doesn't match your passion is an enemy at worst or slightly dim-witted at best. You totally forget you have your own blind spots. You lose sight of the glorious King. You take yourself SO seriously. You forget the kingdom starts in small and silent ways - yeast working, seeds growing in the night. You have made a good thing into an idol and you hardly know it.

  20. for me, it is a fight--against powers and principalities, not people--and it is rooted in love, particularly of those at the margins. that is what i think many miss, that chiefly loving the powerful or the status quo or faux-unity at the expense of the marginalized is not love. we have to work for and wage a peace that *does not yet exist* in the presence of hierarchy and harm. conflict is uncomfortable, but it is necessary, and it is not inherently unhealthy or indicative of a lack of love--it is often the very presence of it.

  21. I agree with Jason here. I think this post makes a major mistake of confusing burn-out (which is serious and does happen) with the pursuit of ideological purity (a far better and already extant phrase that doesn't need to be appropriated from work marginalized people are already doing). Activists burn out. It happens. But it's not the result of ideological purity or groupthink - it's because activism is damn hard work.

    I think we need to be very careful not to confuse our own feelings of burn out with a projection on the whole of progressive Christianity.

  22. Good words. I wonder if those of us who have had theological shifts see the whole in-grouping and out-grouping easier now that we've shifted groups. I think on the one hand we can sense the idea that we've been there done that, but on the other hand there is a tendency to get so wound up in the new group that we forget what @$$#073s we were before we shifted.

  23. I think that you're forgetting who is being excluded in each of these cases. In the conservative case, it's the least of these--those Jesus calls us to serve. But in the progressive case, it's conservative Christians who feel excluded as progressive Christians pursue justice for the sake of the gospel. If we focus all of our attention upon the fact that some Christians feel marginalized by the pursuit of the gospel, then we're not longer focusing our attention where it needs to be: those who need justice. The gospel is not about making Christians feel comfortable. If the pursuit of justice makes Christians, progressive or conservative, feel uncomfortable and excluded, then perhaps they should turn their attention to the reasons they're feeling that way. My guess is that it's because they're uncomfortable with their own position of power and inherited privilege. Social power dynamics don't just disappear once you start getting your hands dirty for the sake of social justice. The victims of systemic injustice don't have the luxury of ruminating over the possibility of hurting the feelings of other Christians, and if we're going to be advocates, we can't really worry about that either. I'm not saying we don't attempt to bring people along with us, but it's a two way street. If you can't get beyond your hand-wringing over making mistakes when it comes to social justice, then no one can help you.

  24. An old saying I remember (and speaking as someone who considers himself neither conservative nor liberal/progressive): "Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil"

    As someone who has disagreements with both, I've found this to be true: I will freely argue with conservatives, knowing that while they might think me a fool, our disagreement won't rupture the relationship. Liberals I just nod along with - I know that disagreement (at least, any disagreement other than "how do we accomplish our unquestioned goals most effectively") will lead to instant excommunication once they find out I am not "one of them"...

  25. I'm so glad you wrote this essay.

    What you described is pretty much exactly what I experienced. I left a Fundamentalist/Evangelical background because for the same reasons that so many have done the same. It was so disappointing, though, when I examined progressive circles and found many of them practicing exactly the same kind of fundamentalism as conservatives, just of a different flavor.

    Example - just as questioning Fundamentalist sacred beliefs (e.g., young earth creationism, inerrancy) leads to accusations of heresy, farewell tweets, and general condemnation, I have found that questioning things like pacifism lead to the same treatment.

    So, some of the people who so pride themselves on being true to the Gospel, being open to diverse views, etc., are just as fundamentalist as the conservatives. And when you point out the hypocrisy you get rationalizations, like some in this thread, defending the rigidity of thought. This is disappointing and frustrating, and it's very difficult for open-minded moderate people to find a home in the church. It feels like you have to choose between extremes.

  26. "I think you can see the same dynamic outside of Christianity in just progressive and conservative behavior in general."

    This is exactly right. The Church is supposed to be able to rise above the cultural currents. In the U.S., it has succumbed to the same absolutism that plagues politics.

  27. Sorry to reply to my own comment, but I want to make one more point.

    The tragedy of all of this, I think, is how the fundamentalism of both progressives and conservatives impedes our ability to bring new people to the faith. If outsiders see Christians treating each other with contempt and vitriol, does it really matter if the behavior is driven by a commitment to social justice or a commitment to inerrancy? This is a faith that is supposed to be completely driven by love, respecting people's basic dignity, etc.

  28. Okay, great essay. It explains where I am perfectly. Now what to do about it?

  29. Hi everyone! My apologies if my responding is light today given the importance of the conversation. I'm on the road with the family coming back from Selma. I'm standing outside a gas station in Mississippi.

    So quickly to say, I appreciate all the thoughtful comments, the pushback and the resonances.

    My thought driving down the road today: "Everything is problematic. Like this post."

    Wish us safe travels! More on Selma later this week.

  30. Wow, Richard, that third sentence is a beaut, almost single-handedly nullifying the original post as a whole. Unless, of course, I completely misunderstand what you mean by elevating progressive self-righteousness so far above conservative self-righteousness in your personal moral hierarchy. That way, and then redirecting or refocusing your fire on the temptations rather than the thought-acts themselves, absolves progressives of any moral guilt. Interesting alchemy, that. *sigh*

  31. does it really matter if the behavior is driven by a commitment to social justice or a commitment to inerrancy?


    I mean, that's not the answer that you wanted to hear, but yeah, it does make a difference. To use an entirely non-theological point:

    Every nation has prisons. Some nations imprison people for committing crimes against other people. Theft or libel or murder are rightfully punished with prison time to help serve the purpose of punitive justice for actions committed. Other nations use their prisons as a way to silence people who dissent against the existing power structures.

    One of those things is considered right by every nation on Earth. The other is condemned by billions of people around the world. We rightfully recognize that the reason why you do something does matter in its acceptability. The same is true theologically. Why you do something changes the nature of that thing.

  32. An old saying I remember (and speaking as someone who considers himself neither conservative nor liberal/progressive): "Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil"

    A far better way to put this:

    Conservatives believe everyone who isn't a part of their tribe is evil, and that they can't fix their evil except by becoming a part of their tribe.
    Liberals believe that everyone is evil (to reframe in the context of the post, "everyone does problematic things"), including themselves, and that the best way to fix this is by working together in groups to minimize the harm done by that evil.

    It's not nearly as catchy, but it's much more accurate.

  33. Thank you for this! I'm a progressive Christian and operate in a world of all sorts of Christians. When it comes to our differences I wish we all extended more respect to each other when we disagree. I am simply trying to do my best to be faithful to God. My world was revolutionized when I started assuming my conservative counterparts are also trying to do their best to be faithful. It changed my work from a war to a journey. Journeys are much more sustainable, inclusive, and productive than wars.

  34. do no harm is my sacred belief. jesus seemed to think so too. "do justly, love mercy." why would this not be sacred? human beings are sacred, made in the image of God.

    of course there are things we need to be fundamentalist and dogmatic about. Treating others lovingly is one of them. I think being progressive, and postmodern has helped me navigate all that in realizing where true harm is being done and where privileged are just feeling harmed but not experiencing true harm.

    We need to be angry for the Michael Browns of the world. The Julie MacMahons. We don't need to become white cishet saviors, but we need to care. We need to advocate. We need to listen. How can shalom, kingdom, peace, truly happen in a world where oppression exists?

    I am uncomfortable til then. Working on myself, and encouraging others to work on themselves. Everything IS problematic, so let's work on creating a non-problematic world. The work is exhausting, and hard, but so worth it. And part of my sacred belief is self-care too. Take care of yourself as well. Feel burnt out? Take a break. Then get back to the good work. Things matter. People matter.

  35. One might compare Paul's terminology of the "strong" and the "weak" in Romans14-15. It seems clear that the "weak" are Jewish Christians who punctiliously adhere to scripture and tradition with respect, in this instance, to kosher food laws. The "strong", by contrast, are Gentile (and Jewish?) Christians who believe that these food laws are no longer binding for those who are "in Christ". Before his "conversion" in Acts 10, we know that Peter would have been numbered by Paul among the "weak" (cf. Galatians 2:11-14), while Paul counts himself among the "strong" (Romans 15:1).

    However -- crucially -- Paul will have none of the evident church-dividing aggro between the two parties. And how acutely he sees that the temptation of the "weak" is is to judge and condemn the "strong", while the temptation of the "strong" is to dismiss the "weak" with contempt.

    Bells? Broadly speaking, we have here the division between liberals/progressives and conservatives/traditionalists. And Paul's teaching? Conservatives, he says, beware of unchurching the liberals due to your Deus-dixit religious convictions; and liberals, beware of patronizing and marginalizing the conservatives because you are so damned theologically "enlightened". Caritas probat omnia! [Love is the measure of everything!].

    Also note that Paul is particulary concerned about the conservatives, no doubt because the liberals have gained the upper hand in the Roman church. In situations where the conservatives have the upper hand, Paul's teaching, I suggest, should be recalibrated accordingly.

    Now, 2 provocative zoological metaphors:

    (1) To open up a hornet's nest: how might Romans 14-15 inform the debate between conservative/traditionalist and LGBT Christians (particularly since, willy-nilly, purity issues are involved)?

    (2) To put the cat among the pigeons: here is Ernst Käsemann (in Jesus Means Freedom [1968]): "Whatever else Jesus may have been, he was a 'liberal'. No qualification whatever of this statement is possible, even though churches and devout people should declare it blasphemous. He was a 'liberal', because in the name of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit he interpreted and appraised Moses, the Scriptures, and dogmatics from the point of view of love, and thereby allowed devout people to remain human and even reasonable."

  36. This vegetarian, animal welfare-conscious Christian just reluctantly bought a leather-bound Oxford Bible. I just thought I'd mention that because it ties in a bit humorously with what you're saying...

    Perhaps both conservative and progressive Christians need to be reminded from time to time that total justice or total moral purity won't be possible in this time between the times. The late Dallas Willard once severely critiqued both the liberal and conservative mindsets and referred to them as the twin "gospels of sin management." One faction has turned the gospel into personal sin management (legalism, more or less), the other into social sin management. Both have left the gospel of grace and spiritual transformation behind.

    I remember really aggravating some progressive Christians a few years ago when I pointed out that in this country you may very well be in "the 99 percent", but, globally speaking, if you have a college degree and an automobile you're definitely part of "the 1 percent," so let's be wary of wagging fingers at the uber-rich.

  37. I have been in far too many meetings and been in far too many coalitions where someone decided that the group was selling out or wasn't radical enough and created a splinter group whose primary purpose was to criticize pretty much everything and piss off most potential allies. Unless you have some good interpersonal and spiritual tools,it's easy to find yourself living in a state of constant free-floating rage - there's a lot to be angry about, and it takes a lot of maturity to figure out how to fight the powers-that-be without being consumed with rage. I was so mad in my twenties, I was practically radioactive.

    One of the best lines I ever heard from an activist was "Some people think they are working for social justice, but really, they just need to work things out with their father." It's very, very easy for one's own personal issues and ego - whatever they are - to get fused with a cause and for that cause to become more important than the way you treat the people around you.

    I think every activist of any stripe eventually has to answer the question: Do I want to maintain my ideological purity or do I want to get some shit done? Is this about me or is it about creating real, tangible on the ground change?

    Getting shit done means embracing the fact that change is messy and never perfect, and so are people, and that I can't do everything. You just have to focus on what you are trying to accomplish, and be willing to work with whoever will help you get that done.

    Having said all that, I think we need the radicals - even the annoying ones that scream at meetings. The biggest temptation that most of us face is getting complacent and comfortable and pretending that there's nothing to be done about the world's many injustices. Most of us could stand at least an occasional loud reminder that going along with the status quo is a choice, and that we could choose differently if we wanted to.

  38. You find this in Christian writers like Richard Rohr , Ann Lamott, Brian McLaren and others whose progressive politics are reflected in their theology. I like their theology but find their politics conformist and narrow-minded.

  39. This made me wonder about what our expectations should be for social justice in that Jesus very specifically didn't come to build an earthly kingdom so where does that leave us when we want to do good yet are bound by the belief that justice isn't something we can impose by force, be it physically, politically or otherwise.

  40. I read it the same way, Brent. Richard, can you chime in here and clarify that third sentence because it seems to contradict your essay.

  41. I have struggled with this as well. I find it helps to look at things through the lens of "The Law" - are we trying to live in the Spirit or the Letter of it? Although I would say I am a progressive, when I use this framework, the politics don't factor in so strongly. I've seen people who "are better than their theology" (as one friend puts it) and those whose politics are as close to perfect as possible but they are less than charitable.

  42. But there is also competition in the exhaustion category--who can emotionally exhaust themselves the most, the fastest, the most visibly. It's pharisaical in nature. And walking hand in hand with the pharisaical display is false hope. Even in the case of Julie McMahon, she was offered buckets of false hope from well-meaning supporters. The proof at this point is to show real aid, real, lasting change, real support that allows a person to flourish emotionally, intellectually. Empowers them. I don't see anything resembling this in progressive Christianity, anymore.

  43. I find this very interesting... But I don't think it does us any good to point out the problem as being "exclusivistic". Perhaps we need exclusivism. Inclusivism has been touted as the forefront of liberal theology, but why? Do we imagine that this is what Jesus taught? If so, how do we get around the numerous passages where Jesus himself makes the "insider/outsider" distinction? The judgement passages? And what makes "inclusivism" a more progressive stance? Why do we view inclusion as a good thing? Is there any reason as to why we should view "inclusion" as a good thing?

    Now, I'm not saying that "inclusion" is a bad thing; honestly, I think it is a good thing, and is based in the principle that God is the Creator of ALL humans, and not merely a sub-sect of humans distinguished by belief, ethnicity, race, gender, etc. And I certainly agree that some progressives have never left the "conservative" or "fundamentalist" mentality that is common in Evangelicalism. I just think we need to be ready to question the principles upon which we question the motives of either progressives or conservatives. Perhaps it is the radicals and the "uncompromisers" who should be praised and not those who attempt to include all.

    Just a few thoughts from a like-minded progressive Christian...

  44. I really like this exploration! It can be very difficult to make an argument against "black and white" thinking. In the process of identifying certain behaviors as 'wrong' or less helpful, we usually set up another opposing standard that we really believe or want to be right. Any argument against closed-minded absolutism cannot be closed-minded and absolutist or it does nothing to help the situation. But if we are to be open-minded and non-absolute, it is very hard to condemn those who are not. And this is where Richard does a great job of discovering the valuable role that every individual has to play (including those who hold to extreme positions).

    That being said, I hope to suggest that a way to help others out of circumstances we might perceive to be unfortunate or extreme is to do something about the context that they seem to thrive in. For my part, I would suggest that the context is often one of fear. And if that is true, then the most powerful antidote to the problem is to love and accept those who seem most effected by it. A relationship of love may be all the foundation an individual needs in order to break free from a cycle of fear and extremism. This, at least, has been something of my own experience. Any thoughts?

  45. Another way to say put it is that the Right seeks converts, while the Left seeks traitors. In my experience the difference is that conservatives are confident that if you stick around long enough, you'll see the error of your ways and join them. Liberals care more about creating "safe spaces" where conflict and disagreement are discouraged, so you end up with groupthink.

  46. I personally think some of this is simply immaturity as Christians. And I think we're all guilty of going down this path at some point in our faith walk, where we think we have figured out what other Christians are doing wrong and see them as old-fashioned, behind, ignorant, etc... and we are the ones who have "seen the light". In practical terms, it looks something like this: "Well, if the church just did this" and "Those Christians just don't get it"... whenever we start going down that path, we need to take a careful look at our motive: are we really concerned or do we just think we're a little better somehow than our brothers and sisters. A lot of time it's our pride. I know because I've been guilty of it as we all have, I think. As much as we like playing the role of God and thinking we have everything all figured out, we need to spend more time maybe living this quote by A.W. Tozer: "A pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself, but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself." All these little groupings like "evangelicals" and "progressives" don't mean a whole lot in God's view, I'm thinking. As we mature as believers, I think we start to realize this more.

  47. Personally, I don't find "inclusion" to be a very helpful principle on which to base political or social engagement. I'm thinking of a recent conversation with someone about the CIA torture report. I think that torture is always morally wrong. Full stop. She thought that torture was necessary, and even good, and was mad that they released the report. Clearly, if I were to embark on a campaign to hold various government officials responsible for said torture, there would be no way to include her.

    I find compassion to be a much more helpful concept. I remain convinced that she is dead wrong on torture (and a few other important things), but in many ways, she's a great person who does some good stuff in the community, and I can see some of the reasons why she thinks the way she does, even though there's also an ugly side to it. I have a pretty significant dark side myself, so I hope that I can have compassion for both her fears and mine - while at the same time recognizing that we each believe things that the other finds horrifying.

  48. What you're describing is epistemic closure in action. A healthy social group allows for differing viewpoints. In activist groups, this also includes familiarizing oneself with contrary viewpoints as much as sympathetic ones. This familiarization can be for educational purposes (knowing what the other side believes and how they come to those conclusions) and also organizational insights (acknowledging the savvy strategy of ones' political opponents and attempting to learn from or replicate them ) and even insights (admitting when ones' opponents turned out to be right or when they make a good point).

    Epistemic closure takes place when the set of commonly agreed upon "facts" the social group subscribes to solidify and become indisputable truths. The number of acceptable viewpoints and media sources narrows, so only those who affirm these truths without question are permitted. Contrary viewpoints are usually filtered through these sources (reading an trusted source's take on a political opponent is more acceptable than reading than the opponent's complete argument.) Activists will insist that the opposition is so corrupt that nothing can be learned from them or conceded to them, for doing so will weaken the cause. Contrarian views- even if they are mild or simply matters of strategy or priorities - are discouraged, which causes the people with more nuanced views to leave the group. Their absence in turn makes the social group even more rigid and radical.

  49. As a conservative, both in faith and in politics, I have seen this phenomenon both in conservative and progressive groups, and I am thankful that a progressive person has seen it as well. We might get a lot more done in solving problems if we listened to a far wider ranging array of opinions and ideas. If we understand things we do not agree with, and if we seek to see our own cherished ideals from another viewpoint, we are far more likely to get better and more helpful insights and form workable goals.

  50. Neurologists have use fMIR to show that 'sacred' beliefs lodge in a different part of our brain than other beliefs. Thus they are accessed differently. The impact of this science is that there will always be 'sacred' beliefs that we don't challenge. It is just the nature of those beliefs that may move us it different directions. This points to what Charlie Sutton says below. The breadth of our social and political circles will train us to be with people that hold different beliefs and and to be with them with a lower amount of emotional angst.

    I don't know that such bedrock beliefs are easily shifted, and certainly not by our usual array of arguement and proselytizing tools. At this level, it is only real relationships with the 'other' that might just nudge us a little off our high horse.

  51. I love this exploration too. It seems that for most people, Christian or not, everyone is often conflicted when it comes time to make a choice. Can I make those choices better if I know I am off the hook and also not capable of saving the world or myself? Can I lean in to gOd's presence and follow the divine thread where it leads me? Can I learn to recognize fear in me and in others as we try to understand each other and bring peace into those conversations? Sometimes.

  52. I agree that there is an asymmetry between progressive and conservative exclusion. But the linked-to article, the one that inspired this post, wasn't really about exclusion (or hurt feelings, feelings of marginalization, or hand-wringing over making mistakes). It was about self-certainty vs. humility, about dogmatism vs. dialogue.

  53. A few weeks ago I read Theological Worlds, by W. Paul Jones, because it was discussed in a post on this blog.

    I'm just spitballing here, but I wonder if what we're seeing, in the progressive Christian version of ideological purity, is an oscillation between World Two and World Four?

    People living in World Two see evil as a result of structural problems in society and/or the world itself. Death pervades the world; scarcity pervades the world; brutal, unjust competition and thorough ignorance of other people are incentivized by our economic and social structures. When people do bad things, this isn't evidence that they are evil; they're simply acting in the most reasonable way, given their circumstances. In order to see change, you need to fight those structures.
    People living in World Four see evil as a result of inherent human flaw. We come into the world proud, weak, and covetous. Each person is, in a fundamental way, broken. Change, therefore, needs to happen on an individual level. Each of us needs to be fixed.

    World Four I think, fairly obviously, creates a greater temptation for purity-thinking than World Two. Yes, in World Two, everything is problematic; that's precisely why purity doesn't work. If you live in the mud, you really can't worry about dirtiness. But if you're covered in mud in a world which isn't fundamentally muddy, and you need to get clean, then you need to worry about dirtiness.

    Both Christianity and conservative politics have tended to focus on World Four; progressive politics has historically focused on World Two. So Christianity and conservative politics have tended to be more concerned about purity than progressive politics has been.

    But there are two complications.

    1. Progressive Christianity is a strange beast. Does it inherit both Worlds? When you see everything as problematic, but you also see injustice as sin--and therefore tainting--do you get the rather horrible world of a neat-freak in a swamp in the rain?

    2. As groups tend toward becoming tribes, they might start to pick up in-group/out-group mentalities, which might in turn develop purity and/or World Four outlooks. As the new batch of progressives starts to stabilize as a group, might they (we) also become more inclined to interpret infractions as impure, even though they still understand evil in a World Two sort of way? Again, this would result in a neat-freak in a swamp in the rain sort of scenario.

    I feel like #2 is closer to the right answer.

    (More widely: I'm also starting to worry rather a lot about tribalism in the left. I am a thorough and committed leftist, but I do not like the way some of the left is turning out.)

  54. A comment so good I wish I could like it twice. Once for the excellent point, and once for the phrase "torture is always morally wrong. Full stop."

  55. Rachel, I have no Facebook account or any other social media pathway to you, so I'm replying here hoping that this will get to your inbox.

    From your responses to Richard's second post on this topic, I sense your weariness. I've followed your blog for a long time and have watched your process as you have made some of it public. Believe me, I know how hard it is to go through that sort of huge change; no time or space here to go into details. I just want you to know that I'm sorry particularly for the insensitivity of those who have criticized you so severely, from any side, with regard to the T&J situation. You are between a rock and a hard place. You have a good conscience, you want to do what is right - that's so obvious. No one in their right mind would want to get in the middle of that kind of situation, no matter how many years past. For so many - who as you say, don't really know you in a ftf relationship - it's very easy to write you off, and those people will never cut you - or anyone else - any slack (which is *their* very large problem - so try not to lose sleep over it...).

    I have some experience with a very close friend - my best friend for 15 years - with a personality disorder, though not NPD. When I was not useful for her anymore, she dropped me. She seems to be happy to see me when we run into one another around town, but she has never contacted me since she dropped me; I suppose that's better than many alternatives... All I can say is, please be careful - be very, very - very!! careful - in that relationship. And consider who it is who is truly at every sort of disadvantage in the situation. I'm not going to advise you as to what else to do, except pray hard.

    I'm old enough to be your mother, and I send you a big hug; if we were ftf I would plant a kiss on your head, as if you were my at least my good friend.


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