Living In the Now and Not Yet: Toward a Theology of Progressive Christianity
The theological basis for such a 21st-century faith, while it emerges from the traditional forms of revelation (scripture, tradition, reason, and individual and communal discernment), ought to privilege scripture. Despite the Bible's rough treatment in the hands of those we progressive Christians sometimes consider our nemeses, the Gospels are our best record of the Kingdom teachings and actions Jesus performed, and so we need to return to a serious study of the Bible, taking it, as Marcus Borg has said, seriously, if not literally. This reclamation of the Bible will be, in some progressive communities, a sea change. But as Borg and Brian McLaren point out in recent writings, when we read the Bible as the story of ongoing relationship with God instead of as some sort of contradictory legal document or religious constitution, we are introduced to the stories of love and life we're expected to emulate.
In the writings of the prophets, we find our progressive warrant for peace and justice; in the life of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Kingdom teachings, we are given the clearest possible idea of what God would have us do, since we see and hear Jesus at work. In the pastoral and theological letters of Paul and other leaders to groups of Jesus people, we see communities trying to work out their differences, calling each other to accountability, and seeking God's will, together.
Scripture, instead of being something to avoid, or to hurry past on the way to reason and tradition, should become again be our primary mode of revelation (although not our sole form). If we are called to take the Bible seriously if not literally, then taking scripture seriously means reading, wrestling, listening, and learning. The Bible is not a Boy Scout guide, it's not a Christian cookbook, but it is the collection of stories and songs and prayers that illustrate who God might be, what God wants, and how Jesus illustrates both of those things in the shape of a human life.
If my own history is any judge, progressives have tended to abandon the Bible to others who don't even read it well, and to focus instead on theologians or spiritual writers they admire and on their own developing understandings of how a God of love and justice ought to be moving in the world. But when we combine forms of revelation, when we read the Bible faithfully with an eye to context, when we discuss and discern faith questions in community, when we enter the 2000-year stream of conversation about what faith is meant to be, we discover that it just may be possible to combine heart and head.
I'd like to offer suggestions now in the form of three verbs we might consider a set of action items for a thoughtful, committed 21st-century faith: Follow, Hope, and Heal.
Just as the word "liberal" has taken such a beating at the hands of its foes that many former liberals now describe themselves instead as "progressives," the word "Christian" has been so disgraced and dishonored that some of us now like to call ourselves "Followers of Christ." Not only does this help us sidestep the painful baggage often attached to the word Christian now—intimations of hypocrisy, judgment, hatefulness, narrow piety—but it also helps us think of our faith not as something settled, but as something in process.
The common question "Are you a Christian?" implies something set, settled, a transaction completed. And there is, admittedly, something comforting about the idea of a settled faith, a figurative life in a spiritual Barcalounger. Who wants to be continually moving, continually learning, never settled? Wouldn't it be nice to think that our orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxy (right action) would remove the tension of continuing forward?
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.