What Is Progressive Christianity?
There is some debate, among progressive Christians themselves, about the appropriateness of the term ‘progressive Christianity’. The word ‘progressive’ has simply arisen as a way of referring to a particular form of Christianity, and it continues to be used in the absence of any other term that has gained widespread support.
The word ‘progressive’ has the word ‘progress’ in it, which suggests some kind of forward movement. Also in other areas besides religion, ‘progressive’ tends to be seen as the opposite of ‘conservative’. Christians with a more conservative outlook tend to focus on faithfully preserving the traditions of the past, their religious heritage. People with a more progressive outlook tend to see the need for the tradition to keep evolving in response to changes in the world. In a book entitled The Dishonest Church, its author, Jack Good, speaks of those who are ‘chaos intolerant’ (conservative people who don’t like change) and those who are ‘chaos tolerant’ (people who welcome change). Progressives are chaos tolerant people. They are comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and unanswered questions.
I would describe progressive Christians as generally being people who are open to new ideas, who are adventurous and exploratory in their thinking. In many cases they are disillusioned with the more traditional, orthodox forms of church, whose doctrines, in many cases, they no longer find convincing and helpful. They tend to be people who are looking for a way of being Christian that fits with their 21st-century worldview.
One of the summary descriptions of progressive Christianity that I find most helpful is in Hal Taussig’s book A New Spiritual Home: Progressive Christianity at the Grass Roots. The book resulted from a year-long study that Taussig made of a large number of progressive congregations across the USA, involving all denominations, large and small congregations, congregations in cities and in rural areas. These lively congregations varied greatly in regard to character and primary focus, but Taussig nevertheless identified five characteristics that tended to be common to them all: spiritual vitality, intellectual integrity, transgressing gender boundaries, vitality without superiority, and justice and ecology.
The spiritual vitality of these congregations results from worship activities that are creative, innovative and participatory and that make use of the arts. These communities place great emphasis on creating an environment in which people can develop an authentic spirituality. Taussig contrasts the deeply involving and spiritually nourishing forms of worship in these churches with what he calls the ‘sleepwalking liturgies’ of some traditional mainline churches.
Taussig’s second characteristic is ‘intellectual integrity’. Progressive Christians are not content to unquestioningly accept things on authority. They don’t want to be required to give assent to doctrines that conflict with their worldview. When they come to church, they don’t want to have to leave their brains at the door. They want a form of Christian belief and practice to which they can give their wholehearted intellectual assent. They want it to make sense. And so they tend to be people who ask questions and are open to new ways of understanding and expressing what it means to be Christian. They also tend to be people who have more questions than answers, but who are comfortable with this. If asked to say what they believe, they are inclined to say, ‘This is what I believe today. Ask me again tomorrow, and the answer might be different.’
Taussig’s third characteristic of progressive congregations he describes as ‘transgressing gender boundaries’. Progressive Christian communities tend to have been strongly influenced by feminism and feminist theology and by a new understanding of homosexuality and new attitudes towards people of a wide range of sexual orientation: gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons. For progressive Christians, opposition to misogynist attitudes and homophobia and the promotion of full equality of women and gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people in the life and leadership of the church are not peripheral issues but are central. Progressives recognise that it can sometimes be a difficult process, within themselves and within society, to change deeply conditioned attitudes and behaviour in these areas, but this is something they are committed to.
Taussig’s fourth characteristic, ‘vitality without superiority’, mainly refers to the attitude taken by progressive Christians to people of other faiths or people of no faith. Progressive Christians don’t try to downplay or denigrate their own religious identity, even though some are sometimes uncomfortable about labelling themselves as Christian. They acknowledge that their own religious practice is based in Christianity. But, unlike many Christians, they don’t claim a unique status for Christianity as the only true religion or the only means of salvation. They not only tend to have a tolerant attitude towards other religions but also are actively interested in learning from them.
Finally, Taussig notes that progressive Christians tend to have a particularly strong interest in matters of social justice and ecology. This is in contrast with more conservative forms of Christianity that tend to focus on areas of personal morality, often especially sexual morality.
Marcus Borg is an American theologian whose writings are significant for many progressive Christians, and in his books he speaks of progressive Christianity as a new paradigm in contrast to the earlier paradigm of traditional orthodox Christian belief. In The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, written in collaboration with a more conservative scholar, N T Wright, Borg uses five adjectives to describe the earlier paradigm: literalistic, doctrinal, moralistic, exclusivistic, and afterlife oriented (p 231). We can get an understanding of the newer paradigm (which Borg also refers to as progressive Christianity) by seeing how it differs from what is expressed in these five adjectives.
Progressive Christianity is not literalistic. Progressive Christians tend to read the Bible within its historical and cultural setting and don’t view it as the inspired and inerrant word of God that must be taken literally. Much of the Bible is read by progressive Christians metaphorically, that is as having a meaning that is more than literal.
Progressive Christianity is not strongly doctrinal in nature. Instead of seeing correct doctrines as being at the centre of Christianity, it focuses more on developing an authentic spirituality and in being open to multiple ways of understanding and expressing what it means to be Christian.
Instead of being moralistic, primarily interested in personal morality and overcoming sinfulness, progressive Christianity, as we have seen, is more interested in issues of social justice and ecology.
As we have seen, progressive Christianity is not exclusivistic; it does not see Christianity as having absolute truth and as being the only true religion. It is inclusive of all people, irrespective of their faith or lack of faith, their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.
And instead of being focused on the afterlife, progressive Christianity keeps its focus very much on this life, on finding and working for ‘salvation’ (peace and justice) here and now, for oneself but also especially for society and the whole world.
(presented at the PCNet Progressive Groups Network Day, Effective Living Centre, Wayville, Saturday 12 November 2011)