Honest to Goodness by Martin Prozesky (Book Review)

Martin Prozesky has worked in academia for decades and written numerous books and articles. Prior to this book, I had never heard of him before, though it appears (and becomes apparent in the book) that he finds the best description of God in Process Theology. Thus, he resists both traditional theology as well as rejection of God altogether. Rather than focusing on what we believe (in our mind) about God, Prozesky calls for Christians to focus on how we act. In this book then, Prozesky begins by saying that “Goodness” is the sublime reality behind our understanding of God and the central aspect of the Christian tradition. Prozesky calls on Christians to leave behind archaic beliefs of doctrine and even traditional practices of worship in order to instead focus on ethical action. What we believe about God is less important that how we live towards others.

              I think Prozesky is right about some of this, and that when he is right his work is both moving and echoes much of the best of the Christian tradition. Prozesky emphasizes that Jesus clearly was more focused on how people acted than what was in their heads. Of course, Prozesky is not the only person to argue for more emphasis on action, nor to equate the core of God with the Good. Throughout the history of the church, we can see saints and servants and even philosophers who echo this focus on goodness. Aquinas and other Christian philosophers equated God with the ultimate Good (and Love and Beauty). Further, there have always been those who called Christians back to a more serious commitment to goodness. This predates even Jesus as the prophetic books in the Old Testament are testimonies of those who called God’s people to a better understanding of who God is and what God is doing.

              So Prozesky is joining a host of people throughout history who think God’s people have strayed and is calling them back. Yet I found Prozesky’s book ultimately unsatisfying. I tend to be a conflict avoider and I try to find the best in people, and in books. Thus, I have wrestled with why this book left me so unsatisfied. There are many reasons, but one of the first is that I think so much of what Prozesky desires (acts, ethics, focus on goodness) can be and has been found within the Christian tradition. Situated as I am within that tradition, and still finding great values in the doctrines central to it, I thought his move to throw out so much of that tradition was unwarranted.

              To put it another way, while I do not know the man, he does appear to desire what is best for people. But in his critique of Christianity, he essentially implies most everyone else is wrong except for him and a few other enlightened souls. His one example of a positive experience in a church service, what he says would be the best way moving forward, is a Unitarian service he attended once. No offense to Unitarians, but normal people do not appear to be flocking to such churches. It seems most people still enjoy singing hymns and practicing traditional rituals like communion. I will not hold my breath expecting Unitarianism to be the future of Christianity (nor Process Theology).

              Overall, while I found myself agreeing with parts of what he was writing, there were many places where it just seemed he did not fully think through what he was proposing, realize what he was missing or, well, could have used an editor. My review will focus on these things.

              First, the need for more editing. The first hundred pages was a theological memoir where Prozesky shared stories from his life, meetings with academic influences and turning points in his understanding. I enjoy a good memoir, but this was just not interesting. As I read, I felt like Prozesky was seeking to list out his credentials rather than tell his story. By the end, I knew who had influenced him, but I did not know him. If that was his goal, then he accomplished it. But in a book like this one, it seemed unnecessary. What he wrote in the rest of the book would stand or fall on its own merits and I honestly do not care who he met in 1977 or whenever. If Prozesky wants to write a memoir, then he should write one, rather than shoehorning it into this book.

              The other need for an editor came in his continual quoting of his own work. This begins on the first page, prior to the contents, where many books include a few quotes to set the tone. Plenty of books do this, but never before have I seen an author quote himself! You will have plenty of time for your words, it is your book! Why sneak in a quote from your own previous work? Also, he often includes LONG quotes from his own work, including a fictional piece he wrote. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with quoting yourself. But 2 whole pages straight? It seemed excessive.

              Moving on, in Part II, Prozesky offers his critique of both Conservative and Liberal Christianity. I will focus on his critique of Conservative Christianity, which is where I would fit according to Prozesky. I admit, I went into this feeling a bit skeptical since in the introduction he wrote “Christianity is no longer one faith but two” (xxiv). The two, according to Prozesky, are Conservative Christianity and Liberal Christianity. I jotted on that page, “when has Christianity ever been one?” From early on, even in the pages of the New Testament, we see a church wrestling with division. The church held it together for a few centuries, but the first major division came in the 400s between Nestorians, Monophysites and Orthodox. Then in 1054 we have the divide between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Finally, western Christianity splintered in the 1500s and since. Prozesky obviously knows this, he just groups all these branches of Christianity into what he calls “Conservative Christianity.” But he fails to justify why his definition is merited.

              Perhaps it works for his purpose, but there is no reason that focusing on what all these groups have in common, as if they are all one thing. Plus, it opens him up to easy refutation for any statement he makes about what he deems “Conservative Christianity” if just one branch disagrees. As you read, he is clearly thinking of American evangelical Christianity in much of his critique. Plenty of people critique American evangelical Christianity, and it deserves to be critiqued. But to reduce most of Christianity through all of history to American evangelical Christianity, is an error. Plenty of people hold to some tenets of what Prozesky says are Conservative but not others. For example, on page 153 he cites John Calvin saying without understanding of fullness of sin we cannot understand salvation. Prozesky seems to assume Calvin represents all conservative Christians, though those from Greek Orthodox, Wesleyan, and other traditions may be surprised by this.

              Another problem that becomes clear in this section is that he seems to assume that he (or the scholars who have influenced him) have some objective place from which to judge the truth or falsity of the beliefs and ideas of others. This seems hypocritical as he sees one problem in Conservative Christianity as their exclusive beliefs. Yet to say they are wrong demonstrates that his own belief system requires some ideas true and some not, so he is just as exclusive. Further, his reasons for why he finds some beliefs problematic or wrong are not well argued. For example, he deems it a contradiction that the doctrine of the Trinity (God as three persons in one being) has been revealed to Christians and no one else. But why is this a contradiction? It may be highly unlikely, but I am unclear what makes it a contradiction. His assertion is not an argument. I suppose his argument comes when discussing his methodology earlier in the book. This methodology is certainly helpful, there are tools here Christians (even “Conservative” ones) can and do use. But these methods do not prove metaphysical beliefs to be contradictions. Through all of this, he takes a lot of time to judge what is ethical and what is not within Christianity. But again, why should I, or anyone, take what he says (which has been figured out in a specific time and space) rather than what was figured out in a different time or space? Add to this that in another century or two, it is quite likely people may look back at our proudly “progressive” ethical ideas with the same skepticism which Prozesky looks to his own past. He is just as situated in a context and liable to be wrong as the Conservative Christians he dismisses.

              This points to another problem with the book: he makes large assumptions without adequately supporting them. For example, he continually brings up the good actions of people outside of Christianity. This is obviously not a new thing as God’s people have seen good in other people since. . . forever, I guess. He talks about how people all over the world accept human rights as a good thing nowadays. This is true, but it begs the question of why? Why are human rights nearly universally accepted? Where does this belief and acceptance come from? He insinuates it is simply something we simply have as humans, citing Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer. These two have, at times, endorsed infanticide and suggested a woman whose baby has Down syndrome should abort, so I am not going to hold my breath waiting for their moral insights. Beyond that, there is also the question of just where this mechanism to overcome evolution comes from? Science may show us what is beneficial or even how human morality has developed, but ultimately it cannot answer the question of “why?” I think of Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary argument against Naturalism (Evolution provides beliefs that promote survival, but not truth). Of course, no need to spend much time here as Prozesky writes as a (Progressive) Christian and not an atheist.

              Sticking with the question of morals and ethics, he states many cultures share the “enveloping presence of goodness” (220). That is true, but it is just as correct to say many cultures share an enveloping presence of violence and evil. Humanity has a propensity for good, but we also have quite a propensity for evil. How do we know which to favor as normative? On a purely pragmatic level, it may make more sense for all of us to be kind and loving as this may benefit more people. But why ought the strong man or woman with the power to overcome all obstacles not take power and enjoy life at the top of the human tribe? Prozesky may admire a Francis of Assisi or a Gandhi (and I may agree with him) but in a purely natural world, if someone favors a Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar and sets out to conquer, just who are we to say that person is immoral or unethical? To me, the universal presence of good is a pointer to a God with Goodness at the core (the sort of God Prozesky defines) and my hope in this good as more basic than violence is a result of my faith in the God revealed in that archaic belief in the Trinity (as Prozesky would describe it) for in the Trinity God is Unity in Diversity without violence. It is unclear why, on Prozesky’s account, goodness is more basic than violence.

              To me this leads into my biggest critique of the book: he may say Conservative Christianity is outdated and offer his critique of Liberal Christianity as well, favoring what he deems “Progressive” Christianity (which, by the way, his separating liberal and progressive still doesn’t makes sense to me) but he still writes as a Christian, but he is presenting his version of Christianity as one that will blend in with all other world religions.  As a Christian, I agree with much of what he says about Goodness being the core of God (I would say Love, but that is beside the point).  Even were he to convince all Christians of his point, that is only step one. He needs to show this idea of goodness will unite people of different religions. This begs the question, is Goodness at the core of Islam? Buddhism? Any proof that this idea of goodness transcends his Christian background is limited to a few anecdotes of meeting decent non-Christians. Yet no one disputes goodness transcends Christianity. How do we explain this observation? Meeting a kind Muslim, Atheist or Christian proves nothing about the general belief and practice of Islam, Atheism or Christianity.

              It does not seem Prozesky takes his own situatedness as a Christian seriously enough. On page 193 he writes that even Christians inclusivists (those who would not say all non-Christians are destined for hell) still believe that Jesus is unique. In other words, people of other religions may be saved, but they will be saved through Jesus. This belief, he says, implies that the beliefs of others are “flawed and inadequate.” Yet, his entire work is still centered on Jesus. He is still writing as a Christian. When he encounters people of other religions or no religions who have different views of Jesus, he either needs to hold to his beliefs and say theirs are “flawed and inadequate” or jettison his beliefs.

              So many of the assumptions and ideas Prozesky has about Jesus and goodness remain distinctly Christian. He does not seem to consider the Christian revolution and how these ideas transcend the globe. Historians such as Tom Holland would point out that his understanding of goodness is deeply intwined with the Christian revolution and the reason we see human rights taken for granted is that Christian ideas have so permeated the globe. I suppose Prozesky would balk at this. Perhaps he would site the Axial Revolution and the great religious teachers such as Buddha, Confucius and others who lived about 500 BCE. But I would wonder why we should emphasize their commonalities and not their differences? What these folks taught in common is interesting, but so too are their differences. A “Conservative Christian” like CS Lewis even emphasizes such common ideas in all these thinkers (such as in his book The Abolition of Man). Prozesky references Lewis once, but seems to not be aware that Lewis, like many other “Conservative” Christians, wrestled with this problem and presented solutions (perhaps he need read more of Lewis’ work to get a better idea what the man believed?).

              In the end, it appears Prozesky believes all religions teach essentially the same thing and if Christians just jettisoned our outmoded beliefs, doctrines and worship practices then we could move forward in some kind of unified world. Again, no one can deny that there are great similarities among different religions. From a Christian perspective, this can be explained that all humans are made in God’s image and that spark of divinity remains. I am sure Prozesky would say that explanation is too beholden to “Conservative Christianity.” The problem for Prozesky is that he does not, and I would say he cannot, prove that all religions essentially teach the same thing. From what vantage point can he look at all religions and claim they are, at core, the same. It is clear that while different religions agree on some things, there is also plenty of disagreement. Here again, Prozesky is being exclusive, which he claims is bad form for Conservative Christians. Imagine a Christian claiming, “the main point is love” and a Muslim arguing, “no, the main point is submission.” Prozesky is just as exclusive in saying, “no, the main point is goodness” as either other party is. It is exclusive (even arrogant?) to enter a conversation where people disagree and to speak from on high, “here is where you all are wrong. . . just focus on goodness!”

              My primary critique then is that Prozesky critiques exclusiveness while offering arguments that he expects us to accept (at the expense of others) or not. Even if his critique of Christianity is true and we need to focus on goodness, this means nothing in inter-religious dialogue. After all, why should Muslims accept his emphasis on goodness? Does Prozesky know enough about Islam to tell them the core idea of their religion is goodness? I suspect not, but for his argument to be one that could truly bring all people together, he needs to address other religions (beyond a few anecdotes). When he does speak of Islam, it brings up more questions than he answers. At the end of the book, for example, he makes the baffling, in light of all that came before, statement that the Bible and other literature of the world is culturally and human conditioned “except, so our Muslims would say, for the Qur’an” (258). Muslims certainly believe this, so does Prozesky think they are right or wrong? He has no problem criticizing Conservative Christians’ claims of exclusivity, what of Muslim claims of exclusivity?

              This is why I think a much better tactic for someone like Prozesky would be to not really mention other religions at all. Had he focused his critique on Christianity and called us to focus on goodness, that would have been enough. We cannot do anything but enter into dialogue with those different from us, seeking to learn from them and perhaps we may discover we have a lot in common. Certainly, some of his criticisms of Christianity point out areas where interfaith dialogue would stumble: if we think everyone of other religions is destined for hell, it may be hard to listen to them. As a Christian, he can work for a better Christian understanding of God and our human purpose. I suspect everything I just wrote would be affirmed by Prozesky.

              In the end, the biggest failures of this book are that Prozesky fails to realize his own exclusiveness and he fails to realize that, in thinking all humanity can agree goodness is a core value, he takes a leap of faith. To me, there is nothing wrong with leaps of faith. I for one hope that people of all religions and no religion can agree to coexist and be kind to one another even as we disagree on many things. But can we know that for sure? Even in this hope of mine, my Christian faith is seen. Smart, academic writers like Prozesky might just need a bit more hope and faith.

I received a free copy of this book from SpeakEasy for purpose of review. Receiving a free copy makes me feel all the worse for not enjoying it, but they said they wanted me to be honest and candid.

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