A book review by Jim Burklo, author, OPEN CHRISTIANITY, member, TCPC Board/Council
Progressive Christianity, by its very nature, resists having a ‘systematic theology’. But Del Brown has written the nearest thing to it. A man both of the church and the academy, he writes with a passion for clear thinking about what it means to be a pluralistic, compassionate, open-minded, justice-seeking Christian today.
Brown is the Dean Emeritus of Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Just as he was retiring, he initiated PSR’s short-lived “Progressive Christian Witness” website, which, as he described it, was pitched to the “purple people” of the church. Brown’s PCW project collected articles and papers aimed at nudging the “middle church” toward a more theologically and socially progressive perspective. The project also led him to distill his own life’s work as a professor of religion and theology.
In its aims, language, and structure, the book has much of the flavor of an academic work of traditional theology. And yet in the first few pages, the reader can feel that Brown is doing it differently. At every turn, he leaves room for multiple interpretations, space for mystery, allowance for uncertainty. “Our view of God, though fundamental, is never, ever a legitimate source of absolute claims or absolute attitudes.” (p 54)
He deconstructs conservative Protestantism with the tools of history, biblical interpretation, and theological analysis. And he does the same with traditional “liberal” Christianity. Some progressive Christian writers bash, or simply abandon or ignore, the parts of orthodoxy they find offensive or no longer useful. But Brown reclaims the ideas and language of traditional Christianity, carefully reconstructing them in positive ways. If there is such a thing as progressive Christian apologetics, Brown has come close to producing it. For example, he rediscovers a positive meaning for “biblical authority”. He distinguishes between the Roman view of authority as something to which one must conform, and Jesus’ Hebraic idea of authority as a tradition to be used creatively. Brown delves into the arcane debates of the early church councils, mining for meanings that can resonate in our time.
After debunking the idea of God as “cosmic monarch”, he writes: “It will not be a God who makes worlds on command, determines evolution in advance, stops bullets in their flight, topples tyrants from their thrones, or works other magical interventions. It will be a patiently working God. One who inspires the new, undergirds the good, and heals the broken by being fully present in and with the whole creation.” (p 48)
In his treatment of “sin” and “salvation”, and “eternal life”, Brown emphasizes that progressive Christianity addresses society and its structures, not just individuals. And that shapes his vision of the mission of the Christian church. “Service… requires discernment, intelligence, imagination, and continual evaluation and revision. It is a vitally important responsibility. ’Serving’, I believe, yields an image of the church that is most congruent with a progressive Christian perspective.” (p 105)
A uniquely helpful part of the book is Brown’s wisdom about the role of religion in politics. “There are good reasons, then, for urging that religion be kept out of politics. The only problem is that it is not possible…” (p 112) So he proposes six ways to manage the inevitable relationship between the two: don’t privilege any one religion, understand one’s adversaries, find common values, seek compromise, don’t outlaw conduct unless it directly undermines the common good, and deliberate with others in community. “Our Christian voice is vitally important. It endeavors to speak reflectively on behalf of justice, repentance, inclusion, and healing. The progressive Christian witness is ‘good news’ for everyone.” (p 121)