Progressive Traditionalism?

I read Leviticus last year while studying Judaism and I noticed exactly the same thing Ron Beasley is on to in this post. The problem with fundamentalism is it can’t really operate in the real world; no Christian follows all the laws and commandments set forth in the Torah.  Few Jews – even Orthodox – can manage that, and some Orthodox Jews go to extraordinary lengths to follow all 613 mitzvot.  Find me a Christian who even comes close.  Some Orthodox Jews keep two kitchens just to make sure they’re staying kosher.

This is because in Christianity Jesus said, essentially, that there were two commandments that superseded all the rest:  to love God, and to love our neighbor.  To love in other words, wholly and freely.  Jesus was responding in large part to the folly of the priesthood of His day, which had lost sight of love in favor of all those damn laws and commandments.  There is something strikingly similar about those days and our own.  We condemn gays because of a commandment in Leviticus, but we certainly no longer stone people to death for skipping out on the Sabbath – a far more weighty commandment at least from the ancient perspective.  We’ve largely abandoned the Sabbath in the modern world, but still cling quite fiercely to any and every sexual taboo.

The truth is that we could never, as people actually living in the world, as a part of the world, follow each and every ludicrous, ancient commandment, many of which may have made sense – perhaps even on a purely sanitary level – for the ancients, but which miss the point of Jesus’ two great commandments altogether.

Damon Linker and Rod Dreher and Andrew Sullivan have been tossing this ball back and forth now for a while.  In his latest, Linker writes:

It seems to me that Rod’s opposition to gay marriage and social acceptance follows less from an argument or an assertion about the world, nature, or God than it does from a disposition or temperament — from a disposition or temperament inclined toward fear. (In retrospect, I can see how significant and telling it is that one of the first questions I posed to Rod in my original post was “What are you afraid of?”, and that Andrew fastened onto that passage in his initial response and returned to it in the title of his longer post in response to Rod. Fear has been at the center of this debate from the beginning.)

Conservatism and faith are both inextricably tied to doubt; the former utilizes doubt as a sort of gauge by which to check and evaluate progress, the latter as a sort of balancing force.  True faith must be contrasted with real doubt.  But what faith and conservatism do not need, and what inevitably leads to their corruption, is fear.  And Linker is right to note that what this debate – at least for Dreher – boils down to, is fear.  This is not to say that all arguments against gay marriage are based in fear, as Conor notes, but certainly many are, and they all miss a larger point.

I have written a little bit on the death of Christianity and have been trying to uncover some of the causes and effects of the recent trends toward America losing its religion.  I’m grateful that on board at the League we have both Chris and William to add serious background and insight to these discussions; I’m no theologian, after all, and I’m afraid that both these Gentlemen have a great deal more to offer than I do on these matters.

I wrote, the other day, that revanchist moralists are part of the problem – in other words, that the Religious Right, or Christianists, are at least one source of hemorrhaging for the larger Christian community.  I’ve also written that the lack of sensible reform in the Catholic Church has caused much of its own troubles, and have stated that I’d like to see a Vatican III.  (Quite frankly, I wouldn’t mind the Latin Mass returning if we could also end the prohibition against marriage for Parish Priests; see the Byzantine Catholic model for guidance here.)  And finally, I’ve laid some blame at the feet of “pop Christianity” and its attempts to plasticize and glitterfy and essentially take Christianity mainstream.

William raised this point in my secularization post:

It still seems to me that you’re stuck with the problem that the denominations that are doing what you’d like them to be doing (i.e. the mainlines) are the ones that are hemorrhaging members.

Now this is an interesting point though it misses what I was trying to say, and hopefully I can clarify.  The “mainline” Churches he’s referring to are the same I was critiquing in my pop-Christianity piece.  Fake Plastic Churches.  And indeed, these are losing members in large numbers.  I think that if things don’t change the Catholic Church and the Evangelicals will also start to lose members awfully quickly as well.  You see, this is a two-headed beast we’re dealing with: on the one hand the divisive Religious Right and the entrenched conservative Catholics, and on the other the boring, uninspiring mainline.

I think a case needs to be made for some sort of progressive traditionalism, similar in theory to Russell Arbon Fox’s musings on “left conservatism.”  Writes Fox:

When I first picked up the phrase “left conservatism” I was mostly just making a theoretical argument, one with only incidental relevance for actual politics; it was a frame to lump together a huge range of superficially dissimilar, but I would argue deeply connected, “socially traditionalist” and “traditionally socialist” political motivations, to use a couple of overly general labels for it. Christian social democrats, Red Tories, egalitarian populists, various “Third Way” and communitarian types–really, just about anyone who, whether they articulate it this way or not, rejects some of the more individualistic and/or secular presumptions behind many modern liberal arguments, and thus are interested community empowerment, unionization, participatory democracy, parental involvement in education, civil service, anti-consumerism, progressive taxation, media responsibility, fair trade, civic religion and respect, localized and decentralized bureaucracies, limitations on corporate power, and so forth…all could be captured by this umbrella.

Now, I think a similar religious case could be made for a progressive traditionalism which embraced not only the deeper traditions of the Christian faith, while at the same time emphasizing those two greatest commandments set forth by Christ – love God, and love your neighbor – above the other 611 commandments that we mostly have forgotten or ignore to begin with.  At the same time, Christianity could give up on its quest for mainstream, popular culture acceptance – or in other words, give up the soft power approach in the culture war; give up the culture war altogether, and simply live by example.  Or, to put this another way, to give up the fear and, instead, embrace the doubt.  I think this is why pop Christianity fails – it worships and praises and puts a smiley face on Christianity but it denies its own doubt; and similarly the fundamentalists who believe in an unerring, or literalistic interpretation of the Bible, have fallen prey to their own certainty.  But certainty leaves us incapable of changing, incapable of fully embracing faith because on the other side of certainty lies fear.  Doubt gives us the ability to juggle our faith without being overwhelmed by fear; certainty, on the other hand, leaves us unpracticed in anything save denial and reaction.

In any case, I’m not sure I’ve quite voiced what I’m on to here.  More as my thoughts coalesce.

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33 thoughts on “Progressive Traditionalism?

  1. E.D.,

    You know my thoughts on putting progressive in a whole new light. I see it as a corollary to our discussion yesterday about the pace of change or progress. I would agree with you that you can uphold traditional values while still moving forward and the Church certainly did that with Vatican II.
    I would also love to see a Vatican III if for no other reason than historical significance (as a Catholic I was entranced during the days surrounding the death of John Paul and Pope Benedicts election). The problem is that if they stick to their normal schedule, we won’t see one again until around 2060. I think they resist the urge to hold them more often so they can allow the passage of time and not just sway in the wind of public opinion.

    As a Catholic with a non-Catholic wife and children, my simple wish is that they be allowed to share in Communion, the way I am allowed in my wife’s Methodist church.

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  2. The “mainline” Churches he’s referring to are the same I was critiquing in my pop-Christianity piece.  Fake Plastic Churches.  And indeed, these are losing members in large numbers.

    I think this is inaccurate descriptively. The pop-Christianity you’re talking about; the overtly cheesy, overtly go-Jesus pop music is a feature of the Evangelical world, not the mainline protestant churches. The Episcopalians and Methodists, who have embraced theological progressivism in all sorts of interesting permutations generally do not go in for CCM. I think both are problematic, but they are problematic in very different ways.

    Now, I think a similar religious case could be made for a progressive traditionalism which embraced not only the deeper traditions of the Christian faith, while at the same time emphasizing those two greatest commandments set forth by Christ – love God, and love your neighbor – above the other 611 commandments that we mostly have forgotten or ignore to begin with.

    This is almost exactly the progressive theological project of the last 50-100 years. The main problem with it, from my perspective, is that it’s the creation of a synthetic tapestry of personally appealing beliefs, rather than the acceptance of a faith. Any bit that doesn’t conform to our personal sensibilities is discarded because it isn’t congenial, or in keeping with our idiosyncratic definition of love.  Chesterton, I believe, remarked that faith freed him ” from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” In contrast, the progressive theological tradition generally views the present age as freedom from the degrading slavery of tradition.

    At the same time, Christianity could give up on its quest for mainstream, popular culture acceptance – or in other words, give up the soft power approach in the culture war; give up the culture war altogether, and simply live by example.  Or, to put this another way, to give up the fear and, instead, embrace the doubt.

    I think this relies on a narrowly individualistic conception of Christianity, in which individuals do not have a responsibility to promote the common good.  By this logic, the abolitionists should have ceased to condemn slavery, MLK shouldn’t have fought racial segregation, Catholics shouldn’t run 1/3 of the hospitals in the country, and tee-totallers shouldn’t have fought for prohibition (ok, bad example).  But I think the basic point stands; a basic component of Christian identity is the idea that they should promote the common good; not because they are afraid of change, but because they are in favor of, for example, protecting the rights of the unborn. I’m not particularly concerned about gay marriage one way or the other, but it seems to me you are trying to draw a broad conclusion with sweeping implications based on your disagreement with some Christians on one point.

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  3. The main problem with it, from my perspective, is that it’s the creation of a synthetic tapestry of personally appealing beliefs, rather than the acceptance of a faith. Any bit that doesn’t conform to our personal sensibilities is discarded because it isn’t congenial, or in keeping with our idiosyncratic definition of love.  Chesterton, I believe, remarked that faith freed him ” from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” In contrast, the progressive theological tradition generally views the present age as freedom from the degrading slavery of tradition.

    Where I would say both your argument, and Chesterton’s, run short is the pure fact that indeed the age we live in cannot help but inform our views; this is why every age is inhabited by a different Church, why the Catholic Church of the 1800’s looked so different than the one of the 1200’s or the earliest days of Christianity.  You can call it “pick and choose” but that only goes so far in face of the facts.  But I do agree, to some extent, that we certainly can’t just pick and choose everything, that there is a need for some sort of uniformity – which is why I have pushed for reforms within the Church to take place in the forum of a Vatican Council.

    I think this relies on a narrowly individualistic conception of Christianity, in which individuals do not have a responsibility to promote the common good.  By this logic, the abolitionists should have ceased to condemn slavery, MLK shouldn’t have fought racial segregation, Catholics shouldn’t run 1/3 of the hospitals in the country…

    Not at all.  I only mean that the culture war should be left to cultural methods – like running hospitals, printing journals etc. – without falling prey to the easy and often counter-effective politicization that we’ve seen over the past fourty or so years.

    I see how you could take my post in this light, but it’s not what I intended.  Again, I’m feeling all of this out.  I’m trying to state through much of my writing, though not so much here I suppose, the need to look to community-building rather than pushing “family values” legislation precisely because I think it will have more effect on “hearts and minds” – and I think the gay marriage debate is the wrong one to be having.  The issues of life are far more important, and hearts and minds on those fronts need to be changed first.  Taking this line on gay marriage will not serve that cause at all…

    As always, thanks very much for the thoughtful critique.  It helps me work these ideas out more fully.

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  4. Another quick point: when I advocate ending the “culture war” it is in the same spirit that I advocate ending the “drug war” or the “terror war” etc.  I think warring – which is naturally an us against them mentality – is the wrong approach.  This does not mean I think we should stop fighting drug addiction or trying to preserve a strong culture etc.

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  5. The odd thing about the gay marriage debate is that the Bible doesn’t really say that marriage is anything other than an Earthly institution. In fact, it states as much explicitly, as when Jesus talks about the brothers who married the same woman (no reference, sorry, but you know what I mean). People don’t stay married in heaven–Jesus says so. So is it really that important to zealously police it on Earth?

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  6. I see how you could take my post in this light, but it’s not what I intended.  Again, I’m feeling all of this out.

    I am also in many respects; my response was more a quick reaction/reflection than a sustained critique. I don’t think there are that many easy answers when it comes to the relationship between faith, reason, and modernity, much less how these concepts play out in public life.

    The only thing I would add to my original comments, is that, fwiw, I think your phrasing of the question in terms of Leviticus assumes some theological bases (e.g. Sola scriptura) that are pretty contested. At least for Catholics, the prohibition on pork or mandatory circumcision, were clearly not part of the Christian faith within the lifetime of the Apostles. To the extent that Tradition is a relevant consideration in your theological worldview, the Levitical admonitions are of marginal importance, and the great interpreters of Christ from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas and in the Church councils must be reckoned with.

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  7. Good point, John.  I suppose I just can’t help but also take into account science.  I mean, for a good long while the world was considered the very flat center of the universe; we have since evolved in spite of, or perhaps due to, our faith and its ability to coexist with our reason.  It’s a tricky balancing act, I admit, lest we abandon faith entirely for secularization – and this is the very reason I’m trying to determine the best way forward for Christians so that faith can remain strong, not ad hoc, but still relevant etc. etc.

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  8. As commenter John Henry pointed out, the “mainlines churches” are the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the UCC, and a few others (this list is not exact). This wikipedia article seems pretty solid. When I talk about the mainlines, I mean the denominations that exercised a great deal of influence over the USA’s elites up through the 1950s or so and have been in sharp decline since then. All of these denominations have evangelical wings, but the really fundamentalist groups broke off around the 1930s and they’re generally further to the left than their Evangelical and fundamentalist counterparts. And mainline Christians who “do culture” usually do all right: Marilynne Robinson and John Updike both identified as mainline Protestants. The mainlines have a reputation for aiming at high culture, especially literature and classical music, rather than pop culture. Christian rock and wretched Christian movies and novels tend to come from Evangelicals or fundamentalists.

    Hence my difficulty reconciling the mainlines with pop-Christianity. Sorry about the confusion on this point!

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  9. John, William – thanks for clearing that up.  I see what you’re saying, and I think it’s true to a large degree —- however, having been raised part time in these mainline Churches (and part time in Catholic Church) I can say with some certainty that quite a few of them have embraced pop Christianity at least in their youth programs….so perhaps that’s the direction that they’re headed, in order to save themselves, but I’d say it’s not really working.

    Hmmm…

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  10. Mr. Bradford, you make it sound as though Marilynne Robinson is as dead as Updyke! I hope that this isn’t the case; I’m eagerly awaiting more from her, and assume that her death would trigger the news enough for me to notice.

    Also, your association of the mainline/oldline/deadline with “high culture” is ridiculously generous. “Middlebrow culture” maybe, or “higher than Evangelical culture.” But the true avatars of “high culture” have no affiliation with (or appreciation of) Christianity in any form.

    That’s one of the true crises of our age. Unless Christians are able to influence “the elite,” or raise a new generation of “elites,” it won’t matter how long SSM or stem-cell research is delayed. The Culture Wars are over, and all of the “churches” are just playing out the final minutes with a 50-point deficit.

    There should be 1000 Marilynne Robinsons, but Christian “buyers” only raise the likes of “The Shack” and “Left Behind XXII” to the best-seller list. And the best-and-brightest youngsters end up at Harvard without the tools to withstand the drag to atheism. The greatest popular performer of Christian “High Culture” is Josh Groban, a secular Jew.

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  11. Tim,

    Sorry! I wrote that comment too quickly. It reads so badly. Shouldn’t have messed up the tenses there. As far as I know, Robinson is alive and well. I’m fine with “middlebrow” and “higher than Evangelical culture”; that’s actually what I wish I had said. And I’ll try to be less generous to the mainlines in the future.

    Also: are you saying that Christians are basically in the same situation that Michigan State was when they lost to the Tar Heels last night?

    E.D.: as for youth programs and the mainlines, I’ll say from experience that one of the few things more grating than a badly written praise and worship song is a badly written praise and worship song where the references to God have been ham-handedly gender-neutralized.

    -wrb

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  12. I’m suffering from a bit of fatigue.  As the whole culture war drags on, I find it harder and harder to be civil to even liberal Christians.  I’ve recently found that I have a mega-church growing down the street that I wasn’t even aware of (Mars Hill).  Though the congregants are pierced and tattooed, they speak of submitting to husbands, the danger of gays, and “limp wristed Christian men”.  I feel no more need to make allowances for them in my community, than they show for others. 

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  13. Yeah, well it’s tricky to be tolerant of the intolerably intolerant, Cascadian.  By the way, nice to see you around…been a while, methinks….

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  14. Been busy.  Still read you guys regularly, just haven’t had the time to make even an incoherent post.  Life happens sometimes.

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  15. I do not understand how gay marriage is not covered by the First Amendment. One can believe in a deity that doesn’t give a crap about the whole “homosexual” thing and one can publically assemble and have a marriage ceremony and then one can say “hey, we’re married”.

    And I can go to my church and listen to my minister talk about how society is going to hell in a handbasket and how those homosexuals will never “really” be married, Leviticus 20:13, etc, and I can say “Amen!” right after he says it.

    Everybody’s happy.

    Oh, the whole “civil protections” thing? Yeah, we should totally have those. Maybe we can call them “civil unions” or something. Maybe put in place a mechanism where you get a license from the city hall and then have it stamped by either a Justice of the Peace or a hippie dippy Unitarian or a fire/brimstone-breathing pastor to make it official.

    I remember reading somewhere that “civil unions” are a slap in the face of both those who support gay marriage. Oddly enough, I read somewhere else that they’re a slap in the face of those who oppose it. This strikes me as the perfect compromise.

    Everybody can get “married” and everyone is slapped in the face.

    Ah, well. I am surprised at how quickly state legislatures are getting on board. I honestly thought it would be 2020 or thereabouts before we started seeing gay marriage legalized by anyone other than a judge.

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  16. Left-libertarian totalitarian!

    Actually, I’ve got very little to add here, as theology is the one subject on which I know the least but wish to learn the most.  This thread is, as always, quite helpful in that regard. 

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  17. Perhaps it’s because the people have these debates aren’t familiar with theology, to any real extent, but no one ever mentions Catholic/Orthodox views on theology of the body or the theology of the sexes; it isn’t just some random injunctions in Leviticus and St. Paul, the point is that marriage is a profound and mystical conjunction of male and female, which mirrors Christ and the Church, etc., etc.

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  18. Right, but Leviticus is where that theology has its roots.  I simply think that the “profound and mystical conjunction” could still be applied to the holy union of two men or two women, and I think that the Catholic/Orthodox theological work could be built upon to include this sort of love.  But I realize I break entirely from many of my peers on this point.

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  19. It isn’t based on those passages, it’s based on all sorts of things … the wisdom books of the bible, where the earth/church is presented as female; all of the language of ‘bride’ and ‘bridegroom’, spread throughout the OT and NT; and from natural law (i.e. human biology).  Though, as an Orthodox, I can’t conceivably agree with you that we can somehow “include” another “sort of love” in the Church’s teachings; whether one can recognize (essentially secular) civil marriages, well, that’s a whole other question.

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  20. Right, but Leviticus is where that theology has its roots.

    I think Genesis would be a better candidate, and then it progresses basically throughout the OT and the NT. Not to be a jerk, but claiming the Christian/Catholic understanding of sexuality is based on Leviticus is a startlingly original theological opinion; original in the sense that there’s very little basis for it at all.

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  21. Btw, it should be unnecessary to say this, but it isn’t, so let me emphasize I don’t think Genesis is or is intended to be an eyewitness historical account. It is the product of lots of authors over centuries of reflection that is meant to convey essential truths about the human condition. Among those truths is not that the earth is six thousand years old.

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  22. Not to be a jerk, but claiming the Christian/Catholic understanding of sexuality is based on Leviticus is a startlingly original theological opinion;

    I only mean to say that this is where we find the original prohibition against homosexuality in scripture, not to say that this is where sexual theology is rooted in general.

    And you both may be right.  There may be no good way to “include” homosexuality into the theological traditions of the Catholic/Orthodox Churches.  It may be that gay unions can only be left to secularism; I only wish that this were not the case as I view it as a victory for secularization.

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  23. Right, but Leviticus is where that theology has its roots.

    No. This doesn’t even remotely make sense. That “theology stuff” is rooted in the entire Bible, beginning with “In the beginning.”

    Please re-read paul h.’s humble point, then begin learning before embarrassing yourself.

    Come back in a year or two when you’re ready to expound on important matters that you clearly haven’t begun to understand.

    Men of greater faith and intellect than anyone here have been grappling with this “theology stuff” for thousands of years. Is it really wise for us to be dismissing this inheritance with an arrogant wave of the hand, and ignarantly build from scratch.

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  24. Thanks, John.  It’s okay, though.  I can take a few punches.

    Tim, I am not particularly concerned with “embarrassing myself” as I consider the very point of blogging, conversing, etc. a learning experience.  I am woefully short on good theological training as I went through a very long anti-religious phase during my rebellious period and I’m doing my best to catch up.  Blogging is a sort of act of expression and questioning all at once for me – so I state things I believe but at the same time ask questions and I am very lucky indeed to have such a knowledgeable readership here at the League to better inform me when I am lacking in knowledge (on any number of subjects).

    So here is where I am having difficulty:

    I believe very much in tradition and in the importance of a society built on the foundation of tradition and history and the wisdom of the ages etc.  This is why the Catholic Church makes so much more sense and to me seems so much more spiritually powerful (to me, in any case) than Protestantism. 

    However, at the same time, in my heart of hearts I know that some things are just right and that the times often change to reflect this.  Slavery, race equality, etc. have all been part of this liberating tradition, and the Church has not always been on the right side of every debate but has generally grown and evolved (carefully) to incorporate the right side of the debate into its theological framework.  The world is no longer the center of the universe; I seem to recall it was a priest or a monk who first toyed with the idea of the Big Bang; evolution is accepted by the Church as well, in less I am mistaken.  Certainly even the most conservative Catholics I know believe that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive concepts.  So with homosexuality I simply hope for a similar story, a move by the Church to accept and embrace it.  That’s all.  Perhaps I am simply too miserably short on theological knowledge to state how this could ever be done, so I keep it in the realm of hope…

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  25. John H,

    Agreed. I was reacting to the Leviticus = “All of Theology” comment and didn’t see Kain’s subsequent stepdown.

    Kain, please forgive my shouting in your house.

    But before moving along, just let me submit that you may want to take the thrust of my recommendation seriously. I would be embarrassed to begin blogging about my random ideas concerning molecular biology before learning some biology first. And theology, if anything, is even deeper and more significant.

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  26. Yeah, my wife says as much about – well – lots of things.  I’m an expert at nothing, really, and don’t have near enough time to become an expert at everything I’d like to understand.

    Any readings you’d recommend to help me along my way?

    I guess on another level, though, I’m not so sure that this post itself was really attempting to be very theologically deep – it was more a question that asked is there a way to have a “progressive traditionalism?”  The concepts of Catholic social teachings and social justice are very progressive in many ways, and very relevant, but again, perhaps my own lack of knowledge hinders me here as well…

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  27. E.D.,

    George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II (“Witness to Hope”) has what a good summary of the traditional Catholic teaching on marriage and what JPII tried to do with it in the chapter on JPII’s “theology of the body.” It’s written from the conservative perspective, but I think it gets across some of the complexities of biblical interpretation and theology that plague this issue.

    -wrb

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  28. I’d second the Witness to Hope recommendation for a concise summary; also the first few chapters of Catholic Sexual Ethics by Lawler, Boyle, and May provide a short accessible introduction to the Catholic understanding of the bible on sex, and the historical Catholic self-understanding of sex. It’s conservative also, but I think most liberal Catholic writers would be working from the same premises in this area that you are, so they would be less educational even if you found them more sympathetic. Here’s the amazon link;

    http://www.amazon.com/Catholic-Sexual-Ethics-Summary-Explanation/dp/0879739525/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1239237371&sr=8-1

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