Roots of Progressive Christianity: 3 Basic Elements


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.

Title image used under Creative Commons BY license. Image credit to Tim Green aka atoach. Original image.

About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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6 Responses to Roots of Progressive Christianity: 3 Basic Elements

  1. Not in any way Arthur says:

    As one of the aforementioned skeptics that thinks you don’t go too far enough, I’d like to see a blog post as to why you believe this.

    I get that you are talking about within Christianity and all that jazz, but, even though it’s complete bull, the fundamentalists are at least trying to come up with observational reasons why what they believe is correct in the first place.

    I figure you have to have some reasons somewhere, but I haven’t heard any of them from you in years, and I think we were both at A&M at the time and I still fasioned myself a Deist and you were still going to these fundamentalist-ish churches (maybe slightly more recently than that, but my memory is hazy), so it has been a while.

    I remember you talking about the Christian perspective being what eventually lead to science… (I have quibbles here a mile wide, I’d like you to meet my friends *points to left fist* Eratosthenese and *points to right fist* Archimedes), but that wasn’t a reason per se.


    PS sorry if this came across as preachy or off topic or something.

    • I think you’re mistaking some of my ideas for Tony’s (namely the point about science — maybe I briefly entertained the idea),but that’s a different story. You bring up a good point, though: why Christianity, whether progressive or not? I’ve wanted to do a post on that for a while, but work puts constraints on my free time.

      In short, I continue to follow Christianity first because of its moral explanatory power (hold your laughter until I explain) and because it is the tradition with which I am familiar. As a strong inclusivist (not necessarily a universalist), I believe strongly that a person’s particular religion or lack thereof is unimportant in comparison to the right orientation of their being, i.e. be virtuous. Some belief structures will be more conducive to virtue, but — as stated above — God is uninterested in your culture.

      Why Christianity, though? After overcoming the “Jesus died for our sins” paradigm (penal substitutionary atonement, which makes zero sense) and learning the history and context of what Jesus did, Jesus’ example is extremely compelling to me philosophically. The idea that God would rather die than pick favorites between warring political and religious factions is essentially a humanist action; it puts an end to cultural exceptionalism, choosing instead to believe in universal and fundamental human goodness, even in the face of human ignorance and hatred. It is the sort of hopeful optimism which overcomes fear of our neighbor and teaches us to love. Christ’s life and death is the end of opposites and the reuinification of humanity with one another and with God.

  2. Hi, Chris. This post was recommended by Dan Fincke, for which I thank him!
    I am a decidedly non-Christian Buddhist, so your third point is very peripheral to my concerns. But your first two points are very relevant.
    I would re-title your first point, cultural relationship, or cultural relationality (though that last word is a bit novel for my taste.) We cannot afford to create hermetically sealed enclaves anymore, because we are all living cheek-by-jowl with people unlike ourselves.
    Your second point seems even more important. I am convinced we need to create a culture that teaches people to cultivate virtue and reduce vice. This has always been a concern of religion — especially the universalizing religions, including Christianity and Buddhism. The discipline of cultivating virtue is a great source of happiness, not only for the person doing the work, but for those that person encounters. And we need not agree on every single definition of virtue and vice to be able to recognize that our neighbor from another tradition is engaged in the same liberating struggle.
    It will be a pleasure to follow this blog!

    • “The discipline of cultivating virtue is a great source of happiness, not only for the person doing the work, but for those that person encounters. And we need not agree on every single definition of virtue and vice to be able to recognize that our neighbor from another tradition is engaged in the same liberating struggle.”

      Most definitely. Much of conservative Christianity thrives on trying to disprove this second point, which sets them at odds with everyone who is different. I don’t know if you followed the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate, but that was a prime example. See my recap

      By the way, some of Thomas Merton’s work deals with Christian-Buddhist relations. You might very much enjoy reading him. His work has very much helped my wife overcome poisonous ideas given to her as she grew up.

      • insanityranch says:

        Chris, thanks for the response!
        When I dumped your blog into my newsblur, I came across your earlier post on the Nye / Ham debate. I will comment on that, there.
        Merton is somewhat interesting, though he is a little too Zen for me. I did originally learn sitting meditation from a Zen teacher, and Thich Nhat Hanh remains a deeply important teacher for me, but I have found my home in the much more text-oriented Therevada tradition. (Not a surprise for a Jew, right?) I am trying hard to become really conversant with the vast Pali Canon, which is truly one of the great religious texts. I’ve also been trying to become acquainted with Western virtue ethics (Aristotle and Anscombe so far), because I truly believe that the cultivation of ethics ought to be the cornerstone of a good society.
        All the best!

  3. Pingback: Is Jesus Worth Saving? | The Discerning Christian

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