“In necessary things unity, in uncertain things liberty, in all things charity.” So said Peter Meiderlin, seventeenth century German Lutheran theologian, summing up what many orthodox Christians believe about the proper relationship between orthodoxy and tolerance. Indeed, Meiderlin got the balance between solidarity and plurality, with love as the rule in everything, that his pithy statement is the official motto of both the Moravian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. It is also the only statement made by a Lutheran that I am aware of hanging in my Catholic community center, and with that, I feel pretty confident in suggesting that it is an attitude that is universally Christian.
Universal, at least, with the exception of quite a few progressive Christians. Indeed, they seem to have Meiderlin’s creed a bit mixed up, proclaiming that Christians need flexibility in (presumably) necessary things, like doctrine; rigid leftism in uncertain things; and relativism in all things political. Allow Peter Laarman to illustrate.
Laarman, executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, recently proclaimed the dogma of theological flexibility, telling the stiff-necked dogmatists defending things like the idea of a personal God that “the defenders of the True Faith need to relax a little bit. There is really no danger of an ‘anything goes’ ethic emerging among those of us who long ago said goodbye to the creeds” in a piece entitled, “The Unbelieving Future of Christian Faith.” What does the future of this Christianity, free to join Pontius Pilate in asking What is truth?” look like?
Evidently, a lot like the platform of the Democratic Party. Explaining why Christians are morally-obligated to support Obamacare, Laarman described religious conservatives as “Ayn Rand Christians, never touched by the spirit of Christ whose ministry was emphatically defined from the start by his compassion for the sick and for his healing of the multitudes who came to him with all manner of diseases.” As an alternative, he praised the “nearly 80 percent of American Jews (who) continue to ‘earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,’” who are apparently his ideal of a community divided in belief but united behind lock-step progressive politics. Laarman is a fan of the new Judeo-Christian belief system: flexible in whether or not there is even a god out there, united in opposition to free market techniques to serving the poor.
Or take Brian McGrath Davis. Arguing that believing in the God Who rules nations, cures the sick, orders the universe, and “has a plan for us” is akin to believing in a “bipolar, schizophrenic Santa Claus deity,” his piece appeared on religiondispatches.org less than two weeks before a piece claiming that the House health care bill “discriminates against religious freedom” by prohibiting the use of public funding for abortions. Again, who cares whether or not you believe in the God that rules everything? True religion is about standing together to endorse the tax-subsidized taking of innocent life!
If there is any flexibility that the progressive Christians seem to be willing to allow for, it is the kind of flexibility that devolves into a blind relativism. Eduardo Penalver, for instance, is upset with the Catholic Church’s political stances. Why? It seems they just won’t listen to his set of priorities “Over the course of my adult life, the public face of the Church has become increasingly distant from my own political beliefs and priorities. . . . Abortion, stem cells, and opposition to gay marriage just matter more to most of the bishops than universal health care or workers’ rights.”
It would be intriguing indeed to hear a real conversation between Penalver and Meiderlin, but if I could be allowed the liberty to speculate, I imagine it would end with Meiderlin pointing out the necessity of Christians uniting to defend human life and the family, while allowing them liberty to work out the best ways to cure the sick and honor the right to associate. There are some questions that are highly technical, like whether subsidies or public provisions are the best way to ensure a hodgepodge of forty million Americans with varying reasons for not owning what the state considers to be health insurance. Then, there are others that are simple, like whether a fetus is a human, or whether it magically becomes one after three months incubating in the womb.
Of course, this kind of right ordering between unity and liberty is espoused by most traditional Christian leaders, who expect consistency from their flocks on big questions like preserving life and what Truth Jesus actually is, but allow for personal judgment on complicated matters like the finer points of budgeting and expenditure allotments. And of course, traditional leaders tend to be quite willing to stretch out a charitable hand, whether to folks they disagree with on the small stuff, or even across the aisle on the big matters.
But that vision of good judgment between the necessary and the uncertain in the public sphere is hardly conducive to the notion that Christianity is as applicable to progressive views on economics as it is to conservative views on bioethics, if not more so. Nor does it resonate with the kind of “progressive Christians” ready to kick out the “schizo Santa deity” and move into the New Age.