Understanding Changes in American Christianity
It seems religion in America is undergoing a paradigm shift. Though evangelicalism and other conservative/fundamentalist sects of Christianity managed to incorporate previous culture changes like gender and racial equality, the social justice topic du jour — gay rights — is proving rather irreconcilable, thus giving religious progressives a chance to share their opinions on the public stage. If you look back, groups like the Quakers and the United Church of Christ have been around supporting progressive causes for quite some time, but they are the exception to the rule, and they have rarely if ever had widespread cultural recognition.
For people like me who associate religious fundamentalism with fostering spiritual abuse, this is a relief. Maybe religious progressives will finally receive some respect. Fundamentalists criticize us for going too far in our beliefs, whereas skeptics accuse us of not going far enough. It’s lose/lose. Because we can rarely catch a break, many people are unfamiliar with what progressive Christianity entails, seeming to many to be strange or even dangerous. So, with that in mind, here are some explanations and brief defenses of some common beliefs associated with Christian progressives.
1. Cultural Mediocrity
I don’t mean our culture is boring. Rather, Christianity means the end of cultural exceptionalism; we’re not superior to everyone else because we’re Christian, evangelical, or American. On the day of Pentecost, people of all nations and languages came together and spoke with one another. What’s more, Jesus commended the good Samaritan and the Roman Centurion — people who had none of the “right” beliefs — for having faith not even found in Jerusalem, the religious headquarters of God’s supposedly-chosen people. As John the Baptist said, God can raise His chosen people from the stones of the ground, and there is nothing exceptional about being Jewish. That message holds today for cultural Christians as much as then for the Jews.
Progressive Christianity tries to take this seriously. We treat our Muslim brothers and sisters with respect. We love our atheist friends as well, even seeing our causes overlap in many cases. We don’t judge them for their beliefs, and we don’t go on a life-long crusade to use social manipulation to “convert” them. We try to stay open-minded to criticism as much as we are able, realizing that we might not be 100% correct about, well, anything. We let our beliefs and our actions speak for themselves, and we recognize that any conversion or change of heart cannot be genuine if we try to make others force a decision to “give their life to Christ,” which may mean anything or nothing depending on whom you ask.
2. The Primacy of Virtue and Orthopraxy
On a related note, though progressives believe in varying degrees of orthodoxy — right belief — we place orthopraxy — right action — in the forefront. Here on my blog, I’ll talk a lot about right being, which is somewhat analogous with virtue. In either case, with orthopraxy or virtue, the focus is roughly the same: that we treat all others with love. I’m sure most people would probably say the same thing, but commitments to specific beliefs often leads people to situations where they are unwilling to compromise, causing them to engage in often harmful practices. Where conservatives might commit themselves to beliefs, the progressive commitment is to treating others rightly before it is to maintain any specific belief.
The common objection might be to say, “How do you know what is right if you don’t know what you believe?” or, “If you’re not firm in your beliefs, isn’t that just moral relativism?” Both of those questions could merit articles to themselves, but I will offer this much here: if a person tells me that I’m hurting them or that my beliefs provide an unfair characterization of who they are, I believe that I should listen to them instead of “standing firm in my beliefs.” In fact, to do otherwise is to make a virtue of prejudice. (As an undefended aside, I will posit that there is an important empirical sort of element to ethics which makes them roughly as objective as gravity.)
An EXTREMELY IMPORTANT implication here is that where progressives tend to receive criticism from others as being intellectually snobbish, the emphasis on loving others opens Christianity up to the common believer much more than do more conservative strains of Christianity. That is, you don’t have to know all the right apologetic strategies to support all your pet beliefs. Maybe a lot of us arrived at progressive Christianity through intellectual pursuits where we questioned what we were told, but the intellectualism isn’t the point. The hero of progressive Christianity is not the culture warrior who smites the unbeliever with (bad) argumentation; it is the man or woman who loves his neighbors.
3. Rooted in Historical Christianity
While it might not seem like it at first glance, progressive Christianity is much more committed to the actual facts of Christian history than the evangelical culture which it has rejected. That is not to say that we are all running off to sign up for the Catholic or Orthodox churches, but we are aware of the diversity of opinion which precedes us, and we additionally realize the cultural implications of various teachings in the Bible, both in what they meant at the time of their writing and what they might mean for us now.
Knowing the breadth and flexibility of our religion allows us to feel more free to associate ourselves with Christianity instead of feeling like religious malcontents inventing their own belief system and trying to sell it under the Jesus brand. As Dr. Peter Enns and Dr. Michael Graves point out, for example, figurative interpretations of the Bible were common in early Christianity. In fact, the Alexandrian Christians in particular favored an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and their tradition carries on in the Coptic Orthodox Church (Egyptian Orthodox Christianity).
Contrary to the myths of conservative Christians who claim that progressives are inventing their own religion, we find that religious fundamentalism is often the culprit of its own allegations. One could easily point to the Protestant Reformation and ask what to make of that, if we should not interpret it as inventing a new way of Christianity. Was Christianity then established once and for all with the coming of Reformers like Luther and Calvin? Hardly! And so why should we not continue to correct the ailments of our religion when we see them?
A New Old Way of Being Christian
There are so many differences of belief among progressives, but that’s sort of the point: you’re allowed to grapple with your faith, just as Christians have done over the centuries. We may come to dramatically new conclusions as we investigate, but we should be glad to have learned rather than fear new knowledge.
But in all that we do, we should love our neighbors. If we choose to alter our beliefs about the age of the earth, Biblical history, same-sex marriage, or anything else, then great! We’ll be better off. But the point is not to update our beliefs just to be right. Any of us could very well turn into a fundamentalist 2.0, smug and confident in the certitude of our new dogma to the point of silencing our critics. Instead, our beliefs should lead us to love people and treat them well no matter who they are. That is the root of progressive Christianity.