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UNITING

THEOLOGY
AND CHURCH
A monthly essay of theological reflection hosted by Trinity Theological College
Issue 5 - February 2011

Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments

“Let us conclude with what, to my mind, is most important of all – not God, not religion, not
atheism, but spiritual life. Some will express surprise: ‘What? You, an atheist, take an interest in
spiritual life?’ Of course I do. Not believing in God does not prevent me from having a spirit,
not does it exempt me from having to use it.”1

“There is nothing innately religious about the oceanic feeling. Indeed, my own experience of
it is quite the opposite. When you feel ‘at one with the All’, you need nothing more. Why would
you need a God? The universe suffices. Why would you need a church? The world suffices. Why
would you need faith? Experience suffices” 2

******

“We might…consider that god is what exists between two people, you and me, perhaps.
Whenever we choose to honour what exists between us, we strengthen the god in our world; if
we desecrate our relationship, we do the opposite. Or we might think about god as everything
that is good in the world.”3

...[W]e’re not pretending to be able to understand the will of a cosmic being that doesn’t exist.
In the postmodern church, we’re looking for what our small-g god – the humanly constructed
set of life-enhancing values we strive to uphold – challenges us to do.4

******

What is going on here? On the one hand, a card-carrying atheist advocates spirituality – but
without God. On the other hand, a self-styled progressive Christian advocates a postmodern
church – but a church without God.

The atheist is the French philosopher, André Comte-Sponville. In his recent book, The Book
of Atheist Spirituality, he presents a careful argument which promotes a ‘spirituality’ which is
expressed in terms of an awareness of immanence and immensity, a commitment to love, truth
and simplicity. All of this, Compte-Sponville argues, can be explained and justified on purely
naturalist or materialist terms. There is no need at all to invoke the idea of God to do so. And, if
you accept his premise that there is no God, his arguments for such a ‘spirituality’ are coherent,
well-integrated and even (as in the words of the book’s subtitle), elegant.

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Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments - Geoff Thompson

Progressive Christians present such arguments as part of


their call for changing the church. They want them to be
recognised as in some sense Christian.
Otherwise, presumably, they would have no reason to
invest energy in changing the church, would simply walk
away from it, and be content with atheist spirituality.

The progressive Christian is Gretta Vosper, rising star of the Progressive Christianity (hereafter,
‘PC’) movement, minister of the United Church of Canada, and keynote speaker at the 2010
Common Dreams conference in Australia. She shares with the atheist philosopher a willingness
to abandon belief in God as confessed in the Christian or any other theistic tradition.
Nevertheless, she still believes that the ‘church’ has validity, and that her revisionist accounts
of Christianity have some claim upon the rest of the church. Thus she proceeds to present
arguments for the church’s re-invention – once, that is, the idea of God and therefore also the
classical claims about Jesus have been jettisoned.

At this point there is a real contrast between the sorts of arguments made by Vosper and those
presented by Comte-Sponville. Willing to abandon belief in God, unconvinced by the early
Christian’s interpretations of Jesus, Vosper’s arguments (as I will argue below) for the continued
existence of the church are forced and inconsistent.

Clearly, Vosper’s conclusions are not representative of all those who identify as progressive
Christians. Yet, there is a sense in which her arguments are the ultimate outworking of the
revisionist accounts of God and Jesus characteristic of PC. That this comes into sharp relief by
placing her claims alongside those of an atheist is instructive. To the extent that PC’s arguments
do persuade, they frequently do so against the self-selected foil of fundamentalism. Now, it is
one thing to score easy intellectual hits against fundamentalism. It is quite another to propose
alternative accounts of Christianity and to have them tested by more rigorous criteria.

What follows, therefore, is a brief engagement with some of the key arguments of PC. I will
focus on some of the axiomatic moves made in the work, not only of Vosper, but also of John
Shelby Spong. I readily acknowledge that PC is wider than these two writers, but neither
they nor their arguments could be said to be marginal to the movement of which they are
de facto representatives. Progressive Christians present such arguments as part of their
call for changing the church. They want them to be recognised as in some sense Christian.
Otherwise, presumably, they would have no reason to invest energy in changing the church,
would simply walk away from it, and be content with atheist spirituality. It seems to me that in
order to mount an argument that can be heard in the church as a case for changing – and not
abandoning – the church, at least two sets of arguments have to presented: arguments for the
abiding significance of Jesus Christ and arguments for the continued existence of the church.
What is said about these topics is rightly the object of scrutiny.

Before turning to the arguments, however, a brief sketch of the basic posture of PC is in order.

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Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments - Geoff Thompson

Progressive Christianity: a sketch


Although continuous with some earlier versions of liberal Protestantism, PC has developed
its distinctive voice largely as a reaction to the rise of the religious right in the USA and
elsewhere since the 1980s. It tends to be politically left, theologically revisionist, philosophically
idealist5, and culturally middle-class. Significant investment is made in appeals to the ‘modern
world view’ and to ‘contemporary scholarship’. The near exhaustive explanatory power of the
natural sciences is taken as a given. Of all the theological disciplines, historical-Jesus research
plays the dominant and controlling role. Obscurantism, naïve supernaturalism, religious
absolutism, and un-thinking adherence to orthodoxy are the movement’s general targets of
critique and resistance. More specifically, ‘fundamentalism’ is the doctrinal foil against which
it takes its bearings; such fundamentalism is generally presented as a theological package of
literalist readings of the Bible, a crass penal substitution theory of Jesus’ death, and a moralistic,
interventionist account of God. Mostly, this particular package is assumed to be constitutive
of classical Christian belief. In Australia, where Christianity in any form is more culturally
marginal than it is in the USA, one of the distinctive features of the movement’s rhetoric is a
deep and pervasive sense of lament at the cultural and numerical decline of the church itself.
Take for instance the project announced in John’s Bodycomb’s recent contribution, No Fixed
Address. Bodycomb is concerned to prevent a “sell-out to reactionary forces” and explores “the
collapse of a once great edifice”. Faced with this collapse, the present task is to “pull back from
oblivion the most sublime religion the world has seen”.6

It cannot be denied that much of what PC complains about is real and cannot be swept under
the ecclesiastical carpet. Obscurantism, literalism, naïve supernaturalism and a graceless
moralism are not phantoms imagined by PC. These are real issues in – and real problems
for – the life and witness of the contemporary church. It is undeniable that many churches,
many Christians, and many ministers have simply retreated from the challenges posed to
Christianity from within modern culture. Complaints about theologically-trained ministers
failing to engage their congregations theologically are heard too often from too many sources
to be ignored. In fact, so significant is the lack of theological engagement within many churches
that it could be said that the real threat to an intellectually-engaging Christian witness in this
country is not the aggressive moral triumphalism typical of North America’s ‘Christian Right’,
but a more pedestrian theological banality.

All of this can be granted, but is PC an adequate remedy for it? For instance, is fundamentalism
a demanding enough foil against which to develop a coherent and persuasive position? After
all, the theological package of fundamentalism is intellectually suspect on grounds internal
to classic Christian theology. Even a cursory acquaintance with the history of theology and a
basic knowledge of classic Christian hermeneutics would quickly reveal it to be the theological
aberration which it is.

It could also be suggested that a Christianity that understands itself a ‘great edifice’ and laments
the disappearance of ‘the most sublime religion’ is more deeply wedded to the cultural forms of
Christendom than it is willing to acknowledge. This alone is reason enough for it to be cast into
oblivion rather than rescued from it. Moreover, the hint of nostalgia in such laments should be
noted; it is not uncommon in the discourse of Australian progressive Christians and warrants
some careful critical analysis. Such laments and nostalgia are totally at odds with a dominant
theme of contemporary ecclesiology: the end of Christendom has properly weaned the church
from such inflated self-understandings.

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Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments - Geoff Thompson

And what is to be made of PC’s ubiquitous appeals to contemporary scholarship? In a none-


too-subtle pitch for the intellectual high-ground, the impression is repeatedly given that the
revisionist proposals of PC rest on an established consensus of contemporary theological
scholarship. Yet those who are actually engaged in the world of theological scholarship know
as a fact of daily life that no such consensus exists. The world of academic theology is (almost)
as theologically diverse as the church itself. Scholarship does not constitute some clear dividing
line which neatly separates revisionist theology from orthodoxy. Those who believe it does
– or who seek to give the impression it does – are simply wrong. In fact, scholarship itself
resolves very few theological disputes. Scholars themselves know this and, therefore, when
making theological judgements pay close attention to the ways sources are used, arguments
constructed, and conclusions drawn. This is always a complex task, and attempts to bypass that
complexity by heavy-handed appeals to a supposedly univocal ‘contemporary scholarship’ are
just as illegitimate as are those denials of the same complexity made by heavy-handed appeals
to orthodoxy.7

In this regard it is worth noting a report on the first Common Dreams conference in Sydney
in August 2007 by my colleague, Greg Jenks. He noted that few members of the faculties of
Australian theological colleges were present at the conference, and reported that “[r]eligious
progressives appreciate our work but they are also critical of us as timid, conservative and
compromised.”8 For obvious reasons, PC’s own self-understanding requires an account of
why so many theological scholars do not stand alongside them. Timidity, conservativeness
and willingness to compromise are convenient explanations – but perhaps just a little too
convenient. There is another possibility: maybe those theologians who stand apart from PC do
so because they are left unpersuaded by its arguments.

In fact, my own view is that on many of its fronts, the often high-pitched rhetoric of the
movement over-reaches its arguments. This, as I will now seek to show, is a feature of the
writings of Spong and Vosper.

Spong: the abiding significance of Jesus


I noted earlier that those who seek to change the church in the name of progressive
Christianity are obliged to present two sets of arguments if they are to make a claim upon
the rest of the church: arguments for the abiding significance of Jesus and arguments for the
continued existence of the church. Spong is a good case study for the first set of arguments;
Vosper for the second.

Distinguishing between rhetoric and argument is essential in any engagement with Spong’s
work. As a media-savvy communicator and as a polemicist, his rhetoric is highly-charged,
urgent and polarising. Provoked by such rhetoric, his conservative critics tend to respond in
kind. In such a polemical climate, the logic of argument can easily be skipped over.

Yet present an argument for the abiding significance of Jesus, Spong does. In fact his
commitment to Jesus (as he understands him) is as unequivocal and passionate as that
of any pious evangelical.9 But alongside this he maintains another commitment, held just
as unequivocally and passionately: a commitment to the modern worldview. Echoing the
Enlightenment’s critique of religion, he invokes Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud et al, as those
who have set humanity free from superstition and religious dogmas.10 Let’s explore, in outline,
the argument produced from the attempted marriage of these two commitments.

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Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments - Geoff Thompson

For Spong, modernity functions as a kind of


revelation; it opens up previously unknown truth
and supersedes all that has gone before. This creates
a rather serious crisis for Christian faith because all
of its core beliefs were – obviously and unavoidably –
developed in the pre-modern era.

For Spong, modernity functions as a kind of revelation; it opens up previously unknown truth
and supersedes all that has gone before. This creates a rather serious crisis for Christian faith
because all of its core beliefs were – obviously and unavoidably – developed in the pre-modern
era. Spong thus seeks to render a form of Christianity freed from its premodern beliefs and
doctrines.

Of course, what he can’t do is lessen its dependence on the stubbornly pre-modern figure of
Jesus. So, to ensure that a faith in Jesus is compatible with modern culture Spong performs
a radical excision. He argues that the pre-modern, classical, and creedal convictions about
Jesus are not merely accidental and culturally-conditioned expressions of authentic Christian
faith, they were in fact mistaken – more or less from the beginning. According to Spong – and
this is his pivotal move – the church erred sometime in the second century when it overrode
and neglected the Jewishness of the gospels and turned what are actually richly symbolic
narratives11 into literal historical accounts – a move with immense consequences for the history
of Christianity.12

Now, whilst rediscovering the Jewishness of the gospels may well correct the alleged Christian
misreadings of the gospels, it does not actually solve the dilemma of the clash between modern
thought and pre-modern faith. Focusing on their first-century Jewish context simply highlights
the pre-modern origins of Christianity and reinforces the scandal which Christianity is to
modern thought. In order then to rescue Jesus from this final layer of pre-modern worldviews,
he argues that the thought-forms, symbols and narratives of the gospel are themselves merely
culturally-conditioned expressions of the early Christians’ experiences of Jesus. Since the first
Christians had no other language or concepts with which to express their Jesus-experience,
they were constrained to use those of their own Jewish context.13

The remaining task for the modern Christian is to peel back this final layer of pre-modern
thought and lay bare the pure, immediate, timeless and universally transferable experience of
Jesus. With this process, Spong believes that he has rendered a Jesus who can be appropriated
directly into the modern world uncomplicated by the unscientific, superstitious and churchly
ideas with which Christianity has hitherto (mis)understood him. [Note here the publisher’s
blurb on the front cover of Liberating the Gospels: “Freeing Jesus from 2000 years of
misunderstanding”!]

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This is a human Jesus who breaks down tribal barriers, deconstructs prejudices, critiques
the de-humanising forces of religion, and who loved in the face of rejection, mockery even
crucifixion.14 As such, Jesus’ life is a fully human life. Jesus does not reveal a ‘theistic God’, but
God who “is the experience of life, love, and being, who is met at the edges of an expanded
humanity”. Thus: “When I look to this Jesus, I no longer see God in human form…. I rather
look at Jesus and see a humanity open to all that God is – open to life, open to love and open to
being.”15

Every single move in this argument would be contested within the world of contemporary
historical-Jesus scholarship.16 Yet, even if his historical reconstruction of Jesus is plausible (and,
in principle, there is no reason to deny this possibility), what are Spong’s actual intellectual
gains?

The whole structure of the argument can’t help but set off alarm bells. If the church’s pre-
modern theology and doctrine – including even the gospels – can’t survive the scrutiny
of modern thought, how does the decidedly pre-modern, first-century Jewish rabbi with
decidedly pre-modern, first-century Palestinian Jewish preoccupations survive any better?

The irony is that at first glance Spong appears to appropriate the basic axiom of classic
Christology: Jesus in his humanity reveals God. Indeed, the final chapters of Jesus for the Non-
religious contain echoes (however muted) of Irenaeus’ seminal teaching in the second century:
“The glory of God is a man [sic] fully alive”. Spong’s portrait of a fully human life is at times
moving and engaging. Yet it is an odd, decidedly non-Jewish, non-first century humanity which
Spong ascribes to Jesus. Whilst Spong has – to his credit – done as much as any other popular
writer to press upon Christians the Jewishness of the Gospels, the Jesus whom Spong finds
behind all this Jewish symbolism could have lived anywhere, at anytime, and still taken up the
causes he did.

Perhaps the key weakness here is the way Spong’s final picture of Jesus by-passes the critical
questions around Jesus’ self-understanding. Any argument for the abiding significance of
Jesus must make a case that Jesus’ present significance is in some measure of continuity with
his own self-understanding. This is a highly complex matter, but even allowing for significant
originality in Jesus’ understanding of God, and granting generous hermeneutical latitude to the
interpreter, can we really accept that a first-century Jew didn’t believe in a theistic God, or that
such a Jew didn’t understand the identity and nature of God in terms of God’s acts in creation
and Israel’s history? Or that the theology of such a Jew wouldn’t be framed by expectations of
God’s ultimate justification of Israel? Would any first-century Jew believe, instead, that God
is ‘the experience of life, love and being who is met at the edges of an expanded humanity’?
And, if a first-century Jew did believe that, then how would he ever come to be proclaimed
as Israel’s Messiah? Essentially, Spong asks us to believe that those dimensions of Jesus’
teaching and practice which are acceptable to modern people can easily be detached from his
Jewish theological convictions without violating the meaning of his teaching and practice.
It is unpersuasively convenient to claim to have separated Jesus from the “primitive images
by which he was understood,”17 as if Jesus himself was free of a ‘primitive’ worldview or that
elements of that ‘primitive’ world view were somehow not constitutive of his self-understanding
and practice.

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Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments - Geoff Thompson

Again we observe an all-encompassing appeal to


‘contemporary scholarship’ when she claims that
“most contemporary scholarship has undermined
the classic claims of Christianity”

If it is as the revelation of God so-defined that Spong finds Jesus’ abiding significance, it seems
very unlikely that it is the historical Jesus of first-century Palestine who is the source of his
inspiration. It is a Jesus who is lifted out of his human particularity, and – not unlike the Jesus
of some earlier Christologies – hovers above the human condition. If Jesus’ understanding of
God – arguably the most fundamental aspect of his humanity – has to be detached from other
aspects of his life for him to be relevant to modern westerners then surely it is questionable
whether it is Jesus of Nazareth who is being followed. The ancient Christian insight that it is in
Jesus’ humanity that God is revealed is lost yet again. And it is very difficult to see what exactly
Spong’s arguments have gained. Indeed, it is difficult to know what the added value of Spong’s
Jesus’ is to a modern person. The causes which Spong’s Jesus legitimates and endorses can
clearly stand on their own without reaching back to a first-century Jew.

So, why bother? This is the question which brings me back to Vosper, for it is the very question
she asks of her own proposals for a church without God.

Gretta Vosper: Why bother with the church?


If Spong has moved towards a revisionist account of God whilst still allowing what ‘God’ means
to be determined by an interpretation of Jesus, Vosper abandons all such constraint. For her,
not only is ‘God’ a completely arbitrary social construct uninformed by Jesus, Jesus himself is
of only accidental significance for the contemporary church. Let me outline the steps in her
argument which lead to her proposals for the postmodern church.

She announces that she writes for those who “see religion as a way of living oriented to ultimate
life-enhancing values or for those who live this way but don’t like the word religion; for those
who have no need of ‘God’”.18 She speaks of the responsibility to “align and re-align [religion]
with the best available knowledge and the highest, healthiest vision we can develop of the
sacredness of life, the sacredness of community”.19 Again we observe an all-encompassing
appeal to ‘contemporary scholarship’ when she claims that “most contemporary scholarship has
undermined the classic claims of Christianity”.20 Therefore, if there is to be a Christianity, it will
necessarily be a radically revisionist version. So, in her own attempt to reconstruct Christianity
she subjects the Bible, God and Jesus to a process of, as it were, theological deflation. The Bible
is “a human document”; God is “a human concept”; and Jesus is “a human being”.21

Again, the fundamentalists’ account of scripture is the foil against which she takes her bearings.
Rejecting the view that the Bible is ‘the authoritative Word of God for all time’,22 she declares
that the Bible contains no authoritative meaning and proposes instead that meaning is brought
to it by the reader. As such, we are free to place it beside “all the other interesting books that that

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we look to for insight and enjoyment and challenge”.23 In short, we who possess “progressively
broader and increasingly more informed knowledge of humanity, the world and life24 must
“discern our way toward ethical living quite apart from the Bible”.25

Similarly, belief in God is optional, principally because (so she argues) the idea of God is
nothing but a human construction. She regards such belief as a kind of coping mechanism to
deal with the fragility and uncertainties of human existence: “we wove a strand that has carried
a garment of protection that has carried us thousands and thousands of years to where we
now stand. … We called it many things, but mostly, we called it God.”26 The monotheistic God
of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was a late development in the evolution of belief. 27 This
evolutionary account of belief in and the meaning of God justifies our own contemporary re-
definitions of God along the lines quoted at the outset of this paper: ‘we might think about god
as everything that is good in the world’.28 In fact, “postmodern critique” would appear to take us
beyond even such evolution to the “dis-integration of the concept of god altogether”.29

Unsurprisingly, this line of argument leads to the claim that “the whole idea of Jesus being the
Son of God no longer makes much sense”.30 In this respect a privileged place is given to the
work of the Jesus Seminar which sets before us a “very human Jesus” who is not the Son of
God.31 In fact, even of this human Jesus disclosed by historical research “there is little left for
us to get a good hold on”.32 Accordingly, there is no more import in the stories of Jesus than
there is any of the stories we see being lived around us,33 and even of what he did teach, some is
helpful but some is “markedly unhelpful”.34

Of course, every step in this argument is, in principle, plausible. Usually, however, such
arguments are used by atheists against Christianity. Here they are being used as part of an
agenda for the church. In fact, Vosper’s own deconstruction of Christianity is so complete it
is not immediately apparent what basis there could be for any argument for the continuing
existence of the Church. Aware of where her own arguments may well lead, she acknowledges
that “[n]aturally there is a big ‘Why bother?’ attached to the suggestion that the church might
be salvaged”.35 After all, as noted above, she herself asserted that classical Christianity has been
‘undermined’. In fact, her answers to this question expose how shaky her foundation is, and
how forced her arguments for the church are.

This is her general answer to the ‘Why bother?’ question: “I do think the church is well placed
to bring about some significant change in the world. And change in the world is desperately
needed.”36 The church’s “new mission” will be to “develop spiritual awareness in individuals and
communities around the world”.37 Because the church – at least in North America – is so widely
distributed throughout the community it is well placed to effect widespread consciousness-
raising about such issues as AIDS, Global Warming, equitable access to technology etc.
“The church has ground level access to millions of people. And millions of aware, reflective,
conscious people is exactly what this world needs.”38

This commitment to change, spiritual awareness, and consciousness-raising could just as easily
be expressed by André Comte-Sponville and effortlessly incorporated into his agenda for
atheist spirituality. Vosper, however, having so comprehensively deconstructed Christianity and
argued that everything about Christianity is just a social construct, makes the church a clumsy
addition, an encumbrance to this vision of change, spiritual awareness and consciousness
raising. Is not, in fact, the spiritual atheist more intellectually consistent and convincing? What
exactly is the added value of the ‘church’ to this movement for change, spiritual awareness and

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consciousness raising when such an institution will inevitably be linked to a history which
on Vosper’s own account has been undermined. What, indeed, is the added value of being a
Christian when it is defined thus: “To be a Christian, for me, is to do whatever it takes to bind
me to a life lived in a radically ethical way”.39 With such a minimalist – and idiosyncratic –
definition of Christianity, I would suggest that in Vosper’s constructive proposal, ‘church’ and
‘Christian’ are little more than nostalgic ornaments to a way of life and a set of values which –
although quite laudable in themselves – have no need of ‘church’ and ‘Christian’. This ultimately
arbitrary insistence on the church is reinforced by the claim, noted above, that the present task
of the church is to ‘align with the best available knowledge and the highest, healthiest vision
of the sacredness of life’. If the best is available elsewhere then why make do with second best?
Why not throw one’s lot in with the best and be done with the church? Vosper’s ‘Why bother?’
question remains unanswered.

If there is one argument which prima facie holds Vosper’s proposal together, it is her appeal
to the social constructivist view of truth reinforced by the idea of the evolution of belief.
But even this pillar of her proposal founders in exactly the way any argument based on a
significant investment in social constructivism does. When pressed, it turns out that there
is some bedrock of belief which is somehow immune to social construction, some bedrock
which really is true. After again reciting the postmodern insight that “there are no absolutes
and that we are all free to interpret what we are exposed to”,40 she expresses her concern at the
retention in some quarters of certain traditional metaphors for God in hymns and liturgies.
She especially criticises those who “are so progressive”41 that they will accommodate traditional
metaphors because they know they are only metaphors. She challenges such progressives
claiming that “we need to become literalists about our language, using metaphor and symbol
only when it would never be mistaken as literal truth”.42 But whence this literal language which
apparently is not subject to interpretation and which apparently does function as some kind
of absolute benchmark according to which metaphors and symbols are measured? Without
any explanation she has absolved herself of the very constraint she has placed on others at the
outset of the book: “Truth, whatever each of us means by that, is available to us everywhere,
and one cannot be the judge of what another finds to be the central core of the truth he or she
follows”.43 Unless, it seems, the truth which is followed is some or another form of orthodox
Christianity.

Conclusion
I have suggested in this paper that the rhetoric of PC often over-reaches its arguments, and
I have attempted to demonstrate that by offering a critique of the arguments of two of PC’s
leading exponents. I have targeted the logic of their arguments, and explored the clarity and
consistency of their concepts. I have suggested that some of the seminal moves made in
their arguments are highly vulnerable to intellectual critique, and to that extent I find them
unpersuasive. I realise that others do not – that is the nature of public argument. Nevertheless,
I would need far more than either Spong or Vosper offers to abandon the broad claims of
orthodox Christianity – the possibilities of which I will set out in a subsequent paper.

In Vosper’s case in particular, I find her claims for the church arbitrary and inconsistent.
It is very difficult to see how what she proposes needs any church or even the minimalist,
idiosyncratic definition of Christianity which she offers. It would be more intellectually
consistent to get behind something like Comte-Sponville’s atheist spirituality.

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Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments - Geoff Thompson

I note, in concluding, that it is not necessary to be theologically orthodox to be unpersuaded by


the arguments of PC. In the recently published, The Australian Book of Atheism, Alex McCullie
briefly surveys the writings of Borg, Crossan, and Spong, as well as those of the Australians Val
Webb and Francis MacNab. He explores PC’s key ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible and ethics.
Whilst sympathetic to some of the movement’s ethical aims he observes that it has “effectively
denuded Christianity”, and he suggests that in denying the Christ of faith (his term), it has
“jettisoned the raison d’être of Christianity”. So, this atheist critic asks:

Why bother with any form of Christianity? … It seems that Progressive Christianity
would appeal to the committed but disaffected Christians only, leaving aside the vast
majority of us – the religiously indifferent.44

It would be inappropriate to generalise from this one atheist response to PC, but nor can such
a response be ignored. It is a reminder that whether we are orthodox or progressive, we inhabit
a context where in matters of faith none of us are given the benefit of the doubt. It is also a
reminder to progressive Christians that there are limits to the persuasiveness of high-pitched
rhetoric and constant appeals to ‘contemporary scholarship’. The question, ‘Why bother?’ is put
to all of us, and deserves the most careful arguments which can be offered.

Geoff Thompson
Geoff Thompson is Principal and Director of Studies in Systematic Theology at Trinity
Theological College, Brisbane, the theological college of the Queensland Synod of the Uniting
Church in Australia.

Disclaimer
‘The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do no necessarily reflect the view
of Trinity Theological College or the members of its faculty.’

1. André Comte-Sponville, The Book of Atheist Spirituality: An Elegant Argument for


Spirituality without God (London: Bantam Books, 2008), p.150.
2. Comte-Sponville, p. 134.
3. Greta Vosper, With or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important than What
We Believe (Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2008), 234
4. Vosper, 282.

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5. Although tending, in many cases, towards one or another form of non-realism.


6. John Bodycomb, No Fixed Address: Faith as Journey (Richmond: Spectrum, 2010). These
quotes are taken from the ‘Abstract’ which has no page number.
7. Notwithstanding my criticism above of the overall posture of John Bodycomb’s No Fixed
Address, a particular merit of the book is the critical and respectful attention given to
diverse scholarly viewpoints.
8. http://www.commondreams.org.au/documents/jenks.pdf accessed Oct 15th 2010. The
same absence of theological faculty at the second Common Dreams conference (2010)
was noted by Noel Preston in a review of that conference. See his “Christianity without
God: possibility or delusion?” available at http://www.progressivespirituality.net/index.
php?page=content&idcon=4511 accessed Nov 1st 2010.
9. See especially the personal statements of faith at the conclusion of both This Hebrew Lord
and Jesus for the non-religious.
10. These claims are set out in most of Spong’s books, but given succinct treatment in Why
Christianity Must Change or Die (SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998), 29-42
11. This argument is set out in This Hebrew Lord: A Bishop’s Search for the Authentic Jesus
(SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988) and is developed with the application of
midrash in Resurrection: Myth of Realilty (SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994).
12. On this dimension of Spong’s argument see especially Liberating the Gospels: reading the
Gospels with Jewish Eyes (SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996). For a diagnosis of the
weakness of Spong’s arguments for this claim, including a telling rebuttal of precisely its
historical dimensions, see Mark Allan Powell, “Authorial Intent and Historical Reporting:
Putting Spong’s Literalization Thesis to the Test”, Journal for the Study of the Historical
Jesus 1 (2003), 225-249.
13. See the following two comments. “The experience of Jesus clearly needed to be
narrated. In these Gospel stories the Jesus experience would be explained, interpreted,
and rationalised in terms of a first-century Jewish worldview. Inevitably, this meant
that the Jesus experience would be distorted” (Why Christianity Must Change or Die
[SanFrancisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998], 107). “Inevitably the Jews interpreted [Easter]
in terms of the images available in their religious history, including the images of their
messianic expectations…. None of these symbolic interpretations can capture for us
either the reality or the objectivity of the experience itself ” (Resurrection: Myth or Reality?,
155f). These are tendentious claims about the genre, motivations, and the circumstances
of the production of the gospels. It can be sustained only by ignoring the work of key
contemporary gospel- and historical-Jesus scholars eg, Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham,
Richard Burridge, James Dunn, Dale C. Allison, and N. T. Wright. Whilst far from being
unanimous in their conclusions, the work of these scholars – whilst also being contestable
– is scholarship of the highest order and points to the gospels being produced by a
complex combination of historical remembrance, eye-witness testimony, oral tradition,
and theological imagination. For a more complex account of the relationship of faith to
history, theology and experience in the gospels see Dale C. Allison, The Historical Christ
and the Theological Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). For an overview of what
the gospels are and how they convey meaning see William C. Placher, “How the gospels
mean” in Seeking the Identity of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa
and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 27-42. For a very high-level,
critical discussion of the nature and formation of the gospels, and their relationship to
non-canonical literature see the collection of essays in Markus Bockmuehl and Donald A.
Hagner, The Written Gospel (Cambridge: CUP, 2005).
14. Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, 208-290.

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Progressive Christianity: Testing Its Arguments - Geoff Thompson

15. Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, 248.


16. See footnote 14 above.
17. Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, 224.
18. Vosper, 18.
19. Vosper, 25.
20. Vosper, 37.
21. Vosper, 217-244.
22. See Vosper, 53f, 103f.
23. Vosper, 221.
24. Vosper, 221
25. Vosper, 222.
26. Vosper, 68.
27. See Vosper, 69f.
28. Vosper, 234.
29. Vosper, 279.
30. Vosper, 237.
31. Vosper, 238.
32. Vosper, 238.
33. See Vosper, 239.
34. Vosper, 242.
35. Vosper, 283
36. Vosper, 284
37. Vosper, 281
38. Vosper, 290.
39. Vosper, 197.
40. Vosper, 299.
41. Vosper, 302.
42. Vosper, 302. The distinction between literal and metaphorical language is invoked within
PC almost as much as ‘contemporary scholarship’. It is a prime case of scoring an easy
hit against fundamentalism whilst begging a host of questions about the relationships
between language, reality and truth. It is at the very least arguable that literal language
does not by being literal possess a more immediate relationship to truth. It would then
be arguable that metaphors are not mere ornaments to a literal language but can actually
disclose new truth and could act as a check on literal language. What is required to
unpack these issues would be a discussion about the relationship between language and
reality set against a philosophical consideration of naïve realism, critical realism, idealism
and non-realism. Absent a serious engagement with such issues the much invoked
distinction between literal and metaphorical language achieves very little. An influential
work in recent decades on this issue is Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious
Language (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985). A more recent and wide-ranging discussion of
these and related issues is Christopher J. Insole, The Realist Hope: A Critique of Anti-realist
Approaches in Contemporary Philosophical Theology (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).
43. Vosper, 31.
44. Alex McCullie, “Progressive Christianity: A Secular Response” in Warren Bonett (ed), The
Australian Book of Atheism (Melbourne: Scribe, 2010), 211.

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