Is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

This is related to the TBLA thread, but I think it deserves to be kept apart from that series, at least for now.

Western society has embarked upon a radical restructuring of its cultural life in three inter-related issues, to do with homosexuality, marriage and divorce, and the economic role of women. The classical understanding of the church, that sexuality is only to be expressed within a heterosexual marriage, has been widely abandoned. The development of effective means of contraception, the abolition of traditional marriage, the massive economic empowerment of women – all of these together are utterly revolutionary. The church has been caught up in this cultural change and is now at risk of opprobrium and worse if it does not, in David Cameron’s ill-chosen words, ‘get with the programme’. It seems to me that there is a coherent position that is taken in opposition to this radical restructuring – the Roman Catholic stance is the most fully-worked out and potentially long-lasting form of opposition to the progressive path (I don’t see the conservative evangelical opposition as similarly substantial, despite its merits). The question I want to ask is: where is the progressive path going?

The RC stance is one that is deeply rooted in both Scripture and Tradition, and one which has proven workable for thousands of years. That is, the civilisation that we have inherited is, in large part, a product of a culture which adopted certain norms about the place and role of women and homosexuals. Clearly, power and influence were concentrated on men, and there were consequent injustices and exploitations. However, no human society is without injustices this side of the kingdom, and our present arrangements are certainly not without injustices either. The RC stance is one that is dominant in world Christianity and very unlikely to go away; it is more likely that there will continue to develop a deeper split between the traditionalist (majority) Christian faith and the progressive (post-Protestant) forms of Christianity. Does the progressive, secular, post-Protestant form of Christianity have a destination? Is it simply a reactive product of the social changes in the wider society? Or can it legitimately claim that there is a movement of the Spirit behind it?

Supporters of the progressive path will point to better treatment of women and minorities as a result of these changes. Opponents will concede (some of) this, but have a coherent case to say that the costs involved are not worth it. For example, in response to talking about the improved economic and social autonomy given to women, opponents can reference the rise in frivolous divorce, the misery passed on to children, the diminution of options for working class men and so on. I don’t want here to engage in a weighing up of this evidence, just to indicate that the progressive path is not without its (non-prejudiced) critics. More substantially, the critics of the progressive path are able to draw, not just on those economic arguments, but also on the fairly uniform voice of Scripture and Tradition. I am quite familiar with the arguments on this score – and, indeed, I have used the progressive arguments myself on repeated occasions. Yet one of the conservative evangelical criticisms of the progressive path does seem to be to be a true one – that it is not possible to maintain a commitment to the authority of Scripture, as understood in the evangelical tradition, if we accept the progressive developments (NB I don’t accept the authority of Scripture in that way).

What I am pondering is that the present ‘status quo’ of the progressive path is not stable. To bring this out, I want to ask: ‘what is wrong with polygamy?’ Once the move away from accepting the authority of Scripture and Tradition has been made – and, thus, there develops a primacy for personal autonomy and choice – what is to stop those who wish to pursue a polygamous marriage from doing so? There are many churches in the world where polygamy is at least tacitly accepted, as it still fits in with the local cultural context. In addition, a reasonably good argument can be made that it is not anti-Scriptural (a much stronger argument, in my view, than the equivalent one for homosexual relationships – and I’m sold on that). Yet I’m not sure that those who pursue the progressive path are fully aware that this is one of the destinations that their path is leading to, or what the implications of this path are.

What I’m really asking is: what are the fundamental principles from which a stable, progressive understanding of human sexuality and gender relationships might be formed? One of the best aspects of the traditional position is that it is rooted in a ‘theology of biology’; that is, there is an understanding of what it means to be male, and what it means to be female, which lies behind the more worked out and specific ethical teachings. The progressive understanding does not (yet) have that. One of the elements of the women bishops debate that has most strongly been borne in on me is an awareness that a) the conservative position is much more substantial and coherent than the progressives can countenance, and b) that the progressives do not know what it is that they are rejecting. In other words, they (we!) do not yet have anything that can take the place of the conservative understanding, and in consequence, we literally do not know what we are doing.

Having said all that, I remain quite open to the idea that the Spirit is genuinely behind all these developments – and, indeed, it may well be that proper work has been done on these matters that I’m not familiar with – and I certainly can’t see our society reversing many of them. Yet, as I also see our society as heading down the tubes with great rapidity, I don’t see that latter point as bearing much theological weight. I genuinely don’t know the answer to this, but it is what I am thinking about.

7 thoughts on “Is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

  1. I would agree that there is something about the conservative view which draws from a ‘theology of biology’ – and on that basis, as I think you know, I hold to views about contraception which are regarded as terribly-fundamental these days, certainly by the wider culture, mostly by fellow-Anglicans, and indeed by many RCs (who know their Church’s teaching, but do not believe it or act on it.)
    I do not, though, think that this is at the heart of this question, for these are questions not solely – or, indeed, centrally – about biology, but about the nature of household.
    Put simply, the ethics of who you have sex with are not the same as the ethics of how you build and sustain good household and relationship.
    Once you concede this, it actually becomes entirely plausible – for instance – to moot polygamy as a sensible way to support households, the raising of children, mutual support for women, as against certain strains of traditional monogamy.
    It is also the case, I think, that our experience of monogamy has changed a great deal in the last couple of generations in western cultures. We live longer lives – our marriages (if they survive) are becoming longer, in a way not at all typical in the past. Not so long ago, “…until death do you part” meant twenty years; now it may mean forty or fifty years….

    We may not yet be polygamous, but much of our society is, in effect, living a life of SERIAL MONOGAMY, ie. trying to focus on single couple, intentional relationships, but ‘moving on’ from one to the next of these relationships, in stages of life.
    My own view is that the fallout from this is pretty destructive of both individuals and of our wider social fabric.

    A good discussion-started, Sam, and reminds me that I had meant to extend an invitation from my wife to join her in attending a public lecture by Andrew Simms on Monday 25 February, at the LSE. Details at:

  2. I hold to views about contraception which are regarded as terribly-fundamental these days, certainly by the wider culture, mostly by fellow-Anglicans, and indeed by many RCs (who know their Church’s teaching, but do not believe it or act on it.)

    Not “many” RCs. Most RCs – even conservative ones. In the United States, 82% of Catholics disagree with their church’s teaching on this topic. I’ve seen similar numbers for other parts of the world. FWIW, I don’t think your views are “fundamentalist.” They are minority views, that’s all. I agree with you about the “household” issue, and its effect on consideration of polygamy, though – although I would say that the two “ethics” you refer to overlap!

    I agree, too, that this is a really good conversation to have. Rev. Sam, I would say that the single biggest change over the past century or so has only tangentially to do with sex; the most fundamental change, and the thing from which most of the other stuff has arisen, has been in “women’s rights.” There are many reasons why I believe this to be so – but the main, overriding one is that men have cultural constraints on them now that didn’t exist before, and this obviates some of the constraints the church has over time constructed in its discipline.

    I think everything besides this is a distraction, in fact. The homosexuality thing is a tiny blip in history and law, no matter how huge it seems within the church; it’s merely an exception to a general rule. (And as I’ve said a hundred times now: same-sex marriage is a conservative cause! Everybody’s on the wrong side of this one.) In general it has very little to do with the issues you’re raising here, IMO.

    And BTW: I don’t think, in a religious tradition in which “justice” is in fact a hugely important and central theme, it can be dismissed by saying “no human society is without injustices this side of the kingdom”! We’re talking, here, after all, not about “human societies” but about the church and its teachings! (I thought we were, anyway….) The church put constraints on men exactly for reasons of “justice,” I’d say in fact. These aren’t so necessary any longer – and I’d agree that the ethics needs to be reworked on that basis.

    I think, IOW, that if you’re going to work out a Christian ethics about these things you’ll indeed have take “justice” into consideration. Let’s not forget that many Christians have led the way in the Western movement for human rights; that’s no accident.

    But, I do think it’s a great idea to talk these things out. One problem with “progressivism” as against “conservativism” is that “conservative” thought has by definition been worked out over time. “Conservatives” don’t really have to come up with anything new, because the work has been done. “Progressives” are operating on intuition much of the time and don’t have fully-worked-out systems in place to draw from (although as David Brooks once suggested, they can look at other “progressive” movements in history for inspiration and direction).

  3. (In fact, thinking back still farther, I’d say the real driver of all of this – women’s rights included – has been the growth of science and in particular improvements in medicine. This has had huge effects on both infant mortality (and childhood death in general) and the death of women in childbirth, as well as on human health in general.

    That stuff isn’t going anywhere – and needs to be taken into account as well.)

  4. Hi Paul, bls, thanks for commenting. Paul, I agree that we’re in a very different situation than before (and, particularly, that “the ethics of who you have sex with are not the same as the ethics of how you build and sustain good household and relationship” – well put) but I think the key change is not about longevity (which is a statistical artefact – I don’t think the life expectancy at marriage has changed all that much, cf Psalm 90) but about the extended period from about 14 to 28 when (officially) the church expects people to remain celibate, if unmarried, and which is so contrary to all the biological impulses. This is an example of where the traditional position still retains a coherence – it’s better to marry than to burn, so get married young and have lots of babies. That raises all sorts of other questions – and I can’t see contraception as wholly negative. So there’s a tension there.
    BLS (by the way, I haven’t forgotten the e-mail I’m planning to send!) – yes, it is everything to do with ‘women’s rights’ – and behind that an agenda of equality born out of the enlightenment (and, so, bound up with the technological and medical shifts as well, control over reproductive capacity being one of the most essential, but penicillin to treat STDs isn’t insignificant either).
    “Progressives are working on intuition” – yes, that’s precisely what I’m trying to explore. My intuition is telling me that the progressive path is going somewhere that people aren’t willing to accept, so it’s worth flushing that out – and then people can either embrace it or reject it. My fundamental point, though, is that I think the existing western status quo is unstable, and through other civilisational pressures will collapse one way or the other. I’m kind of hoping that there is a stable progressive place that could be collapsed *towards*!!

  5. An interesting article you have linked to, Sam, though at quite a tangent to your tpic, I think. I don’t think that ‘progressivism’ is directly-implicated, here…

    I, for one, am yet to get a satisfactory answer from a certain variety of earnest Evangelical Christian about why they are quite so bothered about pre-marital sex, if I’m to be honest…

  6. Pingback: “For a blunder, that’s too big” – some brief musings on the death of the Church of England | Elizaphanian

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