Monday, October 02, 2006

On Progress and Progressives

Several years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. to begin work with a public policy think tank. It was a privilege to work on public policies that affect children and families.

The think tank described itself as a "non-partisan, research-based" policy organization. Good description. But what I found when I arrived was that most everyone in the organization considered themselves "progressives." That sounded good too... until I considered something G.K. Chesterton once penned:

Nobody has any business to use the word "progress" unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible--at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word "progress" than we.

A "definite creed." "Cast-iron code of morals." "Doctrinal." "Infallibility." "Direction." Chesterton helped me put my finger on why I was so uncomfortable with many of the policy ideas my colleagues held.

In the final analysis they were holding out ideals, "progressive" ideals, with no definite creed, no moral code, no doctrinal standard, certainly no claims to infallibility, and therefore no direction. It was "progressive" to advocate for homosexual marriage. It was "progressive" to argue for large government programs that research indicated didn't achieve their stated aims. It was "progressive" to oppose the promotion of marriage as a public policy option, and "progressive" to support programs to help teens access contraceptives and abortions without parental consent. And the "progressive" justification offered for all this varied from "it's the year 2,000; get with it" to "calls for civil rights" to insistence upon "privacy and the right to happiness" to relative/subjective morality. As is the case with so many heralds of the "progressive" society, my colleagues had no right to lay claim to the title "progressive."

Well, this post isn't really about political orientations. I'm interested in the church. What started me on this line of thought was this observation: the church has its share of theological, missiological, and ecclesiological "progressives."

Our open theist friends tell us there is a better way, a more enlightened way to understand God than that which we've always held, that which we see revealed in the pages of Scripture. They want to jettison an omniscient, omnipotent, sovereign God for one who knows all contingencies but not eventualities, who does not declare the end from the beginning but waits expectantly to see what will happen among all the possible alternatives. Their idea of progress actually represents a regression of all we know of God.

Many of our emerging/emergent (I'm not sure which) friends hold that there is a "progressive" way of doing church and understanding the church's mission. They accomodate the message and the Savior to the vitiated tastes of a rogue culture and even stranger sub-cultures. No "definite creeds" here; no "doctrinal" stances to be held. The squishier the better. They're "progressive." But progressing toward what exactly?

And then there are the loved ones who invest their lives in the work of missions. Praise God for them. But some are advancing "progressive" ideas there as well. Some say, "Let's do away with the old conceptions of the church and count any two or three people gathered in a living room a church." In some areas, the "progressive" idea is to cloak churches in all the garb and trappings of the mosque. We're told that doing so makes it safe for those Christian converts coming from Muslim backgrounds. But what this idea seems to be unaware of is that Islam is a system designed to regulate every aspect of life. The outward forms and routines are the religion. Leaving Islam is about as difficult as leaving any cultic system of brainwashing known to man. So, "progressive" ideas that retain the semblance of rituals may appeal to our fleshly desire for safety but they may be doing more to hamper radical faithfulness than any threat from fundamentalist muslims and jihadists.

Ask any of these groups what they are "progressing" toward and you're sure to get blank stares. And if you're fortunate enough to receive answers to your query, those answers will wildly vary, contradict and confound because they lack what Chesterton so rightly saw as essential: an infallible destination. These ideas can not be directed (therefore they can not be progressive in the true sense) because they have abandoned any focus on the immutable, infallible endpoint: God. They've ceased to be doctrinal, to have a definite creed. This is what unites politically and theologically liberal vantage points. The compass is dashed against the rocks. It no longer points to true north. The way is lost and any notion of "progress" is really the "progressive" conspirators' pact to say we've arrived without actually knowing where we are, where we were intending to go, or if we've ever even moved. If we're not careful, all the talk of "progress" will carry us away but the work of progress will be left undone.

This is a long ramble. Here's the gist: the only folks making progress in the world are folks who have rock-ribbed convictions based upon the Word of God and trusting in the infallible God of the Word. The extent to which I was faithful and effective in my work at the think tank depended on the extent to which I remained committed to and sure about a "cast-iron code of morals." And likewise, the extent to which we're faithful in our Christian lives and the church is determined by the extent to which we are built up in the eternal truths of our most holy faith.

Chesterton held that the word progress was "a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith." He must surely be correct. For only those who have Jesus in their sights, who grab hold of the plow without looking back, who set their hopes on the incorruptibel, imperishable glories of heaven are making progress toward heaven and Christ Jesus our inheritance.


Anonymous said...

in light of what you've said here, can you respond to the following entry:

FellowElder said...

I'm not sure what it is you're asking me to respond to. Ellis covers a lot of ground and topics. I would certainly agree that there is much to lament in our current view of evangelism, especially the emphasis on "decisions."

My best guess is that perhaps you're referring to this passage:
"The distinct cultures of these people groups contain nuggets of truth put there by God. The most effective strategies in discipling people groups involves the use of these nuggets of truth. There are two basic approaches to this strategy. The first involves impacting the individual with the purpose of influencing the culture. The second approach involves impacting the culture with the purpose of influencing the individual. Both approaches are valid and necessary and effective. Unfortunately, we have been flooded with strategies involving the first approach but the second approach is grossly neglected in contemporary evangelism."

Is this what you had in mind?