Category Archives: What I Believe

What I Believe: What is a Progressive Christian Anyway?

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.

heart handIn 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.

The Divide

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.

shakespeare

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).

So What?

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.

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What I Believe: Embracing a Bigger Gospel

This is a record. I have never spent so much time, so much energy, so many words on a single blog post. Thus far, I have written 2 complete drafts, only to scrap them entirely and start again.

I had promised another edition of my What I Believe series (where I broke up with my church and decided I’m not sure of anything), to whoever might still be interested in my post-evangelical philosophies (concerned family and new church friends mostly).

The first one I crafted was full of scripture references, arguments and intellectual debate. Like I’d  been taught. A gospel staked out in careful boundaries, defensible territory against the attack, with a few darts strategically thrown at the theology I once called home. A gospel of knowing.

The second swung the other way entirely – a way we’ve only recently embraced. Apologizing for the years I believed that I (and those like me) cornered the market on truth. Offering questions in place of answers. Exploring a God who reveals himself through a bigger story, defying simplistic outlines and smug certainties. A gospel of not-knowing.

The truth is, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I wish I had the wisdom, ability and time to properly express the flavour and freedom of this knowing-but-not-knowing journey we’re on (no doubt this sounds utterly absurd to many of you – it certainly would’ve to me, until recently). We are Christians, but not the way we used to be.

The gospel I once knew

In this context I’m using the term “gospel” to refer to an overarching central truth, specifically as it relates to the purpose and message of Christianity. It is used interchangeably in many churches with the phrase “the Good News.”

hellThe gospel I have believed most of my life goes something like this: God created humanity, but we rejected him (sin) and are as a result condemned to an eternity of punishment (hell), but God loved his wayward creation, so He sent his own Son (Jesus) to become human and take that punishment on himself (dying on the cross and rising again), now everyone who consciously chooses to believe this gospel (usually praying a prayer or having a spiritual experience) and live a Jesus honouring life (not as a prerequisite for, but as an inevitable proof of your sincerity) will become favoured children of God and eventually escape punishment.

This belief was the filter through which I understood the bible and the world around me. It was the motivation, sometimes inspiration and sometimes guilt, behind most of our life decisions. In theory, all evangelicals consider themselves missionaries. We wanted as many people as possible to know God and escape an eternity of brutal torture (and we would have been evil schmucks if we didn’t). It’s hard for people outside this paradigm to fully appreciate how all consuming this worldview is.

We all filter

A few years ago, a close relative of mine decided that there were only 7 righteous people left in the world (including him). Because that’s what the bible said. To him. He believed it sincerely, and everything he read in scripture and saw in the world only confirmed this further. It was his filter.

It seemed clear to us that he wasn’t thinking straight. This was not logical, nor was it an historically acceptable interpretation. But it seemed evident to him.

It’s entirely human to see what we want, what we expect. This is how we make sense of the world. It’s how our brains work. And we all do it.

Christian Smith describes this phenomenon when it comes to understanding the Bible as putting a puzzle together. Whatever picture you see on the box, that’s how you fit the pieces together. Some pictures (systems of belief) fit better than others and are more widely accepted, but there are always a few pieces that don’t work as well. We filter those through the words and ideas that seem more important, more central to our big picture, whatever that happens to be.

The picture on the box

My own experiences and interpretations of the Bible, of nature, and the still, small voice in my heart give me insight, but as a human being I can be misled, mistaken and willfully obtuse. History shows that the whole of the Christian church has been misled, mistaken and willfully obtuse over the years, on many issues.

But faith is not about perfect understanding or certainty, it’s choosing a confident hope. I still believe. I believe that a loving God created the world and redeemed it through Jesus Christ. I believe this powerful grace stretches farther and wider and deeper than I ever imagined.faith-hope-love

This is the good news I embrace. A gospel where love has the final word; where Christ’s sacrifice to redeem all humanity is powerful enough to do just that. The picture I see is one of “Ultimate Redemption” – that while there will be judgment and may be punishment, in the end, all will have a clear understanding and ultimately be reconciled to God. To me, this picture better reflects the overarching story of a broken world and a loving Messiah than an extremely limited redemption of those who adhere to a certain theology, say the right words in the right order (sinners prayer) or live a certain lifestyle… most of whom are born in a specific time and place where this is a cultural inevitability.

There is a surprisingly strong scriptural basis for universal reconciliation (which has many different forms). It’s not simply wishful thinking. It’s not even a stretch. Some of the key bible verses are: Galatians, John 12:32, Acts 3:21, Romans 5:18-21, 1 Cor 3:12-15, 15:22-28, 2 Cor 5:19, Eph 1:10, Phil 2:9-11, Col 1:20, 1 Tim 2:14, Titus 2:11, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 John 2:2 – for a more thorough explanation of this picture: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~kd47/univ.htm.

This is not a new position. Historically it falls within the orthodoxy of Christianity, though some modern evangelicals like to believe otherwise. Even Gregory of Nyssa, who edited the Nicene creed (which is widely accepted as the most basic definition of Christian orthodoxy) taught this, along with several other significant fathers of the early church.

Final word to Jesus

When Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, he didn’t diagram, or alliterate, or clearly outline the steps to get in – instead he told stories. “The kingdom of God is like this…” he would say. Telling ridiculous stories about a love that defies the rules, that was, and is still today, a scandal to good, moral people.

Jesus declared freedom to the oppressed, an end to the Law and an inclusive grace. This is the picture I see now, and it fits. I’m trading in systems of sin management, a focus on who’s in and who’s out, a fear-driven and defensive perspective – for freedom. To trust that Jesus has both the power and the will to reconcile all things to himself. To extend the same unconditional love to others without agenda (which sounds pretty, but can actually be very uncomfortable). To see that there is more to truth and to life than my own perspective – but all truth is God’s truth, so this is nothing to fear.

The kingdom of God is like this: we need, God provides.

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Jesus],
and through him to reconcile to himself all things,
whether things on earth or things in heaven,
by making peace through his blood,
shed on the cross.
Colossians 1:19-20

So here’s me, embracing a new picture of God and the world around me.

Stay tuned for my final installment:
What is a Progressive Christian Anyway?
Why I support feminists, gays, tree-huggers and other crazy liberals Mark Driscoll has been warning you about.

 


What I Believe: From Certainty to Mystery

Welcome to my second installment of What I Believe. In my last post I broke up with my church, the one I have loved, and been loved by, for a solid decade. The philosophical shifts that have brought us to this point are less about this church in particular and more about our entire understanding of life and truth. Most foundational in these shifts is what modern writers have been calling “embracing the mystery.”

It was a lot less fun to get here than you might think. But in the end, more rewarding than I expected. I’ve never felt so free.

As always, it’s not my intent to offend. This is my journey, mine alone. These are my thoughts and ideas, and for once in my life, I don’t need to convert anyone to it.

I used to live in a world that was black and white with a slim margin of grey. I shook my head at those who didn’t have quite as much grey as I did, and called them Legalists. I worried about those whose black and white was more smudged than mine, and thought them weak.

I remember being frustrated with these smudge-y people, who refused to play the game right. They would duck and weave their way past labels and positions and absolutes. Blithely shrugging their shoulders, as if “I don’t know” were an acceptable answer.

Until my husband – the missionary, the apologist, the solid, unswerving intellect of our operation – began wrestling, questioning and dismantling his theological boxes. Some that had never held water for him anyway; he’d always believed in evolution and women’s equality. But now it was all on the table. Hell. Gay rights. End times. Inerrancy of the Bible. Truth in other religions. Even the existence of God.question It was scary and uncomfortable questioning the foundations of our whole world – in practice, the very opposite of weak.

It was hard for him to say anything, to anyone. He doesn’t like to think out loud. After years of chewing on revolutionary questions, conclusions had yet to emerge for him. Just angst. Layers of irritated, depressing angst. So he opened up to me anyway. Finally. Hesitantly.

As if I would be surprised.

I hadn’t read all the books on all the subjects like he had. I hadn’t agonized over all the issues for years. But I had felt the same restless discomfort. That the Jesus I knew from the Bible didn’t fit within the strictures of our evangelical traditions. That the “us & them” mentality pervading it was toxic and untrue. That the certainties we were expected to maintain at all costs were dishonest and unreasonable.

So I read the books and had the discussions and did my share of agonizing… I was surprised to find that the “other sides” weren’t ignoring the Bible or explaining it away, just filtering it through a different perspective. Sometimes it fit for me, sometimes it didn’t, but nothing was clear anymore. I slayed my sacred cows and the world kept on spinning.

Taking into account the width and depth of Christian perspectives, it is quickly apparent that sincere, intelligent God-followers – experts, scholars and the earliest church thinkers – have come to radically different conclusions about the same scriptures, the same Christ, the same questions, throughout history. Certain positions that seem foundational, non-negotiable within church tradition are eventually discarded as ridiculous: flat earth, racism, conversion by conquest, slavery… to name just a few.

The oft repeated “the Bible is clear about _______” begins to sound suspicious. Because more often than we like to admit, the Bible is confusing, even alarming, requiring a certain amount of mental gymnastics to harmonize. Because the Bible, set in both an ancient time and a foreign culture, is not easy to understand or apply in a modern context. Because the Bible, as meaningful and important as it is, requires human interpretation, something that is deeply fallible and hardly ever clear.

Could it be that “I don’t know” is the ONLY acceptable answer?

I have emerged from this haze of questions. Not with the conclusions I expected, clear positions and easy-to-read labels for new boxes. With freedom. With peace. That I might be, and most certainly am in some areas, wrong. That I don’t have all the answers. That I don’t have to have all the answers. That when Jesus summed it all up in one sentence: “love God and love others” He meant it.

Can it be that simple? To choose love. Every time. Every issue.

I know that this answer is too smudge-y for many of you, more poetry than equation. But our sacred book is made up of poetry, history, allegory, ancient laws and ultimately grace – not math. Jesus was always more interested in the heart of the matter, in the heart of a person, than in drawing lines and creating policy.

So I’m not sure anymore. About a lot of things. Not like I used to be. But that’s what faith is for.

So here’s my confession, I don’t believe what I used to. I don’t consider myself an evangelical or fit neatly into any denominational box.

But I still believe. In God. In Jesus. In learning from the Bible. In finding a spiritual community. In buying fair trade and wearing sensible shoes. In love, over and above, around and under, as the fabric of who God is and who I am meant to be.

Still to come:
Embracing a Bigger Gospel
and
What is Progressive Christianity Anyway?


Confession Time

I’ve been cheating.

Unfaithful.

Stepping out.

On my church. With another church.

Okay, not exactly scandalous. But it’s a big deal to me. And to my family. Not the flesh and blood ones I inherited, but the ones we chose. The ones who chose us, over and over again, these past 10 years. Chose to feed us, to notice us, to like us and to love us, to teach us and learn from us, to laugh and cry with us, to help us move and paint and fix the thousands of things that have broken beyond what our remedial-level-handiness could bear.

This is the church that once considered us one of their missionary families. The church that once hired me, welcomed me on staff and appreciated me; irreverent humour, socialist politics, feminist rants and all. The church that rearranged itself entirely to support special needs kids and families like ours.

I know, I know, if our church is so awesome…

Why stray?

Don’t get me wrong, they’re not perfect. We’ve had our ups and downs. But the new church, it’s not a perfect fit either. In fact, it might require even more give and take from us. And we have very little left to give these days.

It’s not about that.

So, why trade comfortable, familiar and safe for new, strange and, since we’re both introverts, kinda scary?

It’s a long story.
A very, very long story.

If you come to this blog for Mommy stories about adoption or special needs, anecdotes about the strange thing my kid stuck up his nose last night or how I gave myself a black eye with my own umbrella; or, if you are part of the 99.99% of the world who could care less about my spiritual beliefs…. feel free to scroll past these “What I Believe” posts and return to the blog for regularly scheduled programming. I will continue posting about other things too. FYI, if you can hardly stand the suspense, it was a fork – up his nose (who does that?).

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to also unpack the story of our shift in life philosophies (what church folks often call “theology”) and the reason why this is a good thing for us, and not at all a reason to call my friends/parents/former pastor in a panic. Or do. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you. Who am I to tell you what to think?

To the church family who has loved us well for over a decade, please know that this isn’t a judgment…

It’s not you, it’s me.

I’ve changed. So has my husband.

You’ve been patient. We haven’t felt bullied or disrespected for sharing our questions or concerns, even when you’ve disagreed with us, and wondered when we’d get over this rebellious phase, and ultimately accepted us as the official shit-disturbers of care group.

We just aren’t on the same page anymore.

by michael svigel the christian post siftingpoint.com

by michael svigel siftingpoint.com

We think you’re great. We want only good things for you…

I hope we can still be friends.

That’s why we tried to juggle two churches at once. That’s why we’ve taken so long to officially “break up.” And that’s why we might still visit from time to time (you’re not getting rid of us entirely).

But why make such a big deal about it? Why not just stop showing up and hope no one notices? Is it ridiculously melodramatic, rampant overthinking, to write a letter like this?

Um, ya…
have you met me?

To us, church is not just a place to go; it’s a community, a web of relationships. I don’t expect those relationships to end, but as our affiliation changes, so will they. And that can get messy. Already I’ve heard a few rumors and misconceptions about what we believe.

I guess that’s inevitable. It’s hard for us to put years of intellectual wrangling into a few succinct sentences. It’s confusing.

I’m not known for my brevity, but I’ll do my best to clarify our understanding in the next few posts. I’m going to pretend that the entire internet wants to know our story. Of course they do. I’ll even answer questions from the comments section. Seriously, anything. Almost anything. Within reason. Use your best judgment.

Stay tuned for posts on:

So here’s us 2.0.


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