A Wedding, A Bishop, and Christianity in the 21st Century
This writer loves ceremonies. This past Saturday was a great day for this lover of ceremonies because it was commencement day at Gordon-Conwell Charlotte. Ninety-seven students received their graduate degrees and will serve Christ in a variety of Christian-related vocations. This academic year was especially meaningful for me in that it marked 20 years at Gordon-Conwell and because it had been a busy but fruitful year in the development of our library resources, in teaching several courses (including my favorite on the history of revivals and awakenings), and in mentoring several students toward graduation.
As I was getting ready for commencement, I watched another ceremony that captured much of the world’s attention—the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Nobody does ceremonies like the British Royals. And this one mixed hundreds of years of tradition with icons of popular culture. As the ceremony progressed, cameras panned across a crowd that featured a who’s who of world famous celebrities.
But what grabbed my attention was the sermon. Those of you who know me are not surprised. I not only love ceremonies, but I like good preaching. And Bishop Michael Curry did not disappoint both in terms of substance and presentation. He offered a thoughtful, passionate message that described his understanding for how the church should engage society, and for how Christianity should intersect with the modern world.
It was a powerful presentation. I can affirm much of what the Bishop proclaimed. We do live in a world with huge social problems—ongoing war, rampant hunger and poverty, an environmental crisis that threatens to reshape many of our assumptions about nature, and a lack of basic justice for millions of people trapped by economic circumstances and authoritarian and dictatorial governments. And yes, I think we as Christians must play a constructive role in addressing the complexities that face the modern world.
Still, I was deeply troubled by the Bishop’s message. I have read several interviews with Bishop Curry where he describes his understanding of the Christian faith, and what I discovered was an understanding of faith shaped more by an optimistic progressivism than by Holy Scripture and the Creeds and Confessions that have shaped the Christian tradition. Let me cite three ways this was evident in his message.
First, Bishop Curry neglects the reality of evil. I think that comes from a truncated understanding of sin, something that plagues evangelicals as much as it does progressives. Evangelicals are notorious for reducing sin to the individual while progressives focus almost exclusively on the social aspects of evil. But a biblical understanding of sin and evil is aware that human alienation from our creator has personal, interpersonal, corporate, and creational dimensions.
Bishop Curry’s progressivism harkens back to the theological liberalism of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies. That optimistic liberalism was shattered by two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust where at least six million European Jews were slaughtered in Nazi prison camps. Since then, we have had almost daily reminders of human evil and its consequences. The Bishop’s message seems more grounded in the words of John Lennon (“All You Need is Love”) than in the gospel of John.
Christian faith is much more realistic than this naïve progressive optimism. We face personal and social issues that are complex, difficult, and fraught with danger. What I have learned about myself in my own journey of faith that is shared by the experience of many others is that every human being must address their self-centeredness and how it motivates each of us. The essence of what the New Testament writers communicate about sin is that it involves our desire, both individually and corporately, to live according to our own interests and independently of God’s purposes for us. At its deepest level, Christian faith involves a change of allegiance—from ourselves and our own interests to the Triune God and his purposes for individuals and for humanity as a whole. Only this kind of faith can sustain us as we tackle what seem like intractable personal, interpersonal, corporate, and creational struggles of life.
Second, Bishop Curry neglected the centrality of our Lord’s death and resurrection. In the Christian faith, love is grounded in the cross of Christ, so when we speak of expressing love for others in tangible ways, we are speaking of love that grows out of our union with Christ and our participation in the Triune life of God. Progressivism imagines Jesus as a political revolutionary who ultimately fails to ignite a revolution in the Roman Empire that will overthrow those in power. So it is up to his followers in each generation to live with this revolutionary ideal.
Jesus was a revolutionary but in a very different way. He spoke against the corruption of the religious leaders. He acted that out in his cleansing of the temple and in his teaching regarding the Kingdom of God. But his revolution started from the bottom-up—with the human heart. Progressivism as a rule holds out little hope that individual humans can change for the better. We are trapped by the categories of ethnicity, social class, economic station, and there is little that we can do. Jesus argues that if we have a measure of faith as small as a tiny seed, that faith can be nurtured by the Spirit and grow into maturity in the same way that a small seed can become a giant tree. In response to Bishop Curry’s progressivism, authentic Christian faith recognizes that the Cross of Jesus Christ addresses the reality of the human condition, and that God raising Jesus Christ from death vindicates the purposes of the Triune God for our lives and for all of creation.
The last concern that I have regarding the Bishop’s message is his offering of a postmillennial eschatology that ushers in the Kingdom of God totally through human effort. We cannot read the gospels without seeing the centrality of the Kingdom of God in the preaching and ministry of Jesus. The New Testament writer John Mark records Jesus speaking the “gospel of God” with the words, “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:14-15).
As N.T. Wright, George Ladd, and other Christian theologians have reminded us, the New Testament writers portray the Kingdom of God as being “already but not yet.” The Kingdom is already present through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It exists in the lives of his followers and in places where the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are celebrated. But although it is very real, it remains invisible and not apparent to the naked eye. The fullness of the Kingdom will come when Christ returns and God remakes the entire creation. It is then that the people of God will live in a creation that has been restored to its original purpose and design.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both theological liberals and fundamentalists (the forerunners of today’s progressives and evangelicals) diverged in their understandings of the Kingdom. For liberals, the kingdom of God would be brought to the here and now through advances in science, technology, human organization, and general enlightenment. It would advance entirely through human means. For fundamentalists, the Kingdom was “postponed” beyond the here and now to a coming age subsequent to the return of Christ. The church was to act as a lifeboat for individuals who turned to God.
Both sides truncated the New Testament teaching regarding the Kingdom of God, and Bishop Curry’s sermon demonstrated the progressive side of that 20th century division. That is where the Bishop departs from the New Testament teaching, in failing to recognize the “already but not yet” dimension of God’s Kingdom and in seeing it coming in this world totally as a result of human effort. Hence, what the Bishop has offered us is 21st century progressivism dressed up in Christian garb.
In some ways, this writer understands this. I consider myself an evangelical and I am cognizant of the myriad ways that evangelicals have distorted the gospel when it comes to how we live in the world. Mark Noll’s outstanding work The Civil War as a Theological Crisis articulates well how theological liberalism arose as a result of evangelical Christian divisions over slavery during the antebellum period before the Civil War. Evangelicals, especially in the American South, tolerated and even encouraged Jim Crow practices that led to the disenfranchisement of millions of African Americans. Historically, our attitudes and practices toward Native Americans have been anything but Christian. And on the whole we defended immoral wars in places like Vietnam. There is little doubt that American evangelicalism has not practiced well the New Testament teaching of the Kingdom.
At the same time, the naïve progressive understanding of Christianity in the modern world has led to multiple horrors like the first World War (as the historian Philip Johnson has demonstrated), and apologies for oppression from a host of left-wing Communist and socialist movements. The reality is this. The Kingdom of God will not be ushered in by human effort. The Kingdom of God is what the 20th century Southern theologian Clarence Jordan termed the “God movement” in human history. It is rooted in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and its love is rooted in our surrendering our own self-interests to the purposes of God in our personal lives and in our world. Authentic love is rooted in the cross of Jesus Christ, in his atoning sacrifice for sin. We come to terms with our self-centeredness and the Spirit leads us to a change of allegiance—where we exchange loyalty to our own interests for loyalty to the purposes of God expressed through Jesus Christ.
Bishop Curry has done a service for those with ears to hear. He articulated a clear, concise understanding of progressivism for the 21st century, and we should listen well and carefully. Let’s recognize our need to engage in society and constructively address our world and its struggles. For me, that involves more willingness to speak the gospel and engage in community efforts to address matters like affordable housing, education, poverty, abortion, and lingering racism. At the same time, lets recognize the serious ways the Bishop’s words fall short of the New Testament and pose a danger to the people of God seeking to follow Jesus Christ and live by his ways.