PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY in our time has emerged through two related but distinct processes. One is a process of paring away: Christians, over the last couple of centuries, have realized that many elements of our Western culture are not essential to – or even compatible with – Christian life and belief, and we have sought to shed them. We have looked hard at the false claims of government absolutism, of slavery, of racism, misogyny and homophobia and have rejected them.
The other process has been one of refocusing. Here the question isn’t “What is extraneous to our faith?” but “Where is its center?” Our answers take different forms, but, eventually, they come back to the way Jesus united, in both his life and teaching, the two commandments to love God and to love neighbor.
The two processes may produce related results, but they are not identical. One prunes the excess at the peripheries; the other is looking for the root or fountainhead of our faith. Many of us who claim the name of progressive Christians are probably more comfortable with the pruning shears than with the dowsing rod, clearer about what we don’t believe than about what we do.
Therein, I suspect, lies much of the sense of uncertainty that has hovered over progressive Christianity for the past generation. We have seen how establishments, whether medieval aristocracy or contemporary plutocracy, whether patriarchy or a dominant race or class, have repeatedly invoked Christianity to justify their sins. We are clear that we need to reject this entanglement of Christian faith with the status quo. But simply to reject is not enough. Rejection does not inspire hope or love or delight or even intellectual coherence.
The real reason why progressive Christianity exists is not to prune away archaisms and false accretions. It exists – the Spirit calls it into being – to be an authentic gospel voice, to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ life and teaching. Why do we resist the marginalizing effects of racism or sexism or heterosexism? Because they are no longer necessary in our enlightened age? No. Our “enlightened” age has been the bloodiest in history. We reject them because Jesus has given us a vision of a humanity united to God and to one another in the profound respect and sense of kinship we call by the name of love!
This insight and conviction is what guides us even as we enter more deeply into inter?faith dialogue and cooperation. We become engaged with people of other faiths not because we suppose that Christian faith is unimportant, but precisely because our Christian faith requires us to act out the good news of Jesus by loving and respecting all our neighbors. To do so does not relativize our faith or make it generic and colorless. To the contrary, by expressing our faith, it adds new energy to it.
Sometimes progressive Christians shy away from clear and strong statements of faith for fear of falling back into the old, smug exclusivism that so long allowed the pious of the Western world to look down on every one else. Perhaps we are afraid of having a passionate, converted Christian faith because we worry that it will turn out just as strident and exclusivist as earlier versions of our tradition.
Well, it may. There is no human way to guarantee against it. But for progressive Christians, the future lies with our willingness to own up to the depth of our own convictions, to proclaim the good news without fear, to live as people deeply touched by the Spirit’s power for change – even as we insist on shedding the oppressive distortions that our religious predecessors have sometimes fallen into. Progressive Christianity isn’t about indifference or bland tolerance. It’s about the rediscovery of the fountainhead, the center. In Jesus’ teaching and practice of love, humanity is called to a love affair with God and a new kind of community with one another.
Whenever Christians rediscover this center, they produce not mere revisions or readjustments of Christianity, but reformations. What the great saints of the past did out of the depth of their experience and convictions, we are called to do today. Not that our reformation will look exactly like those of Benedict or Francis or the Beguines – or of Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr. Every reformation has to address the time and place of its own occurrence.
Our challenge and our calling is to discover the Spirit’s gifts of reformation in our own time. If progressive Christianity is to fulfill its vocation from God, we will do it by opening up about our faith and joining together to live it out. The faith God has awakened in us is a gift for the world. It makes possible a life of love and hope, of trust and justice; and we will be happy to invite (never to command!) all humanity to join in as the Spirit calls them and makes it possible.
© The Witness. The article appeared in the July/August 2001 issue of the magazine and is reprinted here by permission. To obtain a free copy of this issue, which had a number of articles of interest to progressive Christians, write to The Witness, HC 35 Box 647 Tenants Harbor, ME 04860 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.