Moral Progress at the Cost of Human Regress

robertson claiborneI am working on a more in-depth blog, but while reading through a short book entitled Theosis by Archimandrite George, I came across an interesting point that has been on my mind quite a bit.  Archimandrite George states that those Christians who lack a mystical understanding of the faith through theosis often times turn the Christian faith into a religion of moral improvement.

I see that in two extremes here in America:

  1. The Fundamentalist worldview: God is holy and we are not.  In order to progress, we must, as individuals and as a society, have the highest moral standards.  A failure to live up to God’s standards results in judgment and wrath upon us.  God’s Kingdom is realized on earth through obedience to His commands.
  2. The Progressive Christian worldview: God is love and we must always love.  In order to progress as a society we must initiate social programs that feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless.  Intolerance toward any group is not tolerated.  Truth is relative; all that matters is love.  God’s Kingdom is realized on earth through social justice and tolerance.

Many Christians fit into one of the two groups, and there are also many who will be somewhere in between.  My point though is not that we should find balance between Pat Robertson and Shane Claiborne.  Aren’t they both essentially saying the same thing: “through moral improvement the Kingdom of God will be realized”?  Their definitions of moral progress differ, but the message is the same.

My Journey to a Different Calling

I grew up in a conservative Christian home.  And I do not regret that.  However, I found that form of faith to be unfulfilling.  So I branched out and began going to more liberal churches: ones that openly accepted people whether they were gay, straight, homeless, or rich.

Broken_Mask_by_AnshkyBut there was still an emptiness that I felt and I couldn’t quite figure out why.

I believe what the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches: a life chasing moral improvement will lead to emptiness because our entire existence is for theosis.  The process of theosis is becoming one with the divine Energies of God.  I have begun down that road and it has been beautiful and life giving.

More on that later though…

For some information on theosis, be sure to check out my Resources Page.

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Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

14 thoughts on “Moral Progress at the Cost of Human Regress”

  1. I’m an advocate of progressive Christianity and I’m always open to a mirror being held up to me. That said, I question some of your premises.
    1. Shane Claiborne is an emerging/emergent Christian not a progressive Christian.
    2. Tolerance isn’t exactly a virtue for progressive Christianity. For example, we fully embrace and affirm LGBTQI people — we don’t merely tolerate them.
    3. While Progressive Christianity is influenced by post-modernism, it isn’t uncritical of postmodernism and doesn’t fully embrace relativism. We tend to be both/and rather than either/or.
    4. Given that part of our lineage is the Social Gospel movement (and the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements before that), progressive Christianity is prepared to say that there are rights and wrongs and to fight for what is right and against what is wrong. We are intolerant of anti-gay, anti-woman discrimination and we’re anti-policies and practices that are harmful to the environment. We tend to embrace the wisdom of “Tolerance always has limits – it cannot tolerate what is itself actively intolerant.” – Sidney Hook
    5. Progressive Christians tend to embrace mysticsm and take sanctification seriously.


    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

  2. Hi Roger, thank you for taking the time to read and posting challenges to me as well.

    Firstly, the label “Progressive Christian” is a bit open from what I understand in my own dabbling in it as well as from what I’ve read. Here’s an article that I referenced before writing this blog: It is Wikipedia, so I understand it is not the most authoritative source 🙂

    With that said, the article lists Shane Claiborne as one of the leaders of the Progressive movement and lists tolerance as one of its qualities. To your third point, my assumption may not be correct for the movement as a whole. It does reflect conversations that I’ve had with Progressive Christians though.

    Points four and five sound fine to me.

    From re-reading the article I posted above from Wikipedia, I now see that it has a quote from your book. Much of what you say actually parallels the Eastern Orthodox approach to Christianity and could have come straight from a book on Orthodoxy.

    My entire point though is that when either following rules or social progress becomes our main focus then we have lost the true primary purpose of Christianity. As St Athanasius said, “God became man that man might become god.”

    When we journey inward toward the indwelling Trinity, we are transformed. We then “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and we pursue loving our neighbor out of the abundance of love that overflows from our hearts. When theosis is the primary objective, all of the other pieces will fall into their proper order.

    1. You know this, but Wikipedia is hardly considered an authoritative source. Claiborne comes from an evangelical background and indeed is still an evangelical — who is reconsidering and reforming that tradition, hence, he’s an emergent Christian.

      That you noticed “orthodox” insights in my previous comment may well be due to the fact that I’m a United Methodist (a mainline Protestant who has shifted in a post-liberal direction,– hence, a progressive Christian) and we Methodists are in the lineage of John Wesley who was an avid fan of certain Orthodox teachings.


      1. Who would you consider some of the most well-known leaders in the progressive movement? I think myself and others (such as the editor of the Progressive Christianity page on Wikipedia) have a tendency to lump the Emergents and Progressives together since there is a tendency toward social justice and other social issues within both movements.

        1. among others: Marcus Borg; John Shelby Spong; Diana Butler Bass; Karen Armstrong; Fred Plumer; Jim Burklo; Roger McFarland; Thomas Merton (and possibly Martin Luther King Jr.); Michael Dowd; Richard Rohr; Matthew Fox; Elaine Pagels; Barbar Rossing; Desmond Tutu; Frederic Buechner; (possibly John Killinger); Edward Hays; the Linns; Cynthia Borgeault; John Cobb, Jr.; Marjorie Hewitt-Suchoki; Roger Lee Ray; Mark Sandlin; Micah Royal; Roger McClellan — and some would include my name in such a list.

  3. Now I would say that Liberal Christianity is the flip-side of the same coin as Fundamentalist Christianity is. They are primarily political and social activist movements — and not particularly seeking to nurture people’s spiritual growth and connections with God.

  4. “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross,” So wrote Sinclair Lewis.

    Being from his own Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, I can’t disagree with him. Unfortunately for the Northstar State, there’s a lot of remaking the rules mixed in with the Minnesota Nice. Those who would remake us into their image of what God wants us to be, measure us as only they can see, which has brought government corrosively controlling private behaviors and thoughts, including religion. These self appointed arbiters of what is best for all in society, include various luminaries found in the Church Of The Nattering Tee-Vee Machine, which may or may not follow what’s in the Bible. Managing all lives (that is to say any and all who are not them, aka “us”), means “us” folks need to buy their books, send in donations, and/or participate in control of others to remake society as we follow their rules to the letter.

    Some truly bizarre interpretations of Biblical history and what they claim is God’s law are often used to bring in money, and to include or exclude, which results in the ‘you can be rich if you only if you send your money here’ campaigns. Those contributions will ensure your wallet will somehow be refilled by some miracle or other. Where Christ made exceptions to draconian laws by healing on the Sabbath because it was necessary to heal right then and there, these exemplars of rectitude grant no exceptions to their own rules. Try asking if you could just donate to the local parish and get the same wallet filling results. It won’t be what you might expect. Entertaining, yes. Pretty? Not at all.

    Picky, picky, picky me. Sure, things aren’t perfect in society, but shallow interpretations of deep truths yields bad laws and worse regulations. If most of us avoid stuff that deludes children, frightens the horses or hurts others, perhaps society would work a lot better. Yet that’s insufficient for the morality monarchs among us. At the same time, we need not beat eachother over the head, micromanage others, or set up rules to just to have everyone act the way we do, or claim to act, all without genuine regard for the abilities, backgrounds or standards of our fellows.

    I do try to account for people of different experiences having different standards from my own. The rule makers also seem to concentrate most attention on the bedroom, which is the one place in the home where personal actions should remain private, and an area where changed behavior won’t happen by imposition of law or various rules in any event. Other things need changing before private behavior is amended for the better. Private behavior won’t change without morality changing in the individual, and from self effort, and that never happens by offensive overlording by an outsider.

    I also try not to offend others, yet still of fall short of that goal. At leastthat’s what my second cousin twice removed tells me when I repeatedly shoot down that Rapture Rocket to Heaven. You just can’t please everyone ;). Then again, said cousin has a list of about 100 so called commandments I break on a daily basis, and I’ve still not got the biblical origins of any of those rules that I apparently break so often.

    [Sorry about the length of this. My verbosity comes from being frequently whacked upside the head by the Buckle of the Bible Belt. So to speak. And, it’s been one of those years this week.]

    1. I have those moments too, Joyce. I feel morality is of the utmost importance, but like you, what people do in the privacy of their bedroom is not up to me to police. While the government should have laws in place to keep the peace, I don’t believe it is their role to be moral policemen.

      Jesus said something like, if you clean the inside of the cup then the outside will be clean too. We have a tendency to want to make the outside shiny (control people’s public behavior) thinking that it’ll make the inside clean as well. But I do believe we have that backward.

      1. So true. Who among us thinks a Fashion Police State will have well behaved citizens? 🙂

  5. I find what you’re writing on theosis in these posts interesting, but poor Shane Claiborne… I get your description of conservatives and progressives, although I think there is a difference between the liberalism you describe and some who call themselves ‘progressive’. (The term is quite loose anyway, Kurt willems is a blogger for the progressive christian portal on patheos and a postmodern charismatic evangelical anabaptist for example.)

    I think the best of the social justice Christians will correct you directly when you say it’s only about moral improvement and point you to something more substantial, but I can’t deny that what you describe exists too…

    Shane Claiborne is still some kind of evangelical although heavily influenced by people like Francis of Assisi, and slightly neo-anabaptist and mystically inclined. He would not say we need moral improvement, more something like we need to incarnate Jesus to the least of those, and recognise Jesus in the least of those. As a new monastic living among poor people it isn’t about theory for him either, but a style of life, and one that can only exist with Gods love and presence in and through us.

    1. I like Shane Claiborne. I think he’s doing a great job pushing people out of their comfort zones. Others on here including Roger Wolsey have been quick to point out to me that there is a difference between Christian liberalism and the progressive movement.

      When I was on the Christian Progressive Road I wasn’t aware of all of the labels. I just wanted to love people like Christ loves me (and I still do). But I did encounter some who seemed to want to hijack the Christian religion for their own liberal political ambitions. But these were a minority.

      I write from my own experience. In my experience I saw a lot of good people who wanted to help the “least of these” and I found that to be quite admirable. I stuck with it for a while, but eventually found it to leave me feeling spiritually unfulfilled. By stressing theosis I am not saying these other things are unimportant. In fact, when one has theosis as their goal they should be living entirely for others. But the reasoning behind it changes.

  6. What you wrote here is a bunch of nonsense. You are running like a wild horse on a field. You are so lost. Go to Greece or read some orthodox books coz you didn’t understand a thing from what you’ve read. Peace to you.

    1. Thank you for your concern, Daniel. I don’t see how a wild horse running through a field is any more lost than Archimandrite George of Mt Athos (in Greece) whose booklet I used as the basis for this blog. If you have specific criticism, feel free to voice it. Vague insults won’t get us very far though.

      I will add that I do not believe that I am above reproof. I am still fairly new to Orthodoxy, and if you honestly feel that something I post goes against the teaching of the Church, then please, let me know either through the comments or in a private message. Peace be with you as well, my brother.

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