Last week while trolling through Facebook I stumbled on a Patheos blog post by Fr. Dwight Longenecker entitled, “Twelve Reasons Why Progressive Christianity Will Die Out.” After skimming Fr. Longenecker’s 12 reasons, I was baffled how this former fundamentalist/evangelical, turned Anglican priest, turned Roman Catholic priest could not see the obvious holes riddling his 12 points. One would think that a man who has had access to as much of the Christian tradition as he has had would inevitably recognize his category mistakes.
Before I address Fr. Longenecker’s 12 reasons point by point, I wanted to first highlight his problematic starting point. His overarching category failure is his (false!) dichotomous view of Christian history, his “us-them,” “historic” vs. “progressive” categories. Since the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the second century, the Church fueled by its theologians, has been progressing toward a mark–adapting, developing and changing given new information, crises and/or controversies. That is how the Church acquired the Creeds. Therefore, as we will soon see, Longenecker’s harsh dichotomy does not support his thesis and is misguided. The Church has always been an institution that grounded itself in its history, and at the same time, progressed forward given unique circumstances.
While Longenecker backhands the Anglican Communion and particularly The Episcopal Church in his post, we will chip away at his thesis over the next week or two.
Longenecker’s First Reason: The So-Called Modernists
Longenecker’s first reason focuses in on who he calls “modernists.” He states that the so-called modernists “deny supernaturalism and therefore…are not really religious.” While historically there is such a group called “modernists” who came onto the scene in the 1920s, Longenecker does not mention that his own church (Roman Catholic Church) is chock full of modernists. I am thinking here of Hans Kung, Dominic Crossan, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Theologians who have been thought of as anti-supernaturalists themselves, either in the extreme sense by denying the “fundamentals” like the virgin birth or the resurrection; and theologians who reduce the Christian faith to social work, the “soup-kitchen” Christians. Longenecker makes the claim that the so-called “progressives” (who he obviously lumps in with the modernists) see religion as “…a matter of fighting for equal rights, making the world a better place….” If equality is not part of the Christian message, especially seen in the Eucharistic moment (1 Cor 10), and if fighting for the rights of the societal downtrodden is not as well (Luke 6; James 2), then I do not know what is.
“…the poor are with us for one reason and one reason alone, they have been cursed by god. Therefore, there is no need for us to help them since their status will never change thanks to the curse.”Sentiment of Aristotle & Demosthenes
But it seems as though Longenecker is either ignorant of the deep progressive tradition within the history of the Church or is simply avoiding it.
One historic “progressive” was St. Gregory of Nazianzus (also called Gregory the Theologian). In AD 369 while facing a famine in his diocese, which was caused by the type of social inequality seen today–where the richest few of society (the “haves”) squandered all the grain and crops, while the vast majority of society (the “have-nots”) went starving–Gregory penned a treatise to the then “secretary of state” of Emperor Valens in Constantinople. While still a priest in Cappadocia, Gregory writes Oration 14: On the Love of the Poor. In it he argues against the ancient Greek pre-Christian notion of the poor, which was formulated by the likes of Aristotle and Demosthenes–a position that had gained a foothold in late-antiquity. Their position was: the poor are with us for one reason and one reason alone, they have been cursed by god. Therefore, there is no need for us to help them since their status will never change thanks to the curse.
According to one world-renowned scholar of St. Gregory the Theologian, Fr. John Anthony McGuckin, for the first time in ancient Greek thought, and for the first time in the post-apostolic church, Gregory introduced a thought into the ancient world that still reverberates today: “God made human beings in his own image and likeness. And he has favored the suffering [ones] with his deepest presence. The crucified God has given his personal image [Jesus, the suffering One] in the figure of the suffering man and woman.” This idea was an explosively progressive concept in the fourth century, as it still should be today.
“God made human being in his own image and likeness. And he has favored the the suffering with his deepest presence. The crucified God has given his personal image in the figure of the suffering man and woman.”John Anthony McGuckin
Yet, according to McGuckin, Gregory does not chastise the wealthy. He believed that the rich, the millionaires and billionaires of his day, can actually mimic God who is the true gift giver. In the same way that God has given everything away, the rich can donate joyfully. Wealth for Gregory was not a four letter word. No. Stinginess and squander was the f-bomb of his day. What makes the wealthy god-like is the fact that they are free to give. This is true philanthropy; this is true love for humanity! And therefore, this is truly the gospel: that God so loved the humanity that he gave his only begotten Son! In short, Gregory turned the Greek world on its head (as the gospel should do in all times and all places!) by injecting the gospel into his politics and social concerns.
So to Longenecker’s thinking that people stop going to church on Sundays once they have embraced progressive thought we have one thing to say: the Church has grown in quite impressive ways since the time of Gregory’s progressivism. Don’t you agree?
Matthew Paul Buccheri, MDiv, STM is a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, an ecclesial consultant, a former Presbyterian minister and a lover of all things Russian.