Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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40 Comments

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40 responses to “Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

  1. I am right there with you. There are some things I seem more progressive about and some I seem more conservative…but I don’t feel comfortable with either track…. this is where my “third way” of thinking works… progressive and conservative, both politically and theologically, seem to be two sides of the same coin and I find myself at odds with both… I try and throw that coin away and figure out “what is the better way, the thirdway that is not on that continuum but on an entirely different plane?” i think it is, in that seeking, that we’ll find the truest answers to the dichotomies of dying modernity

  2. Scott Holland

    Josh, A new book by the conservative author Yuval Levin confirms your claim that progressives and conservatives are both funded by the rich traditions of Liberalism: The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine and the Birth of Right and Left (New York, Basic Books, 2014).

    However, we liberals who do public theology find the claims of post-liberal Christians like Hauerwas and company unhelpful for public, political and civic life. Since you hitch your theological train to the Hauerwas engine in your post, perhaps it is fair to ask how an ecclesial politics or a politics of Jesus solves the problem of political and public life in a pluralistic world? It might make the disciple feel he is above the worldly problems of politics because of faithfulness, or Jesus or the church, but moral sentiments or spiritual concerns still must be translated or mediated into the messy solutions of pluralistic public life beyond ecclesiology, unless on the one hand, one chooses to be sectarian, or on the other hand opts for a new, improved Christian colonialism.

    The great traditions of Liberalism, both progressive and conservative, offer imperfect solutions for the soul in society, not the soul in the church. Unlike the Platonic or Purist calls for ecclesial politics, they refuse to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    As J. Lawrence Burkholder reminded those who championed only the politics of Jesus: Jesus never had to make hard policy calls as a college president, mayor of Goshen or United States Congressman. In fact, as far as we know, Jesus never even had to negotiate the complexities of family life with a spouse and children. Ah, to be a bachelor for the kingdom or a virgin of the church!

    • Let me reply by saying this: There are two reasons why folks like Hauerwas and Yoder aim for something different than “public policy.” First of all, the public systems are systems of power where it is power from above, coercing and “lording it over”. There’s almost a built in elitism that says, “We know best how to take care of things” and then they aim to do so by imposing their will on the rest of society through legislation and public policy. And yes, both “progressives” and “conservatives” do this. This is what Josh, I think, is pointing out in some ways. The Christian response to the societal problems should not be characterized by that model but by a suffering servant model, one where those who want to help the marginalized and so forth do so by being down and in solidarity with them, not in advocating for some sort of power on high. In other words, an incarnational view where, like God became man in Jesus, we become poor, oppressed, homeless, etc., in order to bring the light into their lives.

      And that’s where the second reason comes in. Public policy, even the policies of most institutional churches, aim to do the good works at arms length. Programs, ministries, committees, departments, agencies, etc., while they all do good stuff, are too easy for the rest of the “masses” to just hand over their money, their power, their resources and they don’t need to get their hands dirty. While those in those agencies may have some relation to the people they serve, it’s way to easy to keep ourselves seperate from those in need simply by saying, “I gave at the office.” In other words, we should not ask or demand of the society around us to do things that we are not willing to do ourselves…and even that we are not ACTUALLY doing ourselves. If I’m not feeding a hungry person myself, in a relational, incarnational fashion, how dare I demand that someone else does?

      Hauerwas, Yoder, and others are all aiming for a different kind of politics, where we, who are of the body of Christ, become an alternative society, incarnational to those in need, starting down in the relational trenches to stand along side, giving up our own rights, our own comfort, our own agendas to do the good. Instead of taking power and saying,”I can change the world”, we give up our power and ask, “How can I serve you?”… and be relational on it.

      • Scott Holland

        No quarrels with this, Robert. However, I’m not talking about “public policy” here as much as a public theology wherein the church imagines itself in the world for the world as good neighbors and fellow citizens.

        To use Yoder’s language, I’m for more dwelling in the realm of the “middle axiom” and less hubris, in Anabaptist “Hochmut,” about some other kingdom of people separate from the grand mass of humanity.

      • Gotcha, thanks for the clarification. I agree. We should not have a dualistic view of “us vs. them” with regards to our influence in the world. Quietism and seperatism are not “salt and light”. However, I think we need to be cautious in how much priority we place, in the exercise of our public theology, with regards to public policy. I think there is much to be said and explored in Yoder’s words that “first and foremost, the church must be the church.”

  3. Really love that Nancey Murphy book. Russell assigns it in one of his classes. I just re-read my paper from 2010 🙂

  4. Joshua Brockway

    Thanks Scott,

    I figured this would get a clear and witty response from you 🙂

    As I have said in other places, I have no skin in the Hauerwas game. In some ways, “hitching my wagon” in this post was a way of connecting various streams so that others can get a reference point. That said, his post-lib perspective does ring true. In more simplistic terms, I think he asks that the church be the church first, and then engage in culture.

    As for the sect/pragmatist binary, I just don’t see it. But I do see how Liberalism casts it as a binary. A year or so ago a really horrible essay was posted that said, nearly verbatim, that Hauerwas’ vision of the church is akin to the Muslim Brotherhood. It seems to me that Liberalism is so intertwined with 1) religion as private/person and 2) that a greater unity must be scored in wider society. So I don’t get how a theology that asks the church to be the church is colonial and a political culture (with the actual means and tools) that totalizes discourse and creates an overarching “religion” to replace a faith is not colonial. I would be like saying David was the bully and Goliath was just walking through the field that day.

    I was talking about this the other day. Each time I run into someone who rolls out the post-colonial critique I find that they are just as totalizing and hegemonic in their perspective as the most conservative of orthodox theologians. The will to power-over others is pretty much everywhere.

    Of course here we are stuck in one more of modernity’s binaries- either church or culture. I think one thing post-libs like Hauerwas need to work on yet is better understanding of being church in the world. That is how we might parse being church within a society that still has redeeming qualities. I was reading John Cassian’s famed conference that got him in trouble with the hyper-Augustinians. At one point he says something absolutely on target- Why would we assume that humanity is only capable of evil? Would not that be an assault on the goodness of the Creator?

    I think of Basil the Great’s monastery/hospitals and his solid critique of Julian as a vision of being the church and yet public. I think of Chrysostom standing in the pulpit in Constantinople and calling out the empress and her gold. And I think of Francis and his meeting with the Sultan. Each of these seem to be public (and clearly less than pragmatic) in their approach and yet do so as Christians first- not leaving it at the door in favor os some other, smaller good. The church world binary just did not apply.

    Josh

    • Scott Holland

      Cassian, Basil, Chrysostom and Francis are nicely ‘compromised’ examples of the challenges of worldly holiness, even if each did labor under some Constantinian-like assumptions of the church in the world. Yet more constructive work on the possibilities of a prophetic civil religion in contrast to a culture-conforming priestly civil religion might hold unexpected promise. Chrysostom did kick the old binary by arguing that because we offer kisses and receive the Eucharist with our lips, the lips are the holiest of the body’s members. I’m for that!

      On being the church, most PBS stations are airing a special on the Amish tonight at 9:00 PM. Watch it and we’ll talk more about ecclesiology. The Amish are both ‘Married Monastics’ and Extreme Anabaptists and thus present an interesting case study on the problems of ecclesia.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Yeah, I’ve seen the ads. I will have to catch it on the web while imbibing the works of these old dead monks. I will say that we can see in the Amish both a rich vision of communal formation (ie the response to Nickle Mines) and the worst of authoritarian communalism. But as I said in the post- I just can’t get on the “lets go back to the days when….” vision of doing church. For as much as I love my old dead monks, there are things I am just not willing to transport to the 21st century.

        As for Chysostom, we would do well to let go of this old Zwinglian subjectivism. I am of the opinion that until Brethren develop a sacramental perspective some of this peace and justice stuff will sound like stodgy liberalism and privilege. We make peace because the body matters! Not because we think its a good idea. But that is the stuff of another post!

  5. I like your self-description, Josh – biblically conservative and socially liberal. While I do tend to lean right, I don’t lean all the way over. While I would not be accepted by many Progressives for a lot of my views, some of my views would also be scorned by my Conservative friends. I’ll just mention one area where I have changed my mind over the years (but not the only one). Early on, I was more heavily influenced by Fundamentalists in books and on the radio. But around the mid-1980’s, I changed my mind about women’s ordination. Over the years, I have also become more oriented toward the peace position, although more so in the line of Non-Resistance thought than Pacifism. But I do believe it is wrong for Jesus’ followers to fight. We are to show a “better way of living,” even if we can’t realistically make the whole world lay down their arms. A good blog, and I just wanted to share a few personal thoughts. “Humbly proud” of what God is doing in your life.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Thanks Ray!

      I am struck by how often we define ourselves in some camp- Progressive, Conservative. It is almost as if we make no sense to anyone unless we say- “I am a Progressive/Conservative Christian.” We all know what happens when the modifier comes in the front- it means we are often more concerned about our Progressive/Conservative street cred that we are about being Christian. It isn’t until one of those “3rd rail” issues of their camp are touched that we realize just how Liberal we all are 🙂 As my friend David FItch says when asked if he is a literlaist- “It’s too liberal”.

  6. Jeff Boshart

    I appreciate this, Josh. As a non-theologian I hesitate to wade too deeply into such a heady debate, but as a practitioner and simultaneously an observer at the intersection of Christianity and culture, I find spending time among the Brethren in places like the DR and Haiti gives pause for thinking about the role of the church in a different society. Basically, here we as church-goers can and often do debate about how best to redeem society or parts of it through political power, whereas in other countries it is felt in the church at least that society is well-beyond transformation through power. So what to do when one wishes to bring about change for the betterment of self and others? The answer among Haitian or Dominican Christians, although not expressed this way usually, is to be beautiful and healthy. Be beautiful in your family relationships. Be beautiful in your relationships with your neighbors in and out of the church. Teach your children to be respectful of others. Don’t pee in the streets, for cryin’ out loud, was what I heard one pastor say to the youth and children in his church. Care for your land and grow healthy food. Doing these things will likely at some point bring church folks into conflict with those around and provide more opportunities to be beautiful and healthy. Gotta’ go feed some chickens. Thanks for your words.

    • Joshua Brockway

      I love it Jeff- Don’t pee in the streets! Only if ‘Merican pastors would tell us the same thing instead of playing partisan games!

      For the classical Greeks there were three great aspects to life- The True, The Good, and the Beautiful. When those three intersect we know what is true by the good it supports, and the beauty it presents. It is why so many stories of saints emphasize their teaching, their good acts, and the beauty of their person (even the dead saint was said to emit a beautiful smell).

      I think we forget those three in the name of power and influence. Too often beauty and truth are compromised in the search of some “good.”

      • Scott Holland

        Rubem Alves, whose text I’m using this semester, makes this case and thus declares, “Outside of beauty there is no salvation!”

    • “Be beautiful and healthy!” Yes. I love that.

  7. I don’t think I’ve seen such sage-like advice on a blog as this:
    * be beautiful and healthy (as a family, as neighbors, and as a church)
    * be respectful to others
    * grow healthy food (oh, if US Christians could wrap their minds around this one!!)

    And my personal favorite: Don’t pee in the streets, for cryin’ out loud!

  8. Thanks for this, brother. I think rooting out those tapes that play in our heads – even the Starbucks vocabulary tapes, convincing us we’re ordering something VENTI when it’s really just MEDIUM – is one of the hardest things we’re faced with in the church. Language is so insidious. Gives me new appreciation for the prophets preaching poetry in the streets…if only to force people to hear different words.

  9. Jeff Neuman Lee

    Dana’s words inspire me to say what she said and wreck it somewhat by being analytic.

    Josh, the notion of “post-progressive” irks me because as a head-line it sounds like you have defected to the conservatives. But, to read your blog is to see you move beyond that liberal/conservative language dichotomy, in, as Jeff Boshart might put it, a “beautiful way.”

    There are inherent problems in the basic human technology of language. I will say “insurmountable” because I can’t think of any sure fire way of surmounting them (the best I see is to literally or metaphorically die for love . . . I wonder where I came up with that idea.) Language serves at least two purposes, to communicate ideas and to communicate identity. We get these confused all the time and most of our arguments of late have to do with trying to communicate ideas with identity markers. We think that the world will be a much better place if everyone was just like me.

    We who strive to be faithful to Jesus need to strive to see above all this problem of language. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could be post conservative or post liberal? In my experience, (which, of course, I therefore tempt being ironic rather than straightforward and find myself being both) to do so is wisdom, and it is a wisdom not gained by everyone. That frustrates me and I wonder why God would let that happen. Especially, dare I say it this way, why does God proliferate the seemingly hopeless ones who hate me (or you or anyone) because I (you or anyone) cannot look like them and they cannot/do-not see the a priori structure of language. Yet, the structures of language are necessary to keep people together, so, after poking our heads above the clouds, we have to choose which language(s) with which to suffer. And worse, it is my observation that this ability to see beyond one’s own language is found largely among liberals. (Please, show me a “conservative” I can actually talk to without the conversation getting stuck in their language!)

    And then God, in Christ, shows me that I need to love all these crazy people who may or may not get it.
    How do people use language? How open are they to the possibility of God? And God tells us to love them all, each and every one. The test, to me, is to look at everyone and see how God is using them, just as they are.

    I dunno if that helps. I think Dana said it better: “Language is so insidious.”

    • It’s fascinating to me that here is yet another Brethren/NuDunker conversation that takes the linguistic turn, getting hung up on words, labels, language, etc. Remember our conversation about theology last year? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARt-oC0vknU)

      Language isn’t just expressive, it’s also constitutive. In fact it’s constitutive before it’s expressive, because language is connected to a complex form of life that is patterned onto us through training and use, connecting our corporeal bodies to the earth and other corporeal bodies.

      Early Wittgenstein saw language as what has been expressed here: problems (aporias, puzzles) to be surmounted. He later saw that there was no such hope for humans, as we are inescapably linguistic creatures who can do no other than be immersed in the messy, risky business of being constituted by and users (and abusers) of language.

      So it makes me pause to hear language characterized as “insidious.” Surely when abused (used un-lovingly), that is certainly the case. But what other choice do we have but to take the risk? Language can be (and is) redemptive and beautiful. If God is love, and Jesus is God become flesh, and Jesus is the living and active Word of God, and we are the body attached to Jesus as head…then it seems to me to be a creational mandate to not try and “surmount” language (as if we could!), but to redeem language.

      Later Wittgenstein also attempted to do “therapy” on his field of philosophy of language, disabusing it of the corner it had backed itself into. I see that same therapeutic mode in what Josh is laying out here by holding out the possibility of post-Liberal perspectives. We have been bewitched and abused by the language games of “Liberal/Conservative,” and we’d do well to see them for what they are – contingent, non-given, they could be otherwise – and attempt to re-envision a better, perhaps more faithful language game to order our life together in the body of Christ.

      • Brian, I said pretty much the same thing in response to Jeff over on Facebook (and copied that response here), but I’d still defend the idea that language is insidious – it gets inside us and wreaks havoc on the ways we act, speak, think. It’s powerful, and uncontrollable.

        But I also think Christ as Word has huge implication for these conversations about language. I’m not sure Wittgensteinian therapy is where I’d go so much as using language always with the knowledge that it is contingent, always hoping for it to be redeemed by the only one who can…

    • Joshua Brockway

      Jeff,

      Sorry WordPress was being weird, but glad we got your post up.

      The line that struck me the most was about the desire for people to be, act, look, and think just like me. Personally, I think that cuts across the identity categories. It is an impulse I find myself fighting regularly. As a good friend of mine says- Life will be so much easier when I am queen (or king in my case 🙂 )

      I will admit to some sensationalism in the title. It was meant purely as a means to get people to read. Though, two things came to mind as I read your comment. First, as we know of any “recovery” we remain what we are trying to step away from. So an addict is always a “recovering addict”. In some ways, I remain a progressive even as I am in recovery. I am undoing the tapes that run through my head that I think cloud how I see the world, others, and even God. We are so shaped by liberalism (in the broad sense of both conservative and progressive) that we all have some “detoxing” to do regardless of where we stand. I was thinking about this in the ridiculous “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Ham last night. “Great,” I thought as everyone was posting the link, “just what we need. Two liberals fighting about premises that just don’t make sense anymore.” Second, I’ll say rather bluntly (and not in a very Brethren manner) the idea of “defecting” seems to me to just encourage the antagonism between progressive and conservative.

      As for language, I don’t think it is a hurdle to overcome. I don’t even think of it in terms of a problem. I go back to John 1 there, the Word used words. We can’t think in any other way. Language shapes the way we see the world and forms us as people. In that way I think it is gift rather than curse. Modernity has been founded on the idea as you state it- namely that language is referential to something else, ideas, things, or identities. I go more with guys like Wittgenstein who says we are embedded in language games where the words we use shape us in how we use them. (But there again, we are going down a think road that deserves a post in itself). In recovering from being a Progressive, I am saying that I am rejecting the very idea of language as you summarized it. I am not into playing the language game as Modernists and Liberals have construed it.

      The one place I think we rise above language is in prayer. As the early monks said so clearly, perfect prayer is without words, where we rise up on words and images to the place where we most fully meet God, who is beyond words at all. Part of a really robust theology of incarnation is that God comes in flesh so we can begin with words, come to know God there. We do not rise about language with other persons, but only by God’s revealing grace. (But there again is a post for another day!)

      Thanks Jeff!

      • Scott Holland

        Hey Josh, Here at the God Factory someone just asked me, “What did the liberals ever do to those NuDunkers?”

      • Joshua Brockway

        Thanks Scott. Maybe they could join in and actually talk about it.

      • I’m referencing your post which begins:

        The line that struck me the most was about the desire for people to be, act, look, and think just like me. Personally, I think that cuts across the identity categories. It is an impulse I find myself fighting regularly. As a good friend of mine says- Life will be so much easier when I am queen (or king in my case 🙂 )

        Thanks for all your work to communicate, Joshua.

        Yeah, that is a universal impulse. At our hearts we are schools of fish, glancing sideways to see which way everyone is going. I feel pretty spiritual when I “stick my head above the clouds” . It is frightening. I’d say it’s prayer and maybe in a real sense it is. But what we call prayer usually helps us reaffirm our world view.

        now in regards to this:
        I go more with guys like Wittgenstein who says we are embedded in language games where the words we use shape us in how we use them. (But there again, we are going down a think road that deserves a post in itself). In recovering from being a Progressive, I am saying that I am rejecting the very idea of language as you summarized it. I am not into playing the language game as Modernists and Liberals have construed it.

        I find this confusing. At first it sounds like you recognize the crazy difficulty of language (which, I contend, makes us humble and open to the real communication of the people/God speaking the word), and then it sounds like you want to just go with the “true meaning of words” (like a “conservative” whose “true meaning” is just what he/she wants it to be and all of us are subjected to their judgement of how we fit with their assumptions of truth.) The contingency of the first, as uncomfortable as it is, allows God to be God. The certainty of the second is idolatrous.

        Now we tend to take these two (binary) ways and lay them onto the names conservative and liberal and, observably from my biased point of view, this has some validity. Of course, never fully. Another way I look at the duality is developmentally. And then I look at it culturally. Then we can look at the binary as an existential choice one might make. Oh, and I am sure that we can look at the ways of perceiving genetically, as well. And there are overlaps for each of these ways of looking at things with our common ideas behind “conservatives” and “liberals.”

        I dunno. I tried to read Wittgenstein once. Well that didn’t happen. Then I read that he had done a huge flip-flop. So, to which Wittgenstein were you referring?. A thinker I’ve read about (I couldn’t read this level of abstraction if my life depended upon it) is the mathematician Goedel who, while addressing a problem in math speaks to our issue. Using math he proved that the mathematical system can never be closed, that it always has to have external referents. If a language as tight as math cannot be fully coherent, no language can be. I read once that Steven Hawking had to allow for the possibility of God because of this hole in the fabric of math.

        Now I don’t really belong to this discussion, as I haven’t read all that you folks have read. But then again, it’s always breaking open.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Thanks Jeff.

        Sorry to clarify and then confuse 🙂 In terms of the language games, what Ludwig Wittgenstein said in his famous “Philosophical Investigations” is that we don’t have a correspondence theory of language. Many modernists will say that our words have something to which they refer- an idea in our minds, an object in the world, or even some truth. Post-modernity has pretty much leveled that idea. Rather, our pal Ludwig said that words and signs are part of language games. In learning the words we also learn the cultural rules to use them appropriately. So like a game of chess, we don’t just learn Bishop means the piece with the hat like a church bishop on either side of the king and queen. We also learn the rules for how to use that piece on the board. Basically, we learn Culture as we learn words. We learn how to use them effectively. The back drop of this also means that we don’t have an exact referent for our words. Instead the words and the rules shape the way we think.

        The idea that I am coming around to a “conservative” view of language as one word signifying an idea, object, or truth is not the case. Rather, I am saying that we have many cultures in which we learn our vocabulary. So we all look for catch words to make sure someone is speaking in our cultural dialect.

        That probably makes no sense…. We are in the land of some pretty hefty language theory that makes this rather difficult. I mean, honestly, I don’t get it sometimes. I read the Philosophical Investigations once and in the class room felt like I hadn’t understood a single sentence. Honestly, I think this is in part why most lay people look at us academics like we are from another world. We are simply playing another language game that others just don’t know the words or the rules of the game.

    • (copied and pasted from over on FB): You’re not ruining anything, Jeff! Just keeping the conversation going. I’ll comment over on the blog, too, but 2 things: First, I think it’s really dismissive to say that it’s only “liberals” (which I think you’re using in the binary, as-opposed-to-conservative sense, and not the larger one Josh uses in his post) who can see beyond language. That’s just not my experience in actual relationship and conversation with people in real life, and I think it’s unhelpful for continued relationship and conversation to assume and assert that it is. And second: language is totally insidious, but it is also incredibly flexible and malleable. It’s a tool, and we have brains that allow us to reach beyond the old, crusty meanings and press out new meaning from old, tired words. That Christ is known as the Word, that the Word was with God and the Word was God gives me all kinds of hope for those “insurmountable” challenges of language.

      • Scott Holland

        I’m responding here to Josh’s suggestion that those who question the Brockway or NuDunker criticism of liberalism might “join in and actually talk about it.”

        This raises interesting questions about social media and generational dynamics. Most of my pastoral and professorial colleagues over 40 see blog conversations as “a quarrelsome genre” and feel it is in professional poor taste to ad one’s voice to the linguistic brawls which Brian, along with Brother Ludwig, might in contrast understand as necessary language games.

        I suppose there is some truth to this charge. When Jeff wrote about feeling “irked” by how Josh framed his “confession” as yet another critique of progressives (some of whom are his colleagues at Elgin, Bethany and other denominational agencies) I smiled in recognition, knowing that in composing this post Brockway of course knew he was fixin’ for a fight.

        It is not as provocative as a post a progressive might compose entitled, “Why Brethren Conservatives are Changing Their Surnames to Dumbaugh,” but as Josh confesses, he was trying to provoke and thus invite a readership.

        On the dreaded binaries, the rich tradition of Liberalism actually contains philosophical and political space for both conservative and progressive expressions and thus is not itself a hopeless binary.

        Another, even better, provocative post might be, “Why So Many Dunker Progressives and Conservatives Alike Simply Don’t Get Liberalism.”

        However, even the author of this new, improved post would not transcend “partisanship.” Unless one is completely agnostic about all theological, philosophical and political positions, one is partisan.
        Partisan: “A person who takes the part of or strongly supports a side, a party, or another person.”

      • Joshua Brockway

        Ah, yes the generational divide in regards to social media. I think the operative clause in that paragraph is “professional poor taste”. I know too many stories of academic quarrels- whether they have been in faculty meetings, in the peer review process, or in the famed footnote wars of many a journal article. I think the “poor taste” aspect has to do more with profession credentials and progress than it does with the media itself. Certainly the land of blog comments has fallen into ad hominem chaos in many places. That should not detract too much from the constructive nature of social media (and an emerging hierarchy in terms of quality of engagement). The misconception, as I see it, is that social media operates like our actual interactions. The trick is, that commenting on or writing blogs, does not grant credit for tenure or status on our CV’s. So I recognize that in the Jets and Sharks kind of battles in academic land, there are certain brawls that are worth the fight. Right now, social media does not offer the same kind of pay off for the bruises. (However, it should be noted that some publishers, even theological publishers, are looking for writers who have already cultivated an audience in social media worlds to make publicity that much easier. In fact, a new genre of blogging has taken up- a la Brian’s blogging of the Coles-Hauerwas book- of sustained and multi-voiced engagement with monographs.)

        As for the “rich philosophical tradition” within LIberalism against binaries, I agree. I think however, we are not talking so much about the actual heritage of LIberalism itself, but rather a cultural form that has emerged and taken hold in our imaginations.

        I dare say that there may be a generational facet to this engagement with, and tackling of liberalism. Just as Barth felt the need to excise the specter of Schleiermacher, I sense that there is some general frustration with certain aspect of LIberalism in general with those 40 and below.

        josh

  10. Scott Holland

    Agreed, or I wouldn’t be writing you!

    However, on liberalism, I think this frustration with liberalism must be regionally and culturally contextual.

    The under 40 crowd I’ve worked with most recently in Pittsburgh — most of whom had Mennonite and Pennsylvania Presbyterian backgrounds — were (and are) progressive liberals on both social and theological issues. Their numbers are growing dramatically and they are coming to church. Some come to talk to God. Some come to talk to other people with the progressive values they share. Many come to sing. A few come to discuss Caputo, who is postmodern rather than post-liberal.

    I do think the general theological/political orientation I hear from the NuDunkers reflects the sentiments of many in the under 40 demographic of the CoB, that is, the ones who are still doing God-talk. Perhaps God-talk vs Humane-talk is the final binary to overcome?

    • Joshua Brockway

      That’s what I love about our engagements in blog land Scott- worlds colliding and constructive conversations emerge.

      A bit of a quip about Caputo- don’t you think there are many kinds of post-modern. I think of Ward and Caputo as two examples. Ward seems to me to be more “get out of the problems of modernity” and Caputo more the “hyper-modern” type of post-modern.

      So, would I be correct to summarize our take on the God=talk, Human-talk binary as follows- 1) surmounting the binary is about choosing one over the other as descriptive of the true, the good and the beautiful or 2) holding the two in a bit of a correlation.

      I have tried (maybe unsatisfactorily for some) to do the latter. Most often that comes in my use of Incarnational theology, and especially the Chalcedonian definition of “united without mixture or confusion” to talk about how human talk is God talk. It just seems that even the God talk is just too “religious” for those who would tighten the chords of their tents in the land of liberalism.

      So if I were to actually talk with my colleagues who are frustrated with my take down of liberalism, I would say that one of the problems with the liberal project is that it overly privatizes the God talk. In order for the liberal society to function, too much God-talk is hurdle rather than a asset. This is, in part, how people like Leithart and others can’t wrap their minds around Hauerwas and Yoder- and inevitably link their form of Church theology to the Muslim Brotherhood.

      • Scott Holland

        Yes, there are of course varieties of postmodernism (Caputo & Ward) even as there are varieties of modernism (Hegel & Kierkegaard).

        If I might use the language of theopoetics to contrast Ward and Caputo, Ward’s theology is more interested in poeticizing the given classical or orthodox tradition. Jack sees theology more as a poiesis, an inventive, imaginative act of composition. Theology is a kind of writing.

        I’m completely with you on the mutually critical correlation and on a refusal to pry apart the true, the good and the beautiful. Such, of course, is the mark of a catholic analogical imagination. To such a confession it is assumed that Barth and his student JH Yoder and his disciple S. Hauerwas would shout, “Nein!”

        Barth did indeed shout “Nein” to his friend Brunner when the theologian was working out such “a natural theology.”

        But in his sickness unto death, before he died, Barth asked his assistant to convey a message to Brunner, “…tell him YES, that the time I thought I had to say no to him is now long past, since we all live only by virtue of the fact that a great and merciful God says his gracious Yes to all of us.”

      • Joshua Brockway

        Well, it is that kind of analogy (or analogy of being) that I think gives a much more robust sense of the world, self, and other than does a Bartian fear of natural religion. However, I do share Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher’s positivism. So unlike our friends up at Princeton, I am not convinced that a Post-Liberal perspective is necessarily Bartian or Neo-Orthodox.

        As I said to Jeff, in recovery I recognize that at many points I remain Liberal. You know with whom I cut my theological teeth 🙂

    • Yeah, I think the substantive philosophical tradition of Liberalism is more interesting, important, and salvageable (e.g. Dula on Cavell on Emerson, etc.), than the standard b.s. that passes in popular culture, cable news, and the vast majority of online social media (which is better described as “consumer media”). I don’t have a name for that …whatever it is, but it sucks, and it’s making discourse and discernment around important matters nearly impossible.

      As for the remarks about social media…I’m not sure what to say. If it’s in professional poor taste that I attempt to engage in what I take to be substantive discourse on the blogs or Twitter feeds of friends and colleagues…then I guess I’m not all that interested in being that kind of “professional.”

      I will say that there are plenty of other Christian bodies in the US that have “gotten” this social media thing and are well into the process of establishing new standards of excellence for online work. (And thanks for the Hauerwas-Coles plug, Josh!) – So if the folks at the CoB “God factory” think this stuff is below them…well, okay. I obviously think otherwise.

      • Scott Holland

        Yeah, Brian, I do wonder about this question of professionalism and social media. Clearly, there is a generational divide. As I noted, the criticisms generally come from the over 40 crowd. An old guy like me has to sing Dylan’s “Forever Young” before I log on and respond to you and Josh.

        But it also seems to be an unnamed concern about what you called earlier in a response, “the risk of language.” Social media (especially blog dialogs and debates) tends to be riskier, edgier, improvisational and experimental, less fearful of conflict, and less embarrassed about frequent edits and revisions. Professional life in the denomination and seminary tends to be more measured, tamed and tutored and “professional.”

        I think the posts, on the Hauerwas-Coles book, for example, are seen as quite respectable, but when respondents begin to truly mix it up and risk conflict so far beyond the classroom or Sunday school walls in an electronic space where BMC, BRF, OEP, B4BA, NOAC and your mother might be listening in, then it is seen as dicey and these folks don’t roll dice, at least not in public.

        I tend to have more engaging spiritual and social conversations in my Pittsburgh barber shop than at denominational social gatherings. Seriously. It is of course different in the classroom, but I’m referring here more broadly to social space.

      • Joshua Brockway

        At least it isn’t the sell-out Dylan of the Chrysler commercial, championing the American-ness of a company owned by the Italian Fiat! And I am a Mopar guy with a beat up Dodge 4×4 who loves the sound and the wheel spinning fun of Detroit!

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  12. Scott Holland

    I saw the Dylan commercial. I suppose old folk singers and old preachers alike still have to make a living. Dylan spun a bad fiction about American corporate culture and some of us are paid to spin some denominational bad fictions in the culture of late capitalism.

    Over at the Mennonite Church, there is an emerging courage and manifestation of Anabaptist dissent. The first openly queer and in a partnership pastor was given preacher’s papers with the support of her conference (Rocky Mountain). Over 150 well-placed Mennonite leaders, all with preacher’s papers, have signed a statement of support of a LGBTQ inclusive church. It’s hard for a corporate denomination to discipline a whole conference or 150 leaders standing together in solidarity.

    We in the Church of the Brethren used to say the Mennos were too bound to Gelassenheit — yielding to collective authority. Now, we yield to a corporate culture in the name of community, denominational order and ecclesiology as one of our pastors in Middle PA faces an inquisition.

    Instead of singing with Dylan, as most of us do, perhaps we should join the song of Leonard Cohen, “They’ve sentenced me to to twenty years of boredom, for tryin’ to change the system from within. I’m coming now, I’m coming to reward them. First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”

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  15. I liked reading your blog. My own journey was similar–coming from a very evangelical background and then going to Manchester Peace Studies program. My journey took a little different turn when I failed a class at Manchester (I think it was a requirement for my real Secondary Ed major but it no longer felt as important as fighting for peace and justice in the world.) After my failed class, my parents reevaluated my educational experience and strongly encouraged me to complete my studies at Taylor University, a much more evangelical Christian world. So, my own experience has been with a foot in both the progressive and evangelical camps with a bit of struggle and resentment mixed in.–Paul

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