What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious

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)

Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious

  1. Review

    A Feeble God Will Attract No One By James Rowe Adams

    What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? A Guide for the Searching, the Open, and the Curious by Delwin Brown (Church Publishing, 2008)

    As Delwin Brown writes in the preface to What does a Progressive Christian Believe?, following the 2004 presidential election he was stunned to realize "that the long tradition of progressive Christian thought and action had virtually disappeared from the public discussion leading up to that election." Because Brown's concerns appear to focus on political issues, I approached his book with misgivings. The progressive Christian network that I helped to found in 1994 was not about politics but about encouraging churches to welcome people who had found organized religion to be irrelevant, ineffectual, or repressive. Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered that much of what Brown offers in this little book represents my point of view.

    His chapter on the Bible describes simply and clearly how progressive Christians can take the Bible seriously by embracing its contradictions. His chapter differentiating "progressive" from "liberal" Christianity is a good history lesson for those who are confused by these two terms. I also found that I agreed with what I found in the chapter in which he shifts the focus from Christ to Jesus.

    Brown's understanding of God, however, was somewhat disappointing. He ably identifies the problems inherent with belief in what he calls a "monarchical God", but as he goes on, the God he describes seems to be the same old monarchical God in an attenuated form. In his words, Brown's God manages, guides, creates, judges, heals, transforms, saves, and has a purpose-much like the God he has successfully dethroned. Many progressive Christians, as well as those secular people we hope to attract, do not find a feeble God any more believable than a monarchical one.

    My disappointment in the chapter on the church is similar to my reaction to the section about God. I cannot imagine a secular person wanting to check out a local congregation after reading about Brown's view of the church. I agree whole-heartedly with his first two points: "Progressive Christians are people formed by the tradition grounded in Jesus Christ," and "The Bible is our foundational resource." After that the pages are filled with Gold talk and an insistence that the purpose of the church as a community is to serve the world. As a congregational philosophy, the focus on God talk and service is a formula for corporate suicide. Why would anyone want to go to such a church? Opportunities to serve nature and humanity are all around. Organizations formed for service are always in need of volunteers. No one needs a church to serve the needs of the world.

    My neighborhood on Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hill in the 1960s had an influx of idealistic young adults. Many of them were dedicated to healing racial divisions, improving education, and seeing justice done for the poor. Two of the declining neighborhood churches took Brown's approach with much talk about God and service. Both closed their doors in a few years. Another church in the neighborhood-the one that asked me to be the rector-had quite a different experience. It was thriving. When I arrived, I asked the leaders of the congregation to describe the church as simply as they could. Their response: "The church is a training camp for the battles of life, but not a combat unit." Although the military metaphor eventually made the slogan unpopular, the mission has remained the same. The purpose of the church is to provide companions in the search for meaning and to equip the members for productive lives. Individuals soon enough learn the outrageous cost of following Jesus, but first they must be overtaken by the outrageous promise of finding a way through Jesus to create meaning and purpose in a senseless world.

    In my experience, people who accept the promise will appreciate what the book calls the Epilogue. This final section, "Rightly Mixing Religion with Politics", does not come across as an afterthought but rather the whole point toward which the book has been moving since Brown's report in the Preface of his epiphany the morning after the 2004 presidential election. Although I do not think that progressive Christianity should be identified with a particular political persuasion, I admit that I have never come across a better justification for Christians being involved in politics

    Not incidentally, the summary of the section on politics mentions God only once, and then in a clearly metaphorical context. If Brown had been as judicious in his use of the word God in the rest of the book as he was on the last two pages, he might have come closer to describing what progressive Christians like me believe.

    James Rowe Adams is founder and honorary advisor of The Center for Progressive Christianity. Pilgrim Press is publishing a 2nd edition of his book, From Literal to Literary: The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors.

    A chapter of What Does a Progressive Christian Believe? and a review of the book by the Rev. Dr. J. Phillip Wogaman appear in the upcoming March-April issue of The Progressive Christian magazine. Subscribe.


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