The Shape of Progressive Theology, Part 1--Experience

I've been thinking about the last post discussing Tim Keller and the importance of progressive Christian theology (thanks to Bill for his kind words about the post).  One of the biggest problems, I think, is that many people don't really believe there is such a thing as progressive Christian theology.  Certainly, conservatives take it as an article of faith that there is no such thing as a rigorous progressive Christian theology.  But as I pointed out in the last post, I think many people who consider themselves progressive Christians don't really believe that there is a progressive theology--they are progressive in spite of theology, not because of it.

What is ironic and unfortunate about that is how untrue it is.  One of the things that has really shocked me in my faith journey over the course of the last six or seven years or so is how many people are working on these questions, doing work that is really grappling with the issues of the modern world in an honest and provocative way.  There is a whole world out there of progressive theology to take in and use it to reflect on our current experience.  Moreover, while there is a great diversity in this world, I have noticed that there are a set of shared concerns and themes that run through the work of many of the people working in this space.

So, what I would like to do over the next several posts is to lay out a 30,000 foot vision of what I see as the shape of progressive Christian theology, in the form of six big-picture ideas that appear across the works of different authors.  The idea here is not that there is one single progressive Christian vision, or that everyone who would consider themselves progressive Christians would agree lock-step to these ideas.  Certainly, within each of these big-tent concepts there are significant differences of opinion on what they mean and how they should apply to the actual life of the church and the world.  But when I look at the folks that are doing work to try to move beyond the old paradigms of Christian life and thought, their concerns and ideas seem to me to cluster around some big picture themes.

Perhaps more to the point, in each of these six areas, I see folks from a disparate set of faith traditions--Roman Catholics, high church Protestants, evangelicals (or, in some cases, ex-evangelicals), folks from the peace church traditions--engaging with each other's ideas and cross-pollinating in each of these spaces.  Evangelicals like Peter Enns and Rob Bell are talking with people like Fr. Richard Rohr about Biblical interpretation; evangelical megachurch pastors like Brian Zahnd are writing in the peace church tradition and are saying things like "the discoveries of Rene Girard surpass those of Einstein."; Baptist ministers like Tripp Fuller at Homebrewed Christianity call Sr. Elizabeth Johnson "one of the world's greatest living theologians."  This cross-pollination, it seems to me, is pointing toward something new emerging, taking all of those currents and forming a new synthesis.

Finally, the idea here is to be primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive.  It is certainly true that I would identify with at least some version of each of these six principles, but I am far more concerned with what other people are saying than what I believe.

In any event, here are the six big ideas that I would say make up this broad space:

1.   Experiential Priority

2.   Contextual Theology

3.   A Franciscan Hermaneutic

4.   Christ versus Empire

5.   Christian Realism

6.   Rejecting the Salvation Industrial Complex

In the posts that follow, I'd like to take up each of these in turn, but the place to begin is with the idea of Experiential Priority.  What do I mean by that?  About a year ago, when I was working through the Creed, I made the claim that:

[A]t its most basic level, Christianity is not about doctrine (let alone any particular doctrine) and it is not about church (however church is understood) and it is not about the Bible (which is where evangelicals often lose the thread of their own teaching).  No, Christianity is at its most basic level about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

If we want to broaden that statement, we can say that the experience of the divine, in whatever form that experience takes, is conceptually prior to any other facet of the Christian faith.  The Bible and the broad and somewhat amorphous thing we call "tradition" are, at their heart, attempts by Christians to explain the experience of the divine that they have already had, and to provide a road map so that other folks can navigate those experiences going forward.  Scripture and Tradition are important and necessary in those roles, but they can never be substitutes for the experience of the divine.  Reading the Bible and absorbing Tradition are means toward the end, not the end in and of itself.  Insofar as this prong is critiquing prior formulations of Christianity, it is here--that the means have been turned into an end, and that Christianity has asserted that experience of the divine was not necessary, or even a dangerous thing.

There have been various attempts to formulate this idea, but I think Richard Rohr's model is the most clear and the most helpful.  He talks about a "tricycle" of faith, with experience as the front wheel and Scripture and Tradition as the back two wheels.  This is similar to the "three legged stool" idea in Anglican thought, especially Richard Hooker, but Hooker uses "Reason" instead of "Experience," and "Reason" in modern use brings with it a set of rationalistic concepts that are not helpful (and not what Hooker meant by "Reason" in any event).  In Rohr's formulation, experience is the front wheel of the tricycle for a couple of reasons.  First, Rohr makes the point that we inevitably filter Scripture and Tradition through our personal experience, whether we want to or not--no one has a pure, completely detached relationship with either Scripture or Tradition.  In other words, the arrangement of the tricycle is the way our faith life actually works as an empirical matter, even if we have some sort of ideological commitment to some other model.  This has consequences for how we approach theology, which we will get to in large measure in the second idea of Contextual Theology, but the basic notion here is that we read Scripture and engage with the Tradition through the lens of our experience, whether we like it or not.

Second, Rohr makes the provocative point that we, as modern people, can and should be less afraid of experience than our predecessors because the discipline of psychology provides the tools to critique the experiences that we are having.  Our forefathers in faith understood perfectly well that people can have experiences that seem to them to be of God that don't have anything to do with God at all.  If you are going to take experience seriously, you need ways to understand and analyze the experiences that people are having to sort the wheat from the chaff, lest you go off the cliff.  Rohr suggests that some of the resistance to experience in the Tradition stems from a lack of those tools in the Tradition, resulting in an understandable defensive posture toward experience.  We now have a framework to understand the ways that our mind can deceive us, ways that we can think something is real when it really is not--projection, depression, schizophrenia, and others.  Of course, this means we need to take seriously and incorporate into our Christian worldview the wisdom of those disciplines (and other, similar disciplines in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, which we will get to when talking about Christian Realism).

Even outside of psychology, the idea is not that experience, and more specifically one's understanding of one's experience, is sacrosanct and unable to be critiqued.  Rohr uses the formula "Scripture as validated by experience, experience as validated by tradition."  We have an experience of God, that experience is checked against the tradition to see if the experience can be fit within the (very broad) confines of Christian tradition, and that experience in turn shapes the way we see the stories of other people's encounters with God in the Bible.  There is a dynamic process where we gradually understand better the nature of the experience that we have had or are having.  But the fundamental "place" where we meet God is in the personal experience.  

A couple of key consequences flow from the idea of experiential priority.  First, it takes incorporates into Christian life what you might call a "soft" Pentecostalism.  The Pentecostal movement, distilled down to its most fundamental essence, is the idea that the Holy Spirit is at work in the life of the individual believer, and that that work is something that must be taken seriously.  In the full or "hard" version of Pentecostalism, that work is expressed primarily in terms of outward gifts of the Holy Spirit like speaking in tongues, but even if you don't embrace those sorts of outward manifestations you can still accept the core, "soft" premise.  One consequence of this idea that the Holy Spirit is working in a direct way in the lives of everyone is that it will "flatten" our ecclesiology.  If the Holy Spirit is working in the lives of everyone in the congregation, it becomes much harder to justify extremely hierarchical and "top down" models of authority and governance.  If you can't exclude the possibility that the Spirit is speaking to the little old lady sitting in the back or the young kid with some challenging ideas, it becomes much harder to defend a system where the little old lady or the young kid have no voice in church governance.

The second consequence is that mysticism becomes liberated from the ghetto that it has been banished to and placed front and center.  Mysticism and mystics have been marginalized in Christian discourse--especially in the Protestant tradition, but in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions as well--as some some weird province of "elite" believers, or even seen as a bad and/or dangerous thing.  But, since mysticism is ultimately just a group of folks talking about their experiences of the divine, mysticism and the mystic traditions of Christianity become central to the life of faith.  The well-known quote from Fr. Karl Rahner, S.J.--"the Christian of the future will be a mystic or he won't exist at all"--becomes sensible and a challenge to be embraced.  Fortunately, there is an enormous and varied Christian mystical tradition which has been woefully under-utilized.  The Desert Fathers and Mothers, Pseudo-Dionysus, Celtic spirituality, Benedictine lectio divina, the Franciscan mystical tradition, Julian of Norwich, the Rhineland mystics like Meister Eckhart, the Hesychast tradition, the Carmelite tradition, the Quaker "inner light" tradition, Centering Prayer, charismatic and pentecostal worship--all of that is thrown into the mix as sources to mine.

The final consequence, and this is probably the most controversial to more traditional thinkers, is that experiential priority necessarily de-centers to some degree both Scripture and Tradition in the life of faith.  Experiential priority makes it impossible to simply say that Christianity is about fidelity to some abstract and impersonal standard, whether conceived of in a sola Scriptura Protestant sense, or a Roman Catholic magisterium sense, or some other similar formulation.  Adopting the idea of experiential priority means putting both Scripture and Tradition at a level of remove from the center of faith live, whereas so much of the traditional Christian discourse is about insisting that either Scripture or Tradition are the absolute and unassailable center.  Christian life cannot simply be about "getting it right" as defined by some external authority, because you must always leave space for the necessarily idiosyncratic, personal experience.  And, if Christian life is not about "getting it right" according to some external authority, than we need a different way of understanding church.

So, experiential priority.  Up next is contextual theology, and I will give a spoiler--everyone does contextual theology; the only question is whether you can admit that.


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