Saturday, 15 June 2013

Of Puritans and Progressives

The tendency toward a dour, grey view of life, infused with earnestness and a worthy but world-denying approach to the dominant culture, has always characterised a certain significant segment of Christendom. Even today the word Puritan evokes images of bluestockinged disdain of fun, wowserism and negativity toward all but the most disciplined expressions of sexuality. Puritanism much emphasised the "thou shalt nots", fostering an understanding of our shared humanity that declared the whole thing dubious at best, and at worst corrupt and utterly foul to the core.

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.

Coming up:
Part 2 - Elitism and Impotence
Part 3 - Jesus in a Box
Part 4 - Aromatherapy


  1. "Puritanism" has given Christianity a bad name, by suggesting that being a Christian means one can't have any "fun".

    This is and has been a great disservice, and is a falsehood as well.

  2. 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.

    The revision is dishonest, that's how it can be called dishonest and summarily dismissed. It's the same as a liar changing his story when the flaws in his original story is pointed out to him (like Mark and Matthew, eh?). It would not surprise me if, one day, someone "discovers" (oops) that we have translated the whole Bible wrong (all the Jew's fault, of course) and we were using the wrong language - it wasn't written in Greek, it was written in revised Egyptian or some such. Then - by golly - we can 'really' make it say what we want it to mean.

  3. Actually, Corky, there are an abundance of early translations of the Bible (and canons) from the lands evangelized according to early traditions by the original apostles. The late Dr. Gene Scott used to utilize these for comparative purposes in his teachings back in the 1980's. He would take a passage from one of the gospels and compare it to the translations in Ethiopic, Syriac, or Coptic, sometimes all simultaneously, to provide extra depth and clarity. Dr.Scott had an extensive collection of Bibles.

  4. I'm eagerly awaiting the article on Aromatherapy. Plus, rumor has it - you heard it here first - segment 5 will cover the Breathairian movement (always one of my favorites - the name alone gets me going).

  5. Actually, Biker Bob, Bible translations are translated in accord with the beliefs and biases of the translators. One important mistake they all make is in knowing what the gospel or "good news" was/is. Some think it was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (thus the "gospels") and some think the gospel or "glad tidings" was the soon coming kingdom of God on the earth. Both are wrong.

    The good news was that gentiles could now enter the congregation of the Lord, instead of only the court of the gentiles, they could now enter the sanctuary. That's what was so good newsy about the "new covenant", it includes the gentiles through the adoption of sons. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man tells the whole story if you know that Lazarus is a metaphor for the gentiles and the rich man is a metaphor for the Jews (namely the temple priests). The gentiles no longer had to beg for crumbs from the rich man's table. And, I'm getting off topic so I'll shut up now...

  6. Amazing
    The Christ-cult is about to celebrate its 2000th year:
    A tribute to the smart people who founded it back then.
    And the smart people who keep it relevant today (no easy job).

    But it all wouldn't be possible without bumpkins eager to believe.