What is Progressive Christianity Anyway?

In the early 1990’s when Jim Adams, the founder of TCPC, gathered with a few friends and colleagues to discuss the possibility of starting an organization that might help network more liberal and open churches, the conversation led to a discussion about what that organization might be called. As you might imagine a multitude of ideas were bantered around. Over the next 18 months or so, the term Progressive Christianity came up more and more and it seemed to fit Jim Adams’ vision better than anything else. Although in 1993 the internet search engines were not what they are today, there appeared to be no scholarly papers, or book titles at the time that were using the term, progressive Christianity. Certainly there were no non-profit organizations that used that term in their name or self-description.

This is not to suggest that progressive Christianity has no history. At the end of the 19th century there was a group of Christians that historians today sometimes refer to as Progressive Christians. Although there is not a direct lineage with the contemporary progressive movement, there is more than one indirect link. According to Gary Dorrien, professor at Union Theological Seminary, the 19th century progressive Christians asserted that “Christianity is essentially a life, not a doctrine.” According to Dorrien most of these same founders of progressive Christianity were “leading exemplars of religious speech as imaginative metaphorical expression.” (The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Christianity pg. 405)

Another excellent study of these early progressives has been written by Richard Gamble, professor of history at Hillsdale College. In his fascinating book, The War for Righteousness, Gamble writes about progressive Christians of the era: “Traditional Christianity, with its biblical literalism and notions of eternal retribution and individual redemption, seemed dangerously ill-equipped for the modern world. Progressive Christianity, in contrast, was to be intellectually respectable, credible, relevant and liberating. In short it would be a suitable spiritual companion to modern man as he entered the twentieth century.” (pg. 30)

Both Gamble and Dorrien referred to this 19th and 20th century movement as progressive Christianity. Although my research was limited, I found it interesting, after reading several of the original texts cited by these two excellent scholars, I was unable to find one theologian who referred to himself as a progressive Christian or one who suggested that his views represented something called progressive Christianity at that time. It is true that the words progressive and even the word progressivism was used frequently by these theologians and preachers when they described their understanding of God’s will or plan for the world. It is easy to see therefore how both Gamble and Dorrien were able to categorize these Christians as progressive. But it appears that progressive Christianity was not a common self identifying factor among these Christians in their lifetimes.

In a recent interview, Gamble explained that he wanted to identify a particular group of theologians and preachers of the era that shared the perspective that progress was visible in every facet of life and was a demonstration of God’s will. They envisioned a history leading toward a definite goal. It was this perspective when merged with a political agenda that had a tremendous influence on the politics of their time. Gamble chose the term progressive Christian, he explained, in order to distinguish these theologians and preachers from the “social gospel” adherents as well as other liberal Christians.

Dorrien also suggested that he had thought of the term progressive Christian as a category to identify a segment of the liberal Christians of the time. He admitted that he was in some way looking through the lenses of the late twentieth century in his desire to give this unique group a common identity.

My point here is that by the end of the 20th century, progressive Christian had become so familiar that historical scholars were using the term as if it had a known quality even though the term had fallen out of favor by the 1920’s with the failure of the Wilsonian world view, the downfall of the progressive political parties and the horrors of WWI. In the mid twentieth century the term seemed to be virtually non-existent in public dialogue.

Today, there are literally dozens of organizations that have words progressive Christian in their names, in their mission statements and/or in their self-descriptions. You may be familiar with some of the organizations like “Progressive Christians Uniting” and “Progressive Christian Witness” or this publication, formerly know as the Zion Herald, now called the “The Progressive Christian.” There are currently nearly thirty Christian organizations that have asked to be linked to the TCPC’s website because they assume that they represent something called progressive Christianity.

The today term progressive Christianity has become a common term in the church culture. Do a Google search for progressive Christianity and you will discover pages of related sites and links. Scholars, media, and clergy use the term regularly and yet progressive Christianity still does not appear in printed encyclopedias or dictionaries except in reference to earlier historical movements. You know something is happening when articles and blogs from the religious conservative commentators are attacking and ridiculing progressive Christians at an increasing rate.

Is it a movement? In the last four years the web activity of the TCPC website has more than tripled. The site now experiences an average of close to 40,000 unique visitors and nearly 450,000 hits a month. Our church affiliates grow slowly every year and our individual affiliates continue to grow exponentially. I have talked with the leadership of most other progressive organizations and almost all of them are reporting similar phenomenon.

The numbers of religious scholars and commentators who are writing books about this new face of Christianity are almost startling. I am referring here to people like: Michael Schwartzentruber, ed.-The Emerging Christian Way, Matthew Fox – A New Reformation, Bart Erhman – Misquoting Jesus, John Spong- A New Christianity for a New World, Helen Hunt, Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance, Eric Elnes The Phoenix Affirmations, Jim D. Knowles- Progressive Christianity: Finding Faith when Literalism Fails, Hal Tausig , A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots, Barbara Brown Taylor – Leaving Church, and John Cobb, ed.- Progressive Christians Speak. These books are just a sample of those that have been published in the last twelve months.

You would think that all of this would make those of us who helped guide the development of The Center for Progressive Christianity downright giddy. And certainly there is some of that. But it has become clear that this rush toward something called progressive Christianity is going to require a lot more work to clarify what we mean and maybe more importantly what we do not mean.

From the very beginning, for example, those of us who were part of The Center for Progressive Christianity assumed that if we were going to identify and represent a certain type of Christianity that there would need to be a theological/Christological foundation for that perspective. It seemed obvious that when you use a term like progressive as an adjective you are describing a type of Christianity. It is therefore important to state what that means.

Not only do we believe that there needs to be a theological foundation for what we mean when we use that term, but I would also posit that by its nature progressive Christianity must always be actively engaged in theological development that is relevant to the times. And I would also argue that one of the responsibilities of the progressive Christian movement is to engage in redefining what we mean by “Christ,” in relationship to the historical Jesus.

Delwin Brown, Dean Emeritus of Pacific School of Religion, director of the new web program Progressive Christian Witness, stated in a public address this year that progressive Christianity is not so much about theology as it is about practice. In a recent paper he states: “Progressive Christianity today is not a single party line; it is a family of perspectives and practices that seek to be faithful to Christ. It is diverse because it draws from a variety of Christian expressions rooted in the biblical witness.”
Eminent theologian John Cobb, co-founder of Progressive Christians Uniting recently wrote: “[Progressive Protestantism] is the liberal tradition transformed first by its rejection of the dualism of commitment to the tradition and commitment to new insights in the present. It wants to be deeply continuous with the Bible and tradition and believes that this continuity requires openness to new insights.”

Although the leadership of TCPC has much in common with these two organizations and their highly respected and qualified founders, I do not think we would put the same emphasis on tradition and continuity with the Bible, nor do we believe that progressive Christianity is something that is made up out of “family of perspectives.”
The matter has been further confused by the addition of well known evangelicals like Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Brian McLaren both of whom now refer to themselves as progressive Christians.
In a recent blog, for example, Wallis writes about a recent talk he gave to students at Bethel University; “It was clear from the response in chapel that a new generation of evangelical Christians want to be, like Jesus, good news to the poor. And because of that their agenda is now much broader and deeper than just the two things the Religious Right continues to talk about as the only “moral values” issues – abortion and gay marriage. The Bethel students, like me, still believe that the sanctity of life and healthy family values are indeed important issues.”

Once again there is much about the new social agenda of both of these evangelical leaders that our organization appreciates. However their emphasis on the authority of the Bible, the exclusive nature of the high Christology, and more importantly, their apparent disregard for the plight of the entire GLTB community, separates them from what I believe are the common building blocks of the new progressive Christian movement.

Although TCPC has made an effort to spell out what we mean by progressive Christianity as an organization with our Eight Points, it seems to me there are at least four components that are essential to anyone who considers themselves a Progressive Christian today:
* to see oneself as a “follower of Jesus” or Jesus’ teachings rather than believer in a creed;
* to recognize that Christianity is not the only way;
* to search the great mysteries of life with an open theology and an intellectual integrity;
* to recognize that ecology and social justice are interlinked and part of your faith;
* and to understand that gays, lesbians, transgenders and bi-sexuals are full participants in our world as a natural part of God’s creation.

I have always assumed that the progressive perspective was a response to the unfolding of the awesome scientific secrets of the universe that continue to expand our understanding of this incredible and often unfathomable creation. It is a response to the ongoing scholarship that has recently expanded our understanding of biblical times, the historical Jesus and the way that religions in the world have developed historically. It is a response to our growing and changing information about human nature. A progressive attitude is both a response to and the search for truth while accepting that we are almost always looking at horizons.

I would suggest here that the foundational tenet of progressive Christianity is the ontological understanding that pre-dates Bible, tradition and even religion: that is that all living beings are created by one force, one Spirit, one God and are inter-related and interdependent. This is a universal truth that has been revealed in Jesus and other enlightened teachers and prophets over the centuries. It is one that science makes more of a reality for us every day. But it makes no difference whether one comes to that understanding of reality through Biblical teachings, some scientific revelation or some existential spiritual experience. Once you begin to see the creation this way, everything changes.

It is out of this understanding that we are compelled to work for social justice; it is out of this insight that we begin to see others as we would like them to see us; it is out of this awareness that we can no longer let others suffer without interceding; it is out of this recognition that our compassion for others grows without limits; and it is out of this consciousness that we are even willing to die on behalf of others.

Progress by definition is “to move forward.” Obviously this implies movement, transition and usually the need to let go or revise. Progress always means change and change is seldom easy, especially when we are dealing with issues that are so subjective and even sacred in our lives.

It is not my purpose here to judge the propriety of the positions by other organizations and individuals but only to point out the confusion that one can have when they attempt to get a clear answer to the simple question, “What do you mean when you say “progressive Christianity.”

Are these differences and the confusion they sometimes cause, a bad thing for the progressive movement or for Christianity? Not necessarily. One of the most positive things about these differences is that they have already forced many of us to begin a dialogue about what we mean not only when we say progressive but also what do we mean when we say Christian. Not only are theologians, biblical scholars, sociologists and clergy discussing these issues today, but so are people in the pews. I suggest you take a look at the message boards on the TCPC website some time soon. There are ongoing discussions between young people primarily, that astound me at times with the depth of their thinking, education and the quality of exchanges that transpire every day.

One thing is clear. There are spiritually hungry people all over the country who are looking for a safe place to discuss these religious and spiritual issues. For over a decade, the media has made rethinking what we mean when we say Christian a front page issue. Yet all too often, according to the literally thousands of emails we receive every year, when seekers walk into one of our mainline churches, all too often they hear a milk toast, muddled sermons that are filled with dead theology and an impotent Christology. They are looking for courageous clergy to open a discussion about a fresh new, rational way to approach their Christian faith and according to my mail, they usually walk away feeling empty. They come looking for spiritual transformation and they leave feeling stagnant institution. They come because they are spiritually hungry and they leave thinking that no one rang the dinner bell.

Matthew Fox in his new book writes: “Yes, at this time in history Protestantism, like Catholicism, needs a radical overhaul-a New Reformation and new transformation. Both need to move from religion to spirituality.”

Phyllis Tickle in a recent PBS interview stated: “Every 500 years the church has a giant rummage sale. Christianity is in the midst of a new Reformation that will radically remake the faith.”

I believe that literally millions of people in this country are hungry for a new face on Christianity. They are looking for a rational and informed theology, a compelling Christology and a healthy and vital spirituality. A growing number of people are now finding those things in their own ways outside the church walls. Others have just given up. Church statistics are telling the tale and it not a pretty picture. Every denomination is losing members and closing churches at a growing rate. We can only reorganize our denominations so many times before they become meaningless. Some commentators are predicting the end of the mainline Christian church. It seems obvious that if we continue to do what we have always been doing, and expect something different to happen, the end result seems pretty clear.

I believe that Progressive Christianity is a movement and it is gaining energy and voice. For churches to be part of that movement today, it will require creativity, hard work, willingness to change, and courage by members and church leaders alike. Only time will tell if we have the will to “progress” to something new. If not I suspect that something new will come to us.

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