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Sometimes progress isn’t progress. Here’s why.

Sometimes progress isn’t progress. Here’s why.

[This is a cross-post from my other blog.]

Lately I’ve been on a reading binge of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. I have too much to say on the treasures I’ve found in them to possibly remember to blog about it all. That’s a shame. On the bright side, there’s still lots of good stuff to mention.

One of my favorite paragraphs I’ve come across (maybe, it’s hard to narrow down favorites from such writers) is one in which Chesterton discusses the notion of progress, specifically in relation to the modern world. Everyone likes to talk about progress, though the fever was undoubtedly higher in his day. We still have progressives in politics (of many kinds: economic progressives, cultural progressives, environmental progressives, etc.), and we probably have far more now in theology. In fact, these so-called “progressive” theologians are my chief targets here, whereas Chesterton was more concerned with a political temperament. But much of what he had to say is relevant to either.

A chief characteristic of progressive Christianity is questioning. They like to ask questions regarding what the Bible says about homosexuality, what the Bible says about gender, what the Bible says about salvation, and of course just how seriously we need to take what the Bible says at all. The framing assumption is that we must ask these questions afresh because the classical answers are, we now see, in some way broken, obsolete, or unrealistic. For many of these issues, a sufficient Chestertonian response might be that the classical answers have not been tried and found wanting; they have been found difficult and left untried. But I disgress. My point here isn’t about whether the progressive’s questioning process will lead us to better answers than the traditional ones or not. My point, or rather Chesterton’s, is that you can’t really call yourself “progressive” in such a state of uncertainty. If you are stuck in questioning phase, you can’t genuinely say whether you’ve been making progress towards anything or not, since you don’t know where you’re going. And in Chesterton’s day, it didn’t matter how efficiently and skillfully you could run the the government. If you don’t know where you’re running it to, you can’t say that “progress” is underway. I’ll let Chesterton himself elaborate and leave it at that. The quote is from his excellent, excellent book What’s Wrong with the World:

As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

A reluctant defense of The Shack

A reluctant defense of The Shack

One of the few things as bad as heresy is accusing people of heresy when it’s not justified.

Unfortunately, a lot of conservative Christians spend a lot of time doing just that. Especially the ones who get into Reformed theology, for whatever reason. This is a shame, and I wish we as a whole would repent.

This most recently has come to my attention with the hubbub surrounding the movie adaptation of The Shack. The heresy hunt has come out full-force, warning Christians not to go see what might just be the most theologically awful movie since The Da Vinci Code (but even more dangerous since it pretends to be Christian).

The problem for me is this: I think we’re dealing with mass hysteria caused by reactionary impulses rather than reasoned reflection. Some of the charges escape this fault, to be sure, but many of them have other problems (such as insisting that everyone but Calvinism is terrible theology, etc.).

Now, that said, I would not point to The Shack as good theology. That would be a stretch. I wouldn’t even use it as a Sunday school illustration because I think much of it is muddled and problematic. But to say something has bad theology is one thing. To call it heretical is on another plane altogether. I have no sympathy for this latter move in this particular case. We must always seek to give people the benefit of the doubt, read charitably, and interpret anything which can be interpreted non-heretically as non-heretical. Sometimes after doing all of these things we will still find heresy, but from what  I can tell this is not the case in The Shack.

This brings me to my reluctant defense. I want to address the most common criticisms, and I will do this with reference to an image I saw on Facebook from Presbyterian Memes listing 13 heresies:

Phew, that’s a list. Here are my issues with it:

  1. This is not what is says. Though Papa does say, “We were all there,” and bears scars, this does not imply the heresy of patripassionism to which the point refers. Instead, it really only implies the orthodox and biblical doctrine of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, where the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, etc., as John 14 and 17 mention.
  2. That’s not really what it says, so I’m not sure how to counter it. I am curious, though, how this is different from the popular view that God is required to damn people according to His justice (limited by His justice) and therefore cannot practice love without the atonement first.
  3. God did forgive all of humanity, regardless of whether they repent or not. That’s just universal atonement, which is the true and correct doctrine of the atonement despite Calvinist eisegesis and protest. In any case, how is this heretical unless Arminians and most Baptists and whatnot are all heretics?
  4. That’s just not what it said.
  5. That’s a superficial reading. Young is basically going with a more Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Orthodoxy and many early church fathers, not Buddhism and Hinduism) conception of God’s wrath/judgment which is based on the organic relationship between sin and death or non-being. Is this the normal Western framework behind most of Protestantism? No. Is it heretical? No.
  6. That is the correct, orthodox understanding of the Trinity, unlike the Eternal Functional Subordinationism being touted these days by people like Wayne Grudem and others.
  7. Meh, that’s a criticism which could be thrown at any Arminian, or C. S. Lewis’ “Thy will be done” view of Hell, etc. Calvinists may disagree, but it’s not heresy.
  8. That’s not really what it says, either.
  9. Again, while Young probably leans (or leaned) that way, the book does not make this explicit. Even then, whether universalism is truly heresy or not is a controversial and questionable issue.
  10. That’s a bit of a caricature, and what is actually in The Shack is no worse than the view of inclusivism (explained here), held by C. S. Lewis, the Reformer Ulrich Zwingli (kind of) who invented the purely symbolic views of the sacraments which most evangelicals these days seem to hold, and the great early church apologist Justin Martyr, among others. May be wrong, but still not heresy.
  11. I don’t remember what this is in reference to, sadly, so I can’t really comment on it.
  12. That’s also not explicitly taught in The Shack.
  13. It does not at all say, “The Bible is not true,” so this is silly. It certainly subordinates the Bible to Christ, but that’s just orthodoxy. It also does hint at a more progressive view of Scripture, but your view of biblical inspiration is not a matter of heresy one way or the other.

So, that concludes it. For these reasons I don’t think The Shack is heretical. Does it have problems? Yes. Does it lean towards social Trinitarianism? Yes. Is it very, very non-Calvinist? Yes. Does it have progressive and Eastern (in the sense of Eastern Christianity, again, not Buddism) tendencies? Yes. But are any of these things heresy? No.

I wish we as conservatives could start using charity, stop being contentious, and overall use prudence in how we throw around the term “heresy.” Human beings are at stake here, and they’re in as much danger from contentious heresy-hunting as they are from actual heretics.