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What Does “Progressive Christian” Mean?

I don’t like it when people accuse me of lumping all Christians into one stereotypical bundle.  I most certainly don’t do that.  But I will admit to focusing the bulk of my writing on the most fanatical branch of the Christian Right.  So today I’d like to spend some time examining the musings of a progressive clergyman.  I think his views represent the feelings of a significant number of Christians, especially those with quality educations and middle to upper-class backgrounds.

Fred Plumer and a group of progressive theists were discussing what it means to believe in Jesus but not agree with the “traditional” church on things like LBGT issues, abortion, and other hot-button topics.

After a couple of glasses of wine we even began to question if we would call ourselves Christian when push came to shove. We admitted that we seldom did so in most of our secular settings and almost every one of us discovered that we at least hesitated telling a stranger that we were clergy when on vacations away from home or traveling on airplanes. We all seem to have funny stories about that.

Good!  It’s nice to know that there are some theists with enough of a moral compass to feel uncomfortable identifying themselves as Christian.  Half the problem is admitting that there’s a problem.  It’s great that the cultural milieu is shifting away from automatically blowing smoke up someone’s ass just because they’re a “follower of Christ.”  This will make it easier for fence-sitters to make more rational decisions about their allegiance.

I also believe the world will be well served in the same way as the result of the very public statement by well known author, Anne Rice that she was “quitting ‘Christianity’ and renouncing any claim to the title ‘Christian.’” She added however, “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

I’ve been hesitant to comment on Rice’s comments.  Frankly, I think she’s getting way too much attention as some sort of authority.  She’s a marginally competent writer whose vampire novels only look as good as they do because they’re being compared to sparkling love-muffin vampires in abstinence metaphor movies.  But I digress…

Thankfully, Rice’s sentiments are being echoed through much of the progressive theist community, and I think maybe her statement — despite being intellectually fatuous — can function as a catalyst for healthy introspection.

Progressives are listening to the atheists, too.  Quoting one of Dawkins’ many attacks on moderate Christians, Plumer implies that there’s some substance to the criticisms.  By not actively opposing the teaching of extremist religion, Dawkins says, moderates are facilitating it.  (I agree wholeheartedly.)  Unfortunately he glosses over this implication and falls back on the all-too-common progressive theist position.

The good news is that like my experience with the seminary professor and the critiques of the New Atheist movement, the Anne Rice event is stirring things up and people are reading, writing and hopefully having serious conversations in their homes and in their churches. Maybe this will be an opportunity for more church leaders and people in the pews to have honest dialogue about the meaning of Christianity in the 21st Century. It is about time.

Yeah, it is time for more honest dialog, but let’s start with the really tough question.  Instead of presuming some foundational value in following some “progressive enough” version of the Jesus story, why don’t we ask whether it would be better to just ditch the whole thing and start from scratch?  To any progressive theist, I offer this challenge:  Take one giant step back and try to examine the salvation story from the most progressive, metaphorical point of view you can.  When you’ve done that, distill it to a concrete, well defined, unequivocal statement of obvious moral virtue.  I bet you can’t.

From my recent entry on the subject:

Whatever good moral message we come up with, we’ve got to overcome a Brobdingnagian obstacle — the literal story itself.  The literal reading of the salvation story is abhorrent.  So whatever good moral message we derive from a metaphorical reading of it has to be so obviously and monumentally good that it justifies hiding it in such an awful story.

Is that even possible?  Beyond that, what can we say about a god who chooses to convey his monumentally good message in a story that gets used for centuries of oppression, repression, and abuse?  Is the act of disguising such a beautiful message in any way good?  Is there anything beneficial in hiding the message instead of making it obvious?

The problem isn’t that Christians have misused or abused the true underlying goodness in the salvation story.  It’s that there cannot be any underlying goodness in it, and any attempt to dilute Christianity to a morally acceptable “spirituality” is destined to fail twice — first by endless equivocation and goalpost shifting, and second by enabling the dogmatism it purports to oppose.


14 thoughts on “What Does “Progressive Christian” Mean?

  1. I appreciated this entry, as I was frustrated by Plumer’s seeming unwillingness to actually examine the implications of any of this. His essay was a sort of watery acknowledgement that there’s a problem, but he neither posits a solution nor really chews on the implications of the solutions of others.

    It’d certainly be POSSIBLE (not probable, but possible) to redeem Christianity and reshape it into the mold of progressive thought that I know a lot of Christians would find more palatable. But if we’re going to start deliberately molding and changing the religion to fit our beliefs, why NOT start from scratch? If the tradition needs so much change for it to be workable for progressive Christians, what exactly is their attachment to it in the first place?

    I know there are moderate Christians who are trying to reform its myriad sects from within. What they’re doing is good. However, they still seem to me (as an outsider) to be more attached to keeping a Christian identity than they are to creating lasting cultural change. I mean, if suppressing women and hating LGBT people isn’t a dealbreaker when it comes to associating with a certain group, then what is? Is it too much for me to ask that people stop associating with a major world religion like the RCC until its holy men are assaulting children at a rate LOWER than the rest of the population?

    I acknowledge the reformers’ hard work, but I can’t see it being sufficient. Until reforming Christianity seems like a faster or more effective way to fix the broken-ass homophobic and misogynist culture that Christianity currently feeds… then I’m not going to do their PR for them and disclaim everything I say with “but I know not all churches are like this.” If them reforming their own broken and terrible organizations relies on the cooperative efforts of the people they’re hurting in order to clean up their PR… then sorry. I guess they’re screwed, and I have a hard time regretting it.

    And besides. Christian organizations and churches are not going to clean up their act until they know that their members are willing and able to vote with their feet. As long as people are content to stay with the group no matter what, Christian organizations have no incentive to reform. I don’t know if there are many self-identified workers for reform who are happy to see people like Anne Rice or Jimmy Carter voting with their feet, but unless churches realize that this is a very real risk, they won’t be listening to the reformers anytime soon. Why would they?

    It’s the same reason that the DNC doesn’t listen to LGBT activists. They know we’ll never vote Republican, so why appease us? They’ve got us forever. It’s not until they realize that we need to be appeased that they’ll ever start to try. The difference is that in a two-party system, LGBT people have nowhere else to go. Christians who want to find less poisonous religious organizations have plenty to pick from, so there’s no excuse not to join an LGBT-friendly congregation for the people who actually care.

    Posted by Cobalt | August 11, 2010, 5:28 pm
  2. My answer is that we cannot start from scratch. Even atheists who have rejected a prevailing form of Christianity in their society have been influenced and shaped by it – just as would be the reverse scenario if someone in a predominantly atheist society became a religious believer.

    I for one have been as outspoken as I know how in challenging a lot of the beliefs and practices that progressive Christians and most other rational people find objectionable in fundamentalist and conservative forms of Christianity. And so the Dawkins objection may apply to many, but certainly not all of us.

    But more than that, everyone, whether atheist or religious believer, and whether labelled as conservative or liberal, is engaged in picking and choosing, and we all have deep seated convictions that we cannot demonstrate with absolute certainty.

    But I agree that the solution is not to treat the morally repugnant as metaphor. The solution is to treat the morally repugnant as morally repugnant, with honesty, even when it is found in the Bible, while also recognizing that a different stance, challenging us to love even our enemies and to judge ourselves rather than others are also found there. As Rabbi Jacob Neusner put it, the Bible in places sets forth such lofty moral standards that even authors of works included in the Bible regularly fell short of them.

    Posted by James F. McGrath | August 11, 2010, 7:29 pm
  3. “But more than that, everyone, whether atheist or religious believer, and whether labelled as conservative or liberal, is engaged in picking and choosing, and we all have deep seated convictions that we cannot demonstrate with absolute certainty.”

    When it comes to value judgements, this is certainly the case. It is a value judgement that I make that men and women ought to be socially and economically equal. The consequences of equality and inequality are quantifiable, but the value judgement is not (unless I start making claims that my value judgement is based on the consequences and implications of what I want and don’t want, in which case I’m back on empirical territory). It’s one of those situations where everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own reality.

    I just find this argument, that everybody has stuff they take on faith so we should leave faith alone, really unconvincing. Most of the things I’ve been assured that I take on faith are not only things that I do not take on faith, but are things no mentally-healthy person takes on faith, either. Things like love are always brought up. Do we really take it on faith that our romantic partners love us? Well, ideally we’d be basing that on some kind of evidence (though not everybody does, which is why so many people stay in abusive relationships).

    Yes, everybody picks and choose what they want to believe and what they’re not going to stomach. However, I take serious issue with your assertion that everybody’s convictions are based on assumptions which are beyond question, with the potential implication that therefore nobody is in a position to criticize anybody else for being dangerously non-rational.

    BTW, still ❤ you, McGrathji, but this has become sort of a peeve of mine.

    Posted by Cobalt | August 11, 2010, 8:42 pm
  4. James, it seems that you are avoiding the broader question — doesn’t the thoughtful moral agent owe it to himself and to society to examine the foundation of Christianity itself and address its moral implications? And if they are found to be repugnant in and of themselves, to reject the entire system?

    I’m a bit confused by your statement that we’re all influenced by Christianity and biased because of our exposure to it. That’s fine, but I don’t see how it fits into a coherent argument for continuing to adhere to “following Jesus” if it turns out that the core morality of the Jesus story is morally repugnant. There was a time when we were all biased because of the ubiquity of slavery, or the second-class citizenship of women. But when we realized that these things were morally reprehensible, we abandoned the system entirely.

    How do you, as a progressive Christian, assign direct moral goodness to the salvation story? It’s not enough to say, “It represents ultimate love,” or something like that. You and I both know that’s gibberish. That sort of language is from a time before we could scientifically describe love. I would like to know how you take the core of Christianity and make it into a metaphor for an easily recognizable, overwhelmingly good moral lesson. The basics of the story are thus:

    God, all knowing, all powerful, capable of doing absolutely anything, made man.
    God punished man for being the way he made him.
    God came to earth and let man kill him.
    God came back to life and disappeared.
    Anyone who believes this goes to heaven forever.
    Anyone who doesn’t goes to hell forever.

    Whether that’s literally true or not, it’s morally repugnant. The implication is that it’s not what we do that matters, but what we believe. And that’s absolutely contrary to everything we know about morality. Morality is precisely about what we do. Every moral theory worth considering discusses the moral value of actions.

    So… what part of that sequence of events can be clearly understood as not only a clear morally good message, but a refutation of the relatively obvious symbolism that is clearly contrary to morality?

    Posted by hambydammit | August 11, 2010, 8:43 pm
  5. Hamby, I agree with you that the story you outline is, at best, problematic. But not all progressive Christians would hesitate to acknowledge that much that is in the Bible is not true either historically or metaphorically, and is not good even if spiritualized. Being a Christian, for me, is not about believing the same things or doing the same things that previous generations of Christians did (as though Christianity were not itself always diverse and always evolving down the centuries anyway) but acknowledging that, even if I am forced to radically rethink things in light of our current state of knowledge, I do so not in a vacuum, but as part of a long tradition.

    Cobalt, it is great to be back in communication! I don’t think we should use “we all take things on faith” as a way of trying to justify taking anything we choose to on faith. My point was simply that we may understand how the formation of relationships is rooted in our evolved biological systems, chemistry of the brain, and much else that sounds seriously unromantic. But I think we can find ways of leaving room for poetry, for aesthetics and emotions, not in a way that denies the truth of scientific perspectives but allows that there may be other ways than the scientific to experience such aspects of existence.

    Posted by James F. McGrath | August 11, 2010, 9:50 pm
  6. I’m not actually even sure what you mean by that. I mean, poetry and aesthetics and emotions are great. The subjective is also often really useful (I mean, I’m an anthropologist by education, so of course I’d say that).

    But I don’t know about the “other ways than the scientific to experience such aspects of existence.” To experience them? Yes. To explore them and answer questions about them, though? Why even bother?

    There’s plenty of room for poetry, aesthetics, and emotion for people who don’t believe in the supernatural, so thinking scientifically obviously doesn’t preclude those things. I’m not sure why people are so worried that they’ll lose their appreciation for love and beauty if they lose their faith.

    Posted by Cobalt | August 11, 2010, 9:55 pm
  7. And as a progressive Christian, I am skeptical of claims to the supernatural, whether in the Bible or elsewhere. I’m not suggesting that one needs faith in order to appreciate love or beauty. I’m suggesting that appreciating love and beauty is the realm in which faith operates, if it operates meaningfully anywhere at all.

    Posted by James F. McGrath | August 11, 2010, 9:59 pm
  8. That’s a big “if,” though.

    Posted by Cobalt | August 11, 2010, 10:08 pm
  9. James, maybe I wasn’t clear in asking my question. I want to know which parts of the salvation story — which is, after all, the heart of Christianity throughout history, even if it has been told in different ways — you have found to be unambiguously morally good, and how you came to that conclusion.

    For instance, do you find the metaphor of creation, the Garden of Eden, Eve’s sin of believing a talking serpent, the sin of wanting knowledge, the sin of trying to get knowledge, the expulsion from the Garden, Noah’s Ark… etc… which of these stories represent for you a clear model of good morality by God?

    Similarly, which part of God coming to earth, sacrificing himself to himself, forcing us to believe against reason, etc… which of these do you find good moral messages in?

    Assuming you believe (as I think you do) that Jesus was a historical figure, but that many or most of the stories of his life are literary tropes from previous mythologies, what do you think God (if you think he really exists) wants us to gain from the belief that he is the Son of God, either literally or metaphorically?

    What do you think we can gain from the story of Heaven and Hell, whether they’re real or fictional? To me, they seem like either a literal or metaphorical endorsement of Kohlberg’s second phase of moral development, which is literally… juvenile.

    In other words, without resorting to blanket statements of things like “goodness” please tell me specifically what you find redeeming, either metaphorically or literally about the story of creation, the fall, and salvation.

    Posted by hambydammit | August 11, 2010, 10:52 pm
  10. Actually, James, I have another couple of questions. Do you believe in a literal heaven and hell? The afterlife? Do you believe that anyone who doesn’t accept Christianity in some way or another is doomed to some sort of punishment?

    Posted by hambydammit | August 11, 2010, 10:55 pm
  11. I think it may save me repeating myself at length here if you go to my blog and search for keywords like “afterlife”. I think there’s plenty that will give you a better sense of what I think than either a short “no” lacking all nuance, while sparing me having to copy and paste from there or write at length this close to the start of the semester!

    Posted by James F. McGrath | August 11, 2010, 11:03 pm
  12. I think the morality presented by the Bible is pretty questionable, but the moral worth of a story doesn’t have any impact on its truth value. Santa Claus provides kids a great incentive to behave more obediently, but it doesn’t make him any more likely to be real (no matter how many emotional needs for cosmic justice the thought of him might satisfy).

    After I commented above, I expanded that comment into an entry on my own blog, and I’m really grateful to the OP for giving me opportunity to sort out my thoughts on this. It’s here:

    To summarize, for the link-phobic, “I’m not yet willing to blame the value on faith for all of our culture’s ills. I’ll say that right now. However, I do believe that faith can only exist under the same circumstances that allow racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia to exist.” It’s hard to defend faith without also creating space for those other irrational and poisonous beliefs, and when all of the useful functions of faith can be met by other means… why risk it?

    If faith has these risks, and is by its very nature completely uninvolved with actual factual basis of any kind, then what good is it? It doesn’t tell us what’s true, and it protects things which are not good.

    This is why I don’t get it. However, I didn’t really listen to anybody making this argument. I didn’t listen to anything any atheist told me, at least not until I realized how hard I was working to avoid listening. Why? Because I knew that I was going to walk away from that conversation having “lost my faith.” It wasn’t until I’d already realized that there was nothing of worth to lose that I finally listened.

    Kind of makes me question the usefulness of dialogue on the issue, but heck. Maybe if nothing else it’s possible to demonstrate that atheists aren’t so scary that becoming one is tantamount to moral death.

    Posted by Cobalt | August 11, 2010, 11:16 pm
  13. Ok. I’ll do that. Thanks, James

    Posted by hambydammit | August 11, 2010, 11:34 pm


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