So You Think "Progressive Christianity" is an Oxymoron
Why "Progressive" and "Christian" are Not Mutually Exclusive
(Note: This is the next installment in my series of responses to the most common comments from this here YouTube video in which I sat down with a non-LGBTQ affirming theologian to share our differences of opinion. It’s now been viewed 145k times, and most of the 3,000 comments take issue with me. These articles and videos are my responses).
Using the Label “Progressive Christian”
As I wrote about in The Shift, I identify as a “progressive Christian” not because those two words are exact, precise labels that accurately and comprehensively articulate who and what I am, but because, well, they get close enough.
Which is the funny thing about labels, isn’t it? We value them for how they can provide us a sense of identity, and in same cases even more so a sense of belonging (which we need as humans). When we identify as this or that, we establish where we sit in the world in relation to everyone else. Labels of identity can also help us know others who are like us, a tribe unto which we can find belonging. In this way, labels are wonderful and useful and good!
But then there will always come a time when the label begins to feel more restrictive than productive. The sense of boundaries and security that identifying as such-and-such used to offer now function more like bars that cage us in. Hold us back. Stifle us. In those moments we will often transcend the label, leaving it behind for a new one—or, if nothing else suffices, we’ll just call ourselves “post-this” or “ex-that.”
The other thing about labels (especially ones of identity) is that rarely does there exist a universally agreed upon definition of what that label means. For instance, when I use the term “progressive Christian” to identify myself, I’m conscious of how I surrender a portion of the interpretation of such a label to others. Which is to say, even though I might mean a particular thing by the word “progressive” and/or “Christian,” I fully understand how such terms mean wildly different things to everyone else.
Last week I wrote about (and then spoke about) what I mean by the term “Christian.” In short, for me the word Christian describes a person who believes that following the way of Jesus is a worthy endeavor, that it is a trustworthy path toward finding wholeness and connection and peace. Additionally, a Christian is someone who, in some-way-shape-or-form, is connected to the 2000 year old religion of Christianity as it relates to the institution, the unique beliefs therein, and its accompanying rites and rituals.
As a result, since:
I follow in the way of Jesus, and
I am connected to the religion of Christianity through shared beliefs, practices, and institutions,
whether millions of people like it or not, I am a Christian.
Deal with it.
And I’m also progressive.
Which many of the folks in the comment section of this video have a hard time with.
So if you, or anyone you know, has ever wondered if “progressive Christian” is an oxymoron, keep reading.
“Progressive” as a Mindset, a Philosophy, a Posture
I’m going to describe a couple different aspects of this term “progressive.” I’ll begin with a very general sense of what it means to have a progressively minded philosophy about being a human and existing in this world. Then I’ll address the political dimension of the word. Finally, the religious component of “progressive.”
To start, I might say it like this: as a progressive, I believe we have not yet achieved universal flourishing for all of humanity.
Which is to say, part of what it means to be “progressive” is simply to have the belief that life can get better. That “progress” can be achieved. And not just that it can be achieved, but that we have a moral obligation to ourselves and the world to work make it so, or at least to work in that direction. To progress, as it were.
To be progressive in this way is to want the world to have less suffering. It is to believe that a future can be attained in which suffering is reduced.
Progressive thinkers and believers from the Enlightenment on, for example, have made massive gains—to use Immanuel Kant’s description of “progress”—in moving from barbarism toward civilization. This progressive mentality these past 500 years has made not insignificant dents in worldwide problems such as:
starvation and lack of clean drinking water,
quality healthcare so that people don’t needlessly suffer and die,
needless wars, and so on.
In almost every regard, as the work of Steven Pinker points out, the world has gotten and is getting better.
And my point here is simply that such progress has been made only because smart, compassionate, and imaginative men and women in the past have dreamt it could be so. They looked at the world around them and dreamed of what might still come. Such dreaming is, in a word, a “progressive” posture. Without progressively minded thinkers we might still be stuck in the feudal dark ages of plague and slavery and no smart phones.
Now, can this “progressive” mentality go off the rails? Abso-freaking-lutely. Obviously figures like Stalin and Hitler saw themselves as “progressing” toward a more utopian future. The horrors of the Gulag and Auschwitz should still serve as gruesome reminders of not only their failure, but the capacity for humans to increase suffering by orders of magnitudes under the guise of “progress.” So don’t go assuming that I believe that progress-for-progress sake is always good, or that progress is always better than preservation of the past. No and no.
But do I think the world has gotten measurably and significantly better?
Yes. And that has happened through progress in fields such as science and education and philosophy and politics and psychology and more.
And do I also think the world can still get even more better?
So I use this term for myself, progressive, because I believe that we, as humans, have not reached the apex of well-being either in quality or quantity. Meaning, life can get even better (quality) for even more (quantity) people.
And, furthermore, I believe such progress is truly attainable, and that working toward such a direction is a noble endeavor.
“Progressive” as a Political Identity
To be fair, though, I doubt that those on the internet insisting that “progressive Christianity isn’t Christianity” are thinking of “progressive” as I’ve described above. More than likely they are thinking in terms of the current American political movement(s) organized around the term “progressive.” Or—and I’ll get to this point next—they are thinking of 20th century “liberal Christianity,” of which the evangelical world has been ardently fighting for decades.
But first (and to be clear, I am wholly out of my depth here, so forgive me for my relatively quick and very likely insufficient summation of “progressive politics”), to talk about the political layer of “progressive” is to conjure up images of the likes of Bernie Sanders, AOC, Black Lives Matter, and the movement for LGBTQ equality. These individuals and movements and ideas are generally favorable towards those on the more progressive end of the spectrum, while they are more feared as you work your way toward the more conservative end.
The label of “progressive” in the political realm typically refers to policies and movements aimed at things such as:
LGBTQ rights, and
So if we were to derive a description of “progressive” that encompasses the political aspect, we might say:
A progressive person advocates for the rights and well-being of the oppressed (with special emphasis on people of color, LGBTQ folx, and people with disabilities); they are committed to the repair and sustainability of the planet; they believe healthcare and overall well-being is a right that all should have access to; and they see income inequality as a major factor in suffering around the world.
Why might the above factors feel foreign—if not threatening—to many Christians? Compelling them to confidently declare to strangers on the internet (ie, me) that “progressive Christian” is an oxymoron?
Speaking as a former-conservative evangelical, let me take a shot at this one…
Christianity in America has a long, complicated history intertwined with white supremacy and colonialism. Our forefathers and mothers—whom almost always identified as “Chrsitian”—leveraged their religious beliefs and practices to buttress ideas that white people were inherently better and deserving of the blessings of this New World. This history is ugly, and most Christians today don’t want to name it, know it, or accept that it’s not only part of our heritage, but its impacts are still with us today in many, many ways.
As a result, many Christians are at best ignorant of racial inequality, and at worst, actively fight against it.
Many Christians have a complicated, shame-based relationship with sex. LGBTQ people are, to put it plainly, threatening to these Christians and their fragile, fraught relationship with sex and sexuality. Furthermore, many Christians believe the Bible (and therefore, God) is against any expression of sex and sexuality that doesn’t fit inside a one man, one woman marriage.
As a result, many Christians resist any policies that protect or normalize those who identify LGBTQ.
Many Christians mistakenly believe that the planet Earth will one day be destroyed in favor of God either whisking a few people off to heaven, or, replacing the current earth with a newer, fancier one (it depends on which theological tradition they come from).
As a result, many Christians couldn’t care less about caring for the earth, as it’s all going to burn anyway.
Finally, many Christians have distorted views driven by the mixing of Puritan values with American capitalism. Instead of a movement of and for poor people—as Christianity started out—many Christians today believe that God’s preferred way of blessing people is through material goods. As though God is a giant hedge fund manager, trying to increase everyone’s portfolio, aka, “Blessings from Above.” Income inequality, then, isn’t a problem to be solved, but a fairly reliable metric of who’s doing it right and who God has blessed.
As a result of this way of thinking, even though Jesus said “blessed are the poor,” and even though the earliest churches were convinced that sharing their resources and ensuring everyone had enough was the whole frickin’ point, today Christians care about their own bank account and demand that people pull themselves buy their own probably-bought-at-Goodwill boot straps. Oh, and healthcare is only something you should get if you deserve it or can afford it.
By now I’m sure you can see how, in the view of many people on the more conservative end of the spectrum, possessing what today passes for a “progressive” worldview does, indeed, run counter to their (hyper American, hyper Western, hyper evangelical) view of Christianity.
“Progressive” in the Religious Sense
Finally, when I talk about being a “progressive” Christian, I’m doing so in part to name how I’ve broken from a particular strain of Christianity (aka, conservative/evangelical) in favor of one influenced by much of the liberal scholarship of the 19th and 20th century.
What does that mean? Well a quality treatment of this topic is way beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps I can illustrate this with a few brief examples of ways in which “liberal” Christian scholars have re-imagined and, in other ways, re-claimed what Christianity is (and is not).
I’ll demonstrate this as it relates to three areas of study: the Bible, God, and Jesus.
The conservative/evangelical belief of the Bible is that it is a perfect articulation and record of God’s communication with and work among humanity; first the tribes of Israel, and then in Jesus and the early church. For them, the Bible is inerrant (meaning, it has no errors in it) and infallible (meaning, you can trust that it will not lead you astray). The Bible is believed to be the Word of God, aka, the actual words of God. Every word, story, and letter in the Bible is as though God actually spoke it. The human authors were merely the meat-puppets God used in order to create this special revelation. It is usually interpreted literally, and any effort to suggest that something might be metaphor or myth or allegory, etc, is seen as an attempt to dodge the obvious truth of the literal interpretation.
Example: In Genesis the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth in six days, so that’s how it actually happened. It says God created two humans, Adam and Eve, from which all of the human race came from, so that is actually where we come from, two literal/historical people. It says a snake talked to Eve, convinced her to eat fruit, which then got Adam and Eve exiled from an actual garden of paradise—again, all of this actually happened. As a result, humans now have sin and are separated from God. This ancient story is seen as literal and historical and to question that, or to have a different understanding of the story, is to question the entire Bible and therefore disbelieve in God at all. (Apply this standard to any and all stories in the Bible: either they are all literally, historically true, or the whole thing is hog-wash).
Liberal scholarship in the 19th/20th centuries, however, opened up all sorts of new (to us modern Christians, anyway) insights about the Bible. Where it came from. When it was written. Where it was compiled. Who wrote what parts. Who edited the various parts together. We suddenly started noticing all the places where the Bible contradicts itself, forcing people to reassess the idea of its inerrancy. We started noticing all the places where the Bible contradicts what we know about the world around us, forcing people to reassess its infallibility. Instead of a default interpretive lens of literalism, scholars recognized how different parts of the Bible were written in different genres, and how different cultures in the past used different styles of writing to tell their truths. A hyper-literal approach was left behind in favor of a literate approach, which asked of the text: what kind of writing are you, and how might your original author intended this to be read? Instead of the Bible being a perfect, magical book flawlessly created and conveying the clear-and-obvious truths about God (and everything else), the Bible is viewed as an inspired collection of stories and letters and writings that document humanity’s quest to understand themselves, understand God and the world around them, and make sense of this confusing thing known as existence.
For the conservative/evangelical, God is a literal being that exists in heaven. This being is the creator of everything, and this being watches over all of us. Depending on which version of Christianity you’re in you’ll get a variety of beliefs about this God, but generally speaking God is believed to be perfect and holy, and therefore unable to tolerate the presence of anything not-perfect. God can be talked to and will sometimes talk back—although most Christians agree that God’s time of talking to humans concluded back when the Bible was finished (although modern day versions of American Christianity disagree, see: LDS, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witness). As a perfect and holy being, God is believed to care very deeply how humans live, and insists that we live our lives free of “sin.” What qualifies as a sin varies from denomination to denomination, but generally speaking the idea is that God does absolutely have a clear-cut list of things that not okay for humans to say, think, or do. This God will also reward you if you do good things (see above references to God as hedge-fund manager).
However, over on the more progressive end of the spectrum, liberal scholars of the past two centuries started giving us new language to try and wrap our fragile, finite minds around this whole “God” business. We built telescopes and space shuttles and discovered that there is no God up in the sky. In fact, there’s not even an “up there,” technically speaking. So at the very least we stopped referring to God as “up” and started saying “out there.” Even more than that, we started questioning the idea of God as a “being,” with a body, or any sort of spatial capacity. The antiquated view of a bearded guy on a cloud went the way of Zeus-on-Olympus, as we understood these were metaphorical ways to try and put language around the unspeakable. As is true with most theological points, within liberal/progressive Christianity you’ll find a variety of different ideas about who/what God is. But in general, we understand that God is not a man, not white, and not a physical Being in a literal heaven.
For the conservative/evangelical, Jesus is (the aforementioned description of) God, but wrapped in a fleshly human earth suit. Many Christians believe that Jesus has always existed, that he was with God during the creation of everything (this is the idea of the Trinity, that God exists as three parts: Father, Son, Holy Spirit). However, in the year Zero, Jesus left his throne in heaven (up there?) and became a sperm that eventually mated with an egg in Mary. This God-Man went on to live a perfect life, never committing one of the aforementioned list of things that God frowns upon. Eventually he was crucified on a cross, but then came back to life three days later. He hung out on earth for a bit longer, then ascended into heaven (again, up there?) where he sits at the right hand of God awaiting a future day when he’ll judge everyone. Some people—those who believe in him as their Savior—will get to enjoy eternal bliss. The rest (the most?) will experience eternal suffering.
Just like with God, the beliefs around Jesus within the liberal/progressive world are many and complex. What we lack in uniformity, we make up for in diversity. :) But I think it’s safe to say that generally speaking, the aforementioned liberal scholarship of the 19th/20th centuries restored the humanity to Jesus. They reminded us that he was a Jewish man living in a Jewish world practicing his Jewish religion. While some liberal scholars saw the resurrection story as metaphor, and deny a bodily resurrection, others might still cling to the possibility that a miracle like that might actually have happened. The Jesus within liberal Christianity is typically far more concerned with life here on earth (feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, loving your enemy) than he is with life after death (which, they point out, he never really even talked about).
So What is “Progressive,” Then?
Let’s wrap this up.
The point of this article is to respond to those who insist that “progressive Christianity” isn’t a thing. That somehow to be or to identify as “progressive” means you are not and cannot also identify as Christian.
While I understand what they’re saying (which is: “I believe that in order to be a Christian you have to believe these few things, and since you call yourself “progressive” then I’m assuming you don’t believe those few things”), I quite simply must disagree.
I call myself “Christian” for reasons stated here and here.
I call myself “progressive” because:
As a Philosophy, I believe that we have not yet arrived, and that the experience of being a human on this planet can and should continually be improved;
Politically speaking, I side with the oppressed, support equal rights, believe we should care for the environment, and—to coincide with the progressive philosophy just stated—I believe that we can improve upon the Constitution and the wisdom of white men from 250 years ago;
Religiously speaking, I find the biblical scholarship and the theological studies of the liberal movements of the 19th and 20th centuries compelling, and I feel it gets us closer to the capital T Truth about things like God, Jesus, and the Bible.
So yeah, myself and many others use the term progressive Christian, and it works for us.
It’s not a perfect label.
And I reserve the right to discard, edit, upgrade or transcend it in the future.
But for now, it’ll do just fine.
What Do You Think?
Do you use the term “progressive” to describe yourself? Why or Why not?
And do you think “progressive” and “Christian” can co-exist?
Sound off in the comments!
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All the YES!! I feel so honored to have met you & Kate & Sojo and am so grateful that I can continue to follow and learn from you! This paragraph especially struck me and has been SO TRUE in my experience:
“Many Christians have a complicated, shame-based relationship with sex. LGBTQ people are, to put it plainly, threatening to these Christians and their fragile, fraught relationship with sex and sexuality. Furthermore, many Christians believe the Bible (and therefore, God) is against any expression of sex and sexuality that doesn’t fit inside a one man, one woman marriage.”
I think that Christians (maybe everyone, really) need to have a serious reckoning when it comes to gender, sex, and sexuality —especially as it pertains to women. I am still recovering from the low-grade trauma of my childhood. It may take another lifetime to heal my relationship with my body and I think that’s unacceptable. Really hoping we can make it better for our future generations
Hi Colby, THANK YOU SO MUCH for writing this.
I just left Bible study today and had a meltdown of sort. I couldn't stop crying because I just couldn't understand how people could be Christian and not be progressive. I, myself, consider myself to be a progressive Christian and sometimes don't even refer to myself as "christian" due to the connotations surrounding what this word means in America (that you're a conservative, fundamentalist, Evangelical). You've put into words the things that I have in my heart but haven't been able to find a way to express.
All the things you've written here help me understand why conservatives can vote for Trump and think that God is backing them up in this decision. It makes perfect sense now to know that this is due to the complicated history of Christianity in America and its mix with purity culture and Puritan ways.
You helped me through my own understanding as well and helped me establish talking points if someone were to question how I could be Christian and progressive. So again, THANK YOU SO MUCH!