M. D. Chenu’s Very Progressive Christianity

Column by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox on 9 March 2023 0 Comments

Why is a Chenu Institute and a new book about him such good news for progressive Christians today?  Because he was a progressive and courageous theologian throughout his life and was unafraid to break the glass in so many areas of culture and religion including theological education. 

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Jesus never tried to teach us a theology. If it was important, wouldn’t he have at least mentioned his theology? When he interacted with people, he loved and accepted them for who they were. He didn’t try to change them and he didn’t try to change the world, except maybe one person at a time. He taught them to have faith and do the right thing. Why do Christian churches, ministers, missionaries, etc. feel the need to force their theology on us? Jesus would not be doing this. In my opinion, no theology is entirely correct, even my own.


Dear Albert,

Fifty years ago I wrote a book entitled What to Believe?? The Questions of Christian Faith, published by Fortress Press and currently available from ProgressiveChristianity.org. In that book I asked fifteen different theological questions, summarized answers that have been given throughout the history of Christian thinking, criticized those answers, and concluded by offering some thoughts of my own. Well, not quite concluded, because now, fifty years later, I have tried to reflect about how my thinking has changed. These reflections are serialized, also in progressivechristianity.org. All of this is to underscore your last comment, that “no theology is entirely correct, not even my [your] own.” Our perceptions are culture-bound and short-sighted, in many ways products of our time. But we can change, hopefully, and grow, perhaps evermore approaching that which is true.

There is a difference between thinking theologically and pronouncing dogma. Much to our dismay, there are many churches and clergy who prefer the latter, especially those who proclaim that they alone have the truth, that in order to be “saved” [whatever that might mean], you have to believe that Jesus died for your sins and that the Bible is inerrant. On the other hand, we all do need to think about life and God and about the meaning for which we search, but in that process we certainly must not impose our beliefs on others. If each of us could admit the shortcomings in our perception, the world would be more peaceful and just.

Jesus did not have a set of beliefs that he wanted to transmit to others, but he did have an awakened attitude that he tried to teach, challenging people to “have faith and do the right thing”, as you succinctly put it. Love God and love your neighbor. As an illustration of loving confrontation, we read that a teacher of the law came to Jesus and asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded, “There was a man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and he fell among thieves…and a Samaritan came by…” Jesus did challenge those who were blind to the essence of their humanity, as with this teacher of the law. The challenge was love in action.

Part of that awakened attitude was a vision for a different world. The society into which Jesus was born and in which he walked, was a society founded upon oppression of the poor. The rich and powerful ruled without mercy, and Jesus really did challenge that system, not least by gathering a family of friends, a group of about 25 disciples who cared for one another and shared their goods. This vision of a new way to live directly challenged the status quo established and enforced by the rich and powerful, so they had him murdered.

If we gather these thoughts together, the sum and substance is that it is integral to our humanity to creatively think theologically without slipping into dogmatism. Beginning with the basic premise, taught by Jesus and others, that love is the way, we need to challenge ourselves and others to continually work toward that higher awareness. Should we succumb to the temptation to impose our belief on others rather than helping them to grow in their own understanding of life and love, then we have ourselves become blind to the truth, and our pronouncements are null and void.

~ Dr. Carl Krieg




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