Aug  2017 22
What I Mean by “Progressive Christianity”

Last week my blog prompted several questions about what “progressive Christianity” means. The questions might have been more to open a dispute than to seek understanding. But it is fair in a discussion to define one’s terms.

If you’re looking for a well-developed understanding of what progressive Christianity means, please read Dr. Hal Taussig’s essay. He names the following characteristics (phrases below are taken from his essay) of progressive Christianity, some of which differentiate progressive from liberal:

  • spiritual vitality and expressiveness
  • intellectual integrity
  • transgression of traditional gender boundaries
  • rejection of claims to be the one true religion
  • strong ecological and justice commitments.

I affirm these basic claims and will not speak to each below. The following blog is more idiosyncratic than Dr. Taussig’s fine essay.

First, a disclaimer. I don’t like the term “progressive” except to open conversation. In a time of strong binary mindsets—one must be either THIS or THAT—I still prefer the possibility of hyphenated names, such as evangelical-liberal.

In the mid-20th century that was a vital pairing. But the times have changed and few Christians believe one can hyphenate such terms. In a binary world, progressive gets set against the Christian Right and wedded to the political left.

I reject the ideology and idolatry of the Christian Right (which, as I’ve written before, is a political use of religion), but I don’t always identify with the political left. I adhere to the understanding that Christianity should offer alternatives to a society’s dominant ways of thinking and acting politically.

Second, a key place that progressive Christianity is different from dominant forms of Christianity is in relation to truth and authority. I reject biblical literalism and the claim that every word of scripture is inspired.

I affirm the need to interpret in a community of interpreters. The community has the authority and obligation to interpret. It is Christian communities, and not the Bible per se, that are the historical link with Jesus and the apostles. The Bible is embedded in communities of practice and must be interpreted within those communities; otherwise, the Bible is simply a book among other books. For Christians, interpretation is our burden, our responsibility, our privilege, and our joy.

Third, a progressive community interprets scripture and does its theological work in conversation and argument with the authorities of the day.

I affirm theologian David Tracy’s method of bringing the questions and answers from secular disciplines, such as sociology or brain science, and the questions and answers of other religious traditions into conversation and argument with questions and answers from Christian viewpoints.

Practical wisdom for living well with God and each other, rather than absolute truth, is worked out in the interplay. Christianity cannot play a trump card in every conversation and cannot win every argument.

Fourth, and building on theological method, the way of Jesus is leaven in every society rather than a blueprint or master plan on which civilizations are built. Christian Reconstruction/Dominionism, which organizes and legislates for Christian dominance in all the realms of society, is a new version of age-old imperialism.

Reading the last several centuries of Western history, with multiple claims of “Christian nation” and “Christian civilization” (think missionaries with guns and diseases, or Germany as National Socialism arose, or the U.S. for the last 30 years), I have a deep bias against the possibility of a Christian nation or civilization.

Christianity is leaven: wrecking purity codes that differentiate “clean” from “unclean” persons, breaking social boundaries, and advocating for more justice and more love in societies that will never be perfect or Christian.

Fifth, whatever one believes about life on the other side of death, Christianity is a this-worldly religion. Like Judaism, Christianity focuses on love of God, yes, but loving God is unbreakably linked to the love of neighbor, self, and God’s creation.

For Christians, human rights are rooted in being created in the image of God. And human life is unthinkable, as well as impossible, without clean air, pure water, and live soil.

Sixth, covenant making and covenant keeping are at the heart of relationships. Human covenants are based on mutual, reciprocal, self-giving love. Making and keeping covenant, and not particular sexual identities or gender expressions, are required in godly relationships.

Seventh, one of the places I don’t think I am as “progressive” as some is in my understanding of sin. I understand sin as brokenness, as a failure of love, and as participation in a broken world.

It is impossible to find a place to live outside of sin. It is impossible not to be complicit, more or less, with sin.

Sin is personal, social, and systemic. There are degrees of participation in sin, there are those with power who can do more damage to others than those without power. But “all have sinned” and stand in need of grace given by God to unthaw otherwise frozen relationships.

Eighth, combine what I wrote about theological method as conversation and argument with the statement on sin. What results should be humility. I and my community can’t be right about everything all the time.

Each community sees partially. Every community will be wrong about something. Of course, I believe some communities see better than others!

There are some communities bent on the destruction of whole categories of people from which anyone else would strain to learn anything productive. And, when a community bent on destruction is trying to destroy your community, that is not the time to query, “What can we learn from them?”!

But there is a difference between wrong and being hateful (although one can be both wrong and hateful), and humility of claims might cause one to pause before joining in social media equations of the two.

Ninth, I am a Wesleyan, a member of one expression of John Wesley’s descendants. Wesley practiced and wrote about “experimental religion.” I take this to mean that Christianity, like good science, can follow an experimental method.

Make a proposition, experiment to test the proposition, observe from every available angle, make a judgment about whether or not the proposition held, change your mind and the proposition if necessary, and repeat.

More “orthodox” versions of Christianity might say the patterns are set, one does not have to experiment, follow the patterns tradition has handed down.

For me, an experimental method applied to Christianity is at the heart of being a progressive Christian. The method also opens to wisdom and truth that might be found in places liberals eshew, such as: Pentecostal healings, Catholic beatific visions, pilgrimage to Celtic thin places, and meditation where the boundaries of self, God, and other are dissolved.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
Phillips Theological Seminary offers Christian graduate theological education
in service of intelligent, just, and compassionate religious and civic communities. We welcome
students to a safe space for truth-seeking conversations about the Bible, Jesus, and faithful living.
Courses available on campus and online for certificate, diploma, MDiv, MAMC, MASJ, & MTS
programs, and on campus for the DMin program.

Phillips Theological Seminary

901 N. Mingo Road
Tulsa, OK 74116

p 918-610-8303
f 918-610-8404

Campus & Directions

Site content © 2005-17 Phillips Theological Seminary

The materials on this website are owned, held, or licensed by Phillips Theological Seminary and are available for personal, non-commercial, and educational use, provided Phillips is properly cited. Any commercial use of the materials, without the written permission by Phillips Theological Seminary, is strictly prohibited.

Site design, programming, and CMS © 2005-17 Verdend Interactive

Like PTS on Facebook
Follow PTS on Twitter
Subscribe to RSS and Podcasts