What is Progressive Christianity?

In some ways talking about religion, any religion really, is like a rorschach test. You know, those ink blots that let the psychiatrist know what’s going on inside our heads. This was actually a point of emphasis during my grad student days at WKU. One professor said that on the last day of the semester, after teaching students the basics of Buddhism for 15 or so weeks, he wanted to say something like this: “Now, forget everything you’ve learned. You know nothing about Buddhism, because no one actually practices the way you’ve been taught. There’s no such thing as Buddhism; there are only Buddhisms.”

Shocking? Not really. The reality is we try to boil things down to a manageable size so we can understand it. We want all the information about these ancient, complex traditions in a nutshell. Yet, what matters most is how these traditions are lived out, and different people/communities live them out differently.

For example, some say there are somewhere around 36,000 different protestant denominations. Which is a lot, by the way. All 36K of these denominations claim to be Christian, to have a biblical grounding for their beliefs and practices (perhaps the Bible is a bit rorshachish, too?), and to be a carrier of the orthodox Christian tradition. And all of them are unique and different in their own ways. There’s no such thing as Christianity. There are Christianities.

I say all of this because I’ve been thinking about my own way of seeing and living in the Christian tradition. Labels aren’t my thing, but if I had to claim something, I would claim Progressive Christianity. Depending on your convictions, those two words being conjoined, Progressive and Christianity, is a either a thing of beauty or you’re praying for me right now (which is much appreciated).

The more I meet other Christians who feel at home in this stream of Progressive Christianity, the more I’ve come to realize that this, too, is a diverse perspective. When people say “Progressive Christianity” they mean different things, depending on how they understand what that moniker means.

For some, Progressive Christianity is all about how we should think about LGBTQ inclusion. For others, it’s primarily about how we think about atonement, the Bible, the environment, or how we can hold our own faith with conviction, and yet not be hostile toward other traditions.

All these issues are important. They all matter. They are all part of Progressive Christianity. And yet, for me, they are not the entirety of what I mean when I say that I am a “Progressive Christian.” What I’m talking about is a way of approaching our understanding of God and the Christian tradition as an unfinished, ongoing experience.

The word progressive carries the connotation of an unfolding, a developing over time. Much of our lived practice, however, seems to assume that everything we need to know about God or our faith is in the past, behind us. All that can be said, has been. Is that true?

Paul didn’t seem to think so. He wrote in 1 Corinthians, toward the end of his great ode to love, that even his experience was open, unfinished, and ongoing.

Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. [1 Corinthians 13v12 CEB]

I believe Paul had a deep and real experience of God, but he also understood the limits of such experience. That God-in whom we live, move, and exist-is bigger than our categories, doctrines, and boxes. And our deepest experiences are still only like standing at the base of a great mountain, searching the clouds for some glimpse of the peak. This is true for the Christian tradition as well; it is unfinished and developing even today, and this is not a new idea, it’s in the Bible.

In the Acts of the Apostles the early Christian communities were wrestling with the expansion of their movement to include gentiles, like the woman Jesus met in my last post. How would/should/could this Jesus movement respond to the gentiles who wanted to become part of the family?

The scriptures seemed “clear” (which people say a lot, but is rarely ever true) that gentiles were destined to be on the outs. That being separate and distinct from the gentiles was God’s plan and prescription for the Jewish people (which the earliest Christians would have still considered themselves to be). And yet, in their experience, God was inviting them to take a step forward-we call this progress-into a more expansive, generous space. Which is what God had intended all along.

This is powerfully seen in an experience of the Apostle Peter. In Acts 10 he was praying on a roof and he had a visionary experience.

At noon on the following day, as their journey brought them close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted to eat. While others were preparing the meal, he had a visionary experience. He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!”

Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
[Acts 10v9-14 CEB]

The point is that all these animals are unclean; they are totally out of bounds for a faithful Jewish boy like Peter. So, he resists the voice, but what happened next had to be unsettling for him.

The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.” This happened three times, then the object was suddenly pulled back into heaven.
[Acts 10v15-16 CEB]
This is followed by Peter being sent, by God, to a gentile named Cornelius. During the encounter at Cornelius’s house, Peter is shocked when God’s spirit comes upon Cornelius and his family. It is then Peter realizes that something new is happening.
Peter said, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another. [Acts 10v34 CEB]
In this moment, Peter learns something new about God and his tradition. Now, this something new about God is only new to Peter. God has always been like this. The arms of God have always been open wide to all people. God has always loved the whole-wide-world. God hasn’t changed, or become more loving and nicer. Peter, however, becomes aware of what’s always been true. And he adjusts his tradition accordingly.
When I talk about Progressive Christianity, this is what I am talking about. A posture of openness toward God that expects our understanding to grow and change as our experiences of God, people, and the world do. I’m talking about a way of holding our traditions with conviction while also having an openness that allows us to let go of some things in order to embrace and make room for others, because we realize that we, and our traditions, are unfinished.
To be a Progressive Christian, for me, is simply embracing the unfinished, incomplete nature of our understandings of God, people, and faith, and being open to the God who calls us into the future one step at a time.

3 thoughts on “What is Progressive Christianity?

  1. Reblogged this on Pots, Pans and Proverbs and commented:
    I would claim Progressive Christianity. Depending on your convictions, those two words being conjoined, Progressive and Christianity, is a either a thing of beauty or you’re praying for me right now (which is much appreciated).-Joshua Scott


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