Progressive Christianity is a “post-liberal movement” within Christianity “that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened.” Progressive Christianity represents a post-modern theological approach and is not necessarily synonymous with progressive politics. It developed out of the Liberal Christianity of the modern era, which was rooted in enlightenment thinking.
Progressive Christianity 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 teachings of Jesus Christ. This leads to a focus on promoting values such as compassion, justice, mercy, and tolerance, often through political activism. Though prominent, the movement is by no means the only significant movement of progressive thought among Christians.
Progressive Christianity draws on the insights of multiple theological streams including evangelicalism, liberalism, neo-orthodoxy, pragmatism, postmodernism, Progressive Reconstructionism, and liberation theology. The concerns of feminism are also a major influence on the movement, as expressed in feminist and womanist theologies.
Though the terms Progressive Christianity and Liberal Christianity are often used synonymously, the two movements are distinct, despite much overlap.
A priority of justice and care for the down-trodden are a recurrent theme in the Hebrew prophetic tradition inherited by Christianity. This has been reflected in many later Christian traditions of service and ministry, and more recently in the United States of America through Christian involvement in political trends such as the Progressive Movement and the Social Gospel.
Throughout the 20th century, a strand of progressive or liberal Christian thought outlined the values of a ‘good society’. It stresses fairness, justice, responsibility, and compassion, and condemns the forms of governance that wage unjust war, rely on corruption for continued power, deprive the poor of facilities, or exclude particular racial or sexual groups from fair participation in national liberties. It was influential in the US mainline churches, and reflected global trends in student activism. It contributed to the ecumenical movement, as represented internationally by the World Student Christian Federation and the World Council of Churches internationally, and at the national level through groups such as the National Council of Churches in the US and Australian Student Christian Movement.
The contemporary movement
The ascendancy of Evangelicalism in the US, particularly in its more socially conservative forms, challenged many people in mainline churches. Recently, a focus for those who wish to challenge this ascendancy has been provided by Jim Wallis of Sojourners, who described himself as a progressive evangelical Christian, although Sojourners has rejected advertisements urging mainline churches to welcome gay members. This has enabled many Christians who are uncomfortable with conservative evangelicalism to identify themselves explicitly as “Progressive Christians.” At the onset of this new movement to organize Progressive Christians, the single largest force holding together was a webring, The Progressive Christian Bloggers Network, and supporters frequently find and contact each other through dozens of online chat-rooms.
Notable initiatives within the movement for progressive Christianity include The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC) in Cambridge, MA, The Beatitudes Society, the campaigning organization CrossLeft, the technology working group Social Redemption and The Progressive Episcopal Church (TPEC).
CrossLeft joined with Every Voice Network and Claiming the Blessing in October 2005 to stage a major conference, Path to Action, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Among the speakers were E. J. Dionne, Richard Parker, Jim Wallis, Senator Danforth, and David Hollinger.
In the United Kingdom, the movement is represented by the Progressive Christianity Network Britain. Notable related UK organisations include the Center for Radical Christianity at St Marks, Sheffield, and the UK-based Sea of Faith network.
Examples of statements of contemporary Progressive Christian beliefs include:
- the Eight Points produced by TCPC: a statement of agreement about Christianity as a basis for tolerance and human rights;
- the Phoenix Affirmations produced by Crosswalk (Phoenix, AZ) – include twelve points defining Christian love of God, Christian love of neighbor, and Christian love of self.
- the article, “Grassroots Progressive Christianity: A Quiet Revolution” by Hal Taussig published in ‘The Fourth R,’ May–June 2006.
- the working definition utilized in Roger Wolsey’s book Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity:
- […] Progressive Christianity is an approach to the Christian faith that is influenced by post-liberalism and postmodernism and: proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Christ, Savior, and Lord; emphasizes the Way and teachings of Jesus, not merely His person; emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence; leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism; emphasizes salvation here and now instead of primarily in heaven later; emphasizes being saved for robust, abundant/eternal life over being saved from hell; emphasizes the social/communal aspects of salvation instead of merely the personal; stresses social justice as integral to Christian discipleship; takes the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally, embracing a more interpretive, metaphorical understanding; emphasizes orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy (right actions over right beliefs); embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery — instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas; does not consider homosexuality to be sinful; and does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God (is non-exclusive).
- • As Wolsey mentions, Progressive Christianity “leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism…” The role of panentheism in Progressive Christianity shifts the emphasis from belief to contemplative practice and experiential faith. So Progressive Christianity is often characterized by contemplative or meditative forms of worship. This finds perhaps its most poignant expression in Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West by Benjamin Riggs:
- “The Kingdom is literally hidden in plain sight. It is hidden in basic awareness. When seen through the light of God’s awareness, the ordinary is revealed to be the extra-ordinary. The world is set ablaze by the fire of direct experience. The walls are awake, the ground is breathing, and mere mortals shine with the radiance of the sky. It is as if the world is looking back at us through the same eye with which we see it. We live in the Mind of God… The whole of creation exists within the fullness of God’s Will.”
Differences between Progressive Christianity and Conservative Christianity
According to Archbishop Wynn Wagner of the Old Catholic Church, holding to the ideals of progressive Christianity sets the movement apart from traditional Christianity. Inclusiveness and acceptance is the basic posture of progressive Christianity.
Main article: Progressive Adventism
Within the Seventh, the liberal wing describe themselves as “progressive Adventists”. They disagree with some of the traditional teachings of the church. While most are still of evangelical persuasion, a minority are liberal Christians.
As Bruce Sanguin writes, “It’s time for the Christian church to get with a cosmological program (…). We now know, for instance, that we live in an evolving or evolutionary universe. Evolution is the way that the Holy creates in space and in time, in every sphere: material, biological, social, cultural, psychological, and spiritual. This new cosmology simply cannot be contained by old models and images of God, or by old ways of being the church.”.
Central to this recovery of awe in the cosmos is the epic of evolution, the 14-billion-year history of the universe. Scientists (Edward O. Wilson, Brian Swimme, Eric Chaisson, Ursula Goodenough and others) initiated this story which has been perpetuated with a religion component by some liberal theologians (Gordon D. Kaufman, Jerome A. Stone, Michael Dowd, etc.).
Evolutionary evangelist and progressive minister Michael Dowd uses the term Epic of Evolution or Great Story to help construct his viewpoint of evolution theology. His position is that science and religious faith are not mutually exclusive (a form of religious naturalism). He preaches that the epic of cosmic, biological, and human evolution, revealed by science, is a basis for an inspiring and meaningful view of our place in the universe and a new approach to religion. Evolution is viewed as a religious spiritual process that is not meaningless blind chance.
Geoff Thompson argues that the rhetoric of Progressive Christianity, as represented by Gretta Vosper and John Shelby Spong, “often over-reaches its arguments.” In particular, he concludes that “[i]t is very difficult to see how what [Vosper] proposes needs any church or even the minimalist, idiosyncratic definition of Christianity which she offers.