This article originally appeared on Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s blog “Standing on My Head,” and is reprinted with permission. Visit his website, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.
The recent furore in the Anglican Communion has highlighted yet again the real division in world Christianity: between, for want of better terms, “historic” Christians and “progressive” Christians.
[See also: What This Priest Saw in Medjugorje]
The historic Christians believe their religion is revealed by God in the person of his Son Jesus Christ, and that the Scriptures are the primary witness of that revelation. They believe the church is the embodiment of the risen Lord Jesus in the world and that his mission to seek and to save that which is lost is still valid and vital. Historic Christians believe in the supernatural life of the Church and expect God to be at work in the world and in their lives.
Progressive Christians believe their religion is a historical accident of circumstances and people, that Jesus Christ is, at best, a divinely inspired teacher, that the Scriptures are flawed human documents influenced by paganism and that the church is a body of spiritually minded people who wish to bring peace and justice to all and make the world a better place.
I realize that I paint with broad strokes, but the essential divide is recognizable, and believers on both sides should admit that “historic” and “progressive” Christians exist within all denominations. The real divide in Christianity is no longer Protestant and Catholic, but progressive and historic.
When I say “divide” I should say “battle” because both sides are locked in an interminable and unresolvable battle. Interminable because neither side will yield and unresolvable because the divisions extend the theological and philosophical roots of both aspects.
However, it is true that if you look at the dynamic of progressive Christianity, you will see that by the end of this century it will have either died out or ceased to be Christianity.
At this time, modernism still wears Christian clothes in the mainstream Protestant churches and in parts of the Catholic Church.
This cannot last much longer for 11 very simple reasons:
1) Modernists deny supernaturalism and therefore they are not really religious
By “religion” I mean a transaction with the supernatural. Religion (whether it is people jumping around a campfire or a Solemn High Mass in a Catholic Cathedral) is about an interchange with the other world. It is about salvation of souls, redemption of sin, heaven, hell damnation, the afterlife, angels and demons, and all that stuff.
Progressives don’t deal in all that. For them religion is a matter of fighting for equal rights, making the world a better place, being kind to everyone and “spirituality”. It doesn’t take very long for people to realize that you don’t have to go to church for that. So people stop going, and that eventually means the death of progressive Christianity. The first generation of progressive Christians will attend church regularly. The second will attend church sometimes. The third almost never. The fourth and fifth will not see any need for worship.
They will conclude that if religion is no more than good works, then the religious ritual is redundant…and they would be right.
2) Progressive religion is essentially individualist and not communal
Each person makes up his own mind about matters. Therefore, when it comes to religion, the fissiparous nature of progressive religion will become more and more acute. Individuals with firm opinions will form ever smaller and more passionate groups with like minded people and the smaller the groups, the more they will eventually wither and die.
3) Progressive Christianity is subjective and sentimentalist
It eschews doctrine and favors individual spirituality and sentimental responses to doctrines and moral issues. It is not long, therefore, before the individualist and sentimentalist inclinations drive a person from a church that is dogmatic and demanding. Modernists will prefer their own spirituality and emotional experiences to any sort of formal, corporate religious commitment.
Thus the modern admission, “I’m interested in spirituality but not religion.” When this attitude prevails, modernist religion dies because it’s devotees don’t see the point of belonging and believing.
4) Progressive Christianity is historically revisionist
They re-write history according to their prejudices. In religious terms, this means they are cut off from tradition. They are therefore cut off from the life-stream of real religion. As they cut themselves off from the tradition they will only have the latest religious gimmick, fad, or adaptation to contemporary culture.
Such an ephemeral attitude cannot provide for long term sustained religious longevity. Religion thrives as a tradition is nurtured and expanded through the years. A religion that destroys tradition therefore destroys itself.
5) Progressive Christianity is based on out of date Biblical scholarship
The cynicism, fashionable doubt and dismissal of the reliability of the Bible is based on rationalist Biblical scholarship that is now well past its sell by date. The archeological, textual and historical discoveries of the last century are making the assumptions of the early twentieth century Protestant Biblical critics look quaint. New, younger Biblical scholars are using the same critical methods of analysis and research to show that the Bible is much more historical than the old German guys thought.
The house of cards that is modernist Biblical scholarship is tumbling down and will continue to do so. The progressive Christian will then be left with either a return to historic Christianity or will be looking for the exit door with nothing left of his faith at all.
6) Progressive Christianity makes no great demands for its devotees
Ask any modernist, “Why should I come to Church?” What would he answer? “You don’t have to come to church. It’s there if you want it. If it does you good, and makes you feel better, we’re here to serve you.”
Modernist Catholic priests wring their hands and wonder why no one comes to Mass anymore. It’s because for forty years they’ve been saying, “It’s not really a mortal sin to miss Mass. You should come because you love God, not because you fear him.” While this sentiment may be laudable, they shouldn’t therefore be surprised if no one comes to Mass.
The progressive himself does not really understand why anyone should be religious. He started out as a religious man believing in sin, redemption, and the supernaturalist story. He became modernist gradually and all the time continued his religious practice, but he has never stopped to ask why such a thing should be necessary. If he is honest and asks himself the question he will soon stop the practice of his religion too.
Unless, of course, he is a clergyman. If he is a religious professional he would have to get another job, so it is easier to keep the show on the road.
7) Progressives allow for moral degeneracy which saps the strength out of real religion
Devotees of all supernaturalist religions demand moral purity, self discipline and restraint. Real religion requires self discipline. The modernist sees religion not as self denial but self fulfillment. Hedonists will soon realize that religion – even in its watered down modernist form – is not worth the trouble.
Another aspect of this point is that progressive Christians use artificial contraception and endorse abortion. It’s not rocket science to conclude that a population who stop having babies will soon die out.
8) The Church of the Global South is on the rise
Christianity is most vital in Africa, Asia and South America. The Christians there are both historic and modern. They’re young, they’re energetic and they follow a joyful and dynamic gospel. The African Anglicans moving to expel the Episcopalians is a hint of the future.
Historic Christianity will rise up and defeat progressive Christianity simply because the first is authentic and the second is a counterfeit faith.
9) Progressives are dull and respectable
They used to think they were the radical ones, but they’ve gone grey and suburban and become part of the establishment. They always go with the crowd, especially if that crowd pretends to be “radical” or “subversive.”
Respectability is the kiss of death to real religion, and bourgeois radicalism is really the pits.
10) The Historic Christians are now the radicals
When the whole world becomes liberal, it is the conservative who is the radical. When the whole world is wrapped in moral decadence, chastity becomes radical. When the whole world is consumed with gluttony, the one who fasts is radical. When the whole world is devoured by relativism, the dogmatist is the radical. When the whole world is blinded by materialism, it is the supernaturalist who is the radical.
Christianity is only good news when it is radical and so it is the historic and heroic Christians who will prevail.
11) “All are welcome”… to leave
The irony is that their final, infallible dogma for progressives is that “all are welcome”. They never stop to realize that a religion can only be a religion if it has boundaries. It’s not a club if there are no membership rules and its not a church if there’s no dogma or moral expectations. Consequently, while they cry happily, “This is a house of prayer for all people” it will increasingly be an empty house of prayer for no people.
The doors of the progressive churches may be wide open…but that’s so the people can get out as soon as possible.
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[See also: I Knew a Priest Who Could See the Dead]