Putting the Progress Back in Progressive
pro-gress [n.] a movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage.
I like progress. Who wouldn’t? Without progress large numbers of people would still be dying of polio, kids would be getting whacked on the knuckles for writing with their left hand, and I wouldn’t have seamless integration of my laptop, iPad, and iPhone.
But there is a potential problem with progress. Just like “cool” used to mean things that were quasi-cold and “like” used to be a word with meaning rather than a verbal filler, “progress” has taken on some specific connotations in our culture and time. The word I want to look at more specifically is “progressive”, which means “favoring progress.” That sounds good. Which is why proponents of certain directions within Christianity are happy to call their camp “progressive”. It seems logical that progressive Christianity is the stream moving toward a higher plane.
The antonym of progressive within the world of Christianity is “conservative.” Yuck. Who wants to be conservative? I know I don’t, at least not in the traditional sense of that word. I believe the way of Jesus is one racked with risk, sacrifice, excessive celebration, and transformation–hardly something conservative. It sounds much better to be progressive. Certainly Jesus himself wants us as individuals, communities, and societies to make progress in compassion, love, and holiness. The goal we move toward is seeing his kingdom become more visible on earth through our obedience to his ways and his power at work through the Holy Spirit until he returns one day to complete the progress.
But that’s not normally what progressive means within Christianity. Progressive Christianity seeks to bring a liberal political framework to bear on the Christian faith. (If you’ve read some of my other posts you know I’m not a huge fan of politics of any stripe, so hang with me, this is not turning into political side-taking!) For all the heat many churches and Christian leaders have taken for being indistinguishable from the Republican platform (and rightly so), it is a wonder to me that churches and Christian leaders who are doing the same thing with the Democratic platform don’t face the same heat. When they do it is usually from the Republican Christians, so what we have is a political debate cloaked in Christianity. If you want to know what a progressive Christian thinks about a moral or cultural issue you don’t need to go to Scripture, just ask a liberal politician (in the same way that you can ask a conservative politician rather than Scripture if you want to know what a conservative Christian thinks about an issue). Bringing political positions to bear on the Bible and way of Jesus rather than the other way around hardly seems progressive.
Second, progressive Christianity embraces most anything that sheds doubt on the Bible and the historical tenets of the Christian faith. One of my friends who calls himself a progressive Christian is fond of saying, “In our denomination it’s important that you have some Christology. It doesn’t have to be a high Christology, just as long as it’s something.” We are CHRISTians! If we don’t have a high view of Christ what are we doing? As Benjamin Franklin famously cut out the parts of the Bible he didn’t like, progressive Christians do the same thing. Of course, conservative Christians do that too! When you begin with something other than the highest regard for the ways of God and the Scriptures (whether it is a liberal or conservative ideology) you will naturally dismiss the things that seem difficult or offensive. There is certainly much room for disagreement over certain points of doctrine and interpretation within Christianity, but the question is if we disagree because of an ideology we bring to the text or just because we see the text in different ways.
Finally, progressive Christians are often defined by what they hate about conservative Christians. This is the same criticism often levied against conservative Christians in relation to progressives (and again, fairly). When I look at the blogs of some progressive Christian friends they are most often railing against what “those closed-minded conservatives have done now.” Certainly this is not exclusively true, and sometimes we need to talk about what we’re against, but when this becomes the majority of what we do, no matter which perspective we’re coming from, we won’t make much progress.
Being People of the Way
My hope for myself, the church I pastor, and Christianity as a whole, is that in the coming years we will make progress. And I hope the progress we make has Jesus and his kingdom its goal. I hope we walk in his ways, draw near to him, listen to the Holy Spirit, and hold each other accountable for pledging allegiance to him and his way over any other agenda or ideology. Now that would be progressive.