A layman’s introduction to progressive Christianity

Although I’ve been doing it more regularly lately, writing about faith and especially the ‘C’-word (Christianity) is something that terrifies me every time I do it. Why?…

I know that this ‘C’-word is appended to a certain kind of label in the overall cultural zeitgeist. Because that ‘C’-word is usually uttered in the same breath as another ‘C’-word (Conservative). Or a ‘T’ word (Trump). Or an ‘F’-word (fundamentalism). None of which, I identify with…

It’s also terrifying because I know that many of my readers found my work when I was in my SBNR (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious) stage and that’s what they identify me with. Many of them have been religiously wounded (often by certain subsets of the type of Christianity I alluded to above) and have very good reason to despise Christianity.

But here I stand before you — a progressive American *gulp* Christian. I figure I may as well own it and get comfy in these slippers. I also wanted to provide my layman’s perspective to outline the flavor of Christianity that I’ve stumbled into so as to possibly provide a framework for you, dear reader, to check out — especially if you’ve walled off Christianity forever because you’ve deemed that word goes along with the ‘C’, ‘T’, and ‘F’- words above. I wish I’d known about this years ago, so who knows — maybe it’ll help you on your inner path. I’ve tiptoed around it these last few months, but I want to give you something a little more comprehensive.

A Christianity that’s liturgically orthodox while maintaining a progressive worldview

Yes, these two things exist in the same building. In fact, I just stepped out of one. At my Lutheran church here in Chicago, I just witnessed one of the most beautiful, humbly prophetic, and progressive sermons about the immigration crisis (based on the Virgin Mary) spoken by a female pastor who identifies as a lesbian in a traditional liturgy before receiving the Eucharist.

I don’t know about you, but I love paradox. I love it when two seemingly opposing things join together in truth and wholeness. Afterall, the yin exists only with the yang. A magnet is nothing without the north or south pole. Chocolate is better with vanilla. And for me, an orthodox liturgy is so wonderfully enriching along with a progressive worldview.

So how can this be? What is this thing all about? That’s where we’re going next…

First of all, to keep the peace

As a registered 9 on the Enneagram, I’m inclined to keep the peace before even jumping into the heat of this thing. Here’s my attempt to do as such.

I don’t write this to convert or convince you. If you happen to have a grand conversion because of this post, that’s on you, not me. I don’t care about changing your mind. If you’re still reading, my guess is maybe you’re game to hearing what I have to say. If not, no hard feelings. Your standing is still good with the Divine no matter what you do, so go in peace.

Christian diversity is. It just… Is. Seriously, how can anyone say that their way is the only way to be a Christian? It’s insane. (Please walk away from people who tell you that.)

Christianity has been around for thousands of years and has spanned the globe. My Lutheran church in Chicago is totally different than one, say, in rural Wyoming. I say we embrace the beauty in it. To not hold so much of a dualistic grasp on striving for ‘one way’, but to see Christianity as a beautiful buffet. From the enthusiasm of the Pentecostals to the quietude of the Quakers, I say all denominations should keep doing their thing their way. It’s beautiful.

I’m about to speak of a couple different versions of Christianity. I’m also about to take a side.

I admit that splitting this gigantic thing in two is a drastic simplification.

I’ll also say that by picking a side, I’m, by no means, damning the other side. I have many friends and loved ones on that ‘side’ who’ve found profound enrichment and nourishment there. More power to them. However, when it comes to hatred and harm, that ‘side’ can piss off (as can those on my ‘side’ who do the same).

I’m not a credentialed theologian (as of yet). I’m merely a layperson taking a stab at this thing. You’ve probably read more of the Bible than I have and have been a devout Christian for longer than me. I submit to your experience and expertise. If you try to ensnare me in some kind of deep theological battle of the minds, you’re going to be faced with air. I have a job and don’t have time to go to intellectual war. Go find another more worthy opponent, please. I don’t have the time or the reps in to do battle with you.

The two buckets I’m lumping everyone into today are conservative and progressive Christians. Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, I don’t know. But you can probably identify with one more than the other. I, myself, identify with the latter, so there’s my bias. If you’re a hard-line conservative Christian, you’re not going to like this post. However, it’s always nice to stay open to other perspectives, right? Uh… Right?

Know that there are harder and softer sects of each camp. Also, know that I’m only touching on the major differences between the two. This is not a complete guide, but more of an overview.

Okay, I’m all done with the bold print… Ready?

Conservative Christianity

God

Christian conservatives worship the God of supernatural theism — the ‘Man Upstairs’ as God is often referred to in our culture today. This God is a person-like male being who lives outside of our world who occasionally intervenes when the mood strikes him right but remains distant most of the time. He wrote a book a long time ago, but he’s been pretty inactive since his son died. On that point…

Jesus

Jesus is seen, in conservative Christian eyes, as the literal son of God who was divinely sentenced to death for our sins so that we could be forgiven and go to a place called Heaven when we die (if we believe and/or do the right things).

Jesus is the promised Messiah who can show up again in the flesh at any moment and take all the good people with him to heaven while damning the rest to burn in a place called hell.

(Again, there are harder and softer forms of each category here and I fully realize I’m being really snarky here.)

The Bible’s Origin

For conservative Christians, the Bible is a divine product with divine authority. Conservative Protestants claim that this divine authority comes from the Bible. Conservative Catholics claim this authority is grounded in the church hierarchy (papal fallibility). The claim by conservative Christians of “The Bible is the Word of God” really means “The Bible holds the WORDS of God.” It’s essentially a Holy Encyclopedia that’s designed to be followed to a T.

Biblical Interpretation & Function

Conservative Christians make a literal and factual interpretation of the Bible. To them, God is a literal, linear thinker and has written his book as such. The sea really did part in two to let the Hebrew slaves escape the Egyptians, Mary actually was a virgin, Jesus totally walked on water, multiplied loaves, etc.

The Bible’s function is to serve as a divine revelation of doctrine and morals. God has written exactly how he wants us to live and the creeds are 100% on point.

Side-note: Conservative Christianity is not as old as you think. It’s actually a modern notion that was born out of the Enlightenment. Though it sounds traditional, it’s only a few hundred years old. People didn’t start writing about Biblical infallibility and inerrancy until the 1600’s. Papal infallibility wasn’t recorded until around 1870. Before the enlightenment, it wasn’t the literal meaning of the Bible that mattered most for Christians, but its ‘more-than-literal’ meaning.

Christian Life

The life focus of conservative Christians is on the afterlife and what to believe or do in order to be saved. They see ‘faith’ as ‘believing’ (and, because a male God who lives in the clouds and shakes his finger at some while blessing others is hard to believe, it takes a certain kind of faith).

For many, the blessing of an afterlife is the only reason to be a Christian and believe the things they’re ‘supposed to’ believe. Some talk about being loving in this life, but for many, it’s about requirements and rewards (the main prize of which is having an afterlife in the country club of Heaven after they croak). Some go to Heaven and some don’t (after all of that work, God can’t let every slacker in the world in, right?).

Side-note: What I find interesting is how conservative Christians often use the language of God’s grace, but they make grace conditional, which nullifies it. Okay, moving on…

Progressive Christianity

God

Christian progressives see God as panentheistic (pan = ‘everything’ en = ‘in’ theistic = ‘God’).

This is slightly different than ‘pantheistic’. Pantheism sees God as the universe. Panentheism sees God as the material universe and that which transcends the material universe. Panentheism brings into account the ‘moreness’ of life that is not ‘of this world’. God is in us, around us and outside of us (that in which we live, move, and have our being in).

God is not seen as a separate person-like being apart from the universe, but as a sacred personal presence that is experienced and can be communed with.

Although the word ‘panentheism’ is modern, it beckons an ancient and biblical way of understanding God. This God is both personal and impersonal.

Jesus

With progressive Christians, Jesus is both a historical life figure as well as a metaphor of God (according to us Christians, the metaphor of God). Jesus embodied a spirit-full life. He was a Jewish mystic (had many encounters with the luminous — aka, God) and a teacher. He was also a social activist who served as a huge thorn in the side of the power structures of his day.

Instead of building a huge temple and promising cash and prizes to his followers, he kept it real and told them that love, acceptance, and forgiveness was what mattered. He was no bliss bunny, though. He gravitated towards those who were ousted from the status quo (like criminals, leapers, prostitutes, and tax collectors). He had a bit of a temper. And he wasn’t a perfectly coiffed white dude. He was a lower class nomad of Middle Eastern descent.

Through his execution (which he totally could have avoided), he told the world that he’d rather die than keep up the ‘sin accounting business’ (as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it) that the power structures of his day upheld.

And so we die daily to the power structures and accusers both within and without. This death is no cakewalk, but our resurrection into new life is glorious. This is a small glimpse into the value of Christ to progressive Christians.

The Bible’s Origin

For progressive Christians, the Bible is a human response to God. We acknowledge that people wrote the Bible. When we read about God changing his mind in the scriptures from a damning God to a more loving God, this is an account of humans changing their minds about what God means to them. Although these people may have been ‘divinely inspired’ as they wrote, they’re human nonetheless.

We also know that the Bible is not linear and a lot of it has been through the ringer as far as interpretation and omission has gone throughout the centuries. This doesn’t take away from its impact.

Biblical Interpretation & Function

Progressive Christians take a historical, metaphorical, and sacramental approach to the interpretation of the Bible.

It’s historical in that it’s the product of ancient Israel and early Christians. It was written for them, not for us in the postmodern world. We should interpret this book taking into account their ancient historical contexts.

It’s metaphorical in that it is more-than-literal and is focused on meanings, not literal accounts.

It’s sacramental in that the Bible can mediate the sacred. A sacrament is a visible and physical vehicle of the spirit.

Christian Life

The life focus of progressive Christians is based on relationship and transformation. It’s not about meeting requirements for a future reward after we kick ye olde bucket. It’s about how we relate to the divine presence of God that transforms us in this life. Faith isn’t so much about ‘believing in God’, but fostering an ongoing and forever deepening trust and relationship with God lived within our inherited Christian tradition as a metaphor and sacrament of the sacredness of our life.

The life focus of progressive Christians is based on relationship and transformation.

We also affirm religious pluralism and don’t think that Christianity is the only way to deepen this relationship with the divine. As for me, I think the Sufi’s have things down pretty good. However, because we were born into this tradition, we embrace it and have found our footing in it without having to cast any of the other faiths away.

So there you have it

A super brief layman’s perspective on progressive Christianity. Hopefully, it gives you a new perspective as far as the Jesus story goes. Like myself, I hope you find that this perspective carries real transformative power for this life we’re living now — not merely some contrived afterlife which may never come.

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