Creating Progressive Christianity


Jack Good, while discussing in The Dishonest Church the differences between what he calls progressive Christianity and what he calls popular Christianity, mentions the dangers that both forms of the faith can pose:

Popular Christianity at its extreme becomes judgmental and rigid. Witch burnings, inquisitions, and religious wars are too frequently the bloody, tragic results. Progressive Christianity carries another set of dangers: Unless care is taken to see that it is deeply and strongly rooted in an ongoing tradition, it becomes a watery system with few defining commitments, a wide but thin blanket placed over ideas that are often distressingly shallow.
Personally, I think that witch burnings and inquisitions are a vastly more serious danger to the world than a watery religion, but he does raise a valid point. Progressive Christianity could, if not rooted in Christian tradition, simply evolve into another iteration of Unitarian Univeralism.

That isn't to say that Unitarian Universalism is a bad thing. It serves the needs of a body of adherents, and as such offers a legitimate role in American religion. I myself found the UU denomination to be an entry point back into religion after years of atheism. But this is not the direction that I would like to see progressive Christianity move in. It is interesting to consider what happened in the history of the UU faith. Having originated as a liberal strain of Christianity (well, actually two liberal strains--Unitarianism and Universalism), it nevertheless over time became so attached to the idea of free thinking that it divorced itself from the Christian tradition altogether--to the point where only a small minority of its adherents now consider themselves Christian at all. And, despite an ostensible commitment to tolerance and diversity, many UUs are actively hostile to Christianity in any form.

The key is, as Good points out, staying rooted in the Christian tradition. There is, I believe, a body of faithful believers who want to remain within the Christian tradition but who also want to practice a thinking, non-dogmatic version of the faith that accepts modern science and serious biblical scholarship. This is what progressive Christianity should be about, and it is these people who have left many mainline denominations behind because those denominations did not satisfy this need.


Grace said...

What you are describing sounds like a very natural kind of progression to me. Once the central tenets, and realites of the Christian faith are dismissed such as the "incarnation..." or the centrality of the empty tomb..

Then when subsequent generations come along who were not reared or strongly attached to say the real message of the creeds, or other symbols of the Christian faith, there is no real reason not to move away further from any kind of overtly Christian profession, into say Wicca or Buddhism, or even away from a concept of a personal, loving God entirely.

It's as if the whole enterprise is rooted in sand, and eventually can and will shift into almost any form or direction.

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, I think the real house of sand lies in a religion that asserts that it must guard its dogmas at all costs lest it collapse. This makes it a religion that enforces its dogmas out of fear and which distrusts intellectual honesty as a threat to its foundation.

Eileen said...

Mystical - Agreed.

Grace - I have to say that I don't particularly agree with your line of thought.

Personally, as you know, I think adherency to "progressive" or "orthodox" teachings has far more to do with individual psychological needs, then what teaching one is exposed to.

I was reared in a very dogmatic, doctrinal theology - RC. I am, all progressive, and loosey goosey. This is NOT what my parents or church taught me. And I know of people who were raised with no or very little religion who have becoem staunch orthodox Christians.

What I mean to say by this is, that people who have religious beliefs that are "watery" are not going to eradicate orthodox beliefs - because the psychological needs that drive those beleifs are not going to cease existing.

God calls his own back to himself from where they are. I believe this. I believe God, as creator, understands the human condition in a capacity that obviously far exceeds the human capacity.

Greg said...

You may have heard the joke about UCC standing for, “Unitarians Considering Christ.” I grew up in Baptist fundamentalism, but now am a faithfully attending member of a congregation affiliated with the Alliance of Baptists and the United Church of Christ. We have quite a few members who are former Unitarian Universalists. This church experience was very different for me, and when I began attending I asked the pastor if it was okay to promote Jesus! As I have become more involved in the congregation, I gratefully see that the teachings of Jesus certainly hold a central place.

I am one who wishes to remain in the Christian tradition while also practicing “a thinking, non-dogmatic version of the faith that accepts modern science and serious biblical scholarship.” I also want to practice a Christian faith that affirms religious pluralism. Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, in her book, “Divinity and Diversity,” has formulated some wonderful ideas as to a Christian affirmation of religious plurality. She and Marcus Borg both have enabled me to remain in a beloved and cherished Christian faith, while also embracing religious diversity.

We can share and learn from various religious traditions while at the same time retaining our place as distinctly Christian. To me, this is progressive Christianity. I’m reminded of Carl Rogers as he gave an illustration of empathy: It is to understand another’s issues as if you were in her or his shoes, but just to the point of not loosing the “as if” feeling. As progressive Christians we can appreciate the diversity of religious traditions and those who practice religious traditions other than Christianity by putting ourselves in their minds and shoes to understand their traditions. However, we retain our Christian tradition by remembering the “as if” caveat.

Each religious tradition is unique in its own setting, practiced by authentic adherents to its central ideas and tenets. I would not say that Unitarian Universalism is a bad thing either. However, I do believe that it is sort of an injustice to a religious tradition(and its adherents) to practice it when one does not actually claim it as her or his own. In my thinking, that minimizes its quality and authenticity. But with all that said, I have attended UU meetings, and very much enjoyed them; like you. The UU helped me make a bridge BACK to Christianity, and it also fostered an appreciation of religious diversity.

Great thought-provoking posts!


Mystical Seeker said...

Greg, I was on vacation when you left your comment, and hadn't had a chance to respond, but thanks for your thought out comments. I think it is a subtle point you make about participating fully in a given religious tradition, which allows you to extract its full value, rather than simply practicing syncretism, which is what the UU tradition tends to do.