Today’s essay brings to a conclusion my review of David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue: How the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Theology Shape Progressive Identity (Fortress Press, 2021, pp. 168).
Chapter Four, “Saint Paul the Progressive”
The writings of Paul like other parts of the Bible contain good and bad ideas. Progressive Christians will interpret the letters of Paul in the same way they interpret the gospels. “Any interpretation that degrades human personality (i.e., human well-being) should be rejected in favor of interpretations that uplift human personality” (p. 103; emphasis original). Hence no one should interpret Paul’s letters as “affirming the institution of slavery, the oppression of women, the condemnation of LGBTQ+ people, or hatred of immigrants” (p. 105).
Central to Paul’s preaching was the assertion “Jesus is Lord.” In his day this claim challenged the Roman emperor’s claim to be “Lord.” It was a political claim in both cases. What does the confession “Jesus is Lord” mean for today? “Today’s Caesars,” urges Kaden, “appear in the form of ideologies and actions that degrade the human personality” (p. 120; emphasis original). Hence Paul’s message should “be interpreted in a compassionate way, a way that uplifts human personality” (p. 121).
Sensitive to the charge that Christianity is anti-Semitic, Kaden applies the criteria mentioned above—not degrading but uplifting to human personality—to Paul’s relationship to Judaism. Kaden argues that Romans 9-11 should be interpreted to mean that “Jews do not need to convert to Christianity in order to be saved because Christ is not their way into Abraham’s family” (p. 128; emphasis original). Paul would agree also, speculates Kaden, that Muslims do not need to convert to Christianity, for they too are members of Abraham’s family. With respect to Paul’s “restrictive” texts wherein the apostle seems to exclude certain types of people from inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10), Kaden muses that perhaps Paul did not know about Jesus’s eating with sinners or perhaps he still harbored prejudices from his previous “fundamentalist Pharisee” life (p. 132). In any case, a progressive interpretation of Paul will read his assertion about “every knee” bowing to declare “Jesus is Lord” (Phil 2:5-11) as proclaiming the universal love of God that will result in universal salvation.
Paul has been transformed into a modern progressive. Why, then, bother with interpreting Paul?
Chapter 5, “Designing a Loving and Progressive Church Where No One is Out”
Progressive Christianity wishes to redesign church in a way that does not set boundaries…
that demarcate insiders and outsiders, true believers and heretics, orthodoxies and heterodoxies. This version of Christianity instead reinterprets Scripture and tradition in order to demolish such false binaries and invites us to privilege those features of our past that can help us live more compassionately in the present and future (p. 142).
Progressive Christianity erases the boundary between the sacred and the profane. The whole world and everyone in it is sacred. Everyone is invited into the church. “No one is out” (p. 158). Everyone can undertake the journey into the mystery of being and life: poor, rich, black, white, brown, gay, trans, queer, and straight, doubters, theists and atheists. Community is not about sharing common beliefs but sharing a common life. Love is the only virtue and exclusion the only vice.
It would take more space that I want to allot to analyze and evaluate this book thoroughly. Besides, I don’t think the message of this book will be very persuasive to my target audience. It’s too radical. But I think a few observations are in order.
1. Nowhere in the book does Kaden attempt to ground the progressive vision of human well-being in objective reality. He takes it as axiomatic. More accurately, he draws on the cultural consensus of the progressive left and appeals to those to whom those ideals resonate with their experience and feelings. As I have shown above, Kaden does not ground the progressive vision in the action of God in Jesus Christ. Though he does not say so, I believe that he, like his mentor Harvard feminist New Testament professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza on whom he draws heavily in this book, derives the progressive way from the experiences of liberation and oppression of those marginalized by traditional religion and culture.
2. Kaden does not spend any time denying Bible miracles or the incarnation, atoning death, or resurrection of Jesus, even though it is clear that he no longer believes these doctrines in any but a metaphorical/mythical sense. Nor does he engage in examining the events and words of Jesus to distinguish between those that are historically reliable and those that are not. Careful exegesis and theological discernment of the New Testament are of little concern. Why? The answer is clear. Dr. Kaden has moved way past this phase of faith deconstruction. For Kaden, the “truth” of progressive Christianity does not depend on the outcome of these debates. Progressive Christianity is true not because Christianity itself is true but because the progressive vision of human flourishing is true. Christianity plays a supporting role. And that brings me to a third observation.
3. Throughout this review I kept bringing up different forms of a question: “Why Christianity?” Why Jesus? Why Paul? Why Church? I discussed above one reason why he insists on discovering or constructing a progressive core to Christianity. For people who live in the Western world, ethical values and a distinctive sense of the mystery of life and being have been transmitted in the language of the Bible and the Christian tradition. It is so deeply embedded in Western language and culture that there are no substitutes. Hence even though Progressive Christianity revises and critiques traditional Christianity and treats it as metaphor and parable, it cannot simply abandon it altogether. For then it would have no language in which to express its vision of life.
There is a second reason why Progressive Christianity does not abandon Christian language, and it’s a bit more cynical. In Chapter One, Kaden discusses the changing attitudes toward religion in the United States. More and more people have become disenchanted with evangelicalism and conservative churches. Many Christians do not want to drop out of church completely, but they want a more accepting, open-minded, compassionate community. Using the language of market analysis and religious entrepreneurship, Kaden observes, “The time is ripe for such a perspective. Americans now more than ever are open to progressive religion. While we still cling to religious traditions, we are becoming more socially liberal” (p. 13). Progressive Christianity gives those religious exiles what they want: traditional Christian language and ceremony—God, Christ, the Spirit, incarnation, community, resurrection, baptism, Eucharist, the preached word, Scripture readings, Lent, Easter, and all the rest—but no orthodoxy, no excommunication, no moral rules about sex and abortion, and no cognitive content. There is always a market for such a bloodless and adaptable religion. Unfortunately, unlike the automobile or real estate industries, there is no penalty for false advertising.
The Essential Progressive Attitude
Having examined a far left form of Progressive Christianity I want to pose a question that I intend to pursue in future essays. Are less radical forms of Progressive Christianity animated by the same progressive principle that drives the more radical form? Where is the dividing line that marks the boundary between genuine Christianity and fake forms such as the one described in Christianity in Blue?