The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Challenge for Progressive Theology

A lot of people wake up in the morning and say, "Well, I don't see any miracles happening, so therefore Jesus must not have performed miracles." This is the danger of modern progressive theology--the idea that things don't "seem to happen", so therefore they must not. It is based on the person's individual, already-conceived notions of how the universe works, and then a re-interpretation of the stories of Christianity to fit in with that.

The problem with this approach is that the ego becomes the center of the universe and religion and faith are secondary. Instead of your faith working with you to shape your world view (through the grace of God), you are bending your faith to fit a world view you have already developed by other means. It is not outrageous to say that there is a false idol here of one's own ego. Religion and faith just get the crumbs that are left over. Religion and faith are not equal players in the discussion here--nor is scholarship. That's not much for a theology that talks about transcendence. The "self" is not set up for engaging in transcendence, in fact the "self" becomes the yardstick by which everything else is measured. The "self" maintains itself, which is the opposite of transcending it.

To be clear: We need to make sense between our experience of the world and the teachings handed down through religious traditions. That's an important struggle of every person. It would be irresponsible to disregard our own opinions just because the "church said so," and it would be equally irresponsible to throw out the church teachings because they don't "seem to" be true based on how we see the universe. We have to walk that tightrope and engage in the communication between our experience and the faith traditions we have. We may have to sit in tension for a long while until we can find a way to reconcile them. This is an even bigger challenge in our pluralistic world of many religious traditions.

To be very clear: I have a tough time swallowing the idea that Jesus performed miracles, as well. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't struggle with the historicity of some of the gospel claims. Yet, modern scholarship has not disregarded the historical validity of the miracles at all. In fact, many of the miracle stories hold up quite well in light of the test of many scholarly methods of analysis. Some don't. If you wake up in the morning and find it really hard to believe in miracles based on what you see, touch, taste and feel in real life, that is a crucial (and perhaps ideal) starting point for more inquiry. Key phrase here is "starting point." It is the beginning of a search for deeper understanding, not the end.

Regardless of this, the miracle stories contain "truth", according to 2,000 years of tradition. It is a form of madness (not to mention academically irresponsible) to start off with an assumption that the gospels are making historical claims, then to state that they can't possibly be true based on how a person in the year 2008 views the universe, so therefore to conclude that the stories are invalid or untrue. There are flaws in logic at each step of that thought process, and people are often guilty of some if not all of them. We should tread lightly before thinking that somehow 2,000 year of saints, scholars, martyrs and everyday common folk just didn't know better than me.

This is the real challenge of any liberal-minded person. This issue is larger than simply whether or not the miracles happened or whether Jesus did this or that. It has to do with how one approaches religion in a most basic sense. Do we grow outside of ourselves, or use our sense of the universe as the sole determining decision-maker for everything? The danger here is that many modern liberals assume they are approaching from an enlightened, learned position, to which the church and its leadership are at a most basic stage of spiritual development. Progressives often assume that church leaders live in a simple world of rules and regulations. Even if that is sometimes true, the faith tradition itself can be incredibly wise, even if the current leadership of a church falls short. It is also possible to be intellectually advanced but spiritually young. Growth is not a straight line, as each of us can be naive and wise all at the same time in different ways. The surest way to make an ass of yourself is to claim you are more advanced and enlightened than someone else.

As a very liberal-minded person, I say this with much humility. There are pitfalls in every approach. Conservatives fall into traps searching for absolutes. We liberals have our own set of challenges, and we need to check ourselves from running too far with our assumptions and impulses. We need to be free as we long to be, but careful--and to truly embrace the idea of liberalism/progressivism--that all ideas can have merit, and be flexible enough--and liberal enough--to bend to the truth wherever it happens to be. Even if it is not where we think it is. This is the full blossoming of a liberal approach.


  1. Part of being a theological liberal, I think, is having the freedom to be wrong (I think it was John Shuck who said that, and I liked it when I first ran across that statement.)

    If it's all about the dogma, then you really don't have the luxury of being wrong.

  2. Focusing the argument against "self" and one's ego is an easy target. Why not expand this, and look at science, which is basically the collection of all of man's measurable experiences?

    I think you still can make the same arguments, but they would be more generally applicable--you would talk about the ego of mankind collectively, i.e. its faith in its own power to search for scientific truth.