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Progressive Christianity: Reconstructing Our Theological Witness

Progressive Christianity has been seriously hampered by at least two illusions.

One is that the triumph of progressive ideas is pretty much inevitable. The other is that progressive ideas are inherently persuasively. Neither is true. The progressive Christian witness will not triumph inevitably triumph or under its own power. Convictions prevail when they are part of social movements. Progressive ideas may be intrinsically credible, but they are actually believed only when they are effectively stated and lived, and embedded in alliances of people who act together with informed intentionality.


What are the ingredients of a successful movement of progressive Christians? I don’t claim to know the full answer to that question, and I am sure that some of the ingredients of any successful social movement come into being serendipitously. But one essential, I am sure, is a powerful set of ideas, or in the case of progressive Christianity, a compelling theological perspective. I have not always thought that; for a long time I rather suspected Karl Marx and Wall Street might be right in claiming that people believe whatever is in their economic interest. I no longer think that. A recent book by Thomas

Frank, entitled What’s the Matter with Kansas, makes quite persuasively the point to which I have come: People often act against their own personal self-interests because they are faithful to a set of ideas and their related values, ideas that are larger than themselves and more compelling than their own immediate gain. The people of Kansas,

Frank says, are guided by a set of ideas grounded in a right wing Christian theology.


There will not be an effective progressive Christianity until there is, again in and for our time, a compelling progressive Christian theology. The presence of such a theology may not guarantee our success, but its absence, I am sure, will guarantee our continued impotence. And so for your consideration I suggest six theological convictions that might provide the framework for a progressive Christianity today. These six summary statements are meant as “mere beginnings” of a conversation that must consume us all, and bind us all together. I offer them and ask, are these indeed our shared convictions? And, if they are, how should they be further developed and effectively articulated?


1. Our Understanding of the Bible

The Bible is a collection of human documents through which God speaks to us uniquely in our time.

The Bible is the source of our Christian conviction and identity. We have too often been hesitant to say this because of the pervasive misuse of the Bible by some conservatives, but our grounding in the Bible must be clear and true to the Bible itself. The Bible is a book of various, sometimes conflicting, visions and teachings, and we cherish it as such. The rich and forceful diversity of the Bible’s ancient voices invites us into its processes of discernment, challenges our easy assumptions, and calls us to accountability. Its “authority” is the fact that we are “authored” by it, formed and continuously re-formed by its varied narratives, teachings and assurances to be who

Christians ought to be in each new age. We do not deny that other people are uniquely addressed and redemptively formed through other sources. Indeed, the boldness of our own biblical foundation empowers us to be open to claims to truth from other traditions and to be willing to learn from them. We do not deny the Bible’s fallibility. Its human quality is apparent when we read the Bible as it really is; its human quality is also what we should expect if we take seriously the Bible’s own claim that God has entered fully into and accepted our humanity. Indeed, the Bible’s witness, in Jesus Christ, to God’s oneness with us and the entire creation is the foundation of all else that we believe.


2. Our Understanding of Christ

Christ is the revelation to us that God is incarnate in all of creation.

This simple sentence is already two claims. One is that we stand in a particular historical lineage, a tradition rooted in Jesus of Nazareth. It is in this place, as interpreted by us through the mediation of our Christian forebears, that we have come to realize something about God. The other claim is substantive. What we have come to realize here is that God is incarnate in the whole of things. God is not separate from the creation, and within creation God is not to be identified with some particular place, or some particular people, or some special way of life. The definitive christological claim of progressive Christianity for our time is the audacious claim of the incarnation carried to its consistent conclusion, i.e., the divine is truly and fully with us and the whole of creation.


Progressive Christians, therefore, are this-worldly Christians because in Christ we have seen that God is a this-worldly God. And we are inclusive Christians because the God incarnate in Jesus Christ is an inclusive God. Our understanding of Christ is the basis for our belief in the sacred character of all of creation, for all of creation is the place of deity incarnate. It is the basis for our rejection of any viewpoint that presumes to be divinely privileged, for the place of deity incarnate is all of creation. God is not in some place uniquely or among some people distinctively or allied with some way of life exclusively.


3. Our Understanding of God

God is incarnate everywhere—we have come to see this in Jesus Christ. But as what, and how? As that presence that everywhere works for good, uncovering and condemning that which harms, and laboring patiently for the redemption and renewal of all things.

Progressive Christians can and do conceive of God in different ways, but our varied conceptions join in affirming that God is that power which seeks continuously and everywhere to bring healing to individuals, to societies, and to the whole creation. The physical sciences tend to see the cosmos as a haphazard process going no where in particular, and the social sciences understand the ethic of evolution to be the survival of the strongest. The progressive Christian view of God is a bold challenge to the secular consensus; it is the belief in a cosmic power that everywhere works for good and always works for right, and that does so in quietness and gentleness, not in shock and awe.


This belief in God is the ultimate ground of our hope, because it is a hope that is not limited to the success of our human striving. God is at work even when we are not, and even when we are, and fail. This belief in God is also the impetus toward openness, the challenge to dogmatism. If the God of judgment and redemption is at work everywhere then we must be open to every place—Christian and non-Christian, religious and secular—as possible sites through which God is seeking to judge and renew us.


4. Our Understanding of Sin

Sin is whatever structures, beliefs and actions deny and oppose God’s affirming power and redemptive presence in all of creation.

According to progressive Christianity, God’s presence and power is denied in structures, beliefs and actions that presume non-human creation and forms of life have no value except as they serve human need; God is denied in beliefs that some people are inherently superior and more deserving than others because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion; God is denied in assumptions that some human ways and beliefs are inherently superior and thus immune from critical evaluation. But sin is not only social. Sin is also the neglect of the disciplines of a self-in-community, a community that seeks in mutual reflection to locate God’s presence and power, and to identify the ways in which that divine reality can best be served in our time.


This understanding of sin is the basis of our critique of the “isms” that perpetuate injustice and inequality in the social order. While we may also agree with and employ resources from other quarters, it is from and because of our specifically Christian theological convictions that we seek to disclose, understand, and dismantle racism, classism, patriarchy, homophobia, and religious arrogance. This understanding of sin is also the basis for our sense that we as individuals require the disciplined critique and guidance of others in community, including especially those who share our identity as Christians—including, we should add clearly and humbly, the critique and guidance of conservative Christians.


5. Our Understanding of the Church

The Church is the community of those who come together to discern, on the basis of what they see in the story of Jesus, where in the world God is working today to transform human life and all of creation, and to work on the side of God’s redemptive presence and power in the world today.

Progressive Christians affirm personal responsibility, but we also recognize the social nature of personal life. We therefore insist that the maintenance of dynamic and self-aware Christian identity, conviction, and action requires community; personal Christian identity rests on the continuing critique, guidance and nourishment within Christian community. The “church” is that community wherever this quality of fellowship exists, oriented around the questions, Where is God working in the world today?” and “What must we be doing to participate in that divine working?” This ecumenical Church is not only contemporary Christians; it is also the critique, guidance and nourishment of Christians past as mediated through the tradition. Finally, this Church is more than belief and deliberation about the workings of God; its power to enable lives that are effective in the world requires also the nourishment of the affective life of the Christian.


This understanding of the Church is the basis for our decisions about how to order our common life in Christian community. It is the reason and guide for our educational programs. It is the underlying logic of our preaching. It explains the importance of the Church’s liturgical life, and it determines the shape and goal of Christian liturgy. It is the point of our social and political outreach. This understanding of the Church gives purpose and direction to our seminaries.


6. Our Understanding of Salvation

Salvation is the healing and health that God seeks for all of the creation, including ourselves individually and corporately in every dimension of our lives. It is a political, social, physical, mental, spiritual and ecological healing. This is the audacious vision that we endeavor to share and to serve.

Progressive Christians do not claim to understand what this vision of salvation could possibly mean in its fullness, and we certainly cannot portray it in literalistic terms.

But just as we can identify various forms of brokenness here and now—injustice, animosity, indifference—even though we do not understand them fully, so, too, we can envision, though imperfectly and metaphorically, what it might mean for these personal and collective ills to be overcome, even if incompletely.


This understanding of salvation gives direction to our hope. It leads us to be open to the prospect of change in ourselves, despite our recalcitrant self-centeredness. It guides us in the direction of a just society and a common good. It presses us into work on behalf of healing and health everywhere, even when that healing must remain partial and insecure, for we believe that our efforts contribute somehow to the full salvation that is envisioned in Christian scriptures, not only for “we ourselves,” as Paul says in Romans 7, but also for the “entire created order” which has been groaning until now to be set free. If these six points might ground a progressive Christianity for today, we should remember that our task is a task for today.


This leads me to two concluding points:

First, progressive Christianity is an abiding stance; it is an approach to being Christian. It is not a single set of Christian beliefs for all time. In this respect, however, progressive Christianity is no different from evangelical and even fundamentalist forms of Christianity. They, too, are stances rather than fixed positions that abide unchanged through time. When conservatives criticize liberal Christianity as relativistic because it continues to change, the appropriate response is not defensiveness, but the observation that conservatives, too, change and, further, that change can be good. The best conservative theologians know that, even if most Christian conservatives do not. It is in our interest to be acquainted with Christian history so that we can point this out. Beliefs change in every strand of Christianity. The question is whether they change for the good.


Second, although progressive Christianity is a stance and not an abiding set of beliefs, this stance, responsibly taken, seeks to give expression to particular affirmations for each particular time. If we do not presume to say what is true for all times and places, being responsibly Christian means that we cannot fail to say what we believe to be true for our time and place.


Progressive Christians have been paralyzed by the assumption that if we cannot speak with absolute certainty as Christians, we cannot speak forcefully as Christians at all. But the idea that we can only speak with confidence if we think our claims are grounded in God’s own pure revelation must be challenged. Why should we hesitate to speak forthrightly as fallible Christians? Indeed, is it not now clear—once again!—that presuming to speak religiously from an infallible perspective is dangerous, even demonic? The damage now being done by fundamentalists (of the right and the left!) who claim to speak infallibly for God is the best argument we can offer against absolute certainty of any sort, including Christian certainty.


But having given up, as we should, the presumption that we can speak the will of God, we must not also give up the claim to speak with confidence from and for our Christian tradition. Too often we have. Too often what we say simply mimics the political commentators and social critics with whom we agree. Too often we speak solely from secular grounds and solely in a secular vein. For too long we have given right wing extremists exclusive possession of the powerful symbols of our Christian heritage. We must begin again to speak a specifically Christian language, a full and rich Christian language. We must once again speak theologically as Christians. A progressive Christianity without a distinctive theological identity may indeed be progressive, but it will not be effectively Christian.


Delwin Brown

Review & Commentary