The following six ideas are eroding classical, creedal, orthodox Christian faith. They sometimes travel under the heading of “Progressive or Emerging Christianity.”
1.CONFORMISM – The radical adapting of the gospel to fit the prevailing plausibility structure (A “plausibility structure” is what a particular culture finds easy to believe at a particular time.) This is often done covertly and dishonestly by continuing to use the language and symbols of orthodox faith but changing their first order or original meaning. Conformism is intellectually provincial; it traps itself in the spirit of the times and fails to give proper weight to the churches historic understanding of the faith. Most of the fundamental issues we face have been faced by the church in the past.
2. UNIVERSALISM – A gospel without repentance and exclusive allegiance to Christ where every one will eventually be members of the Kingdom of God even those who do not believe, reject or ignore Christ or give allegiance to another God.
3. RADICAL INCLUSIVISM – A community without boundaries of belief or practice. Loving Christian hospitality should not be confused with radical inclusivism.
4. SYNCRETISM – The acceptance of all religious beliefs as equally true and the inclusion and blending of all faiths. The logical contradictions embraced by syncretism are breathtaking.
5. COVERT UNITARIANISM – The reduction and erosion of the uniqueness, divinity and lordship of Christ. This eventually unravels the key doctrine of the Trinity. This leads to a new Arianism.
6. PANTHEISM – The confusion of God and the creation in which the distinction is dissolved and the worship of nature emerges. This inevitably leads to Monistic Pantheism and a revival of Paganism. Monism (all is one) is also the fundamental idea beneath Eastern Mysticism.*
C.S.Lewis observed many years ago that Pantheism is fallen humanities default religious position, “….not because it is the final stage of enlightenment, but because it is the attitude into which the human mind falls when left to itself. In the absence of revealed religion, humanity gravitates towards natural religion.”(See Romans 1: 18-23)
It also reveals itself today under the titles of Evolutionary Mysticism and Religious Naturalism but it is the old pagan Pantheism.*
The influence of these ideas in the contemporary Church leads to spiritual impotence – form without life or power. It is existentially irrelevant and spiritually deeply unsatisfying as it does not deal radically with sin and evil or lead to a personal relationship with the living God.
That is why so many people in this movement often turn to mysticism, aestheticism and liturgical symbolism to find some experiential satisfaction.
THE RESPONSE to these trends is often fundamentalism but there is another more constructive alternative – vibrant intelligent orthodoxy. The way forward is to bring the depth and broad historical perspective of Biblical and Credal orthodoxy to bear in a critique of the current plausibility structure and its intellectual preoccupations rather than the reverse. Theological liberalisms tendency is to judge God by our own intuitive morality and reason forgetting the fallen state of these faculties and their conditioning by the current world view. Camus, speaking wistfully but honestly out of his atheism, said “When man submits God to moral judgment, he kills him in his own heart”
It seems extraordinary and so unfounded that we who are so flawed and responsible for the many atrocities of human history have such confidence to imagine that our moral sensibilities and our judgments about truth are somehow superior to the God of Revelation.
The great danger is that we create a God in our own image. As Bonhoeffer said: “If I am the one who says who God is and what he is like then I will always find a God who in some way corresponds to me, who is agreeable to me. But if it is God who says who he is, what he is like and how he acts then that may well be a place which at first is not agreeable to me; for that place is the cross of Christ and that does not correspond to our nature at all”*
This is false belief and a re- run of Gen 3. Once again we believe a creature and his word over God’s. “You won’t die….. when you eat (disobey) your eyes will be opened and you will be like God knowing good and evil”
Any young church leader or anyone contemplating training for pastoral ministry in the church today needs to be aware of these ideas. In some denominations you will need to be well prepared before you even contemplate entering theological college as these ideas are well entrenched in some, but thankfully not all, theological faculties.
* The title of this article was inspired by the title of John Quiggin’s book on economic rationalism, “Zombie Economics, how dead ideas still walk among us”, Princeton Uni Press 2010.
* Eastern Mysticism is very attractive to people concerned with the degrading of the environment because of its apparently associated idea of interconnectedness which comes from its underlying monism (all is one). But imbedded in its monism is the idea that ‘difference’ is an illusion to be transcended and so it must ultimately deny the individuality of species. James Lovelocks Gaia theory is an expression of this idea of the interconnectedness of all things. While there is truth in the idea of interconnectedness in nature it becomes a distortion when used as the primary operating principle for the interpretation of nature and it should be recognized very clearly that when applied to philosophical and theological ideas it is a particular ideology and world view.
* It should be noted that the names this movement sometimes gives itself are: “Progressive Spirituality”, “Progressive Christianity”, “Evolutionary Christianity”, “Emerging Faith,” “Emerging Christianity.” A brilliant analysis of these trends in contempoaray Western culture and Christianity is Ross Douthart’s book “Bad Religion” Free press, 2012. (See chp 7)
* D.Bonhoeffer “Meditating on the Word” Camb.MA Cowley 1986 P44-45