I continue to work my way through a series entitled “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.” It’s an examination of 10 core tenets of progressive (or liberal) Christianity offered by Richard Rohr, but really based on the book by Philip Gulley.
Now we come to the fifth commandment and it is a genuine classic: “Inviting questions is more valuable than supplying answers.”
There is perhaps no commandment in the series that better captures the ethos of modern liberalism. Position yourself as humble and inquisitive, merely on a journey of discovery. And position the other side as less-than-humble dispensers of dogma. Brilliant.
Indeed, this is Gulley’s complaint about the church. He argues the church has been “committed to propaganda” and “towing the party line” instead of the “vigorous exploration of the truth” (93).
Ok, so what shall we make of this fifth “commandment”? A few thoughts.
A Caricature of Christianity
We begin by noting (as we have in other installments), that there is an element of truth here. No doubt there are some, even many, who come from a more fundamentalist background where a quick (and rather unsatisfying) answer to questions was always in ready supply, but any serious intellectual engagement with those questions was frowned upon.
In such contexts, questions were not encouraged. You were merely to accept the answer you were given. No discussion allowed.
If the commandment above is designed merely to correct this particular version of Christianity, then point taken. Such a correction is needed.
But, it would be a caricature to portray Christians (or Christianity) as a whole as anti-intellectual propaganda-dispensers. Indeed, most Christians have pressed very hard on the Bible and asked it the toughest of questions–intellectual, historical, and personal.
And they have found that it has provided solid and compelling answers. Why should this be the cause for ridicule?
Which Position is Intellectually Irresponsible?
I suspect that part of the issue in play is that progressives think it is intellectually irresponsible to make the kind of truth claims that Christians have historically made. It sounds arrogant. Even cocksure. How could anyone know such a thing?
The better course of action, they argue, is to say, “I don’t know.”
While this approach gives off an air of humility, there are problems with it. For one, “I don’t know” is only the right answer if in fact that there is no epistemological basis by which a person could know something.
But, what if a person does, in fact, have a basis for knowing? If he does, then saying “I don’t know” would actually be the irresponsible thing to do.
In other words, “I don’t know” is not always the right answer. Sometimes its the wrong answer.
Let’s imagine you just took a class on the Civil War. If at a later point your friend asks, “Did Abraham Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation?,” and you answer, “yes,” you could hardly be chided as an arrogant know-it-all.
Indeed, if you were asked that question and you said, “I don’t know” (out of some mistaken notion of intellectual humility) then you ought to be chided for rejecting a clear historical truth.
Of course, progressives will argue this is a false comparison because we know Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but we don’t know that, say, Jesus was raised from the dead.
But, that is the very thing in dispute! If the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, then arguably we can be more certain about the resurrection than about Abraham Lincoln.
The only way the progressive argument works is if he already knows the Bible is not the Word of God and therefore can declare all its truth claims to be dubious. But, how does the progressive know this? I thought it was off limits to claim absolute knowledge about such things?
To put it another way, the progressive has to know that you can’t know about the resurrection. But that would require a high level of intellectual certainty, something that the progressive has just claimed that one cannot have.
Smuggling Certainty Through the Back Door
This leads to real problem with the progressive position, namely that its inconsistent.
On the one hand, Gulley laments the dogmatism and certainty of biblical Christianity. All would be much better, he argues, if everyone would just admit their uncertainty.
But then, on the other hand, Gulley is quite certain about his views. In fact, so certainty that he is quick to condemn other positions. On one occasion he describes another person’s view of conversion as a “childish point of view” and that he was clearly “stuck” in a bad theological position.
In other words, he just smuggles his certainty through the back door.
And it is not just Gulley who does this. Progressives are quick to condemn all sorts of behavior they see in the world around them, while insisting Bible-believing Christians are wrong when they do so.
So in the debate over same-sex marriage, for example, notice that we hear very few progressives say things like, “Well, we just don’t know the answer here. We can’t be certain about what to think about it.”
No, instead we get absolutism. We get certainty. We get dogmatism.
Thus, one gets the impression that the real issue is not really certainty at all. It is what one is certain about. Progressives have simply swapped one set of certain beliefs for another.
In the end, we all have things we are certain about. Things we believe are true and real. The real question is the basis for our certainty. Christians base their certainty on God’s Word.
While that will be mocked by the world, that is the place Jesus himself stood. He declared, “Your Word is truth” (John 17:17).