In the two previous essays we considered the phenomenon of Christian people who adopt a progressive humanist framework to guide their moral actions but continue to use Christian words to express their progressive views. Old words, lifted from their original scriptural matrix and placed in a new setting, acquire alien meanings. Scripture texts are quoted selectively and are reinterpreted by clever exegetes to conform to progressive values. And they believe this sterile hybrid is true Christianity. This essay is the first of two in which I dig down to the foundations of these two moral visions to show at what point they diverge and how much they differ.
God and Human Aspirations
Everyone by nature desires good things. No one can be satisfied with good when they can have better; and who can be happy with better when the best is available? Why be satisfied with little when you can have much? Though we know we can’t have it all, we still want it all.
In the history of religion, people always attribute to God (or gods) the maximum of wealth and power and life conceivable. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) articulates this principle in a memorable way:
For on this principle it is that He is called Deus (God). For the sound of those two syllables in itself conveys no true knowledge of His nature; but yet all who know the Latin tongue are led, when that sound reaches their ears, to think of a nature supreme in excellence and eternal in existence… For when the one supreme God of gods is thought of, even by those who believe that there are other gods, and who call them by that name, and worship them as gods, their thought takes the form of an endeavor to reach the conception of a nature, than which nothing more excellent or more exalted exists… All, however, strive emulously to exalt the excellence of God: nor could anyone be found to believe that any being to whom there exists a superior is God. And so all concur in believing that God is that which excels in dignity all other objects (Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine 1. 6-7).
Augustine reminds us that human beings think of God as the perfect being who actually possesses everything we desire and is everything we wish to be. Your view of God determines your view of humanity and vice versa. The history of theology is simultaneously the history of human ideals and aspirations.
How Man Became God—A History
Two Views of God
During the high Middle Ages (1000-1250) a debate ensued among theologians in the newly established universities in Europe (Paris and Oxford) about the nature of God. Should God be understood primarily as an infinite Mind that produces the natural world logically and by necessity? This view of God and creation enables theologians and philosophers to know something of the mind of God, natural law, and the good by contemplating nature and reflecting on their own minds. On the other hand, some thinkers argued that we should view God primarily as an all-powerful Will who creates nature freely and always retains freedom to change the order of nature in anyway God chooses. This view protects the freedom of God and makes God inaccessible to the human mind apart from his free choice to reveal his will. The first view is designated intellectualism and the second is called voluntarism. Many thoughtful students of the history of theology consider both of these views extreme. Surely we should think of God as both mind and will in perfect harmony even if we cannot harmonize them perfectly in thought.
Two Views of Human Nature
Because human beings always view God as the perfect being and the goal of human aspirations, the two views of God (intellectualism and voluntarism) generate two views of human nature and human aspirations. In the late middle ages and Reformation era (1300 to 1600), voluntarism became a powerful theological and cultural force. God was conceived primarily as an all-powerful, absolutely free, and self-determining Will. God is free not only from nature and natural law but from his own past actions. And in this theological environment, human aspirations were directed toward maximum freedom from external determination, aimed at dominating nature, and focused on expressing one’s arbitrary will in word and deed. To be in the fullest sense of the term is to be nothing but what one wills to be in the same way and to the same extent that God is only what God wills to be.
It would be a great mistake to think that the seventeenth-century Enlightenment signaled a return to intellectualism. The Enlightenment rejected intellectualism and viewed reason as an instrument to uncover the secrets of the physical world that could then be used for human purposes. In other words, the Enlightenment was an expression of the desire of the human will to dominate and recreate nature in our image in imitation of the Creator. What God is eternally, humans beings strive to become in the course of history. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Romanticism turned its attention from the will to dominate nature to the self-creative will of the unique individual.
Apotheosis and Utopia
Contemporary progressive culture combines the impulses of the Enlightenment (the will to dominate nature) and the Romantic Movement (the will to recreate oneself as one pleases). After all, they are but different forms of the desire to be like the voluntarist God, to free oneself from all alien structures, laws, and forces. Progressive humanism was constructed by removing God from the picture and transferring the divine qualities of unlimited will and absolute freedom from God to human beings. Without God in the picture, nothing remains to remind us of our limits, the order of nature becomes plastic subject to no law but human will, and absolute freedom from every restriction becomes the aspiration toward which we strive. God’s eclipse from human consciousness made it possible to deceive ourselves with the illusion that human beings could take their destiny into their own hands and achieve individual apotheosis (transformation into a god) and social utopia.
The LGBTQ+ liberation movement is but the latest chapter in the story of progressive humanism’s quest to overcome all limits and achieve individual apotheosis and social utopia. It will not be the last. The destructive impulse at the heart of progressivism will not have reached its goal until every boundary has been erased, every limit has been transgressed, and every rule has been abolished. Progressivism cannot acknowledge a principle of limitation and order without destroying itself. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) envisioned pre-political humanity living in a “state of nature” marked by social chaos, without rules, where everyone has a right to everything, and human life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes devised a plan to escape the undesirable state of nature into a condition of order and peace. In contrast, contemporary progressives work to create a world where “there are no rules and everyone has a right to everything.” And they call it “progress.”
To be continued…