Over the past year, I have slowly worked my way through my series on “The 10 Commandments of Progressive Christianity.” It’s an examination of 10 core tenets of progressive (or liberal) Christianity offered by Richard Rohr, but really based on the book by Philip Gulley.
We finally come to the tenth and last “commandment” of progressive Christianity and this one is a classic: “Life in This World is More Important than the Afterlife.”
It’s hard to imagine a statement that better captures the ethos of progressive Christianity than this one. It marks a profound pivot away from matters eternal and toward matters earthly. Let’s not worry ourselves about what happens after death, we are told, because no one knows anyway. All that matters is helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and relieving human suffering.
This commandment marks a fitting end to the series because it embodies (in a single statement) many of the values of liberal Christianity pointed out by J. Gresham Machen many years ago. Here are a few of them:
Prioritizing the Horizontal over the Vertical
For progressive Christians, humans have a real problem. But it’s not that they are rebellious sinners who have offended a holy God. Rather, the problem for humanity is that there is suffering, war, poverty and disease.
In other words, human problems are defined in purely horizontal terms (the way humans relate to the world or to fellow humans), and not in vertical terms (the way man relates to God).
As a result, the highest ideal of progressive Christianity can be nothing other than fixing present, temporal problems. For them, speaking of eternity is a distraction at best, and a waste of time at worst.
Thus, Gulley laments the church’s “preoccupation” (175) and “overemphasis” (176) on the afterlife and how “fortunes are spent saving people from the imaginary dangers of imaginary places” (184).
Preaching Moralism not Salvation
If there’s no eternity to worry about, then what should humans focus on? Well doing good works, of course. Helping our fellow man. The hallmark of progressive Christianity is a deep commitment to being “good” and doing “good” things.
Gulley states, “If the Church were Christian, we would do what Jesus did–equip one another to live better in this world and stop fretting about the next one” (184).
Of course, anyone familiar with the teachings of Jesus should find this statement genuinely stunning. Jesus was quite concerned with the next world and spoke of it often. Consider just one example: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28).
If there is no hell, no sin, no judgment, then progressive Christianity has no other option than to become a moralistic religion.
Claiming Uncertainty While Espousing Certainty
At the core of Gulley’s argument is the belief that hell isn’t real. “I decided not to invest any effort in saving people’s souls from a hell I didn’t believe in” (181).
Indeed, Gulley repeatedly states that hell isn’t real throughout the chapter. He is banking his eternal fate (as well as the fate of others) on this conviction.
But, how does he know this? Missing from Gulley’s argument is any reason to think he could know such a thing. He just states his claim without any basis to back it up.
The irony of such a claim is that Gulley actually positions himself as the humble seeker, uncertain of his beliefs. “I’ve not yet arrived at a definitive understanding of God and I don’t suspect I ever will” (182).
This highlights one of the most notable trends in progressive Christianity: Claim uncertainty on the front end, but then smuggle your own certain convictions through the back door.
In the end, Gulley’s final commandment is a masterpiece of progressive Christianity. It downplays doctrine for morality, focuses on man instead of God, and claims uncertainty while all the while being very certain.
Sadly, this entire affair clouds the real message of Christianity; the real message of Jesus. For the record, Jesus cared about the sufferings of humans. And he has called Christians to do the same. But, we don’t address human suffering as an act of moralism. But, as a response to the grace shown to us at the cross.
Moreover, we don’t address temporal human suffering only. Even if we could alleviate all human suffering, that would not, in the end, meet humanity’s greatest need. As Jesus reminds us, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt 16:26).