Frequently, after a lecture or seminar, someone will ask me: “Why do you have to call it Progressive Christianity? Aren’t we all Christians?” These were usually people who seemed to be a little on edge, and sometimes even angry, but their questions were sincere and frankly, they are good ones.
I think it is important to note that the term “progressive” was part of the American Christian dialogue over a hundred years ago. Toward the end of the nineteenth century there was an active group of well respected clergy who initiated a movement that had a profound impact both short and long term.
In his fascinating book, The War for Righteousness, Richard M. Gamble writes: “The self-described “progressives” among America’s Protestant clergy at the turn of the twentieth century were well known in church circles and beyond for their advanced thinking on theology, politics, and foreign affairs. As they faced the prospect of a new century, these ministers and academics thought of themselves as broad-minded, humane, and cosmopolitan, in harmony with the very best scientific, political, and theological wisdom of the age. In short, they were among the “right thinking” leaders of their day. These reformers have since been labeled “liberal” or modernist by historians, the word “progressive suited their character and their times.“
This group of reformers included such well known names as Congregational ministers Lyman Abbot, Washington Gladden, George A. Gordon, and William Jewett Tucker, who was also president of Dartmouth College. Harry Emerson Fosdick, Shailer Matthews, and Henry Churchill King often served as highly visible and quotable spokesmen for the group.
Certainly this movement had strong social influence, not all of it good, as Gamble points out in his book in some detail. But I believe that it is important to point out that even back then, the movement was first about rethinking theology and attempting to move Christianity into the 20th century, over one hundred years ago. William Jewett Tucker wrote: “The first effect of the progressive departure in the field of strictly theological inquiry was to bring about a change in the prevailing conception of God…the conception of God must be affected by the advance in our understanding of nature.”
Henry Emerson Fosdick once reflected that progressive leaders of those times, “deliberately, sometimes desperately worked to adapt Christian thought and to harmonize it with the intellectual culture of our time…adaption was the only way we could save our faith and its achievement was a matter of life and death.“
From the very beginning, the leadership of The Center for Progressive Christianity believed, like our predecessors, that as progressives, our primary purpose was to actively engage in examining what we mean by God, Christ and Jesus, utilizing the abundance of science, historical and archeological information we now have available, that we did not have even a hundred years ago. Although the Progressive Christian movement is considered new by most people today, it has a long history that dates back to some of the first century disciples of Jesus and a few of the early theologians, particularly in the Eastern Church and the contemplative tradition of the faith. It was always a faith that was more interested in behavior rather than beliefs, compassion rather than creeds and the Mystery rather than absolutes.
So how do I answer that person who wants to know why do we need the term “Progressive Christianity? Aren’t we all Christians?” My short answer is that there are three good reasons.
I believe, as individuals, we need terms like progressive Christian to remind us that we are on a spiritual journey into the Great Unknown. The idea that we are always progressing helps us not only from becoming complacent about our faith, but hopefully it keeps us from assuming that we have arrived. Reminding ourselves that we are a progressive Christian can help us stay awake so that we might see who we really are at that moment as a divine creature that is part of something so large, it is beyond our imagination. Being a progressive assumes that we are all connected at some ontological level. And we are constantly moving, with a faith that assumes that we are moving toward something good, something holy and something divine.
I believe we need the term, “Progressive Christian” so that we can talk to others about our faith in ways that are not often heard in typical Christian settings. It is frankly a great way to start a conversation or end one, but it allows us a way to describe ourselves with a new vocabulary and new metaphors. For those who still care about the church, we need to practice our faith, and model it for others rather than telling others what they ought to believe.
And finally I agree with Henry Emerson Fosdick. I believe that the church needs progressive Christianity for survival. As he eloquently said, Progressives “deliberately, sometimes desperately worked to adapt Christian thought and to harmonize it with the intellectual culture of our time…adaption was the only way we could save our faith and its achievement was a matter of life and death. “ And yes, my friends, that was over 100 years ago. Don’t you think it is about time?