Friday, May 02, 2008

What Does It Mean to be a Progressive Christian?

My newsletter article for this week:

What does it mean to be a progressive Christian? I get asked this question often. The easiest way to answer the question is to point to the website of The Center for Progressive Christianity where 8 points are listed that give a broad definition of progressive Christianity.

Based on my experience over many years dialoguing with people who name themselves as progressive Christian, I have come to see that there are three distinct markers of progressive Christianity: social issues, biblical scholarship, and God-talk. All progressive Christians I know are progressive on social issues, most include biblical scholarship in their self-understanding, and some are thinking outside the traditional box about God.

For most if not all people who identify themselves as progressive Christians, the primary marker is a liberal attitude on social justice issues such as full inclusion of women and glbt folks in church and society. When they talk about being progressive Christians, at the very least this is what they are talking about. They want to be involved in churches and denominations where everyone is fully welcome into the family of God.

Thanks largely to the work of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar, a second marker of progressive Christianity is using the tools of modern biblical scholarship to read the Bible: learning to read the Bible in its cultural and historical setting, learning to see the different voices and theological perspectives of the biblical writers, trying to get behind these voices to find the "real" Jesus, and working out a faith perspective that is Jesus-centered but that also honors the fact that we don't share the same worldview of the biblical writers. It is possible, for example, to be a Christian and not believe literally in nature miracles and virgin births.

I might add a word here about how important the work of the Jesus Seminar has been to progressive Christian movement. They are not the only game in town in the world of progressive biblical scholarship; there are progressive scholars who take issue with many of the methods and conclusions reached by Jesus Seminar scholars. But what the Jesus Seminar scholars have done that has changed the landscape in Bible scholarship is that they have made it their mission to publish their work in a format that can be understood by everyone, not just academics trained in biblical languages. They sell their books in Barnes and Nobles. No longer is it necessary to rely solely on the church or the pastor for biblical expertise; you can read it yourself. This it what they have done that is revolutionary. People read Jesus Seminar scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and they wonder why they never hear any of this from the pulpit. They encourage their pastors to share what they know or they go searching for churches where they do hear it. Their work on this second marker has energized the progressive Christian movement.

A third marker is God-talk. This may be the most challenging marker for many who think of themselves as progressive Christians. My experience is that most know what they don't believe. They don't believe in the kind of supernatural God who responds to the prayers of a Jerry Falwell when he prays that hurricanes change course or that the city of San Francisco be punished for being gay-friendly. They don't believe that God created the world in six days. They are uncomfortable with the idea that God sent Jesus to sacrifice him on a cross so God could then raise Jesus from death. They struggle with the question of evil in the world: if God is all-powerful then why does he/she allow evil to happen.

But what then do we believe about God? If God isn't "Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light, inaccessible, hid from our eyes" (great hymn, terrible theology) who, what, and where is God? Some Christians are following the lead of thinkers like John Shelby Spong who talks about a non-theistic Christianity (which isn't the same thing as atheism); God is the metaphorical word we use when we talk about, say, the power of love that is so deep that we only ever taste a bit of it. The experience of God is real; God sitting up in heaven isn't. Others are dabbling in what is known as process theology which seeks to integrate God-thought with a scientific worldview. In process theology God is present in every moment in the unfolding evolution of our world, but not as an outside force who has the power to pop in and change anything at whim; rather God is the invitational force or energy that lovingly lures the world forward atom by atom, moment by moment.

In my own thinking and my own work at Open Circle, I am working at all three of these markers. But I realize that not everyone who participates in our community is where I am at. What is most important to me is not that we all agree on definitions but that we all agree on the importance of creating a safe space where it is OK to share what we know, admit what we don't know, think things through, ask questions, and figure out what we do believe. We have a tagline at Open Circle that speaks perfectly to this: Thinking Encouraged, Diversity Welcomed.


Mystical Seeker said...

You identify a huge problem that I encounter when I try to find a progressive faith community. I fall pretty much in the third group on your list. I think there is value in separating the second and third groups out, because not everyone who is interested in modern scholarship necessarily makes the leap towards a different sort of theology. In fact, a lot of people who accept modern scholarship, who believe in evolution, and so forth, are still quite orthodox on the so-called "essentials" of the Christian faith, including a physical resuscitation of Jesus after his death and a belief in the full Divinity of Jesus. I tend to think of such people as "moderate Christians", but if they are inclusive towards gays or socially progressive, they tend to inherit the "progressive label".

A big complaint of mine is that the term "progressive Christian" is so broad as to encompass these various groups that you identify. It is really hard to really find any churches that embrace fully the third group that you mention. My experience in my own community has been that most of the churches that identify themselves as progressive, even to the point of affiliating with the Center for Progressive Christianity, largely hold on to traditional, more orthodox theologies. It's great that they are inclusive and welcoming--I certainly support that--but I still feel disconnected with what they preach.

Truthy said...

"God Damn America!" --Obama's church.

Anonymous said...

Progressive Christian?

Two Words:

Jeremiah Wright