Progressive Christianity: The Same Old Tides

The most noticeable thing about progressive Christianity is how “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” it is.  It hasn’t had a new idea in more than a hundred years.  Of itself, this stolidity is not damning.  Most new ideas, thankfully, do not survive.  But it is another matter when you pride yourself on new ideas that you do not have, even as you toss aside hard-won truths of old.

Take it from Sigrid Undset, the great Norwegian novelist (1882-1949).  In her youth, the only socially acceptable religious options were the progressive Christianity on offer from the state Lutheran church, and its friendly cousin, atheism.  We see as much in her twin novels, The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush.

“All I mean,” says the young minister of the Church of Norway, referring to the coeternal begetting of the Son by the Father, “is that what we must keep a firm hold of is the spirit of the Reformation, and we are not doing so by maintaining dogmas which still had a value for the people of that time as the expression of contemporary religious experience, but which can only act as a hindrance to the thought of the present day.”

He is earnest, and, if you regard with a kindly eye his ambition and worldliness, he is an upright young man, intelligent and amiable.  He means it when he says that he and his fellow ministers “must have the courage to experience Christianity in our own way, by preaching the greatest religious genius who has ever lived, whose sovereign thought was that God is the Father, whose King’s speech was the Sermon on the Mount.”

At that point he is interrupted by another young man, the protagonist of the novels, Paul Selmer.  Paul is an agnostic making his slow way, as Undset herself did, into the Catholic faith.

“If he is God’s Son,” says Paul, “begotten from everlasting of the Father, of the same substance as the Father. . .then it’s all plain sailing – teach me to worship him as God.  But don’t come here and ask me to go in for any genius-worship in place of religion.  If he was a man of genius who felt just as if he might be the son of God and certain that nobody could bring any sin home to him and such a one in whom the Father must be well pleased – then I can only assure you that I don’t feel the least desire to work up any analogous feelings in myself.”


As for the Fatherhood of God, Paul will not accept any sentimentality, whether severe or complaisant, about that, either: “Has God himself spoken and said he is our father and we are his children, or is it only we ourselves who imagine God as a father of supernatural size – each of us according to his own ideas of fatherliness – a universal domestic tyrant who has us by the ears early and late and jumps on us the moment we go the least bit outside his table of rules – or a benevolent old gentleman who pays all our debts and is soft-hearted enough to pull us out of all the tight places we are careful to get into – a glorified noodle?”

Paul is no saint.  He has, sexually, the morals of his place and time – he is what I have called a “nice fornicator,” one who somehow wants the fornication to be on the road toward marriage.  He can belong to the Church of Norway, and no one will look askance at him for his youthful indiscretions.  He can be respectable, he can adopt the most enlightened opinions about the liberation of women and the inevitability of democracy, he can eat his cake and have it too.

But he is too honest for that, and too skeptical to believe that we are going to be saved by political change.  Indeed, the first World War is gathering on the horizon, the disaster that should have hammered a stake through the heart of the undead notion that man can attain perfection on earth.

What does Paul want?  We find him, still an agnostic, in the darkness of a Catholic Church, looking at a little red candle-flame flickering before the tabernacle.  Suddenly he has a sense of what a sacrament is: “If it was true that He was here, present in this way and at the same time on thousands and thousands of other altars – then He must also be present in another way everywhere and at all times, an eye that embraced the beginning of the spheres in space and the interior of the atoms and the secret thoughts of men in one single glance without distinction between past and present, great and small – everything was merely His thought and everything contemporary and everything equally clear and dear.”

There is not a single grain of dust, not a single subatomic particle in all the universe, where God is not wholly present, and which does not belong to God.  So too there is not one moment of my life, not one impulse of my will, not one flicker of a thought, that is not to be subordinated wholly to the will of God.

Human love is timid and keeps things in reserve.  Divine love is bold, all-claiming, all-giving, all-demanding.  We all wish to say to God what God said to the seas in the beginning, “Thus far, and no farther.”  We would be constables swaggering before the king; worse and more foolish, gods over God.  We claim to know where the world is going, politically and socially, and we give God his marching orders, saying that he is going there too.  And still more – that he is leading us there, though we can believe such a thing only by listening to one thing he has said, distorting ten, and ignoring a hundred.

And then we drift with the same old, same old historical tides.


*Image: Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) by Hieronymous Bosch, c. 1510 [National Gallery, London]

You may also enjoy:

Scott Walter’s Progressives for Change?

Stephen P. White’s Back to the Future?

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.