The contrast between a pilgrim who progresses, and a progressive pilgrim

June 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

There is a saying in Church history. That saying goes like this:

Credo ut intelligam

‘I believe in order to understand’

(St. Augustine, & Anselm of Canterbury)

When, as Christians, we ignore theological enquiry we subsequently turn our backs on the manifold benefits of cognitive awareness.

Hypothetically speaking this ignorance might actively be expressed by some as:


Image credit:RL2013

 ‘’Give me the theological truth – but if it doesn’t fit in a MEME that I can like, share or wave passive aggressively at my not-yet-Christian friends on Facebook, I don’t want to know about it’’.

Don’t get me wrong. Minus the passive aggressive motivators, I think MEMEs are useful. They provide a form of art-therapy for adults. The simplicity of a meme can be inspiring, and the art that goes with it soothing. Memes have a place.

This isn’t a beat up of that genre.

Like it or not. Christians should be interested in theology, because every Christian is in some way or another, called to have a thinking faith; ‘theology is called forth by faith’ (Grenz, 1994:9)

In truth, engaging with difficult reading does us good.

We are shaped by the challenge set before us. This could be likened to carefully navigating our way up a mountain, stopping to enjoy the view, then employing the same caution on our way back down.

If we sense that the subject matter is ‘’beyond us’’, it is more than likely a manifestation of our impatience, which seeks to impale us on the stake of ignorance. Insert Jesus’ words about – Doves, wisdom, snakes, wolves, and sheep (Mt.10:16).

This apathy towards learning wounds us, not just individually, but collectively. This is because theology is done in community (Stanley Grenz’, 1994:9 ‘theology for the community of God’).

In his ‘Aids to Reflection’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge posited that:

‘An unreflecting Christian walks in twilight among snares and pitfalls! He entreats the heavenly Father not to lead him into temptation, and yet places himself on the very edge of it, because he will not kindle the torch which his Father had given into his hands, as a mean of prevention, and lest he should pray too late’. (Kindle Ed. L:196-198). 


Image credit:

Likewise Nathaniel Hawthorne, American author and Christian, protested the circumventing of this imperative. In his 1843 work ‘The celestial railroad’, Hawthorne reworks Bunyan’s pilgrim’s progress. The result is an attempt to tackle the dangers associated with taking short-cuts in a faith that seeks understanding.

Jean Bethke Elshtain gives an adequate exposition of Hawthorne’s railroad as part of her presentation to the Maxwell School regarding ‘Democracy on retrial’. (Highly recommended)

Elshtain outlines that ‘counter to Reformed orthodox doctrine, some 19th Century theologians suggested that there were short cuts to heaven’. Elshtain goes on to explain the relevance of this for us today. She states that ‘we live in a time of shortcuts…we want to pave the way as easy as we can’.  This is evidenced by ‘social media which promises a painless way to get community, human identity and democracy’…’techno-cyber consumerism makes it easy to have hatefulness confirmed rather than challenged’ (2013).


image credit: ‘Southern Cross’, CSIRO – Australia

Elshtain goes on to suggest that this is indicative of Hawthorne’s theological critique of society within the ‘celestial railroad’. For example: ‘Mass culture, speed, superficiality vs. depth. Hawthorne’s work presents the promises of ease and convenience which are made by the antagonist, ‘’Mr. Smooth it away’’ as a stark contrast to the striving difficulty of ‘’Christian’’ on Bunyan’s road’.

On the surface this could translate into meaning progressive versus progressive conservatives. Such a suggestion would not be a complete stretch. This is because these politically charged terms can help build a bridge between Hawthorne’s tale and current socio-political realities.

Consequently we can draw a contrast between a pilgrim’s progress and the journey undertaken by progressive pilgrims.

There is a difference between the progress of pilgrims and pilgrims who call themselves progressive.

The former is a dynamic, ‘pilgrim people’ (Karl Barth CD.IV.4:40), critically processing ideology through theological enquiry. The latter are a passive people, who have already surrendered their theology to ideology, doing their best to theologically justify their ideological allegiances.

Having said this, neither can be viewed as truly conservative or progressive in the current political sense of the ‘’left or right’’. This is because both progressing, and progressive pilgrims look forward, and move, in what is considered by both, as the same direction. However, like in Hawthorne’s narrative, upon arrival, one will find that their destination is in complete contrast to the other.

Elshtain helps to flesh out the distinction between progressing and progressive pilgrims. She does this by pointing out that some 19th century theologians made the ‘old image of a pilgrim carrying their sins on their back superfluous. This is seen in Hawthorne’s narrative critique, when people were told that there is a super hot railway that would get them there quick, without all the messy stuff about sin, remorse, penance, meaningful membership and so on’ (2013).

Such a distinction can be substantiated, once viewed against Hawthorne’s description of a fictitious, but nevertheless potent event:

‘’The passengers being all comfortably seated, we now rattled away merrily, accomplishing a greater distance in ten minutes than Christian probably trudged over in a day. It was laughable, while we glanced along, as it were, at the tail of a thunderbolt, to observe two dusty foot travellers in the old pilgrim guise, with cockle shell and staff, their mystic rolls of parchment in their hands and their intolerable burdens on their backs. The preposterous obstinacy of these honest people in persisting to groan and stumble along the difficult pathway rather than take advantage of modern improvements, excited great mirth among our wiser brotherhood. We greeted the two pilgrims with many pleasant gibes and a roar of laughter; whereupon they gazed at us with such woeful and absurdly compassionate visages that our merriment grew tenfold”.


Image credit: Charles Spurgeon –

In addition this can be evidenced by the ‘downgrade (downhill slope) controversy’, which eventually saw English Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon, choose to resign from the Baptist Union in 1887 (Iain Murray ‘The Forgotten Spurgeon’, 1966:161). His refusal to compromise must not be confused with a refusal to negotiate. It is most likely that Spurgeon simply knew that few were willing to listen to reason (149). For example: ‘fellowship with known and vital error is participation in sin…should truth be sold to keep up a wider fellowship? (ibid 1966:144 & 148).

It is worth noting here that the downgrade controversy occurred in the U.K during the latter part of 19th Century, whereas Hawthorne was reflecting on this issue in ante-bellum (1840’s pre-civil war) America.

Perhaps there is relevance for the church today? In 1889, Spurgeon wrote that:

‘the day will come when those who think that they can repair a house which has no foundations will see the wisdom of quitting it altogether. All along we have seen that to come out from association with questionable doctrines is the only possible solution of a difficulty which, however it may be denied, is not to be trifled with by those who are conscious of its terrible reality’…it might be more satisfactory to take the whole house down, and reconstruct it’ (Murray citing Spurgeon, 1966:155)

Interestingly, Robert Shindler, a friend of Spurgeon’s, wrote that:

‘’in some cases, it is all too plainly apparent men are willing to forego the old for the sake of the new. But commonly it is found in theology, that which is true is not new, and that which is new is not true.” (‘The Sword and the Trowel’, March 1887)

Let us remember where, what and who our lives are aligned to serve. God can still speak out of the chaos in a whirlwind (Job 38:1 & 40:6). If He chooses too, we would do well to listen, understand and gratefully obey . Instead of opting for the empty progressive promises of Mr.Smooth-it-away, and Hawthorne’s ‘Celestial train’, may we have the courage to persevere and make progress as Bunyan’s ”Christian” did.


Barth, K. 1969 Church Dogmatics Vol.IV The Doctrine of Reconciliation, part 4 Hendrickson Publishers
Elshtain, J.B 2013, State of Democracy Maxwell School lecture sourced from
Grenz, S.J. 1994 Theology for the community of God Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids MI. USA
Hawthorne, N. 1843 The Celestial Railroad sourced from
Murray, I. 1966 The Forgotten Spurgeon Banner of Truth Trust USA

Copyright. Rod Lampard. 2013

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