About Me

Just a person in recovery from years of spiritual abuse at the hands of good, upstanding Christian folks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What is a Progressive Christian anyway?

A growing number of 21st century Christians are seeking an alternative to the brand of faith peddled by televangelists and the religious right. The fall of prominent ministers like Ted Haggard, the failure of the Evangelical/Republican alliance, and the challenge of communicating the message of Jesus to a new generation have convinced many that the church in America is in dire need of reformation.

Like the Israelites in ancient Egypt, God’s people today are on an exodus. They are breaking away from a Christianity strait jacketed by insecure, fundamentalist attitudes and worldly ambition. In its place they are discovering a fresh expression of their faith. They are holding fast to the truth of the Gospel, while at the same time being open to insights from science and scholarship.

Many have experienced firsthand the financial misery caused by the unrestrained greed of big business. They’ve seen their nation plunged into a needless war that rooted out no weapons of mass destruction, but has led to the deaths of hundreds of young men and women. They’ve learned that the Republican party and laissez faire Capitalism aren’t the only options available to politically active followers of Christ. They know that military conflict must be morally justified to win their support. It’s not enough to blindly follow our leaders on any course of action they declare is necessary.

There are many terms that try to put a label on this growing awareness in the church. But the one that has garnered the most attention is “Progressive Christianity.” Type that term into any search engine and you’ll find thousands of hits.

Numerous best selling books have been written that try to nail down exactly what this phenomena is. However, like many infant movements it defies tidy definitions. Some see it as a liberalized sort of Evangelicalism that combines orthodox theology with left leaning politics.
Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo and Ronald Sider advocate just such an approach.

Others view it as a renunciation of historic teachings about God, Christ and the church. Biblical scholar Marcus Borg and retired Episcopal Bishop Jonathan Spong are vocal spokesmen for this modernist spin on the faith. They and their allies seek to reformulate Christian teaching to eliminate supposedly irrational notions as the Virgin Birth and the physical resurrection of Jesus.

Yet another faction envisions a post modern approach to theology. This camp rejects the notion of objective truth altogether, while favoring an approach to spirituality that is intensely personal and subjective. Well known author Phyllis Tickle develops and defends this view in her many books.

As someone who considers himself a progressive Christian I have my own take on what the term means. My ideas will resonate with some readers and clash with others; all well and good. Like any fallible person I am capable of error. So I am counting on my readers for feedback and, if necessary, correction. Sound proposals can only be made stronger by honest inquiry and civil debate. So the truth has nothing to fear from a fair investigation into its claims.

This is how I define Progressive Christianity:
1.) As an approach to faith which is open to cordial discussion with people outside the church. Progressive Christians are willing to engage in dialogue with persons who hold different viewpoints from their own. They believe in the scriptural admonition to “test all things; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

That doesn’t mean they believe all belief systems are equally valid. But it does mean that progressives are secure enough in their faith to permit it to be tested and even critiqued by people from varying religious traditions, as well as by those who reject spirituality altogether.

At the same time they are willing to examine beliefs and traditions other than their own, taking from those what they find to be true and beneficial, and rejecting what seems to them to be contrary to Christian scripture, tradition and Reason.

2.) As an approach to Christianity that affirms that God’s primary attribute is love. Because of this Progressive Christians reject notions such as double predestination that teach that God arbitrarily chooses some persons to go to Heaven and consigns the rest to an eternity of horrific torture.

They also see God as willing to step away from the reins, so to speak, and permit His children to think for themselves, act for themselves and respond as they choose to His offer of salvation. Some, such as pastor and theologian Gregory Boyd, view the Almighty as a fellow journeyer with us into the future, which is, in its details at least, as unknown to Him as it is to us. Others believe that God possesses foreknowledge in a way that does not interfere with human free will. All are united, though, in their rejection of the obsessively controlling, dictatorial divine puppet master deity posited by John Calvin and others.

A corollary of this is that Progressive Christianity rejects the idea that non-Christians are automatically consigned to Hell after their physical death. Progressive Christians rightly acknowledge that any Being that would do such a thing is worthy only of our abhorrence. They see God as working in the hearts of all people to draw them to Himself, even those who have never seen a Bible, listened to a Gospel sermon or even heard the name of Jesus. Those who strive to live according to the measure of divine light they have been given, however dim it may be, will receive a gracious welcome into the kingdom of God and of Christ.

Rejected also is the idea of unending torment for any of God’s creatures. Progressives accept that either all souls will ultimately be redeemed, or that those who continue to resist the Spirit’s most ardent and tender pleas will be mercifully put to sleep, after having destroyed the image of God in themselves by willful and unrepentant sin.

There is no room in an enlightened faith for the cruel, capricious deity that fundamentalists peddle. Hell, if it exists at all, is a place of correction and rehabilitation., not infinite torture for a finite amount of sin. God is not a monster.

3.) As a belief system that celebrates the joyous fact that all truth is God’s truth. Because of this, Progressive Christians welcome the role Science plays in expanding the borders of our knowledge. The Big Bang, the extreme ages of the heavens and the earth, and even the facts that have been revealed through the fossil record - none of these are seen as a threat to religious faith. Rather they are heralded as testaments to the glory and grandeur of the Creator.

This doesn’t mean that progressives blindly accept whatever the scientific community proclaims, for history has shown that scientists are as capable of error as the rest of us. But absent in Progressive Christianity is a fear of learning about the physical world. Whether truth comes from the Bible, from a great work of art or from a laboratory does not diminish its importance, for all of it aids us in our quest to know the mind of God.

Progressive Christianity likewise rejoices in the ways that scholarship has given a greater understanding of the Bible’s message. Insights gleaned from literary analysis, form criticism and archaeology assist the believer in discerning the truths that biblical passages are trying to convey. They also give us an appreciation and understanding of the mindset of the human authors and the world in which they lived. All of this works to clear our minds of misunderstandings about what God is trying to tell us through His Word.

As with Science, thoughtful progressives do not simply accept claims made by prominent academics about the Bible or church history. On more than one occasion attacks on the integrity of Scripture have been shown to be grounded more in personal vendettas than careful scholarship. As a whole, though, Progressive Christians see modern biblical studies as an ally, not an adversary. They welcome its insights while giving its pronouncements careful consideration.

A faith that engages the world, stimulates the mind, and is consistent with Reason and truth - that is my understanding of what Progressive Christianity is. In posts to come I will be developing these ideas further, exploring what I believe to be true to the best of my very limited abilities. Your thoughtful remarks and civil replies are always welcome. All of us are on a search for truth. Should we not seek it together?


  1. Hi Bill-
    It appears we are kindred in that I agree entirely with each of your points that define and describe Progressive Christianity. I progressed to being a Progressive Christian over years of belief that began with conservative Evangelicalism for many years, made its way very briefly through agnosticism, then on to another brief visit to Marcus Borg's and Bishop Spong's view of Christianity; finding that particular place unacceptable as one in which I could settle, I moved on into a "liberalized sort of Evangelicalism" with Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis. This feels more like home. However, I love the fact that a Progressive Christian is one who revels in the God-given ability to think and reason, ponder and question, and in the stillness of seeking hear God's voice. I also love the fact that one is able to hear God's voice in a variety of activities whether in church, prayer, meditation, reading a book, walking in the forest, or driving through the neighborhood.

    Our great God will not be boxed into narrow, small-minded places. For me, Progressive Christianity is a wonderful place to call home and there is no other place in which my experience of God has been more abundant.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Paula. It seems that there are many fellow travelers on the road we are taking. More and more Christians have simply progressed beyond the point where they can just accept what they are told by men behind pulpits or in fancy robes. It is exciting to see that one can believe in and follow Christ while still having an open mind and an active intellectual life.

    Again, thanks for your remarks and I hope to see you around here on a regualr basis!

  3. Actually I meant on a "regular" basis. I hate it when I misspell words...

  4. Bill, to get this out of the way: I don't mind it when you hate it when you misspell, but forgive me when I do, which I am notorious for.

    I think of myself as progressive, but am a member of a denomination that most people would consider conservative. I don't feel constrained in my intellectual life by this denomination. In fact, I often feel challenged. My particular church may be an exception, I don't know. But it is hard to find, in progressive churches, the kind of charitable avenues that this and other conservative churches provide their members. Except for Jim Wallis, I don't see a lot of charitable efforts in progressive churches, but I see many in the church where I attend. Just an observation, but if it serves progressive Christianity as an admonition, I don't mind that either.
    Bud Stark