Progressive Christian Unapologetics

When it comes to doctrine, we progressive Christians have nothing for which to apologize. We don’t believe the old dogma that gets in the way of kindness, inclusion, science, and common sense. No wonder, then, that few of us know much about “apologetics”, a major preoccupation of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who memorize answers to the dozens of common objections to their doctrines.

Recently I met with a student in an emotional crisis because she questioned the doctrines of the campus evangelical club to which she belongs. She was deeply disturbed about the origin of the Christian Bible. She rightly questioned the dogma that it is the literal Word of a supernatural God. She realized that the whole edifice of evangelical theology is founded on the assumption that the Bible is the true, final, authoritative expression of God’s will. But if the Bible is the product of human beings with their own points of view and axes to grind, rather than directly inspired by The Guy in the Sky, that pulls the ace out of evangelicalism’s tottery house of cards.

She asked specific questions, and I gave her specific answers. After forty-five minutes, she stood up and left because otherwise she was going to be late for class. As she walked out the door, I realized that while I answered her questions, I had failed to ask her ones that were just as important. Why does this question matter to you? How do you feel about your doubts and uncertainties? What is at stake for you in this exploration? Are you afraid that if you died right now, you might end up in hell? This is a real concern of many evangelical Christians who harbor doubts about the beliefs they are expected to espouse.

Progressive Christian unapologetics begins with deep compassion for people who have been mortally terrorized with the threat of eternal damnation for failing to accept doctrines that don’t make sense to folks like this student who was blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a keen intellect and a natural curiosity.

We have little to defend, but a lot to describe. Because the oppressive religion that drove this smart, inquisitive young woman into an emotional and spiritual crisis has come to define Christianity in America. If we want to be effective in offering a viable alternative, we must explain our faith at three levels: street signs, elevator speeches, and “white papers”.

Some progressive Christian “street signs”:

Love is our God: kindness is our religion
We keep the faith and drop the dogma
Our deeds are our creeds
The Jesus story is a true myth
We take the Bible seriously, not literally
Questions matter more than answers
Our way to God is good, and so are other ways
Park your car in our lot, but not your brain
God is bigger than our religion
God evolves and so does our faith
We celebrate same-sex marriages

A progressive Christian “elevator speech”: In loving fellowship, we progressive Christians follow the historic traditions of Christian faith, interpreting and practicing them in light of social and scientific progress. We worship God, who is Love, and we follow Jesus’ way of radical compassion. We find grace in intellectual engagement with our faith. We believe there is more value in questioning than in absolute answers. The Bible gives us a beautiful language to express our spiritual experience: we find inspiration in its myths and its poetry. We affirm that other religions can be as good for others as ours is good for us: we are eager to learn from other faiths. We are called to preserve our earth as a heavenly place of peace, justice, kindness, inclusion, and beauty. (More at The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity)

“White papers”: books such as my own “Open Christianity” or my condensed version of the same thesis: “What Is Progressive Christianity?”

At one point in my conversation with the student, as I was describing the stories about Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures as mythological, she asked: “What about the plagues? You don’t believe that the Nile turned to blood?” I answered: “No, but it is still an important part of the myth of the Exodus.” Following an apologetic script, she said, “But it could have been an algae bloom in the water that turned it red.” If that was the case, the red of the nile Nile was neither blood nor miracle, but rather a natural phenomenon needing no explanation based on supernatural intervention. One branch of evangelical apologetics consists of attempts to validate the miracle stories of the Bible in this futile manner.

Progressive Christianity offers liberation from such tortured mental gymnastics. There’s another way to practice the faith, another way to understand it. One that takes all that energy wasted on defending the implausible, and focuses it on something much more difficult and important: loving our neighbors, and even our enemies, as radically as Jesus did.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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