Progressive Liberationism: The Eschatalogical Doppleganger
- The narrative of progressive liberationism has become the dominant moral definer in the West. Churches that used to imagine themselves as the deciders of morality are now commonly judged as being immoral.
- It defines how the West morally categorize history. Even if you switched in 2013, like Hillary Clinton, you still have moral high ground sufficient to decide who was naughty and nice all the way back to the dawn of human civilization.
- It is the reason the LGBTQ movement has changed the fundamental assumptions of morality with respect to the Christian religion and every other historical religion.
- It is so powerful partly because it has been able to mimic and replace liberal postmodern eschatology for a secular context. (You don’t need a second coming of Jesus to bring in the eschaton.)
- It is thoroughly at home with secularism and needs no supernatural divinity at all
- It is a stealth religion, allowing even atheists to act religiously while maintaining plausible deniability about their meta-narrative.
- It can supplant Christian theology, pass for the work of the Holy Spirit and make Jesus unnecessary to those whose socioeconomic and situational fortunes don’t drive them to seek too much supernatural assistance.
- It is vying to become the civil religion for a majority of Americans and is defining the politics of corporate America and emergent demographic groups
- It is so stealthy it impacts us unaware.
My History with Liberation Movements
I grew up on the front lines of the racial reconciliation struggle in the Christian Reformed Church. My father Stan Vander Klay and my mother Barb were pioneers in trying to figure out how the immigrant CRC community should practically engage the challenges of American racism and the gospel call to racial reconciliation. The African American civil rights movement became for American culture the template for moral definition for generations to follow even as they borrowed from movements, such as the older progressive suffrage and temperance movements as well as form Gandhi’s non-violence movement in India.
In the late 70s and 80s the CRC Women-in-Office (WICO) movement came along side the racial reconciliation movement as a focus of attention. It dominated CRC conversations in the 80s. When I was in Calvin Seminary in the 80s I remember writing a paper for my Systematics class on the question of women in church office and one of the things I had to work through in that paper was the question: is women’s inclusion in church office a Biblically permissible or is it simply a product of what was called at that time the Women’s Liberation movement? If you are a CRC minister to be this obviously was an important question to wrestle with. In that paper (I might still have it, I should look for it) I distinguished between the historical occasion for a question and the biblical justification for its legitimacy. My thesis was that even though the CRC together with the broader church were wrestling with this matter occasioned by the broader cultural movement we must separate the church conversation from this and evaluate the question at hand (WICO at that time) on its Biblical merits. I still believe this to be true.
Does the Year Determine Morality?
Even while I was pleased that the CRC opened all office to women I was continually disturbed that most of my pro-WICO allies were employing not biblical reasons for women’s inclusion into office but progressive liberationist arguments. The most common tell tale appeals are usually made to the calendar, as if the calendar has anything to do with what we should do or not do. The idea behind moral truth is that it is something that exists apart from the flow of human history thus allowing us to look at different times and places and make moral judgments. You can’t judge slavery or murder or genocide in the past or future if moral truth is simply a function of the calendar. Every time someone says “well I can’t believe we’re talking about this in 2015” you know there is a narrative of progress at work and an eschatology in play regardless of whether the person is conscious of it.
As I listened to the CRC debates about women in office I became increasingly convinced that for many people the broader cultural liberation theme had functionally supplanted Christian eschatology. We would argue about Biblical passages mostly to remove blockages but I wondered what was narrative was motivating and energizing the conversation.
Sociology of Knowledge and Me
I have to wonder about this in myself as well. The dominant cultural current is so strong. We love to recognize the strength of sociology of knowledge in others but conveniently imagine our own personal sources of knowledge are pure and true. The current celebration of the SCOTUS decision illustrates the power of social recognition for personal identity legitimacy. Again and again you hear sexual minorities say “Now I’m recognized as equal, a normal, legitimate person. Now (because SCOTUS decided) I can finally see myself in a new light.”
Should I imagine that I am immune to the kinds of social and communal forces that give me identity and a sense of legitimacy? I believe that this quite practically is a reason for the church’s role in the legitimacy of Christianity and its ability to maintain a counter-culture. We only know ourselves by seeing ourselves through the eyes of those we live with and esteem.
Christian Progressive Revelation
Christians come by ideas of progressive revelation honestly. When the Apostle Paul talks about “the mystery” of Christ being revealed it is not mystery as “inscrutable paradox” but mystery as the last page of a mystery novel. For Paul the revelation of Jesus was the interpretive key that made sense of the story of Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus is the revelatory interpretive key of the past according to Paul and this has been carried forward by Christian theology ever since.
What has not been settled is the question of progress and eschatology. If you’re looking for a place in theology where the church has managed to agree to disagree it is in the area of eschatology. Is life in this world getting better (Postmil)? Is life going to keep getting worse? Does it always stay the same or always change the same? Christians have long tried to keep these questions open and allow diversity of opinion on these matters.
Progressivism, as a political movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had its ecclesiastical partner in the mainline Postmillenial theologies. The two world wars of the 20th century followed by the Cold War put a damper on it but we should remember that in America the mainline churches reached the peak of their success during the Cold War. While numerically the Protestant mainliners have been in a freefall since the end of the Cold War progressivism in the broader culture has only gotten stronger.
Moral Progress, Religions or Otherwise
If LGBTQ sexual minorities are posting celebratory blogs about their new found sense of affirmation by the government and the culture conservatives increasingly decry that there are no brakes on this train. We’ve now passed the LG station, we’ve celebrated the Caitlyn Jenner billboard, the Bs and the Qs are increasingly affirmed (there are tensions between many older LGs and younger BQs) and the polys and pans are just getting warmed up.
My Atheist Friends Are Progressive and Good without Religion or God
What amazes me about the speed and power of this movement is how easily my atheist friends latch on to it. They possess tremendous zeal for it even while claiming a metaphysic that says there can be no such thing as moral progress beyond human imagination. They don’t care. They want it now. Give me my rainbow Facebook avatar whether or not Facebook is using it for a social experiment.
If you look at Progressive Liberationism in the light of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age it fits perfectly.
- It is completely immanent. We can’t know if there is a God or whether it cares about the LGBTQ community or not. What matters is whether they get a chance to have a happy, fulfilling life while here on earth
- It borrows on Providential deism: we easily imagine that the world was built for our happiness and if gays and lesbians are happy in relationships they construct then surely its wrong to oppose them.
- We don’t need a God to accomplish this. The tools of government and society are available to us to give the LGBTQ access to the social affirmation they craze, need, deserve. Maybe now the Bible can finally be retired and seen as the ordinary ancient book that it is rather than a book of divine revelation telling us what we should and shouldn’t do.
- The church itself can be replaced by the community we feel politically and the reinforcement we get through the TV and Internet. Now if we can only get Africa and the Near East in step we will have taken over the world. Western yoga and Buddhism already show that we can appropriate those religious traditions. It’s really just the holdouts in the Abrahamic religious that are so pesky.
The SCOTUS Decision as our “Come to Jesus Moment”
So, what’s really going on in my heart? What really defines what i think and believe? Is it the Bible? Is it the Christian church? Or is it this Narrative of Progressive Liberation that is so powerful in our cultures?
I still feel comfortable with my biblical defense for women in office. I still feel comfortable with the paper I wrote in seminary. The LGBTQ question in terms of Christian theology appears to me to be a far different matter. When I look at evangelicals making the turn I find similar dynamics that I saw in the WICO fights.
Kevin De Young, who wants to go from RCA to PCA on The Gospel Coalition website has 40 questions for Christians waving the rainbow flag, Alise, an emergent Christian blogger only needs one for those who won’t wave it. It really isn’t a question, it’s a indictment.
“When are you going to listen to the answers to your questions?”
(BTW, “listen” really means “accept” or “agree with” or at least make the answer giver feel they have been heard, assuming you can make someone feel that way. OK, back to her blog.)
It takes a lot of arrogance to ask people who have been marginalized for much of history to prove that they don’t deserve that marginalization.
It takes a lot of arrogance to require people in loving, consensual relationships to prove that they aren’t like people who prey on the weak and abused.
It takes a lot of arrogance to assume that people who have waited centuries to enjoy the same protections under the law need to “slow down and think about the flag (they’re) flying.”
It takes a lot of arrogance to ask people who live every day with fear of losing their jobs, losing their families, losing their churches to promise that they won’t be mad at people who support laws and practices that encourage those things.
It takes a lot of arrogance to set yourself up as a martyr when your words have caused parents to turn their children out on the street, when your words have driven people to suicide.
My friends don’t have to answer your questions. I don’t have to answer your questions. They’ve been answered, over and over and over again.
There is only one powerful answer needed. By virtue of all of our other beliefs many of them implicit no other answer can be found. Again, two of the most important pieces in the secular media that track with this. Jonathan Chait “there is no cultural argument against inclusion” and the Atlantic’s narrative of how in a generation the unthinkable became the incontestable.
The Power has Shifted, Can’t You See?
It’s not hard to tell who feels they have the power on their side by the way they talk. Those without power tend to make appeals for lenience, compassion and mercy. Those who feel they have power tend to make demands and level indictments. That power may come from a sense of social power and legitimacy as just conferred by SCOTUS or it may come from a religious tradition. Power is always contextual and situational.
Messy in the Middle
For those like me who are now positioned in the middle who believe in WICO but haven’t come around to wave the rainbow flag this is a difficult time. I have to examine my heart. What do I believe? In whom do I trust? What does define shalom?