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What Makes Progressive Christianity Progressive?

 

As progressive Christianity continues to emerge and evolve, it is important to seek clarity on the vision of Christian faith it calls us to.  The word progressive bears significance.  A progressive faith is an evolving faith, a faith always in progress, always in a process of becoming more adequate to our modern experience.

The progressive Christianity I speak of advocates presenting the Bible, God, and Jesus in ways reflective of advances in recent biblical scholarship and modern science.  Specifically, with regard to Christian faith, I mean:

  • Not taking the Bible literally; rather, reading the Bible in light of its historical context and, mostly, as metaphorical narrative.
  • Freeing God from the bonds of supernatural theism.
  • Viewing Jesus, not as divine, but as fully human.

One of the goals of progressive Christianity is to present Christian faith in ways and in language that are believable.  In part, progressive Christianity is a response to the mass exodus from our churches in recent decades.  Progressive Christianity seeks to be welcoming and inclusive, honoring the integrity of our faith while seeking to express this faith with theology and Christology that are adequate to our contemporary experience.

At its best, progressive Christianity does not try to be everything to everybody.  It seeks to articulate a place to stand and a place to believe that are indeed progressive.  While every human being is welcome, still our progressive churches may not be for everybody.  People seeking a church–of all faith expressions–need to go where they can meet God and live out their faith most fully.  Through our modern experience, progressive Christianity seeks to shed fresh light on our understanding of the Bible, God, and Jesus.

Freeing the Bible from the bonds of biblical literalism

Once we free the Bible from the burden of biblical literalism, the stories of the Bible begin to take on a new life in our minds and spirit.  Suddenly the wedding at Cana and the raising of Lazarus take on new meaning.  Soon, as well, the stories of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection are seen in new and expanded light.  If we stay with it and give the spirit a chance to move in our lives, the Bible can be an enormous source of new meaning and purpose.

The authority of the Bible.  To start with, human beings wrote the Bible.  Because of this, the authority of the Bible is not God.  The authority of the Bible–the power and impetus that have enabled the Bible to survive all these years–is rooted in the relationships of individuals and communities of faith who have continued to tell and retell the biblical stories over the centuries.  Of course, their relationship to God is of vital importance.  In their own time and own way, these communities of faith continued to hear the voice of the Bible and bear witness to the claim it has on their lives.  This claim is the foundation of the Bible’s authority.

I cannot stress too strongly the importance of observing how the Bible has survived so well all these years.  In this sense, the Bible has paid its dues; it deserves to have its stories told.

The best stories we know.  In many ways, the stories of the Bible are the best stories we know.  Thinking about it, in light of the vast resources available to us for learning, this is a profound statement.  The best stories we know is a riveting and powerful claim.  It says a lot about our history and culture both in and outside the church.  Such a claim cannot be made lightly.  It can come only after years and years–indeed, generations and centuries– of experience.

New ways of conceptualizing God

While I have never believed in the God of supernatural theism, the God of traditional Christianity,* I have always believed in God.

(*Footnote: This God is thought to be independent of human beings and external to the universe, while at the same time orchestrating events on earth and intervening at times of God’s own choosing)

Mostly, I think of God as Spirit.  I also think of God as infinite love and energy, as an abiding presence, and as endless mystery.  I like to call God the great MORE of the universe–more than anything we can say or think about God; more than our ability to describe or measure God; more than our capacity to conceptualize, understand, or imagine God.  Again, God is the great MORE, the great unknown, yet deeply experienced and felt at the same time.  Amazing!

Language about God is always metaphorical language.  To be sure, because the nature and reality of God is always more than our ability to label God with words, the only language we have for conversation about God is the language of metaphor.  This language about God comes closer to our intuitions and feelings on God.  It is also a much richer, more expansive, creative, and open way of talking about the Holy One.

Finally, there is a radical freedom to our belief in God.  This has to be the case.  As

human persons, regarding questions of God, or the Spirit, we have to be free to make our own discernments.  There is no other way of doing faith than to do it in freedom, as we are moved by the Spirit.

The power of the extraordinary humanity of Jesus

The more I study and reflect on the gospels and Jesus, the more I see the importance of the resurrection; and the best way to grasp the power of the resurrection, is to understand

the remarkable human being Jesus was.  For me, there is no other way to resurrection.

To begin with, Jesus was not God; he was fully human, like you and I are human.  However, he was by no means an ordinary human being.  From an early age, he must have had what I call a God presence thriving in him, working in his spirit, challenging him, prompting him.  No doubt this was both exciting and a burden at the same time.  Somehow this God presence stirred in his spirit and led him to extraordinary acts of love, compassion, story telling, healing, and passion for social and economic justice.

Over time, however, with his passion for social justice, increasingly, he became a menace to the Jewish and Roman elites.  Eventually, this led to the darkness of crucifixion and to his wrenching suffering on the cross.  Yet, somehow, the story wasn’t over.  Somehow, over the days, weeks, months, and probably years, Easter Sunday happened.  Amazingly, Jesus was somehow still alive to his most ardent followers in a powerful way.  In other words, they continued to sense and feel his presence as a living reality.

What the resurrection was about, it turns out, was the birth of a new awareness and new consciousness–a new awareness and new consciousness of what it means to be fully human.  What this suggests for us is that God’s way is the way of suffering love that Jesus lived and died into on the cross.

All of this is part of the mystery and meaning of Jesus and the Easter experience.  It is what resurrection unlocks within us.  In this sense, experiences of the post-Easter Jesus are derived from the life-giving energy of the God presence that thrived in the pre-Easter Jesus.  Again, it is Jesus’ remarkable humanity that gives substance and meaning to post-Easter experiences of him.      

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired church pastor who began his ministry in the Baptist tradition before becoming a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Pacific School of Religion. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In.

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