A Brief Primer on Progressive Christianity
A church member met with me recently to discuss her worries about her teenage son leaving behind his Christian faith. “He’s turning more towards science,” she said, with a worried look of heartfelt concern on her face. I responded with a smile, saying, “That’s wonderful that he’s turning to science. We Christians don’t have to choose one over the other.”
Not coincidentally, this is a newer member of our congregation. Prior to this, she had attended a more theologically conservative church, where I am guessing she learned that being a Christian means abandoning scientific knowledge, particularly when it appears to call into question biblical stories such as the literal reading of the seven day creation story, Moses parting the Red Sea and Jesus raising the dead, just to name a few. I began to share with her that there is a stream of Christianity (quite a large stream actually, more like a river) that not only does not disregard science but brings its most up-to-date findings and questions to bear on our faith.
As a self-identified progressive Christian, I have encountered many people like this member of my own church, who hold on to the mistaken notion that being Christian also means taking up positions against science, social justice movements and all kinds of other supposedly modern or progressive ways of thinking. Even just a few weeks ago, I was listening to an episode of the popular political podcast called “Pod Save America,” where one of the hosts used the labels “alt-right” and “Christian” interchangeably. Instances like this jolt me into remembering that progressive Christianity, though ever-present in my own life, seems to have left only a faint impression on the wider world.
So because of the stereotyped misunderstandings of Christians and the unawareness of the large spectrum of Christianity that I’ve thus far encountered outside of my own small circle of progressive Christians, I feel compelled to write a brief primer on progressive Christianity — what it is and how it came to be.
To provide a fair description of progressive Christianity, I must first begin with liberal Christianity, the roots of which were planted during the Western Enlightenment of the 18th century. The Enlightenment completely shifted ways of thinking about and studying… everything. With the rise of new scientific discoveries and methods, the pursuit of truth became less about faith and more about evidence. That is, one could not know truth until it could be proven empirically. For the first time since medieval Christendom, the existence of God was no longer taken for granted in the west. Where once atheists bore the burden of proof, that burden of proof slowly shifted to those who believed in God.
While many Christians refused to accept the new epistemological methods and scientific discoveries, there were some who were amenable to the ideas and methods of the Enlightenment and incorporated them into their theologies. Friedrich Schleiermacher, often called the “Father of liberal theology,” attempted to bridge the gap between the dominant beliefs of orthodox Christianity and the ideas of the Enlightenment. He argued that we must bring the best that all intellectual disciplines have to offer to bear on our faith. The Bible, for example, was seen as a prime candidate for historical-critical analysis that could delve into the actual circumstances of its composition and the veracity of its reports. Further, the findings of the physical sciences should no longer be separated and compartmentalized from our Christian faith but rather, integrated with it in order to make our theories more coherent with the facts of history and the demands of human reason. Liberal Christian theologies saw that doctrines were not timeless truths dictated by God that we had to discover, but rather revisable and historically situated cultural products of our best efforts to say something true about one’s own experience of God.
Out of these efforts came the birth and rise of liberal Christianity that laid the foundations for American mainline Protestantism (not to be confused with American evangelicalism, which I will address soon). The mainline Protestant denominations did such a good job of acculturating themselves into the prevailing norms of modern western thought and culture that membership in these churches became nearly synonymous with what it meant to be American. The values taught within the mainline denominations—freedom, equality, active political awareness and engagement, building community—were exactly the ones that were associated with simply being a good and productive American citizen. These values were implicitly reproduced and explicitly taught in the public school system, civic organizations, the government and of course, our own national narrative. If you’re interested in critiques of this melding, works by Stanley Hauerwas are a great place to start.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Western world once again underwent a seismic epistemological shift with the advent of postmodernity. During medieval Christendom, orthodox Christian beliefs were acquired through faith, theological reflection and discussion. During the Enlightenment, even the most basic Christian beliefs, such as God as creator of the world, came into question as truth was sought scientifically. During the postmodern era, the very idea of a universal truth, a dominant narrative or a single value system was completely disrupted. This had gargantuan effects upon society from architecture to literature to philosophy to education to family structures. For a growing number of people, there was now no “right way” to do things, which was both an exciting and terrifying prospect.
In the 1960s, we saw a sexual revolution that diverged from the sexual mores taught by Protestantism. And with that sexual revolution came another Christian counter-movement—the rise of what we know today as evangelical Christianity. The seeds of evangelical Christianity blossomed through the Jesus movement, Billy Graham revivals, the Vineyard Church and similar non-denominational groups. These groups not only reverted back to the sexual values of American protestantism and put them on steroids, they even reverted back to pre-Enlightenment understandings of Christianity, which opened the door to renewed struggles of faith against modern scientific discoveries. Or, possibly the most dangerous combination, these groups used the epistemological methods of the Enlightenment to justify the supernatural stories of the Bible. Whereas the liberal Christian church had already made amends with understanding biblical stories as allegorical-cultural narratives and true myths that conveyed human nature and divine values, new conservative movements attempted to reinscribe them as pure and simple historical fact. This extremist uprising was conservative Christians’ way of protecting themselves in a society where the ground of values and truth seemed to be not only shifting but falling apart beneath them. Their theologies and methods were an attempt to reclaim truth in a world that questioned all forms of truth, even the very pursuit of truth itself.
I just want to add a brief disclaimer that since these Christian traditions have developed over the years, these categories are no longer as clean and defined as they once were. There is a wide spectrum of beliefs among progressive, liberal and evangelical Christians. I have met politically conservative yet theologically liberal Christians, politically and theologically progressive evangelicals, so on and so forth.
In my previous post, “I’m Normal, I Swear,” I wrote about my frustrations when those with few ties to and no knowledge of progressive Christianity immediately (and wrongly) assume that, as a Christian minister, I am judgmental, fanatical and/or wanting to convert everybody around me. While these assumptions about me are simply wrong, I cannot blame them for having such associations with Christianity. It seems that it is always the more conservative and extreme versions of Christianity that make the news and looms largest in popular consciousness. What many people do not know is that while the challenges posed by postmodernity gave rise to extremist and fundamentalist Christianity, they also prodded some Christians to go further along the path of questioning and potentially revising received wisdom and tradition with whatever tools and means we have available. This latter movement is what we now call progressive Christianity.
Just as liberal Christians were amenable to the ideas of the Enlightenment and incorporated them into their understanding of the Bible, God and the nature of theological reflection, progressive Christianity was and is amenable to the ideas of postmodernity and the ongoing epistemological and philosophical ideas and methods still being produced today. This is a form of Christianity that seeks to honor all narratives, especially those from colonized and marginalized voices. And to that end, it is aware of and always seeks to take responsibility for the long and troubling Christian history of colonization and domination. It sees itself as simply one perspective in a world of many beautiful religious traditions where there is much to be gained through inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Progressive Christianity sees Jesus as the one who was both followed and attacked for his radical message of liberation and inclusion for all people, no matter their background, sex, race or class. And as such, progressive Christians’ utmost priority is to seek this liberation for all people and the whole of creation.
At the January 2017 women’s protest, thousands of progressive Christian marched with signs that adapted Kristin Joiner’s signs that went viral. These signs read:
In our church, we believe:
Black Lives Matter
Women’s Rights are Human Rights
No Human is Illegal
Science is Real
Love is Love
Kindness is Everything
These statements encapsulate the values of progressive Christianity. They express what we believe the heart of Christianity is all about: to love God and neighbor, which means committing our lives for the liberation, inclusion and dignity of all who are God’s beloved children.
For most of my life, I, like the many others I describe in this post, did not know that progressive Christianity existed. I grew up in the evangelical tradition and while there is so much I gained and learned from that tradition, it began to feel very restrictive as I got older. The hardest part though (and this would eventually be what drove me away from this tradition) was how it affected my views of other people, namely those who did not subscribe to my belief system. I, consciously and unconsciously saw non-Christians as inferior to me because they did not have the “truth” I had. This self-perception either burdened me to convert the non-Christians in my life whom I liked so they would get into heaven or it made me feel a gloating superiority over the non-Christians I didn’t like. I couldn’t just get to know them as inherently valuable individuals with their own stories, dreams and thoughts on life.
When I encountered progressive Christianity through a queer Presbyterian minister in my early 20s, it felt like I had found what my soul was desperately searching for but didn’t have the language to ask for. Of course, I always had the option to leave Christianity altogether but I couldn’t shake off one thing I learned in my evangelical upbringing—that there is a god, who loves me more than I can imagine, who loves others more than I can imagine and that our highest human calling is to share that love with one another.
This essay was also published on Medium here.