On not exactly identifying as a “progressive Christian”

I’ve noticed a trend recently of Christians in mainline chruches, often self-identifying as “progressives,” developing an alternative “canon” of books, Sunday school curricula, approved authors, etc. parallel to those of their conservative counterparts, but which offers an interpretation of Chrisitianity more to their liking. Anyone who’s hung around moderate-to-liberal mainline churches will recognize some of the names: John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Diana Butler Bass, John Spong, Brian McLaren, etc. The idea seems to be that more liberal Christians need to construct their own identity, an identity that is at least in part one created in opposition to “conservative,” “fundamentalist,” or “evangelical” Christianity.

There’s much to applaud here, at least to the extent that one thinks that U.S. Christianity has been distorted by too close an association with certain conservative interpretations of the Bible and the conservative political agenda they supposedly provide support for. No doubt there are people put off from Christianity because they associate it with a particular social and political stance, and who are relieved when they realize that being a Christian doesn’t require adopting that stance.

But I’m not entirely comfortable with the “progressive” alternative either, for a few different reasons. First, it risks creating another theological ghetto where certain authors, ideas, etc. are “safe” or “sound” because they’re on “our side.” Second, the critique of fundamentalism–while appropriate–often fails to replace it with a substantial or satisfying alternative. Too many progressives seem opposed to the idea of doctinal truth, per se, creating a void into which rush all sorts of theological individualism and eclecticism.

Finally, the theology that many of these progressive authors promote is thin and unsatisfying because it’s too detached from Christian history and tradition. Borg and Crossan, for example, though they both have some good insights, seem to want to replace 2,000 years of Christian reflection on the person of Christ with a historical reconstruction of their own devising. Indeed, their theology threatens at points to be replaced by Jesus-ology: all we need are the social ethics of Jesus (appropriately filtered through a particular set of historical criteria), and we can dispense with most of the God-talk that has characterized historic Christianity, replacing it with, at most, a kind of vague mysticism.

This may be unfair to the more nuanced insights of some of these scholars, but once those insights get filtered down to the level of the layperson in your average mainline parish, the theology you end up with is thin gruel indeed. Maybe what we need instead is more of an ad fontes approach: recovering a more complex understanding of Christian tradition by actually engaging with it. Is it really beyond the average Christian layperson to, say, participate in a group study on Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, or Augustine’s Confessions, or the writings of Luther and Calvin, or even more recent authors who are accessible and firmly rooted in the tradition without being easily pigeonholed as “conservatives”? (Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, William Placher, Luke Timothy Johnson, and others come readily to mind.) Traditional theology can have surprisingly radical implications in the areas of social ethics–sometimes far more radical than the tepid liberalism sometimes offered as the only alternative to fundamentalism. And, as Christopher and Derek would no doubt remind us, our tradition is embodied in our prayers and liturgies, the history and theology of which most laypeople are, I think it’s safe to say, woefully ignorant.

Of course, really engaging with these sources would require leadership who actually believed there was something to be gained by doing this. But I can’t help but think that progressive Christians are too captivated both by a kind of presentism and a kind of primitivism: on the one hand, they take a dim view of tradition, but at the same time think we can leap back to the original Jesus, unobscured by ecclesiastical accretion, with the soul of an egalitarian social refomer and a tolerant, undogmatic theology. Once you’ve watered Christianity down to that point, though, I for one have a hard time seeing why it’s worth bothering about.

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12 thoughts on “On not exactly identifying as a “progressive Christian”

  1. Wonderful post, Lee. As progressive as I might be on many political issues, I don’t consider myself a “progressive Christian” for the reasons you list above (much more eloquently than I could detail).

  2. The problem for me is that at heart encounter with the Incarnate and Risen and Present Lord is central and is a liturgical theological mode of being. Rather than get on a moralizing trip, I like Andrewes long before me, want folks to meet Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament and be lifted in praise of the God become One of us before all other considerations. Real change happens in meeting Him. Many progressive theologies want to drain out the wonder and awe, and yes, magic–God’s Word to us, of the Incarnation for a form of less-than-awe-inspiring memorialism of a man who died two thousand years ago and whom we are to follow today. Appropriate to my name, for me, the Incarnation is everything!

    1. This is an important point. If what was special about Jesus was just his teachings, then encountering him would be unnecessary since the teachings, presumably, would stand or fall on their own.

  3. Thanks Lee. The only thing I would quibble over is that Diana Butler Bass and Brian McLaren seem to have a healthy appreciation for the tradition of the church that is lacking in Spong, Crossan, and Borg — so I wouldn’t bunch them together.

  4. I would add that Jesus-ology is at heart Pelagian. The point of a High Christology is that God saves (Y’eshua) and does through means of Himself incarnate, that is, by way of flesh not inspite or despite flesh.

  5. Some atheists think the various progressive versions of “the historical Jesus” are every bit as much constructs of faith as the “Christ of faith.”

    Sometimes they find very plausible the suggestion that there was no historical Jesus, and that the only Jesus there ever was is the entirely mythical one of the NT.

    On its face, that seems unlikely, though.

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