Let’s Define ‘Progressive Theology’

For the past weeks I’ve been writing about specific features I’ve encountered in ‘progressive theology’—specifically, a certain view of love and relationship, and a concept of blaming tradition itself for certain abuses. In discussion with a few people, I’ve been pressed to provide a definition of what I mean when I talk about ‘progressive theology,’ and I’m going to try to do that today. Please note that while I disagree quite strongly with what I see in progressive theology, my goal today is to attempt to give it a charitable rendering. In other words, I hope that a progressive reader would find himself or herself unobjectionably described herein.


Before anything else, let’s talk about the word ‘progressive.’ For most of my life, and in an ongoing way in political discourse today, the dividing line between ideologies is rendered most often in the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Liberal politics, like liberal theology, is theology ‘of the left,’ on the socialist and ethically progressive side of the scale, while conservative politics (and theology) is ‘of the right,’ and espouses some kind of capitalist, ethically traditional perspective on politics and theology. For a variety of reasons, I find these labels unhelpful when describing theology. First, because they are so trenchantly tied to political blocs, it seems all too easy to associate—and perhaps even identify—a theological position with a political one. In this, it is worth remembering that there is a long and upstanding tradition of Christian Democrats (e.g., Billy Graham), as well as a long a sordid tradition of Pagan Republicans (e.g., fill-in-the-blank). Some of these associations dispose us to errors in describing theological positions when we describe them as liberal or conservative. Second, many features of the ‘liberal’ agenda are deeply Christian—such as care for the poor, prioritization of human rights, and a disposition that aligns itself (at least ostensibly) with those members of society most likely to be abused by powerful systems of government. Whatever problems we might identify with ‘liberal’ theology, they aren’t these, and therefore I think it might be helpful to separate what is ‘liberal’ from what is ‘progressive.’


For similar reasons, I also find ‘conservative’ to be an unhelpful theological label. ‘Conservation’ can imply retreat and protectionism, and can sometimes reflect nothing more than a doubling down on the status quo such that ‘conservative’ can imply simply ‘opposed to change in any form.’ Another label to be avoided is ‘orthodox,’ if only because to use it implies an automatic value judgment for its opponents (i.e., they are unorthodox). Additionally, to claim a position is orthodox, in a formal theological sense, means that it falls within the boundaries of creedal and conciliar Christianity. The proper antonym for orthodox is heresy, and to be a heretic means to adopt a theological position that has been declared a heresy by the Church (e.g., Arianism, or Nestorianism, or the like). For these reasons, and many others, I prefer the label ‘traditional’ as an opposite to ‘progressive’ in describing theology. Moreover, ‘traditional’ theology (as we will see shortly, I hope) differs in each of the key aspects which define ‘progressive’ theology.

A final aside before we begin. Naturally, these are my observations about the features of progressive theological thinking. They are formed from my reading, my conversations with progressive thinkers, and especially from my quiet observation of a few highly progressive online communities. Nothing that I say, of course, amounts to the level of a kind of formal sociological study—these are simply the things I see when I observe this phenomenon.

I perceive five characteristics that define ‘progressive’ theology:

Theology cartoonkirk-anderson-ona-cartoon-440W#1) Progressive Theology operates with a certain conviction of the progress of theology. In some ways, this may seem obvious (since progress is embedded in the name), but it is worth making explicit. As a methodological lynchpin, progressive theologians view the theological task as a developing, progressing one. We know more now than we knew then, and that which we know now ought to have significant impact on how we formulate theology. For example, we know more about evolution than did the author(s) of the Genesis account, and that new knowledge ought to shape our reading and interpretation of the text. We know more about human rights and dignity, and that ought to shape our reading of texts which permit slavery in the Old Testament (and fail to condemn it in the New!). We know now that women and men are equals in every respect, and that equality ought to shape our praxis and belief regarding women in the church. We know more about human sexuality, and our new knowledge ought to force a readjustment of our teaching and attitudes towards persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. However you may feel about these individual issues, in each of them a similar methodological turn is at play—new knowledge forces a reinterpretation (sometimes radical) of what was previously thought. At their heart is a belief in a certain kind of progress. Put theologically, the Scriptures and councils of the Church spoke for their times but do not necessarily speak for our time. In this way, the Spirit continues to speak in fresh expressions (much like an ongoing fulfilment of the Acts 2/Joel passage) which continuously develop our theological understanding.

Wesleyan Quadrilateral#2) Progressive Theology prioritizes experience on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. If you don’t know, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a way of viewing sources of authority in Christianity. It has four sides which together support Christian belief: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In its original formulation, scripture sits at the bottom of the quadrilateral as a foundation, while tradition, reason, and experience form secondary considerations in theological discourse (i.e., they each answer to scripture). For progressive theologians, however, experience is given a position of priority. Put simply, the lived religious experience of individuals has more value than an ancient text. If I encounter a homosexual individual who has a robust and visible relationship with the Lord, that lived experience ought not to be invalidated by a text or a tradition. Alternatively, in stories that are quite common, Christians with traditional views of human sexuality change their minds when one of their children comes out as gay. In fact, to validate the text over against the person is viewed as a form of dehumanization, and may even look (to the progressive theologian) a lot like Pharisaism (holier-than-thou adherence to a tradition that is far removed from and neglects the lived experience of the people). Within this preference for experience seems to be embedded a deep suspicion of religious authority, manifesting itself in distaste for traditional arguments from scripture, and for expressions of hierarchy or patriarchy. It may be from within this metric that progressives find themselves viewing traditionalists as oppressive, or even repressive.

#3) Progressive Theology prioritizes a certain interpretation of the love commandment in all theological/ethical thought. In line with a belief in progress and a prioritization of experience, progressive theologians/Christians emphasize the love commandments as the final word in Christian ethical debates. Since the Old Testament is full of commandments we don’t follow (boiling goats in mother’s milk, wearing mixed fabrics, etc.), and since the New Testament appeals to a new law of love which transcends those old commandments, all we need to think about is the new commandment. God is love, and love is all. This ought to manifest itself especially in love for one’s neighbour, particularly one’s downtrodden, poor, or oppressed neighbour. When a traditional Christian critiques the progressive Christian on scriptural grounds, this ethical prioritization activates, and the question of ‘which is more loving?’ is commonly utilized to navigate the dispute. For the result of the dispute, see the comments above on Pharisaism.

God is still speaking 2#4) Progressive Theology commonly prioritizes its progressive elements in witness. When progressive Christians witness, they commonly foreground those elements where they believe progress has been made—they preach inclusion, and LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality, and advocate for female clergy, are often pro-choice, and may describe themselves (and their theology) as “woke.” This makes sense—if you believe that the Spirit has moved in a new way in the present, and that this new way includes all of these elements, then you will want to celebrate these new elements in your public witness. Personal sin and salvation regularly plays a reduced role in progressive Christian witness.

#5) Progressive theology is impatient with ‘regressive’ theology, viewing it as a kind of bondage. This is of course a clear parallel to #4, but to the degree that you are convinced that a) you are an agent of progress, b) that the lived experience of individuals is of more value than dead tradition, c) that the love command is paramount, d) that this ought to be preached loudly and clearly, then it follows, e) that you will regard traditional theology as a kind of bondage. In fact, you may well view traditional theologians as modern day Pharisees, attempting to bind the common man to a law he cannot keep, and which God does not mean him to keep. Progressive Christians sometimes view themselves as liberators, and in line with that there is commonly an impatience, if not an outrage bordering on vilification, with which they regard traditional Christians.


Sometimes progress is just a guess.

There is, doubtless, much more to be said about progressive Christian belief than this, but perhaps this is a helpful start. I have refrained so far from criticizing any of these features, if only because my intention has been to maximize the charity of my presentation. In view of this, I will limit myself to the briefest of criticisms now. First, most importantly and essentially (and as I mentioned before), I am deeply suspicious of the narrative of ‘progress.’ In the past two thousand years there have been a host of ‘advances’ which were not advances at all, or at least were not advances that altered Christian belief. I struggle with a narrative that invites so much discontinuity not only between the Old and New Testaments, but between Christian belief and practice from the ancient world until today. ‘Progress’ very often is simply a representation of what is ‘popular,’ and as Inge said, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Second, as a traditional Christian theologian and thinker, I am disposed from the start to distrust experience. That’s the reason we prioritize Scripture—it provides a foundation against which to measure the vicissitudes and changes in personal experience (which is fickle), as well as with tradition (which occasionally goes wrong), and reason (which can be deceived). Third, while there is great merit in focusing on the love commandment in Christian life and practice, it still means that we have to define what ‘love’ is, and to define what love is we’ve got to appeal to a source of authority. That source for traditional Christian thinkers is a complex formulation based on love as it is defined in the Bible (manifested especially in love for God as our sovereign Lord), and then worked out in theological history. Fourth, traditional theology prioritizes the saving event of Christ in its witness (whether through preaching or eucharist) and views the prioritization of any other issue—no matter how valuable in itself—as a serious impediment to the proper work of the Church. Fifth and finally, traditional theology sees itself as forming an allegiance with God against the world in its bondage, while progressive theology often appears to align itself with the world against the Church.

So, what do you think? If you identify as progressive, does this describe you? If you identify as traditional, does this help you to better understand your progressive friends? I’m curious to hear your response.

Tradition to Blame: A Further Look at Progressive Theology

When I wrote last week about Love and Relationship I had no real intention to follow up that post. There were (and still are) things to say about defining terms like “progressive theology,” and there’s something to say about progressive revelation. But this week I encountered another example of progressive logic that startled me so much I felt the need to spend some time with it. It is the idea that Traditional Christian teaching on sexuality is in some sense the cause of sexual dysfunction. The more I think about it, the more I think it identifies another feature of progressive theology that we’ve got to try and dissect.


If you’ve been reading the news, then you know that there has been a series of massive, deeply disturbing revelations about sexual abuse and cover-up in the Catholic church. Responses have been grieved, frustrated, and angry, and in the midst of this all there is a strong desire to explain or rationalize the goings on. One piece, produced in part by the scandal, was from Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option and chief editor of the journal The American Conservative. He published a story and interview with a man named Gabe Giella, a gay, former Catholic, former seminarian, who recounts some of his horrifying experiences in seminary. (Long story short: the seminary was full of sexually deviant individuals, and when he didn’t play along, he was the one who got removed.) The article is worth reading in whole, and I recommend it strongly, but the key paragraph that startled me is the following. Giella writes,

Sexual secrecy is the currency in the church and learning how to use it is almost treated like an art form in seminaries. This culture has been woven into the fabric of Roman Catholic clergy culture for centuries. The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration. Sexual secrecy and blackmail is the clergy’s bitcoin by which position, power, and control are bartered in the shadows, costing children and adults alike their faith, their safety and well being — and in some cases, their lives.

Now, before I comment on this, I want to make something really clear. My intention today is not to reflect upon Catholic practice and faith. As a rule, I keep my commentary on current events to those issues with which I have some personal involvement—I blog about conservative evangelicals, and I largely leave the issues of Orthodox, Catholic, or other believers to themselves. I think that’s only fair, and today’s post is really no different. I am not commenting, chiefly, on the Catholic sex abuse scandal. Serious commentary, and the business of criticizing and proposing solutions to that problem, is the purview of faithful Catholics (who, I add, have their work cut out for them and need our prayers). But in the comments I read from Giella, I detected elements of progressive thinking that I’ve encountered much more broadly. It is those elements that I want to treat with now.

Pope_Monkey see no evil

Yeah, but what about smelling evil?

First, there are a few things that Giella says that are quite important for us to hear. Chief among them is the role that secrecy plays in situations like the one he encounters. Secrecy gives added, corrupting power to sin, and in a context like a Catholic seminary, the secrecy of sexual desire—especially same-sex desire—must be necessarily strong. The wicked danger of this, however, is not simply that men keep quiet about their sexual struggles, but rather that secrecy is utilized as a tool of further suppression. And it certainly seems that in some circumstances suppression of talk about a situation is regarded as a solution to the problem, so that if we don’t talk about the elephant in the room, perhaps it will go away.

Another critically important aspect of Giella’s comments is his separation of gay priests from pedophile priests. Clearly, in the Venn diagram of these categories, they are not the same thing. There are gay men who are not pedophiles, and there are pedophiles who are not gay. Giella, and the other progressive thinkers I am familiar with, are right to reject the false equivalency that many traditional Protestants hold with regard to these categories. One does not necessarily mean the other.

Venn Diagram Template

Giella is not the only person who I’ve encountered recently who stresses this distinction, and he and the others I’ve read press it even further. They reject any material link whatsoever between desire for homosexual sex, and desire for homosexual sex with boys. For them, it is not a Venn diagram at all, with an overlap of homosexual and pedophile priests, but rather two completely separated circles, reflecting two completely different types of individuals. This makes a kind of sense, if one of your fundamental presuppositions is that homosexual attraction is a good. To the degree that you are committed to that claim, you must consequently reject any association between homosexual desire and categories of deviant desire (of which pedophilia would be one).

Since (on this line of thinking) deviant sexual desires cannot, by definition, account for homosexual and pedophiliac priests, something else must account for this. It is this ‘something else’ that I’ve detected in Giella’s rhetoric, namely, that the tradition itself is somehow responsible for creating this situation. Consider one of his sentences again, “The church’s strict and absolute regulations around sex and sexuality which themselves are created and promulgated by the very men who breach them provide a perfect cover for those whose own sense of sexuality is without boundaries, regulation, or integration.” The language of ‘integration’ is loaded. Earlier in Giella’s piece he speaks about integrated sexuality, which means, effectively, living openly as an ‘out’ individual. And the suggestion, however subtle, is that somehow it is the Church’s traditional, outdated, and repressive teaching on sexuality that is the real cause of the sex abuse scandals.

Gay Priest

Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa, left, and his boyfriend Eduard. He has lost his position in the Vatican. One also wants to ask, How can ‘integration’ be complete when you must also deny your vows? Isn’t there a disintegration at play as well? The presumption is that living ‘out’ is more honest, even if it means committing perjury. 

Think about this further. If ‘secrecy’ has created a climate of sexual sin, then what better way to address that secrecy than living openly, or ‘out’? The solution hinted at is that if the Church were to update its teaching on sexual morality, these problems would go away.

This, it seems to me, taps into a foundational aspect of Progressive theology—chiefly, and even embedded into the name, the aspect of progress. The logic runs something like this: we know more about sexuality than any time in history. Our knowledge, not surprisingly, exceeds that of the New Testament authors, who were entrenched in their first century worldview. Consequently, our new knowledge demands a re-thinking of those old (i.e., outmoded) sexual ethics. We have matured out of our old cultural taboos, and now we know that homosexual desire is not only not an evil, but a positive relational good. Our teaching must be adjusted accordingly.

Here’s the twist, though. Adherence to the old teaching is not only backwards and anti-progress, it is also dehumanizing. If I proclaim a traditional Christian sexual ethic, which condemns all homosexual practice, then I might be participating in a kind of abuse. My teaching is contributing to the fracturing of personalities, to the denial of central humanity, and even (on some accounts) to increased suicide. This, to me, explains why many of the Progressive Christians I’ve encountered view their teaching as a kind of liberation. They are ‘releasing’ people from the strictures of tradition to live full, ‘integrated’ lives.

Love is a human right

Human flourishing, in other words, cannot exist without sexual freedom.

There is so much to say at this point that I despair of saying it all. I think I will try to say only three things. First, I reject wholesale the narrative of ‘progress.’ Since the time of the Enlightenment, it has been a common enough (and false) claim that our new knowledge is superior in every way to the knowledge found in Christian teaching. It was there that the beginnings of the science and religion debate began to take shape. Heady with new scientific discoveries, Enlightenment thinkers readily dismissed the whole of Christian teaching, or even re-edited it to meet their specifications. They were guilty, then as now, of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” They didn’t evaluate the old ways of thinking on their own terms—instead, they were prejudiced toward their present and weighted the scales unfairly toward the past. New is not always better. With regard to modern sexual ethics, it is worth noting just how new they are in the history of the human race. Whatever claims they make to scientific basis and universality, these are fundamentally untested theories.

Second, there is something wrong, and even dishonest, about the rejection of categories of ‘disorder’ when discussing homosexual desire. On a biological, even evolutionary account, the purpose of sexual desire is the creation of more members of our species. To do that requires one member of each gender—sperm and egg. It follows that same-sex attraction, if we start with an evolutionary biological account of the human, is an obvious deviation from the norm. It reflects a disordered desire on the part of the individual. I want what I ought not to want as a sexual human being. To turn and sanctify the disorder does not and can not bring the person to greater integration. Instead, it reflects a kind of sanctified nihilism where this world, and its desires, and a form of temporal happiness, are all that matters. That, to me, is anti-Christianity.

Finally—and while this is the most important argument for me it may seem like the weakest—I have faith in the Spirit of God that He has not deceived us in the Scriptures brought down to us. Granted, there are crucial differences between the ancient world and our modern one. Granted, there are commandments and practices which appear to have lost the sting which binds them to us (e.g., women with head coverings, casting lots, etc.). But the Scripture presents a picture of the human person which has not changed—that I, and you, are made in the Image and likeness of God, that there are desires within my body that war against my living out of that image, that I am commanded to resist and submit those very desires to God’s Spirit in obedience, and that obedience looks a great deal like crucifixion of the self.


St Anthony, patron of those who resist the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Here, as with last week, it hasn’t really been my intention to argue with the line of Progressive Theology that I’ve encountered. In both cases, my goal has been to try and single out and bring a degree of clarity to an element of what is an admittedly large and complex body of thought. A proper argument against Progressive Theology, as I see it, would require a far more robust analysis of the concept of ‘progress,’ and with that a commensurate discussion on the role and sources of authority.

Love and Relationship: Some Insights into Progressive Theology

If you’ve ever been out of your depth, then you’ll know how I felt several months ago, attending a theological conference whose starting points were deeply entrenched in progressive ideology. The people were friendly, the discourse was generally courteous, but I found myself holding little sympathy for the presuppositions and arguments of my fellow attendees. It was an odd experience, but probably a good one, because I think it’s really important to try to understand what makes other people tick.


One moment, in retrospect, has given me quite a lot to think about. Some scholars had presented a paper, and in that paper there was a footnote which casually noted, without argument, that gay and lesbian desires were critically different from other sexual desires for things like adultery. The paper itself had little to do with these issues, but this kind of thinking was generally assumed all around, part of the progressive baggage of the conference, par for the conference course. One more traditionally minded attendee, however, chose to ask a question at this point focusing on that footnote. He pressed the presenters to clarify their casual and undefined distinction between types of sexual behaviour, which would condone one kind of sexual activity (homosexuality) while condemning another (adultery). The instant he asked his question the whole room changed. I could feel the tension visibly rise, heads shook in disbelief, a woman behind me began grumbling angrily not-quite-under-her-breath, and the cheerful congeniality of assumed liberality was swept away in sudden righteous indignation.

Another attendee offered a response, and it is her response that has stayed with me these past months. She posited that the difference between adultery and homosexual relationships is that “while marriage builds relationships, adultery breaks them.” This was met with general and widespread affirmation, and as a result the tension decreased, heads nodded in agreement, there were murmurs of assent, and the ordering of progressive assumptions had been restored for the moment. Here, I realized, is a crucial piece of logic which appears to be generally adopted by progressive-minded Christians. Naturally, I wanted to dissect it more.


One of my favourite demotivators, reminding me of the importance of keeping my head down.

As far as I can tell the basic premises of her logic appear to be as follows:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is manifested in relationships.

Premise 3: Things that build relationships are good.

Premise 4: Things that break relationships are bad.

It seems to follow, then, that since sexuality is an expression of human desire for relationship, homosexual unions—i.e., marriages—must be good because they build relationships, which manifest love, of which God is the image. This is how adultery can be distinguished from homosexuality, because the one breaks relationship (violating God’s nature), while the other builds it (honoring God’s nature).

If, as my limited experience seems to attest, this is the logic that operates among many progressive Christians, then it makes sense of a few things. First, it explains why, for them, monogamy is used as justification for homosexuality. If the essence of marriage is found not in biology but in a concept of “committed, covenantal relationship,” then homosexual unions must be good if they are committed and covenantal. The argument makes it feel as if arguing against homosexual marriage is to argue against marriage itself, and how can you argue against that? Second, it provides a clear example of a kind of ‘Bible within the Bible’ thinking where, basically, the love commands of the New Testament trump all other laws and regulations. Beyond even this, the love commands trump the ethical teaching of the New Testament itself. Since we know that God is Love, we can use that knowledge to make judgments about all other ethical behaviors in the present, homosexual love inclusive.

Love wins 3


There are lots of problems with this kind of thinking. In another post I plan to spend more time with the question of ‘Bible within Bible’ (AKA, Progressive Revelation). There is also a significant problem regarding the definition of terms—what justifies the above definitions of “love” and of “marriage”? These terms have been insufficiently queried, but I don’t intend to home in on those today. Instead, today I want to focus solely on the statement I heard at the conference, that, in essence, what builds relationship is good, and what breaks it is bad.

First of all, is it true that everything that “builds relationship” is good? Let’s consider some cases. What if I profess a love for (consensual) degrading sex acts, where sexual pleasure is experienced in proportion to the level of degradation? If such a relationship is consensual, and monogamous, but degrading to the Imago Dei, can it still be a good? Or what if I profess a love for sex (consensual) with underage boys? Moreover, what if I am ‘monogamous’ in such a sexual relationship? If the concepts of ‘love’ and ‘relationship’ in a blanket sense cover each of these types of relationship, then we retain no ground from which to proscribe certain ‘loves.’

Nambla banner

Nambla is an actual organization that advocates to legalize “consensual” adult-child sexual relationships.

Alternatively, think of the following case: imagine a husband and wife in monogamous marriage. However, the husband has become convinced that he wishes to invite another woman into the relationship, thus shifting into polygamy. His motives are based on an ethic of love—I love you (wife 1), and I love you too, (wife-to-be 2), and I think that the three of us together will increase our love. The polygamous marriage, by increasing the love-quotient in the relationships, should be a relationship-building good. However, might it not follow that if wife 1 refuses to enter into the polygamous relationship, then she becomes the culpable party, choosing a sinful rejection of relationship rather than the polygamous building of relationship?

There’s more. Isn’t it the case that sin also “creates relationships”? If I commit adultery, I may have broken a relationship with my wife, but at the same time I’ve also created a relationship with another woman. In fact, in any situation where I wrong someone, haven’t I generated a relationship with that person—however decrepit? If I sire children and abandon them, don’t we still have a ‘relationship’ even if it is one rooted in my own selfish sinfulness? If I economically exploit a poor person, do I not have a ‘relationship’ with that person, even if it is unjust by nature? If a given act of sin creates relationship, then it cannot be the case that all things that build relationships are good. In fact, in many of these cases that which breaks the relationship is in fact the greater good.

Rich Man and Lazarus_Eugene Burnard

Injustice binds the rich man and Lazarus together in relationship.

In each of these cases, the concept of love has been divorced from any meaningful reference points (whether historical or scriptural) and applied to the modern world as a sign of divine approval. But the fact remains that without some concept of ordered loves, we won’t be able to tell the pedophile that he is wrong, nor he who is pleased when God’s image is violated for his pleasure, nor, for that matter, the individuals who want to commit adultery and ‘break’ relationships on the basis of love found elsewhere, or love lost in the original relationship. What, in such a situation, is the benefit of a ‘monogamous covenant’? If love adjudicates all ethical matters, lack of love becomes justification for any number of wrongs. And the crucial fact is this: unless we have a way to distinguish between good and bad loves, and unless we have a way to distinguish between godly and forbidden relationships, we have no grounds whatsoever to proscribe any relationships or any loves, however reprehensible. Love cannot be its own justification, without definition and qualification, without falling into an inevitable, slippery slope of relational chaos.

And to this, I find myself asking: If only there were a place where we could locate, and study, such a definition…

Why I’m Wary of Civilization and Why You Should Be Too

I just finished reading Leonard Wibberley’s hilarious, poignant, and eminently readable The Trouble with the Irish (Or the English, Depending on Your Point of View). At one point in the tortured history of Anglo-Irish relations, Norman invaders had invited an Irish lord to a parley where they betrayed and killed him. Wibberley had this to say about the episode:

The explanation for this ungracious behavior, so surprising to the Irish, is simple. It lies in the fact that Irish were regarded by the Normans as barbarous people. It has for centuries been recognized as the duty of civilized people to slaughter those whom they hold barbarous, this being a method of spreading civilization. This tenet was held quite as strongly in the nineteenth century as in the twelfth. The Normans, if they thought of the matter at all, felt they were civilizing the Irish. [The Trouble With the Irish, 48]

Assyrian Foot on Enemy - Enlarge

Tiglath-Pileser III, Assyrian King, subjugates someone under his foot (The British Museum)

Wibberley is, of course, right. A vast portion of the history of society—not only in the West but in the East and South as well—is the history of civilization pitted against non-civilization. One group, more organized, more resourced, cleverer, takes advantage of a weaker, more barbaric, less organized, or less clever group, and “civilizes” it—that is, incorporates it forcefully into its own construct. The weak are made to serve the stronger, and the strong continue their march toward destiny, or progress, or whatever. We could better laugh at such antiquated perceptions if they did not continue to operate so insidiously today.

Ironically, it is in the agenda of modern Liberalism where this idea of forcible civilization is most entrenched today. To the adherents of this mindset, the future is an inevitability of progress and is represented, among other beliefs, in an increased role of government oversight, unlimited contraception, abortion on demand, sexual mores defined solely by consent, redistribution of wealth, and with all of these the ridicule and dismantling of any and all opposition. As card-carrying ambassadors of tolerance and diversity, they quite readily vilify any opposition to their enlightened agenda. Above all else, such liberalism views antiquated Christianity with enraged intolerance, and demands the purgation and “civilization” of any vestiges of Christendom. They believe they are doing the Christians a favor.

Not long ago I was seat-mates on a plane with a lovely young woman working in the tech industry. She, an ideological vegan, was passionately working to develop a veggie burger that truly tasted like meat. Her primary motive was ecological (the cattle industry is a big contributor to environmental change in many nations). Later, our conversation ranged to a number of other subjects, and as often happens when she found out I was a minister the subject turned to homosexuality and gay marriage. She found it incomprehensible that a Christian would deny another person the right to love whom they choose. We had a lovely conversation, but she seemed blissfully unaware of the double standard in her thoughts—she was perfectly happy to make choices for others when it comes to the environment (you shouldn’t eat meat), but completely in defense of people’s rights to make choices for themselves in other areas (you should love whom you choose). The view that progressivism is completely natural, while Christianity is utterly backwards, illustrates merely one way that Liberalism is remarkably blind to its own contradictions as it projects onto the world its own peculiar brand of “civilization.”

Veggie Burger

The deep and fatal flaw of this thinking—expressed both in Liberalism but also in the idea of “civilization”—is rooted in progressivism. Progressivism is the belief that society is getting better and better. Maybe not people, of course, but generally speaking, progressivism holds that the world is moving towards a better and better state. If you have doubts about this, consider how desperate are the vast technological pressures of our day—to become better, to release new products or else. Consider the idea of planned obsolescence, which holds that a thing should be built to last only until the next, newer model comes out. Consider the tacit belief that we are searching for other habitable planets in the universe in the hope that one day we can colonize them (presumably so that we can wreck them just like we are wrecking this one—as Albany says to Goneril in King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well”). Consider the roots of this thinking in how we perceive evolutionary theory—the core of our modern societal belief about the human self. Species change over time, but the implied, unspoken assumption is that they are always changing for the better. But why should this necessarily be the case? If evolutionary change is indeed grounded in random mutations, doesn’t that mean that sometimes species will change for the worse? Furthermore, if this universe is all there is, and if it is slowly dying out, what does the idea of “better” even mean? If life is as meaningless as such an outlook suggests, aren’t the best adapted life forms those which have already died?

When you think about it, our whole outlook is shaped by the idea that civilization is advancing—few are asking towards what. I am reminded of Ian Malcolm’s criticism of scientific advances from Jurassic Park—words that might be lost in the flashy effects and pure excitement of seeing dinosaurs on screen—“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” We are very much moving without thinking, without reflection; moving, as it were, without direction at all. C.S. Lewis speaks to this situation with his usual perspicacity,

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. [Mere Christianity, “We Have Cause to Be Uneasy”]

Ian Malcolm Jurassic Park

Liberalism, blinded by progressivism, is in love with its own agenda—and yet it is an agenda without roots. Why should we follow it? Where does it lead us? Precisely how does it make humanity better? Why should this vision of “civilization” be privileged over any other? To stand on any solid ground Liberalism has to give answer—Where is it going? What is the human person? What is the purpose of the human person on earth? And how does such an agenda facilitate pursuit of that objective? To do this it must appeal to categories of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, and so engage with decidedly old and nonprogressive ideas—it must engage, in short, with Christianity.

Richard Weaver in his 1948 book Ideas Have Consequences paints a vivid and prophetic picture of the necessary solution and imminent dangers:

Hysterical optimism will prevail until the world again admits the existence of tragedy, and it cannot admit the existence of tragedy until it again distinguishes between good and evil. Hope of restoration depends upon recovery of the “ceremony of innocence,” of that clearness of vision and knowledge of form which enable us to sense what is alien or destructive, what does not comport with our moral ambition. The time to seek this is now, before we have acquired the perfect insouciance of those who prefer perdition. For, as the course goes on, the movement turns centrifugal; we rejoice in our abandon and are never so full of the sense of accomplishment as when we have struck some bulwark of our culture a deadly blow. [Ideas Have Consequences, 11]

Until an acknowledgement of good and evil, of truth and falsehood, has reasserted itself in our public discourse, no motion towards progress can be faithfully made, and no advance of “civilization” can be faithfully trusted. Until we know what we’re doing, and where we’re going, and why we’re going there, we are traveling blind. And that is a very dangerous state in which to be.

In The Trouble with the Irish Wibberley recounts how in time the Irish were forced to become a kind of cultural underground—disenfranchised from all cultural rights they preserved themselves through hidden schools, language preservation, and secret religious practice. This was the only way to survive the onslaught of “civilization.” By God’s grace such extremes won’t happen to Christians today, but if it does, then God give us strength to be faithful until the agenda of the world, and of its civilization, and of this kingdom set so firmly in opposition to God’s, collapses under its own perverse and twisted weight. In the words of the Psalmist (11:3-4), “If the foundations are destroyed, What can the righteous do?” The answer is clear: “The Lord is in His holy temple.” If the foundations are destroyed, God’s people are to look ever more closely to Him.

Becoming More Human Through the Reading of Old Books

old-booksSometimes the best part of reading a book is the thinking it makes you do while you read it—losing your place in the paragraph because your mind is running with the implications of an unobtrusive sentence. This happened to me while reading J.A.W. Bennett’s essay in the volume, Light on C.S. Lewis. There I encountered the following words: “In this sense medieval just as much as classical studies make men more humane.”

Bennett’s sentence launched me out of the paragraph and into a rapid sequence of concurrent ideas, bringing together a number of thoughts that form, I believe, a coherent whole around the necessity of reading well. Let me see if I can tease out the network now.

Bennett, Lewis’s successor to the chair of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, is writing about the way that Lewis as a scholar inhabited the worlds about which he wrote as an academic. Lewis was very much a medieval man living in the modern world. And this fact is the first spark that ignited my thoughts, because Bennett’s assertion illuminates an implicit truth: Classical Studies—the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans—has long been the purview of the Classicist, who is an individual known as much by his living out of the ancient principles of the Greco-Roman world as for his expansive knowledge of its particulars. Classical Studies, in other words, is as much about inhabiting a worldview as it is about a kind of intellectual acumen. To study the Classics has traditionally (and rightly) been as much a matter of growing in your humanity as it is about the acquisition of knowledge. We do not read Homer in Greek in order to parse Attic so much as we read Homer in Greek to parse the human heart. We do not read Sophocles in order to pass an exam, we read Sophocles in order to expose ourselves to the innate tragedy of the human situation. Our growth is in character and knowledge coequally.


Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Bennett’s assertion, then, is that the Medievalist is every bit as much a student of humanity as the traditional Classicist. This arrested my attention precisely because of its implicit truth. Lewis was a student of the Medieval and Renaissance worlds, so immersed within them that he became an advocate for their perspectives, employing them as vantage points from which to criticize and destroy the ethical, political, literary, moral, religious, and above all progressivist idols of the modern age. In this it was not that Lewis always advocated for the past against the present, but that he rejected wholesale the implied superiority of so-called ‘modern’ ideas, and he used the Medieval perspective—as well as the Classical—to advance his case.

So, Medieval scholars are like Classical scholars. That’s a simple enough claim to make, but why should I find this remarkable? Simply put, because of what is common between these two disciplines, namely, the inhabiting of an alternative worldview through literature. For both the Classicist and Medievalist, the scholar has so invested in the worldview of the past that it can bring a challenging perspective upon the present. Rereading that last sentence I am aware of an inadequacy within it, because it is not merely the act of investing in the past, but of doing so in a disinterested way. The true Classicist and true Medievalist is a person who reads in the past in order to experience and see the past as it was, not the past as our present sensibilities project upon it, edited and interpreted to modern sensibilities.

The reason why Medieval and Classical eras are both excellent studies for this kind of perspective is due to an important factor: in each era there was an implied, explicated, and even pervasive vision of true humanity. Both ages were deeply, unshakably, teleological. This shows up most clearly in the figures of both the Knight and the Hero. The Hero is the image of the flawed apex of humanity, centre of his own story he advances against the odds but is brought low by his innate flaw or the greed and envy of others. Greek literature labors to portray the great heights to which we as humans feel pulled, then measures this against the tragic depths to which we can fall. In all, the question of human meaning is at play, exposing us to our own need to become the best at being human we can possibly be. Similarly the Knight is an agent of virtue, striving as much against his own sin as against any foe. The image of St. George battling the Dragon captures this nicely—the original George was a martyred saint from the 2nd century, but his story was taken up by medieval imaginations and adapted. For the original George, the dragon is his own martyrdom—for the medieval George, the dragon is a physical foe to be defeated. In both cases, the question is primarily one of virtue. Knights slay dragons and rescue damsels because dragons are evil and damsels are pure. He requires personal virtue and purity of heart in order to accomplish his task.

Sir Galahad was fit, because of his virtue, to recover the Holy Grail.

Sir Galahad was fit, because of his virtue, to recover the Holy Grail.

The contrast between the Medieval and Classical ages and our own cannot be too greatly stressed. Both ages were teleological in nature, and being teleological they focused on virtue and the acquisition of virtue as their great values. The pursuit of virtue is the means by which humans become more human. Lewis as the Medievalist is like the Classicist precisely because both worldviews invite the student to grow in virtue as he masters his material. Mastery necessitates an expanding greatness in one’s humanity. But we, by contrast, inhabit an anti-teleological age, and therefore an anti-virtuous age. You cannot advance a human towards being more human if you have no idea what humanity is supposed to look like. In fact, what we have witnessed in the past century is the gleeful overthrow of any teleological worldview by means of appeals to progressivism. It is assumed, today, that we live at the best age in history. It is assumed that the purpose of human life is to keep on living as long as possible (which, I should note, isn’t actually a purpose). It is assumed that appeals to alternative ways of thinking about the world are backwards, outdated, and inefficient.

The narrative is one that admits only of advance and progression.

The narrative is one that admits only of advance and progression.

Our age, being so deeply disordered as it is, desperately needs the voices of the Medieval and Classical worldviews. (And, incidentally, I suggest to you that it is this disparity between ages which makes Lewis such an appealing voice in our time—he offers ordered thinking in the midst of chaos.) This brings me to the value of reading. It is vital—and by vital I do mean vital, as in pertaining to the essential life of humanity—that individuals read old books and read them well. We cannot speak to Medieval men, nor sit at the feet of Classical geniuses, but we can expose ourselves to their world through the books they’ve left us, and that process of exposure—of being influenced, challenged, and changed by another worldview—is an irreplaceable process for growing into one’s own humanity.

First of all, this kind of reading is vital because it serves to break the tyranny of progressivism. It is alluringly easy to be swept along with the great myth of our age—that we are in the best of times and only increasing (i.e., evolving) in greatness hour by hour. Literature forces us to ask if this is even true. Sure, I have powerful technology at my fingertips—or at least, other skilled workers have technology at their fingertips which lends to the illusion that I actually know how things work. The body of human knowledge has indeed swelled and our access to that knowledge has increased—but do I really know more? Or do I just know different things? Were I jettisoned into another age of time, how would I fare as a citizen there? Do I have the knowhow to survive in ancient Byzantium, or medieval Europe, or a Viking settlement? Is my knowledge really better, or just different? And that first realization is the beginning of much wisdom—I know different things, not necessarily better things. Those things I know may or may not be good; they may or may not serve to make me more human. Here the voice of another worldview illuminates the gaps in our own self-awareness. I can use a computer; is my computer contributing to my virtue? I can operate an automobile; is the automobile facilitating my growth toward classical integrity and heroism? Much of what we take for granted as the great knowledge of the present is in reality a great load of useless baggage and pretence. We think we are wise, but really we are fools—at least when it comes to great matters. We are great but in all the wrong places. Fat with knowledge, we are not fit with virtue. We know more, but we are not more human.

Could I survive? What would "being human" look like in another era?

Could I survive? What would “being human” look like in another era?

A second reason why such reading is vital is because it gives us a vision for virtue. Simply put, without a frame of reference how can an individual grow in virtue? When I have only eaten a diet of potatoes, how am I to judge a matter like cuisine unless I am exposed to other foods? The modern economic virtue of acquisition and the modern social virtue of toleration are single-food diets. Are there other ends for the human creature against which we can evaluate those foods? What about the virtues of self-sacrifice, giving, or magnanimity? What about the virtues of choosing the good, justice, and purity? The reader who exposes himself to the virtues of another time brings back to his own time the virtue of perspective; he now owns a foil against which he can evaluate his own time. With a solid frame of reference, he can make solid judgments.

A great book on the decline and destruction of classical education.

A great book on the decline and destruction of classical education.

But against these goods there is also a grave danger, one that I hinted at earlier when I spoke of reading the past as it was. One of the poisons of our age is the way it progressively, and aggressively, seeks to rewrite the past into its own image. Although “tolerance” is hailed as a great virtue, the progressive age is remarkably intolerant of diverging viewpoints, and engages in a campaign of reediting historic literature into an image that pleases the present. This happens especially with the pet-issues of today—gender identity, sexuality, racism, power politics, etc. Sherlock Holmes and Watson aren’t simply male friends, but secret homosexual lovers. American History isn’t primary about an experiment at a specific idea of civil government, but a narrative of oppression and carnage. Gendered texts must be edited to include both genders (or excise gender altogether) in order to forestall the implicit disruption of our present narrative. In all this, texts are not read as texts, but as opportunities to import whatever ideas might fancy the literary ‘critic’ of the moment. Incapable of imagining a world unlike itself, the modern world re-imagines the ancient world in its own image, spilling its inkwell over the pages of history which it doesn’t like, creating a bizarre Rorschach into which the reader can see, not what an author wrote or a worldview presents, but only what he wants to see.

This, again, is the reason for “disinterested” reading—reading the past as the past, in its own vision, and allowing oneself to be immersed in an alternative world. It is a (sometimes) intentional act of divesting one’s present interests and values with an eye to experiencing the interests and values of the past in and of themselves. This does not necessitate always agreeing with the past, but the reader who would grow wise and virtuous through his reading must protect against reading the present into the past. Simply put, are you reading old books for the virtues and stories implicit in them? Or are you reading with an ongoing narrative of offenses in the back of your mind, accounting more for issues of sexuality, gender, race, and politics, than for virtue, story, or even simply the world-as-it-was? Alternatively, the wise reader must also protect against falling so in love with the past that he rejects the present. The real world remains real, but our adventures in literature equip and shape us for life in that world.

As a matter of interest, it is noteworthy that there is another documented instance of a movement which believed in its own progress, believed itself to be the apex of history, advanced its own virtue against the virtues of the past, and excised or reedited those books which did not fit or challenged the overarching narrative: Nazi Germany.

“Why do you still advertize Coke?” Someone once asked a Coca-Cola executive. His answer, “Because people still take coffee breaks.” Why do we need to read old books? Because people are still immersed in a false, destructive worldview, and progressivism is a mendacious ideology that creates mendacious reading. While promoting tolerance it is intolerant of any world that questions its assumptions. We require as a tonic against such a force the reading of good, old books—books which faithfully present the worldview of the past, a radically different worldview, from which we can draw a greater, larger idea of what it means to be a human person. Homer. Sophocles. Aristotle. Augustine. Dante. Chaucer. Spenser. Milton. Mallory. Scott. Austen. And many others. And yes, Lewis. And yes, Tolkien. Against the incapacity—or rank unwillingness—to be challenged by other worldviews humans must open themselves to the challenge presented by old books and old worldviews. In this sense, our self-education will become the means by which we too become “more humane.”