A Progressive Call to Conscience

One of my spiritual heroes, Fr. Richard Rohr, posted this quote on his blog yesterday:

“Despite a certain trend towards conservatism in parts of the church and society, I am convinced that we have moved into a new era that will be determined by people who live by their own conscience and are particularly qualified to act as discerning members of community and society…the era in which almost everyone was content to be born and to live as a member of a certain church or ‘organized religion’ is over. The people who will shape the future of believers of all religions are those who have the courage to make their own choice, whatever pain may be involved, and to do so with personal responsibility.”
– Fr. Bernard Haring, German Redemptorist priest

The “certain trend towards conservatism” that Haring writes of has been on my mind a lot lately, and I love how he describes it.

I appreciate his description of “conservatives” as simply being content to be born into and live as a member of a particular kind of system, because that has been my working definition of this stream of the faith for quite a while. The truth is that, for a lot of Christians, the historic ways of thinking about and enacting our faith works, and works well. To hold this particular doctrinal understanding or that one makes a lot of sense. Given the way that their worldview is constructed, one cannot fault someone for professing the particular theology that they do (remember: knowing determines understanding determines meaning).

But Haring names something important, I think. What will shape the future of faith is whether or not we have the courage to make our own choices. I do not understand him to say that all of those choices are going to be good ones that will lead to the Abundant Life, but I do understand him to say that this will be the norm (and this comes from Catholic moral theology, which, according to Rohr, has as its first principle, “Follow your conscience”). However, the interesting point that Haring’s thought raises for me is not regarding the future of religion, but about the reaction of those living out that “certain trend towards conservatism.”

I can say from experience that persons who want to preserve the particular system that has defined Christendom raise loud, vocal opposition whenever someone dares to explore the “adjacent possible” of our common faith. I find it interesting that, at almost every turn, what we have discovered to be a true expression of God’s love for creation was once thought to be in direct violation of scripture and theological tradition (ie – equality of races and genders, etc). I am grateful for those who naturally want to preserve the best of our faith, but I am not willing to let them rule the roost. And yet, that is what is happening.

As I observe it, Progressives (those who seek to explore the adjacent possible) do one of two things in response to loud, vocal opposition. We either cower in the corner, constantly on the defensive, and allowing the opposition to set the agenda; or we segregate ourselves, trying to ignore fray, telling ourselves that this “certain trend towards conservatism” is not a serious issue. In both cases we fail.

This “trend towards conservatism” cannot be allow to set the agenda for the future of the Christian faith, for, indeed, its agenda is not about the future, but about the past. This conservatism is often little more than a romanticizing of times gone by, and as Melissa Harris-Perry recently said of a similar kind of USAmerican nostalgia, there is no time in the American past that one would want to go back to as a black woman. If we allow the agenda of the Christian faith be “Back to the Future” we are all destined for a limited and limiting existence.

However, more often than not, what Progressive Christians do is sit smugly in the corner and decline to engage in the debate at all. The reason we can be accused of snobbery is because, well, we practice it. Rather than cower in the corner, we (instead) sit there smugly, waiting for others to “catch up” to a more inclusive, holistic, and complex way of engaging the world. We do this because we don’t like to argue and fight; we don’t think that anyone’s mind will be changed.

I disagree. Minds can be and are changed. I trace my own “journey to Progressivism” to my freshman year of college, when my friend Todd rhetorically dismantled my conservative theological worldview. I returned to my room after that very civil debate and cried for about an hour because, for the first time in my life, I did not have all the answers.

I believe it is time for those who identify as Progressive Christians to begin proclaiming what my New Testament professor calls ” a confident counter-proclamation.” I believe it is time for us to cease being afraid. I believe it is time for us to cease allowing the recent “trend towards conservatism” to be the agenda setting narrative. We must not be haughty, but we must be firm, clear, and respectful.

I would call this a call to arms, but it is not a war. So, instead, I take a cue from Haring and issue this Progressive Call to Conscience. Sisters and brothers, let’s once again be willing to make bold choices to explore the adjacent possible of the Christian faith, and be willing to endure whatever pain may come as a result.

7 thoughts on “A Progressive Call to Conscience

  1. Respect. Civility. Courage. The way we explore together what we believe and what we are called to do and be is so very important if progressives and conservatives are to be in dialogue.

  2. Great write up Landon. I’ve been trying to do a “confident counter proclamation for the last year now… A lot of stuff has happened since then and I might be less confident about my ability to change anything in this world (other than myself) – but I keep going with it since it still feels like the right thing to do.

    Anyway I’d love to read your critique of capitalism sometime – assuming that you have one.

    • Ah, yes. Doesn’t it always begin with us? Plant seeds, my man. Just plant some seeds.

      I actually do have a critique of capitalism I’m working through. Maybe I’ll throw up some initial ideas on that soon. Thanks for the prompt.

  3. Great post! It sparked a tangential thought in my mind about our denomination.

    The Fellowship seems to be conservative in its theology, but maybe has some progressive leanings (exploring the adjacent next) in terms of structure and system.

    The PC(USA) is becoming more liberal in theology, but feels not so progressive, and at times conservative in its reluctance or inertial resistance to change systems and structure.

    Labels are tricky, but I am itching for a progressive liberal movement that embraces the adjacent next and rapid incremental change in theology and structure.

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