A Contemporary Pilgrim’s “Progress”?

Recently, for the first time ever, I read the English theological classic Pilgrim’s Progress.  The book, presented as an allegorical dream experienced by the author, follows the protagonist, Christian, in his journey to the gates of the Celestial City.  Along the straight and narrow way, he encounters numerous characters who personify various virtues and vices that one commonly comes across in life’s journey—folks like Hypocrisy, Patience, Hopeful, Ignorance, to name a few.  Time and time again, these characters distract or encourage him along the pilgrimage, but in the end Christian preserves nonetheless.

While it is a brilliant, multi-layered text that presents a reader with plenty to ponder, the book’s title and even the simplest consideration of the allegory inevitably begs one to consider: What counts as progress in Christian life?  What is the ends toward which a Christian should progress?  How can one tell if he/she is making progress? 

Though the text is relatively old, its questions seem increasingly pertinent as I encounter more and more Catholics who understand themselves to be “progressive.”  Even as I often describe myself in these terms, I realize that I rarely critically consider what this qualifier actually implies: In what direction are we “progressive” Catholics heading?  In what ways are we actually “progressing”?

These questions are especially challenging as I find it so temping for the “progressive” Catholic agenda to slip into a rhetoric that defines according to what it seeks to escape rather than what we are progressing toward.  There is a lot of talk about reforming Church structure, revising liturgical practices, and shifting Catholic moral imperatives—but amid all this, I, too, am guilty of failing to emphasize the institutions, practices, and theologies that will replace them.  I don’t always emphasize what we are moving toward as easily as I speak out against where the Church currently resides.

Do you have a helpful vision, an allegory, or dream toward which you see the Church progressing? And if so, what are the signs that we are actually moving towards its actualization? How can we construct the tale of a contemporary pilgrim’s progress?

Jessica Coblentz is currently working toward her Master of Theological Studies degree at Harvard Divinity School. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.com.

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