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Progressive Religion, Orthodox Religion

Here's the core difference between the two

Richard Rodriguez is a gay California Catholic, and a very fine writer, even when I disagree with him (such as in this entry). His reaction to the Orlando massacre captures the core difference between left and right among the religious, and why we will never be able to agree on some things:

Here is the plain and dangerous truth facing the cosmopolitan world: In the opinion of many millions of Jews and Christians and Muslims, the Abrahamic God of the desert is a homophobe.


The desert religions of Abraham — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — were shaped by an encounter with a God who revealed himself within an ecology of almost lunar desolation. In such a place, the call to belief was tribal, not individualistic. Sexuality was an expression of faith to increase the tribe. Allegiance to God and to one’s ancestors was fulfilled by giving birth.

Here’s the whole thing.

You see the logic: According to the holy writ of Abrahamic religion, God says gay sex is wrong. But we believe, in God, and we believe gay sex is not morally wrong. Therefore, God believes gay sex is not wrong. 

And he explains away a very deeply ingrained teaching of Abrahamic religion — one that, at least in Judaism and Christianity (I don’t know Islam well enough to say) by asserting that we’re more advanced than those desert savages.

This is not reasoning. This is rationalization.

The orthodox approach to revealed religion is to accept it as a statement of reality, and go from there. Of course these teachings always get sorted through an interpretive community, whose judgments are considered authoritative. What doesn’t happen, though, is that one gets to decide on the attributes of divinity based on what one wishes God were like. Otherwise it’s self-worship.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m taking a long flight today (I wrote this post on Sunday and scheduled it), and am not going to be able to approve most comments till much later. I will not approve comments on this thread that are debating homosexuality, either from a progressive or orthodox point of view. So please don’t waste your time writing one.

What I do want us to talk about is hermeneutics, which is to say, the way texts are interpreted. To oversimplify, progressives believe religion primarily (but not exclusively) concerns what man says about God, while conservatives believe religion primarily (but not exclusively) concerns what God says about man.

The lines are not clearly drawn, and can’t be. Doctrine and theology does change, even under conservatives, while progressives really do take some religious truths as axiomatic. The crucial difference, as I see it, is that conservatives (or, if you prefer as I do, the small-o orthodox) believe that there is an objective, real, transcendent order that exists outside of us and prior to us, and truth claims are usually claims about it, and how we must relate to it. Any changes in what has been received or thought must be accomplished through a valid authorities within the interpretive community. If the authorities try to stretch the tradition too far too fast, they risk schism.

Progressives generally believe that the individual is allowed to decide for himself what constitutes religious truth — something an orthodox believer cannot do, even if he wants to.

Here’s how it shakes out with Richard Rodriguez’s claims. He obviously believes that the Christian prohibition against homosexuality is a relic of a primitive stage of religious development, and says nothing about the nature of God. Me, I would genuinely like to believe that Christians are free to decide what they like about homosexuality. It would make my gay friends think better of me, and it would make my professional life easier in many ways. But as a matter of intellectual integrity, I can’t rationalize away the prohibition within Christianity (nor can I rationalize away Biblical ethics binding heterosexual conduct).

I often think that progressive Christians judge us orthodox Christians to be bigots because they assume that we read Scripture and relate to Tradition in the same way that they do. For orthodox believers, Scripture and Tradition are like maps; if you don’t follow them, you won’t get where you are supposed to go. Maps are only a representation of the real world, it is true, but we have to hew as close to what we have been given as we can. The one thing we cannot do is redraw the map to make it take us where we wish to go, because we judge it to be a more pleasant place.

The orthodox says: “We can’t diverge too far from this map, or we’ll get lost.”

The progressive says: “What? That map is way out of date. We’ll redraw it. It was just somebody’s opinion. We know better now.”

The orthodox says: “What’s ‘better’? You have no way of knowing if your new coordinates are accurate. How do you know if they correspond to reality?”

The progressive says: “Huh?”

This is why we cannot resolve things between us.



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