What Does “Progressive Christian” Mean?

I don’t like it when people accuse me of lumping all Christians into one stereotypical bundle.  I most certainly don’t do that.  But I will admit to focusing the bulk of my writing on the most fanatical branch of the Christian Right.  So today I’d like to spend some time examining the musings of a progressive clergyman.  I think his views represent the feelings of a significant number of Christians, especially those with quality educations and middle to upper-class backgrounds.

Fred Plumer and a group of progressive theists were discussing what it means to believe in Jesus but not agree with the “traditional” church on things like LBGT issues, abortion, and other hot-button topics.

After a couple of glasses of wine we even began to question if we would call ourselves Christian when push came to shove. We admitted that we seldom did so in most of our secular settings and almost every one of us discovered that we at least hesitated telling a stranger that we were clergy when on vacations away from home or traveling on airplanes. We all seem to have funny stories about that.

Good!  It’s nice to know that there are some theists with enough of a moral compass to feel uncomfortable identifying themselves as Christian.  Half the problem is admitting that there’s a problem.  It’s great that the cultural milieu is shifting away from automatically blowing smoke up someone’s ass just because they’re a “follower of Christ.”  This will make it easier for fence-sitters to make more rational decisions about their allegiance.

I also believe the world will be well served in the same way as the result of the very public statement by well known author, Anne Rice that she was “quitting ‘Christianity’ and renouncing any claim to the title ‘Christian.’” She added however, “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I’ve been hesitant to comment on Rice’s comments.  Frankly, I think she’s getting way too much attention as some sort of authority.  She’s a marginally competent writer whose vampire novels only look as good as they do because they’re being compared to sparkling love-muffin vampires in abstinence metaphor movies.  But I digress…

Thankfully, Rice’s sentiments are being echoed through much of the progressive theist community, and I think maybe her statement — despite being intellectually fatuous — can function as a catalyst for healthy introspection.

Progressives are listening to the atheists, too.  Quoting one of Dawkins’ many attacks on moderate Christians, Plumer implies that there’s some substance to the criticisms.  By not actively opposing the teaching of extremist religion, Dawkins says, moderates are facilitating it.  (I agree wholeheartedly.)  Unfortunately he glosses over this implication and falls back on the all-too-common progressive theist position.

The good news is that like my experience with the seminary professor and the critiques of the New Atheist movement, the Anne Rice event is stirring things up and people are reading, writing and hopefully having serious conversations in their homes and in their churches. Maybe this will be an opportunity for more church leaders and people in the pews to have honest dialogue about the meaning of Christianity in the 21st Century. It is about time.

Yeah, it is time for more honest dialog, but let’s start with the really tough question.  Instead of presuming some foundational value in following some “progressive enough” version of the Jesus story, why don’t we ask whether it would be better to just ditch the whole thing and start from scratch?  To any progressive theist, I offer this challenge:  Take one giant step back and try to examine the salvation story from the most progressive, metaphorical point of view you can.  When you’ve done that, distill it to a concrete, well defined, unequivocal statement of obvious moral virtue.  I bet you can’t.

From my recent entry on the subject:

Whatever good moral message we come up with, we’ve got to overcome a Brobdingnagian obstacle — the literal story itself.  The literal reading of the salvation story is abhorrent.  So whatever good moral message we derive from a metaphorical reading of it has to be so obviously and monumentally good that it justifies hiding it in such an awful story.

Is that even possible?  Beyond that, what can we say about a god who chooses to convey his monumentally good message in a story that gets used for centuries of oppression, repression, and abuse?  Is the act of disguising such a beautiful message in any way good?  Is there anything beneficial in hiding the message instead of making it obvious?

The problem isn’t that Christians have misused or abused the true underlying goodness in the salvation story.  It’s that there cannot be any underlying goodness in it, and any attempt to dilute Christianity to a morally acceptable “spirituality” is destined to fail twice — first by endless equivocation and goalpost shifting, and second by enabling the dogmatism it purports to oppose.

Originally posted on Life Without a Net.

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