I’m a progressive Christian (or I think I am), though I’m not sure I’ve ever uttered that sentence aloud. That’s not because I’m ashamed of the label, but more or less because nobody seems to define “progressive Christian” the same way. (<-That’s problem number 1).
That’s partly because “progressive” is a vague term in today’s culture, nearly as vague as the word “Christian.” It’s no wonder the combo of the two make for a less than definitive idea. (<-Problem number 2?)
However, despite America’s progressive Christianity being undefined (Is it a movement? Is it organized? Is there any unity whatsoever?), a growing number of believers—many of whom are Christians who grew up in conservative churches/denominations—are still choosing to wear the label. That said, nobody who comes from conservative backgrounds jumps into faith-based progressivism headfirst. While not all progressive churchgoers are former conservative Christians or disenfranchised evangelicals, many indeed are coming from those backgrounds with a myriad of expectations, disillusions, frustrations, hopes, etc. And chances are, for a majority of those onetime fundamentalists or evangelicals, their journeys toward progressive Christianity evolved over many years and often started out of a place of spiritual pain or spiritual doubt or spiritual disenchantment. For them, “Progressive Christian” is a label they approach cautiously and slowly, often wading into their new realities/understandings with far more uncertainty than faith. (<-Problem number 3? That depends.)
Personally, I began embracing the progressive term mostly because other people labeled me as such. Though I’m fairly outside the evangelical box with my theology, I don’t attend a progressive church and many of my best friends are self-identifying conservative or moderate evangelicals. It wasn’t until 2, maybe 3, years ago that I started owning the label to some degree, though I confess, sometimes I do so with much trepidation. Why? For several reasons: Labels frustrate me. Sure, I see their necessity and often use labels and/or stereotypes in my own writing, I also find them to be somewhat unhelpful, suffocating, and limiting in the real world. Moreover, as I mentioned, “progressive” is such an indistinct term with a multitude of variables that owning the label doesn’t “define” me as much as it puts me in a corner with a host of other wonderful and complicated believers/thinkers who (<-Here’s problem number 4->) often have many of their own issues with the label/concept.
For example, many of us have a cumbersome relationship with scripture. (<-Problem number 6) Am I allowed to say that? Yes, suggesting that many of us have complicated relationships with scripture might give some people a reason to pounce on us even more than they do (or perhaps discount us altogether), but let’s face it: many of us (not all of us) are a bit clumsy when it comes to scripture.
Now, it’s not that we don’t love scripture, we do love it. We just also hate it sometimes, at least parts of it. Often our odd relationships with the Bible are because we come from experiences where chapter and verse was/is the beginning and the end of God and many of us had that view of God memorized by the time we hit puberty. (<-Problem number 7.) Which isn’t our fault, of course; but for many of us, our history with God’s Word has caused us to become less-than-passionate about using scripture to prove our new, more progressive, points/ideas/theories. Why?
Well, for several reasons perhaps.
1) Because many of us likely know how to prove the opposing view with scripture as well or better than we can prove our current view.
2) Because some of us are uncertain (or fearfully certain) of where to begin or how to prove our current views using scripture.
3) Because a few of us are somewhat unconvinced that “progressive theology” can actually be found in the biblical narrative.
4) Because it’s much easier to just use scripture as a tool against conservative ideas (our old way of thinking) than it is to use it to build up and/or support our new understanding. (<-Problem number 8.)
And trust me (<-Here’s problem number 9->), I get it; going from thinking about the Bible in that literal spoken from the mouth of God and using it as a weapon sense to thinking about the Bible in that non-literal, biblical narrative—part history, part allegory, part inconclusive riddle but always inspired—sense is a difficult journey for most of us. Yes, we believe scripture is “inspired,” but we don’t know exactly what that means, at least, not like we once did. Now, though we often say it’s inspired, how “inspired” impacts our understanding of the Book of Judges and whether or not that story in the Book of Judges about a woman getting cut up into 12 pieces and sent as gifts to the 12 Tribes says anything true about God is another thing altogether.
A part of the bigger problem is that it’s easy for many of us onetime conservatives/now progressives to get caught up in our faith being defined by our past as opposed to it being inspired by what’s in front of us (<-Problem number 10). In other words, many of us know exactly what we believe to be true and untrue about the churches we grew up in, the theologies that we were taught, and the perceptions of God that we once worshiped. And there’s nothing wrong with knowing what we believe to be good and true about our pasts. But sometimes we fall onto the path of getting so lost in fighting the ills of our former spiritual lives that we go for long periods of time when that’s all our faith is, one big fight against what was. (Now, for some of us, I think that’s exactly where we need to be. Because the freedom to be angry is a part of the journey.)
But some of us linger there because we are so uncomfortable engaging God with questions and doubt (<-Problem number 11). In many ways, we don’t know how to engage God without belief squarely intact (<-Problem number 11.5), so we instead become consumed by our own certainty about other people’s certainty. And there’s a time and place for that! But for many, engaging in spiritual wars (usually online) become the most visible, worked-out part of our faiths. Our Christianities become seemingly void of belief or hope or even questions and doubt and instead, most known for a mostly clumsy presentation of angst (<-Problem number 12).
And again, I get it. I really do. Angst, in the right context, is a beautiful thing. But sometimes it seems that’s all our faith is—angst against what was. I’m constantly struggling with this. Because on one hand I do want to use my voice and influence to speak up for those who have been silenced by the sometimes harsh certainty of evangelical, reformed, and fundamentalist doctrines—and I will continue to do that because speaking up for somebody else is a whole other thing—but when the fight is only personal, bursting out from the unresolved issues we have with our former selves, it’s easy to begin mistaking those fights as elements of faith(<-Problem number 13). I’ve learned (and am still learning) that I can’t hand my fights down to my kids and expect them to want to engage God. I can’t inspire belief and hope and mystery with only personal angst toward my past. (Problem number 14->) If our progressive faiths are going to be more than simply labels or responses to our pasts then we must become comfortable engaging the story of God without the lens of our former spiritual ideas. We must accept that it’s far more difficult to pursue God’s story with doubt, questions, and little bit of hope than it is with certainty and doctrine. But we must, if we want to be happy and content and continue on something of a Christian path, take the difficult path, relearn how to believe without certainty, and allow grace to fill in a few of the cracks. Because if our past faith is the defining factor in our current faith, is that really faith? I think that’s a question we must answer ourselves, in our own time.
For many of us, the journey out of angst includes learning the art of critiquing/questioning the Church. Progressive Christians have always been fantastic critics (<-Problem number 16? Sometimes. But not always.). In fact, here in America, it was often because of progressive believers that change in America’s Church became possible, that abuses by churches and ministries were challenged, that hate and intolerance amid the culture was uncovered and remedied. They made mistakes and weren’t always friendly. But sometimes, the sins that the Church commits in God’s name demand to be confronted by unfriendly voices. So all of us should thank God for good critics. We need critics. But the one bigger difference about many progressive voices from our history and many of the progressive voices of today is that the best progressive thinkers of our country’s past learned the art of balancing the breaking of things down and the calling of wrongs out with the creation of ideas, theologies, new ways of thinking, and hopes, inspiration that helped in the pursuit of reframing faith, rebuilding churches, and reconnecting people to the stories of God. (Problem number 17->) Many of us (me included!) are terrible at that balance. Some of us aren’t even looking for the balance.
Again, this isn’t true for every progressive voice. Some people are indeed balancing their fight against the establishment with truths and ideas for reconstruction. But finding the footing or foundation to be both good critics as well as good inspirers is difficult for many of us. (Problem number 18->) Some of us are so busy sharpening our skills as critics that even if our voices do inspire change, we often miss the opportunities that come along to be a part of what happens—the rebuild—after the change (<-Problem number 18.5) Why?
Because we’ll be tempted to find something new that’s broken to critique.
Because at the end of the day, though many of us truly want to help to build something authentic, something new, something believable, something hopeful, something good, many of us still don’t know what that something is… which pays tribute to that earlier point that progressive Christianity is vague and undefined.
Because again, progressives are fantastic critics—needed critics! However, their talent for critiquing the ills of the Church or the sins of the “other side” are only outdone by their seemingly limitless ability to eat up their own kind without a second thought. It’s kind of shocking to behold actually. But progressive Christians jumping on other progressive Christians over the tiniest differences is disheartening. I’ve watched Christians who support equality lash out at other Christians who support equality. I’ve witnessed Christian feminists hating on other Christian feminists. And that’s just the beginning. Many of us are just spectators to these wars, and while we don’t get involved too often, the interactions silence us. Why? Because we’re afraid of our own kind (<-Problem number 19). Yes. It’s true. I think THIS is one of the biggest problems in the progressive Christian culture and why so few new ideas come out of this trend/movement: Because it seems there’s so little grace for mistakes or for being wrong or for being not completely right… And so many progressives become so intoxicated by their own “pet issues” (ideas that most inspire them or interest them) that speaking into that issue is to risk getting attacked socially online by that individual and their friends…. somebody who fights poverty but doesn’t fight poverty the way one person or group thinks it should be fought, they are ridiculed with rage online. Or somebody who speaks out against our country’s racial inequality but either doesn’t do it exactly the way a person/group thinks it should be done or isn’t the kind of person that a person/group thinks they should be, they get vehemently attacked. And I could go on and on. Which is why I think progressive Christianity remains so vague, so undefined. It’s not conservative theologians that limit us. We are far more limited by those with whom we agree with 99 percent of time (<-Problem number 20).
And I believe we can do better. But we need to pick up the mirror. And take a long look.