Tag 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.

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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.

 


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