I was raised by Jesus. He was always there in songs and prayers, bible storybooks and Sunday School flannelgraph. He was as real to me as any person I knew in person.
In fact, he was flesh and blood to me, in the lives of my parents and grandparents and countless aunts and uncles of the church. It was from them I learned about love. The kind of love that gets its hands dirty, that dispenses advice alongside hugs and casseroles, that quietly slips money to those who need it, that faithfully prays and cares and shows up when normal people would give up; that opens up their homes and their hearts to strangers, and keeps doing it again and again, even when they get burned.
It’s because of this heritage, and not to spite it, that I find myself in the open waters of a new kind of Christianity. Not just me, but thousands and thousands of others. Not just young people like me (okay fine, young at heart, though middle-aged in body); in fact, our new church has a far better balance of ages/stages than the old one.
The Christian church has been in the throes of growing pains for quite awhile, a polarization of sorts. The Neo-Reformed movement and other conservative trends pulling back, while the emerging church and progressive Christianity (two different, but similar theological movements) are pushing out.
Love it, hate it, or just try to ignore it and hope it goes away – this is the landscape. I’ve sat on both sides of the debates, so I can honestly say, there are wonderful, sincere people I respect on almost every point on the spectrum. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get nasty.
In fact, both as a Fundamentalist Christian and now as a Progressive one, my feelings have been hurt; I have felt misunderstood and underestimated. Not because of the issues, but because of the assumptions made about my motivations and character. And I’m sad to admit that I’ve done the same to others.
As a conservative I was accused of being a Pharisee; a dark insult for church folks – implying a harsh, arrogant and legalistic attitude which Jesus loathes. Why couldn’t they see how sincerely devoted I was to pleasing God and doing the right thing? How hard I struggled to make myself and the whole world better? I was not this caricature they were painting. I was not the villain.
As a progressive I’ve been accused of taking the easy, immature path. It’s been assumed that I am conforming to the world, selling out, giving in, flirting with sin… even endangering the wellbeing of my children. And still I find myself asking: why can’t they see how sincerely devoted I am to pleasing God and doing the right thing, to making myself and the whole world better?
The truth is, none of us are the caricature-version of ourselves, not even the most belligerent, obnoxious extremists. It’s not that simple, a cast of villains and heroes. That would be easier, simpler, a stroke to the ego, but it’s childish to paint the world in black and white.
We disagree in important ways, about important issues; there’s no way to soft petal that. But the ‘Christian thing to do’ is to assume the best about each other’s intentions as we do it. After all, we struggle with both pride and conformity on both sides of this divide.
What Does “Progressive Christianity” Mean To Me?
After wrestling through this section, I added the “to me” to the subtitle. As labels often are, ‘Progressive Christianity’ is an awkward and frequently misunderstood phrase, with a shadow of political rhetoric behind it. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I’ve got for now. It also encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices. As I’ve only begun to dip my toe into these waters, I’m hardly one to speak expertly on such a complicated subject. But, when have I ever let that stop me? ;)
After extensive reading on the subject, I actually like Wikipedia’s summary a lot:
Progressive Christianity is a form of Christianity which is characterized by a willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity, a strong emphasis on social justice and care for the poor and the oppressed, and environmental stewardship of the Earth. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to “love one another” (John 15:17) within the teaching of Jesus Christ. This leads to a focus on promoting values such as compassion, justice, mercy, tolerance, often through political activism.
As much as the term ‘Progressive Christian’ has gained traction recently, it isn’t a new one; it was first used over 100 years ago. Nor is it confined to any particular denomination: Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, or even Emergent. It’s often confused with the ideology of Liberal Christianity, which at first glance seems similar, but stems from an entirely different view of Christ and the bible (see: Not Conservative, Not Liberal: Progressive ).
Where conservative theologians see the bible as a timeless, inerrant blueprint upon which every facet of life should be built (with varying degrees of literalism), liberal theologians see it as an interesting ancient document from which we can draw useful and inspiring lessons, but nothing more. On the other hand, progressives (along with many different stripes of Christians throughout history) believe that the bible is a sacred book, divinely inspired by God and written (as well as translated) by men in the context of their particular culture, containing both spiritual power and cultural bias. Unlike most evangelicals, we are not tied to “sola scriptura,” believing that God is revealed also through nature, tradition, experience, common sense, science… et cetera. After all, the Word of God is not really a book, it’s actually a person – Jesus (so says the bible).
My journey from conservative evangelicalism has included a long process of questioning and rebuilding my faith (see: Breaking Up with my Church, From Certainty to Mystery and Embracing a Bigger Gospel for more on that). It was in reading the parables that I saw my troubles most clearly. I am much more like the older brother than the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). I relate to the religious man thanking God for my superior morality and good life, not the sinner desperately begging for mercy (Luke 18:9-14). I’m the hard worker who is outraged when the lazy drunk shows up at the last minute and gets paid the same wage (Matt 20:1-16). No matter how you slice it, I’m not the hero, I’m the cautionary tale.
It’s us, the religious ones, that have the hardest time accepting complete and undeserved grace. We also have the hardest time giving it freely.
I realized that my practice of Christianity was not nurturing the kind of humility necessary to love like Jesus does. I was deeply entrenched in an Us/Them mentality, and it was no longer ringing true. Somewhere along the way I had simplified what is meant to be complex and mysterious, and complexified what is meant to be simple and straightforward.
What does this look like for me?
For me, this looks like fighting for social justice, against consumerism and for the protection of nature. It stands up for the oppressed, the hungry, the addicted, the hurting and the lonely. It insists on respect for all people, especially those who lack power. It promotes feminism both in and out of the church, affirms LGBT people and gay marriage. It shocks and horrifies my conservative friends and family.
Inevitably these arguments end in a standoff between two sets of priorities: being right vs. doing good. This is not to say that we aren’t able to both be right and do good, but where there is humanity in the mix, life is rarely simple. In the face of complexity, most Christians choose to err either on the side of holiness or on the side of love.
I don’t always get it right. In fact, my biggest struggle is scrutinizing specks in the eyes of evangelicalism, rather than focusing on being healthy myself. I have a long road ahead of me, learning to live without judgment and exclusion. It is a radical, difficult, but ultimately rewarding choice. I draw deeply on the examples of my family and my evangelical heritage, because even as we may disagree, there are many who get this part right.
When we choose to love selflessly without judgment or agenda, we are acting as the hands and feet of Christ, no matter what our label or political position. This much we can agree on.
So here’s me, and I hope to someday address these specific issues on this blog, especially gay rights, which is particularly contentious and confusing for Christians right now. Someday.