Through the progressive looking glass

By Rob Renfroe

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), there is an amazing passage. I think it provides a great deal of insight into the debates and discussions that occur between those of us who are orthodox and those who refer to themselves as “progressives.”

Rob Renfroe

Rob Renfroe

In this sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice enters a strange world and encounters Humpty Dumpty, whom she has a difficult time comprehending. He uses words with which Alice is familiar, but the way he uses them seems odd, if not completely nonsensical. When she tells him that she does not know what he means by a word, “Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you.’ … ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’”

Sound familiar? Words I think I understand and have in the past found very useful in communicating with others, when talking with my progressive friends seem to have been given altogether different meanings.

Take the word “open.” Certainly, being open is a valuable trait as we seek after God and his truth. “Being open” is the virtue of admitting that no matter how much we may know, we still have much to learn. Openness is the sincere acknowledgement that God often speaks in surprising ways – even through people with whom we disagree, and so we need to listen to all who want to dialogue in good faith.

It’s here where progressives often take us traditionalists to task. They claim that we are anything but open because we have made up our minds regarding certain doctrines and seemingly won’t budge, no matter how out of step we are with the most current beliefs.

But does being open mean having no settled opinions or beliefs? If it does, then many progressives are as closed-minded as they claim we are. For example, most  progressives in The United Methodist Church would never consider ordaining anyone who discounted the validity of ordaining women or who rejected infant baptism. Of course, neither would traditionalist Wesleyans, but the point is that the progressive worldview never would allow this thought: “In rejecting this candidate for ministry, we’re not being very open, are we? In fact, we’re rather intolerant.”

No, it would never occur to them that holding to these particular beliefs and  implementing these standards for ordained ministry would ever make them guilty of not possessing “open hearts, open minds, [or] open doors.”

John Wesley described true openness, calling it a “catholic spirit.” He described it this way: “A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend them into one.”

It’s not wrong, in fact it’s imperative, that a church has particular doctrines and practices and is willing to defend and enforce them. I don’t believe that means we’re not open. I agree with G.K. Chesterton who said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

It’s not wrong to hold views that you have decided are correct – in fact, so correct that you are unprepared to change them. What’s wrong is condemning others for doing so when you have done the same thing. One could say it borders on hypocrisy.

In evangelical-progressive dialogues, “openness” among progressive advocates too frequently means that you must believe what they believe – and be absolutely sure that everyone else is wrong.

If for example, it were stated that many gay persons were not “born gay,” but came to same-sex attraction through events that occurred in their lives, you are likely to be labeled by progressives not only as closed-minded, but as hateful – even though there are no reputable scientific studies that conclude all gay persons are attracted to the same gender because of genetics or other biological causes.  And if you are invited to give a prayer at the presidential inauguration, holding this view, you will discover, as Pastor Louie Giglio did, just how “open” progressive guardians can be.

Or, express your belief that abortion on demand is immoral. Forget “closed-minded;” you will never be on the staff of our most progressive, and one would assume therefore, our most “open,” UM agency – the Board of Church and Society!

But many who assert just as strongly that gays are born gay and abortion is never wrong if it’s the woman’s choice fancy themselves to be open, not closed, even though they will not for a minute consider another position.

And what about our most important claim: that God has revealed himself uniquely in Jesus Christ, and that no one comes to the Father except by him? Why does claiming that The Truth is found in the Christian faith cause the “open-minded” progressive wing of a Board of Ordained Ministry to be on edge or even hostile, as many of our orthodox colleagues have discovered? Because being open in the progressive worldview often does not mean being open to traditional Christian teaching, what Wesley called the “grand Scriptural” doctrines. Instead it means being open to the latest theological fad – which will be yesterday’s news and forgotten in a generation. And it means being open to what other religions teach and failing to affirm that what we have in the Christian faith is a revelation that is uniquely true and authoritative.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Allan Bloom writes: “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason.  It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.”

We live in an Alice in Wonderland world when some people claim, for example, that Islam worships the same God as Christianity, even though Christians believe that God sent his Son Jesus into the world for our salvation and Muslims do not. That kind of openness isn’t broadmindedness – it is simply denying the reality that contradictory views cannot both be true. Have you ever been told that Buddhism and Christianity are simply two different paths to the same God? It cannot be true. Buddhism denies that the death and resurrection of Jesus is in any way connected to our salvation. Christians believe it is essential. The same holds true for Hinduism and its pantheon of thousands of gods and goddesses. It’s not being open or generous of heart to claim Christianity is true and at the same time assert that all religions lead to God, even those that deny the uniqueness of or the need for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; it’s being disingenuous. It’s mistaking being open for accepting everything, even beliefs that are contradictory, and denying reason’s power.

We can be open to persons who differ with us in their beliefs – we can learn from anyone. We can be and should be open to persons, regardless of their lifestyles – we are all sinners, and all are deserving of the ministry of the church. There’s no question about that.

What we cannot be open to is the false logic that contradictory religious beliefs can all be correct. What we cannot be open to are those who claim to be morally superior to persons who will not recant their traditional Christian beliefs, when they themselves are every bit as obstinate in their beliefs as those they judge. What we cannot be open to are those who sit on Humpty Dumpty’s wall, redefining words, because they have decided that’s the way to master the conversation and, ultimately, the church.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.