Saturday, 15 June 2013
Of Puritans and Progressives
You won't find too many of these classic Puritans in evidence today. Consumerism and globalisation have swept like a tidal wave over the First World, finishing off what the Enlightenment began just a few centuries earlier. Apart from a few tiny enclaves - Exclusive Brethren and Laestadian Lutherans for example - the battle is long over. Jehovah of the thunderbolts has gone the way of Zeus and Odin.
But Nature abhors a vacuum, and perhaps it's inevitable that as one form of Puritanism collapses, another must arise. I want to argue that a latter-day form of Puritanism can be found comfortably nestled in the movement often called Progressive Christianity (PC).
Of course that seems completely counter-intuitive. Progressive means, well, progressive. But therein lies the irony. Look behind the outer shell of progressive rhetoric at the underlying messages, the view of the human enterprise it promotes, and some unexpected patterns emerge.
Naturally, to say this is to apply a very broad brush, and there are certainly exceptions. Dig behind the Oxbridge facade of Don Cupitt's work, for example, and you'll find a ready wit to defy what I describe as "the prune-fed Methodism" of many of his supporters. Progressive Christianity is, like all so-called 'liberal' movements, hard to tie down. It's diversity means the boundaries are fuzzy. Cupitt and Geering are revered figures (and rightly so), along with John Shelby Spong (despite the sneering indifference toward him in certain academic cloisters), but their perspectives are hardly identical. Those who follow their lead, including fans of the Jesus Seminar, cross all denominational divides: Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians... even an occasional Baptist.
What they all seem to share is a desire to reread the scriptures (and restate the Gospel) in terms that affirm a contemporary view of the human condition. Heaven and hell have been pensioned off, Jesus' humanity is emphasised while his divinity has been airbrushed into the realms of metaphor. There is no Original Sin in the Augustinian sense. People of other faiths - or no faith at all - are equally embraced in the inclusive Ground of All Being.
Sounds great. If you feel like calling for a hallelujah from the pews, please don't let me stop you. And best of all, they're probably right about most of this stuff. It's a generous and informed version of Christianity, attempting to retain the traditions of two millennia by performing an act of intellectual transubstantiation. Into the machine go demons and angels, miracles and mitres, gopher wood arks and edenic apples, and out comes something good, compassionate, and best of all congruent with our emerging understanding in a world coming of age.
So how can this well intentioned radical revision of Christian faith be dismissed as dishonest and tainted with the virus of Puritanism? It seems a harsh judgment, but I suspect it's true. Feel free to argue to the contrary.
Part 2 - Elitism and Impotence
Part 3 - Jesus in a Box
Part 4 - Aromatherapy
Posted by Gavin R at 16:50