FEBRUARY 18, 2018 BY ROGER E. OLSON
What Is “Progressive Christianity” and Why Should You Beware of It?
First of all, do not assume anything! I will define what I mean by “progressive Christianity” here. It is, of course, an indexical phrase which means it cannot be defined except within a particular context. And, of course, different people mean different things by it. And yet, it is being used within churches and denominations and Christian organizations and cannot just be ignored. Generally speaking, at least outside of very conservative Christian circles, it tends to have a positive “ring” and many especially educated Christians are attracted to it. Sometimes, however, it is an insidious and pernicious code phrase for liberal theology being introduced into moderate Christian circles. Many people do not seem to see what is happening in such situations; I believe I do see it and I want to sound an alarm so that others may begin to ask questions they might not think of asking.
When I hear the phrase “progressive Christianity” alarm bells immediately ring, but I resist the temptation to make any assumptions and I try to ask questions or, if that doesn’t work, observe the distinctive “symptoms” of language and behavior within the church or other Christian organization that seem to signal what is being described as “progressive Christianity.” This takes time and attention to details. It is the attention to details and the questions that I often have to ask, based on my observations, that occasionally occasion resistance, even marginalization from those within the church or organization that are busy introducing and promoting “progressive Christianity.”
All such projects require some criteria of normalcy—of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. In some cases (not always), in my experience, “progressive Christianity” signals a paradigm shift away from what has been considered normal, acceptable, standard, orthodox, within the given church or Christian organization. I believe I have become quite adept at discerning this process. No, I do not go about it in “knee jerk fashion,” but take quite a bit of time and careful thought, striving not to work from a position of automatic suspicion but from a position of open-mindedness, generosity, combined with knowledge that, without vigilance, sometimes Christianity is so compromised as to lose its meaning and become something else—while still being called “Christianity.”
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
As always, examples and illustrations are called for. I could cite many, perhaps scores of experiences that taught me to be a bit vigilant about this matter.
Some years ago I went to hear a well-known and influential seminary professor and theologian speak. I did not know anything about him except his reputation as an excellent Christian scholar. I went to hear him together with hundreds of other Christians—most of them students. He was being promoted on campus as a Christian worth hearing and being taken seriously. I settled into my seat in the large auditorium next to my companion to the event, another broadly evangelical theologian and campus minister. Everything sounded good until about halfway into the guest speaker’s monologue when he mentioned that he was both a Christian and a Buddhist. My ears pricked up at that as did my companion’s ears. We looked at each other with a bit of surprise and concern. I looked around at the students; many of them were leaning forward with eager anticipation to hear more. The speaker, a professor at a well-known Protestant seminary, continued to explain that he was finding great personal and spiritual help through involvement with a specific Buddhist sect from Japan and he argued that there is no conflict between Christianity and it. I knew much about that particular Buddhist sect—including that it is controversial in Japan (and elsewhere) even among Buddhists! After the speaker’s lecture I spoke with the university professor who invited him as I was not able to get near the speaker who was inundated by curious students. The professor fended off my curious questions as evidence of “fundamentalism.” To my chagrin, and that of my companion’s, nothing came of the event; there was no reaction from the administration after we reported on it to the powers that were. In that case, apparently, being “open minded” meant considering as possible that Buddhism and Christianity can be blended without damage to Christianity.
This experience, among scores of others throughout my adult lifetime, alerted me to what I consider an extremely dangerous mindset among some Christians in America. (I will limit my remarks here to American Christianity although I strongly suspect what I am talking about is a reality elsewhere as well.) What “mindset?” The mindset I refer to is one that regards “Christianity” as cognitively contentless or at least as so cognitively flexible as to be compatible with almost anything—so long as the “anything” is acceptable among educated elites of the American academy.
Within reach from where I sit right now are, on my bookshelves, many volumes that argue, in one way or another, for a Christianity that does not include doctrinal orthodoxy but is strictly defined in terms of feelings and ethics. Years ago, even within my lifetime, this approach to Christianity was commonly called “liberal.” However, also some years ago, even within my adult lifetime, liberal Christians (if they are really Christians) dropped the label “liberal” and adopted “progressive” in its place. Of course, much confusion ensued as many orthodox Christians also consider themselves “progressive” in some ways.
Gradually, however, in my experience (as a Christian theologian for almost forty years now), “progressive Christianity” has by-and-large become a replacement for what used to be called “liberal Protestantism” (although it can be found in some Catholic circles as well).
The first signal (of liberal Protestantism disguised as “progressive Christianity”) is a disinterest, especially among Christian leaders (of congregations, denominations, and organizations) in doctrine. That’s sometimes difficult to detect because progressive Christians (as I mean that here) often talk about doctrines but only as historical relics, not as living realities to be protected and defended (even if reinterpreted and translated for the sake of understanding).
The second signal is a distinct tendency to replace doctrines, in terms of importance for membership and leadership, with “kindness” and “inclusion” as well as “social justice”—usually for some newly discovered “oppressed group.” Included in this tendency is a complete abandonment of church discipline especially as that relates to doctrinal accountability and sexual behavior (except for what is illegal).
A third signal is a determination, however, slow and subtle, to accommodate to trends within academic culture—regardless of their fitness with Scripture and tradition. In other words, the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” shifts beyond being an equilateral to being one in which reason (defined as what the American academy and its movers and shakers consider reasonable and normal) and experience (defined as what the American academy its movers and shakers consider normal and acceptable) dominate Scripture and tradition. Something to listen for is this now common saying in progressive Christianity circles: “Who cares what Paul said? I follow Jesus.”
A fourth signal is an elevation of inclusiveness to a virtue bar none (or “par none”) within the church, denomination, and/or Christian organization. Of course, “inclusiveness” is never complete; persons perceived to be “discriminatory” in any manner (language, behavior, sentiment) are marginalized if not ostracized.
A fifth signal is the abandonment of the “language of Zion” by which I mean traditional Christian concepts such as “sin,” “repentance,” “salvation,” “return of Christ,” and, yes, “judgment of God.” These are replaced by concepts such as “Kingdom of God” or “city of God”—interpreted as a condition of social justice including inclusion of all people equally without judgment (except discriminatory or perceived intolerance).
A sixth signal is implicit universalism—a complete abandonment of any mention of hell—except perhaps as a code word for misery in this life usually described as oppression—both the oppressed and the oppressors are in a living “hell” from which they need deliverance through social transformation which often includes social engineering via politically correct language.
A seventh signal is the way in which the Bible is described—not as a supernaturally inspired and unique message from God, possessing final authority for faith and practice—but as “our sacred stories”—different in degree but not in kind from other great and inspiring writings.
An eighth signal is the complete abandonment of belief in the supernatural together with a strong emphasis on the immanence of God in all people. The “imago dei” gets reinterpreted as a presence of God in every human person. Together with this comes a tendency to horizontalize Christian recognition of God’s presence—as totally within historical movements for justice and completely within the “face of the other”—especially the weak, the vulnerable and the marginalized.
Finally, a ninth signal is the adoption of hostile language about groups of human beings who dare to defend traditional values. They are often lumped together with racists, bigots, oppressors, “fundamentalists,” and even “red necks” solely because they hold to traditional “family values” or express the opinion that too much is changing too fast in terms of what is acceptable within the church and society.
As in fundamentalism, within many progressive Christian circles an echo chamber develops. In this one, though, those “out of touch” with the latest trends in sociology, social work, education, journalism and the social sciences in general are effectively silenced. There develops a “fundamentalism of the left” that is not really inclusive at all.
I will close with one more illustration drawn from my own life. Many years ago, while I was teaching at a Christian liberal arts college, advertisements began to appear in the student newspaper for a Baptist church that advertised itself as “A Liberal Church.” The combination of “Baptist” and “liberal” intrigued many students and faculty members and soon the pastor of the congregation was in the hallways and classrooms speaking about his “progressive Christianity.” I invited him to speak to my theology classes (two or three years in a row) about “liberal theology” and “progressive Christianity”—not with the intention of infecting students with that but with the intention of allowing him to expose his own double standards and hypocrisy. I admit that I sometimes “salted” questions among students before he came to class. One question (I don’t remember whether I suggested it or not) was asked by a student during the Q & A time after the pastor spoke: “What would you say to a fundamentalist Baptist who wanted to join your ‘inclusive church’?” (The pastor had defined “liberal” as “inclusiveness.”) The pastor answered “I would help him find a different Baptist church to join.”