What is Progressive Christianity?

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Jim Burklo has blogged about the fact that there seem to be two different definitions of "Progressive Christianity" in circulation--one political and the other theological:

In the last few years, the term “progressive Christian” has begun to be used by evangelical Christians who are disaffected from right-wing politics. Their definition of “progressive Christian” is mostly a political one; they tend to have orthodox, traditional views about religion while standing for economic justice and peace.

By contrast, The Center for Progressive Christianity does not define progressive Christianity in political terms. It’s 8 Point Welcome Statement embraces people of all sorts of persuasions. Our movement is committed to inclusiveness at many levels. We care a lot about justice, peace, and environmental responsibility, but we recognize that there are many different ways to approach these goals. While we encourage political activism, we care even more about values that are more enduring than current political passions.

He then goes on to say that "it is more important than ever for us to be clear about what we mean when we say we are progressive Christians"--and I agree wholeheartedly. While I do consider myself politically progressive, I found to my disappointment (and disillusionment) that many churches that describe themselves as "progressive" are focused on the political progressivism while remaining theologically orthodox. This is not my definition of "Progressive Christianity".

Burklo offers his own list of short phrases to try to capture the essence of what theologically progressive Christianity means. I think they are, for the most part, good ones. The list is:

* keeps the faith and drops the dogma
* experiences God more than I believe in any definition of God
* thinks that my faith is about deeds, not creeds
* takes the Bible seriously because I don’t take it literally
* thinks spiritual questions are more important than religious answers
* cares more about what happens in the war-room and the board-room than about what happens in the bedroom
* thinks that other religions can be as good for others as my religion is good for me
* goes to a church that doesn’t require you to park your brain outside before you come inside
* thinks that God is bigger than anybody’s idea about God
* thinks that God evolves

To me, these represent more interesting starting points for a progressive faith than any traditional creeds. For some of us, straining hard to make metaphorical sense out of ancient creeds is just too much work; but, on the other hand, I for one can much more easily work with the 8 points of the Center for Progressive Christianity, or those bullet points listed above.

8 comments:

Frank said...

Except for the part about "God evolves", this has generally been my experience of orthodoxy. At the very least, they are similar if not equal.

There are different ways of understanding the concept of dogma. For some, dogmas are a path, or for some they are the lighthouse, but that doesn't mean they are the end all, be all. The raft is not the shore, to borrow a term from Dan Berrigan and Thich Naht Hahn. Its easy to misunderstand orthodoxy if you mistake the raft for the shore.

I'd also suggest the part about sexuality reflects a backlash against the current political climate, sounds like something out of a Democratic candidate's speech. But a comprehensive theology would not be able to ignore sexuality. Just because many religions do so in a repressive, patriarchal way doesn't mean that sexuality doesn't belong in theology and visa versa.

It feels like these 8 points are responding to a "straw man" definition of what orthodoxy is.

Mystical Seeker said...

I do think the God evolving thing seems a little out of place, but otherwise, I think that the others on that list represent a definitely contrast from my own experience with religious orthodoxy. Most orthodox Christians are focused, for example, on creedal definitions of faith, and expect you to accept certain "essentials" of the faith in order to be even considered a Christian. And most orthodox Christians would strongly object to the statement of religious pluralism.

Frank said...

I hear you describing fundamentalism more than orthodoxy. This is especially true when it comes to respect for pluralism. Your Catholic and mainline Protestants have much regard for other faiths, and Catholics have gone on the books saying so (and many Protestants denominations have probably done the same, as well). They tend to believe that their path is "more valid" or "more right", but isn't that what it means to have an opinion? You wouldn't have it if you didn't think it was correct. I dunno.

The mainline churches that are both modern and have strong modernist traditions would be at home with those 7-8 points. Granted, the average church-goer may have a more rigid interpretation of their faith than what the prophets and mystics are pointing toward.

I liken it to the difference between intuitive and deductive thinking. Let me attempt a model, please bear with me: Deductive thinking may resemble progressive Christianity in that you start with what you can positively know and then move outward from there. Very scientific. And the important caveat is that since we can know very little for sure, we profess very little. Intuitive thinking (which I parallel to orthodoxy) would plop you somewhere in the middle of "divine mysteries" which you ponder and meditate on and come to terms with over time. More intuitive. So it makes sense that the average church goer may not be able to express all the nuance of this as well as someone who meditates on this full-time, but we are all immersed in (and part of) (and benefiting from) the same mysteries.

The dogmas are the path, the mantra, myteries to meditate on. Without them, what is there to meditate on? They are bread to feed us and some bread crumbs left to hint at the trail from those who blazed before us.

Mystical Seeker said...

I appreciate that you find value in the dogmas, Frank, but I find them constricting rather than liberating. To me, dogmas, at least as they are generally conceived, are not so much paths to the mysteries as they are supposedly inviolable solutions to those mysteries. They either try to take away the mysteries by claiming to explain them, or failing at that, they simply present themselves as new "mysteries" that you have to take at face value. The Trinity, for example, is not something that most people really comprehend--mainly, I would argue, because it is an incomprehensible dogma; but people are still supposed to pay lip service to it and, when anyone questions it as being illogical, they are basically just supposed to swallow their skepticism and accept it as a "mystery".

I'm not against "meditating" on dogmas per se, as long as that comes with a caveat. I think we can learn as much from dogmas that went wrong as we can from those we find inspirational. The problem with historical dogmas of the Christian faith is that they suppressed free inquiry, were the result of political infighting as much as anything else, and should not have any special importance over those that they were victorious over or over later developments in theological thought that might contradict them.

I choose not to accept such creeds simply because that is what I'm "supposed" to believe, and then suppress my disagreement by just accepting that these dogmas are "mysteries".

If you free the dogmas from being, well, dogmatic, and instead offer them as historical lesson of the faith journey of a community, but not something that you have to accept yourself, you liberate people to move forward. Dogmas fix theologies in a particular point in historical time. I prefer not to meditate unquestioningly on any particular historical dogmatic solutions to the mysteries, but rather to meditate on the process that led to those dogmas and ask myself how we can move forward from them.

Frank said...

If you free the dogmas from being, well, dogmatic, and instead offer them as historical lesson of the faith journey of a community

Well that is what I'm saying. Dogmas are a starting point. If you don't start somwhere, then that leaves you nowhere.

I'm not worried about how some people have used dogmas to advance particular agendas, including the perversion of the concept of dogma in the first place (its not necessarily the dirty word that our modern culture see it to be). Sure, much repression has been done, and I'll be at the frontlines of any fight against it. But its important to distinguish the baby from the bathwater.

My primary gripe is that your definition of orthodoxy is based on a very classical understanding, fixed dogmas, forced submission, and all the rest, but doesn't match current thinking.

Mystical Seeker said...

Frank, I'm not exactly clear on your objection. You seem to agree with Jim Burklo (and me) that most churches continue to affirm the ancient creeds, and you are saying that this is a good thing--so I don't quite understand why you feel that this is a mischaracterization of what is going on in a lot of self-described progressive churches. It seems that we both agree that the old creeds hold sway--which is, to my way of thinking what it means to be "orthodox."

Whether or not the old creeds are enforced in an authoritarian manner isn't necessarily what I find objectionable about most Christian churches. The problem I have is that most churches that call themselves "progressive" seem to envision that term as meaning support for sexual minorities and women or opposing the war in Iraq, while week in and week out they continue to preach and teach the ancient creeds about Jesus, the Trinity, the resurrection. Sure, it might be "okay" for their attenders to think differently--thus relegating those who think differently to second-class citizens, because their views are never or rarely acknowledged. But the point is that the orthodoxy still rules the overt, open language of church services.

This is one reason why I am not that attracted to most forms of Christian worship. That's just me; clearly, liberal orthodoxy works well for you. All I am saying is that it doesn't work for me. And I thus like Jim Burklo's vision because I think it addresses what works better for me. He says that it should be about the deeds, not the creeds, and I agree.

As I said, I'm not against the study of these ancient creeds, for their instructive value. I just don't consider them as having any special status as truth claims or as pointing the way to the truth, and in some cases I think they can serve as a hindrance. And I think that maybe it would help us not to, instead of reciting the creeds as affirmations of what "we believe", to actually deconstruct those creeds a bit, to see where they might have gone wrong here or there. Elevating these creeds to a special status freezes us in a fourth-century context and makes such deconstruction difficult. As Michael Dowd puts it, "Who of us would let a first-century dentist fix our children's teeth? Yet every day we let first-century theologians fill our children's brains."

The liberal faithful in creedal churches are able to engage in mental gymnastics to allow themselves to recite them even if they don't believe they are literally true. I cannot do that. And even for churches that dispense with formal creedal affirmations as part of the service, the creeds are the ever-persistent sub-text of church services.

Again, I don't begrudge those who find that this model works for them. All I am saying is that it does not work for me, and I have been frustrated for some time in visiting various self-described "progressive" churches in which progressive theology is noticeably absent from the church services.

Frank said...

I understand the thrust of your original post about the distinction between progressives, and I'm not even disagreeing with much of it. My observation is that the 10 points of progressive Christianity that you listed are--more of less--rather at home in orthodox Christianity. Those aren't new ideas, but rather have been practiced and preached throughout much of the history of Christianity. Whether that's "liberal orthodoxy" or whatever you want to call it, I think its a bit more than that.

Often times, when people reject religion, they are rejecting fundamentalism. When I hear atheists try to debunk religion, they are usually working against fundamentalist arguments which hold no weight to a non-fundamentalist. A step further, a lot of times when people reject orthodox Christianity, they are rejecting the classicist model, but that model doesn't hold much weight these days, even though it is still heard often in the streets. You are describing a pre-modern Christianity when you describe orthodoxy.

Your rejection of the creed is based on the fact that you don't believe it to be scientifically accurate (ie whether you "believe" it to be literally true or not), but whether that's the point of the creed or not I would call into question. I would think you would call that assumption into question, as well, based on previous posts of yours.

Most of what you said the church should be doing is stuff the church is doing, so this is where I feel there is a disconnect. Dissect the creeds and submit them to rational inquiry? See the creed as a chronicle of the faith journey of a people? Commit to asking the tough questions and not blindly obeying? That's the daily fare of orthodox Christianity. Granted, you may not find much of that in your local homespun parish, but the scholars and many church leaders are living and breathing it. I think they may also have a commitment to a faith understanding & creed that may seem like unquestioning obedience, depending on your choice of lens, but there are other frames of reference with which to understand that, as well.

I'm reminded of Peter Maurin's words... Just substitute "Progressive Christianity" for "Communitarian Movement":

"The Communitarian Movement
aims to create
a new society
within the shell of the old
with the philosophy of the new
which is not
a new philosophy
but a very old philosophy,
a philosophy so old
that it looks like new."

Its not even a slam on progressive Christianity, its just good to know that a movement may have roots that go far deeper than you might suspect.

Chris said...

I like this list. Apart from the plug for process theism at the bottom, it pretty much describes where I'm at. Thanks,

-Chris