“From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God.”   CS Lewis – Problem of Pain

There’s a lot of talk today about being “Woke”.  The term refers to those who have come online to the need in our culture for more fairness, equality and social justice.  If you are a “Progressive” you believe in wokeness.  Now, some Christians think perhaps they should not embrace the label “progressive”.  There is a good reason to have some pause about it.  The reason is “Progressive Christianity” is not so much known for its alliance with things like “fairness, equality and social justice” (how can Christians be against it?) but for its defection from orthodoxy. 

What Some Progressives Believe

Some progressive Christians are progressive in the sense they have progressed past the historical confessional truths which used to unite all Christians.  Things like the full deity of Jesus, the authority of Scripture, the substitutionary atonement of the Cross, the existence of hell, the beauty, truth and goodness of biblical hetero-normative sexuality – all things Progressives now reject.

You may think this “progress” is a good or a bad thing, but what it most certainly is, is the invention of a new religion.  In this sense, Progressive Christianity is a contradiction in terms.

However, if you embrace the term “progressive” as it relates to morality the term is not a bad label per se.  Why not?  Because I think only Christians (or all Theists let’s say) have a right to claim moral progress is possible. Why?  Christians believe there is an objective moral standard out there which all cultures can know and all cultures OUGHT to be shooting for and advancing towards.

Hostility to God?

The irony is many progressives are actively hostile to God.  They’re agnostics and atheists or at least indifferent to the God question. Yet they treat their moral crusades as important universally – “it is universally abhorrent to practice female circumcision” for example.

But it’s what those cultures have done for millennia; and if there’s no God, then their moral norms are not “abhorrent”, they’re just the behaviors. Behaviors which a design-less universe happened to manifest in the culture for these particular biological entities to survive better. They are no more wrong than the modern feminist is right. Those concepts are objectively unreal, on atheism.

The Moral Advances

Christians can believe in moral advances because we have the proper grounds for believing an objective standard to “progress” towards; and it is technically “progressive”.  In this way we are not against “getting woke”.  When we came to Jesus we “woke up” (‘Wake up O Sleeper and rise from the dead and let the light of Christ shine on you,’ was a motto in the early church).  We even woke up to a new moral paradigm through Jesus which put Love at the center of our calling.

But it’s not, we are discovering a whole new set of moral laws. Even when Jesus told us the great commandment of love, he was quoting Moses!  Therefore, we believe it is possible to build on moral knowledge (or its implications) as time goes on; just as we accumulate scientific knowledge.

Of course, if this is true, we wouldn’t spit on our forebearers for not perfectly living up to perfect justice; just as we do not denounce Isaac Newton because it turns out his physics were not the best way to frame quantum mechanics!  No, we stand on Newton, even though he was wrong in some ways. We needed him as a stepping stool for greater knowledge.

To Denounce or Not To Denounce?

Similarly, do we denounce the English framers of Common Law who democratically checked the powers of kings, yet didn’t give women the right to vote?  Do we drag down their statues for being such sexists?  Even slave owners cannot be universally looked down on because A) every nation/culture/society had slaves; and B) some had virtues then which we utterly lack today. (A study of Robert E Lee may reveal to you, as it did to me, despite his blind spots; this was a man of extremely high moral character who outshines me in so many ways.)

What’s Lewis Got to Do with This?

All this gets to the point of the Lewis quote above.  He puts a serious check on the exuberance of being a “progressive” (morally speaking).  If you’re on the warpath for people to get “woke” like you are; Lewis said different cultures are often blind to their own vices and see their virtues as more important. But if every culture does this, then often what we call linear progress is actually not linear at all; but rather a cyclical pattern of different vices and virtues coming to the fore at different times in different eras for various of reasons.  Woke culture never seems humble enough to admit this.

For example, changing technology makes old values SEEM oppressive; but in historic context they were seen as the epitome of love.  Strip away technology which allows women to participate more in the work force more by divorcing them from reproductive burdens. We would be amazed how the chivalrous culture would re-emerge; not as “unwoke” and sexist, but as compassionate, kind, and loving.

So based on Lewis’s insight I’m skeptical we’re in a “great leap forward” right now. There’s always more reforming to do, of course, because our call is to be “imitators of God”. The standard of moral goodness we are shooting for is a forever journey; until we receive Jesus’ promise, “a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell.” (2 Peter 3:13).  However, for me, the blind spots, historical naivety, and contradictions inside “wokeness” as popularly defined are just too glaring to think we’ve reached the Age of Aquarius.

Going Deeper

What are some of the examples of “Progressive Christianity” ideals at work in our society?

Are there some uncertainties in your own life where the line of moral goodness has been blurred?

What does your vision of 2 Peter 3:13 look like?

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