Stuff That Bugs Me: The Arrogance of (Some) Progressive Christians

633839313317811520-imsorryI am not a humble person. I try to be…but I fall flat on my face most days. In college, I wasn’t exactly known for my humility, rather, I had no trouble belittling people for things they may not have known, be it some obscure band or how there’s not a whole lot of biblical evidence for premillenial dispensationalism. Acting all haughty and pretentious can have an element of comedy to it, but after too long…you just look like an asshole.

I think the turning point for me was when I began to experience this kind of arrogance from others, particularly after college, when I found myself out in the real world.  I found people looking down on me for the same things I looked down on people for in college, like not having read any Zizek, or never having heard of some random local band that was just so much more innovative and interesting than that Imagine Dragons crap I was humming to myself. You guys know what I’m talking about.   Bottom line: being arrogant about the things you know just makes you look and sound like a jerk.  I don’t care about your PhD; if you talk down to me, then I’m not going to like you very much.

So we’re all pretty well agreed that arrogance is bad, right? Then why is there so much of it in so many things labelled progressive, particularly Christianity?

I started into Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity a few days ago, which is what prompted this little rumination of mine.  As you can imagine, the book is promoting some very, well, progressive theories and such about things like the Bible, Jesus, Church, etc. I’m not bothered by this; we have to be willing to engage with people who might see things like this differently than we do because echo chambers are rather boring after too long and we need to learn new things.  What’s bugging me so far (I’m only on page 21) is how they make their points of view sound so obvious, as if there’s no way you could think otherwise about the issues they’re discussing.  The authors of this book also produced the Saving Jesus DVD series I reviewed a few months ago, and I heard a lot of the same tone in those sessions as I do in this book (so far).

I’m sorry, but for people who are all about “living the questions,” they’re talking with an awful lot of certainty about their views on Jesus and the Bible.  This is something I see rather often amongst the more progressive and liberal Christian circles; the talking heads are all about “uncertainty” and Dark Night of the Soul-esque views, but venture the possibility that Jesus actually did physically resurrect, and you’ll be laughed right out of the auditorium, as if to say, “Oh, how quaint their thinking is!”  Living the questions apparently means not thinking traditionally.

This isn’t to say that all progressives are like this; I’ve met and read a lot of very respectful, kind progressive Christians who retain a level of respect for those with a more traditional religious view.  They do exist.  I also thin that progressive Christianity is a really awesome thing that the church needs right now.  We need an undoing of a lot of practices and beliefs in the church that have held her back from truly being the body of Christ.  However, there’s a few things I wish the Progressive/Liberal Christian Community would remember:

  1. Education is a form of privilege. This isn’t any new idea, and we’ve actively been working to make this privilege more widely available to those who have been deprived of it for so long, but we still have a long way to go in that area.  Not everyone has the means to get a bachelor’s degree, nor enough access to materials to educate themselves (15% of American adults don’t have internet access, and not every library has the materials for a good theological education), so while it might seem “obvious” to you that the Bible should be read non-literally, it’s not that obvious to those who’ve never heard such a thing (or have been taught by the one pastor in town that that’s a sin).
  2. You might think you’re only deconstructing “A” belief, but that’s not how someone who didn’t go to seminary is going to see it; you’re actually deconstructing THEIR belief.  Progressives forget how personally people take their beliefs and worldviews, and have a tendency to write off hostility as ignorance.  If you’re going to engage someone of a more conservative bent on these issues, the progressive needs to take great care on her part because of how closely people hold their beliefs. Carelessness isn’t going to tear down walls; it’s going to build them higher.
  3. For God’s sake, simplify, and not because your audience might be “simple” (trust me, they’re not). Did you forget that first time you sat in a theology class and your head spun around on its axis at the word ontology?  That’s what’s happening when you try to articulate it to someone who’s never heard it before, and it’s not your audience’s fault.  It’s because ontology is CONFUSING.
  4. Enough with the outright mockery of your opponents.  I’m not anymore a fan of Mark Driscoll or John Piper or DA Carson than you are, but it’s time we stopped. Mockery is un-Christlike, and it’s childish.  For all the the Fake Driscoll tweets and scholarships for women set up in his name, has it even slowed him down one bit?  I have no problem with opposition, but I do have a problem with name-calling and ad hominem. I will admit to some ambivalence in typing this; I don’t like views that treat women as second-class citizens either, but behind the views are PEOPLE.  Did we forget this somewhere along the line?

Look, I’ve really come to identify as a progressive Christian in the last couple of years as my faith has been stretched and ripped apart and put back together again.  I think there’s a lot of good in the things I’ve read and heard preached, but this is something our group really gets wrong.  We alienate, perhaps unintentionally, those whom we love (or at least are called to love) because they reject our views.  Aren’t we trying to come out of that?

Help me out here, folks.


3 thoughts on “Stuff That Bugs Me: The Arrogance of (Some) Progressive Christians

  1. This is a good post Patrick. Thanks for writing it.

    I’ve definitely experienced the phenomenon you’re speaking about here, and I track with your four points. I’ve written a few posts on the difference (as I see it) between criticism and critique, which I think is an important issue here:

    Coming from the art world, I was always trained to critique, NEVER to criticize. They’re definitely different methods; one is meant to build up, the other meant to tear down. I have noticed that in academic philosophic/theologic environments–especially leftist/marxian, critical theory type circles–the tendency is to only criticize. It confused me at first because the people I encountered actually doing the criticizing would often use the term “critique,” which I guess has a different meaning for philosophers and theologians than it does for art people, but what do I know!

    Anyway, my personal approach to this type of thing is influenced by integral thought, and the Bible of course!

    I sort of flesh it out in this post:

    Briefly, I really like the integral/emergent concept/slogan of “transcend and include,” i.e., in developmental psychology, psycho-social evolution happens via a continual process of transcending current stages of development while, at the same time, including the essential parts of the stages that have come before. In other words not everyone is right about everything, and not everyone is wrong about everything.

    We see this basically happening in the biblical narrative, except the Bible, it could be said (via a Bruggemann reading), sort of adds one more step: condescendance.

    For example, as I say in that post, some biblical scholars (like Bruggemann) and theologians describe the God found in the canonical scriptures as one who “condescends.” In other words, the God of Israel is a God who meets God’s people where they are in order to help them transcend their current status.

    I think we all should try to do this. So see through the others eyes. To become the other in a way.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think negative criticism (like the kind employed in critical theory) has it’s place and is definitely needed. For someone like me, however, keeping the conversation going is of prime importance. So, if one is interested in looking to “progress” and advance, or move beyond the stale distinctions in anticipation of the “to come” (as Caputo would say), then it is sometimes necessary to “condescend, transcend and include,” because in order to fully be accepted by or “be seen” by the “other,” we must first have enough courage, self-knowledge, and self-acceptance, so that we can then, ultimately, become the other the way Jesus did.

  2. Jesse,

    Thanks for taking a look at this post! I’m with you 100% on seeing things through the eyes of others. I guess a lot of where this comes from is how I would talk to people on a day-to-day basis about the things I learn from reading more progressive theologians and pastors. You’re not too far from me geographically, and you know how churches lean very conservative around here. People feel threatened by new ideas like these, even with someone as moderate as, say, NT Wright, and while I do know that such feelings are unavoidable on some level, I get why they feel the way they do. Hell, I still feel that way sometimes.

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