Progressive Christianity and Mysticism?

In just a few days I will head out to the Wild Goose Festival, where I will be speaking on “Contemplation as a Subversive Act” and participating in a dialogue on the question of “How can I truly love those whose values are hostile to my own?” (riffing on Matthew 5:44). I’m excited about this event, not least because many people I admire, from Richard Rohr to John Dear to Phyllis Tickle to Shane Claiborne to Brian McLaren, etc. etc. etc., will be there.

The Goose is getting a lot of press, from outlets ranging from the Huffington Post to USA Today. Observers keep describing this as a gathering of “progressive Christians.” In fact, Patheos has even set up a new Progressive Christian Portal with lead articles by folks like McLaren, Tickle, and Becky Garrison (as well as Mark Yaconelli holding forth on Why he’s taking his kids to the Wild Goose).

So as excited as I am about the Goose, I’m not nearly so worked up about this notion of “Progressive Christian.” It seems to me that since “emergent Christianity” has fallen out of favor lately, this is the new nom de jour for Christians who adopt a lovingly critical stance toward the church. The funny thing is, what I think this label means — that to be a Christian means to be committed to justice, to peacemaking, to countercultural forms of community and relationship, to rejecting imperial understandings of class and race and sex and gender, and to calling out the church when it has colluded with worldly empire — is, to me, the definition not of “progressive Christian” or “emergent Christian” or whatever, but simply what it means to be a “Christian.” Now, I suppose it’s human nature to use language to establish identity, and identity is all about how A is not like B: so a progressive Christian is, for example, not like a Christian for whom the faith is all about identifying who is and isn’t saved. But isn’t this a paradox: that we are trying to establish a Christian identity that is at variance with those Christians whose identity as Christians is all about identity? Ay yi yi.

Then there is a fellow named Chris Glaser, whose blog is all about “Progressive Christian Reflections.” A few days back who suggested that progressive Christians are the mystics of our time. Even though if I had to take a test I’d probably end  up with “Progressive” tattooed across my forehead, this kind of language makes me nervous. As soon as we start talking about “progressive Christians,” we are setting up some sort of dualism between progressives and, well, regressives. If you don’t think the right way about human sexuality, or economic justice, or peacemaking, or environmental concerns, well, then, you don’t get to join the “progressive” club. So as soon as we start talking about progressives, we have insiders and outsiders. But that flies in the face of mysticism, which is all about transformative levels of consciousness where categories like “inside” and “outside” fall away.

Perhaps this is inevitable. Aren’t I creating my own identity-dualism, where the mystics live beyond duality, but the “non-mystics” are stuck in it? This, perhaps, is the wisdom of that Taoist yin-yang symbol, where the dark dot of yin always is found in the midst of the light expanse of yang (and vice versa). Non-duality subverts dualism, and yet dualism always seems to crop up, even in the midst of non-duality. If I understand Ken Wilber correctly, the highest (even that word has dualistic connotations) point of human consciousness is the place where the split between duality and non-duality falls away (or is transcended).

So to bring this back down to earth: I’m excited about heading off to the Wild Goose Festival, and I hope I’ll see lots of you there (I’m speaking at noon and again at 8 PM on Saturday). But don’t expect me to applaud how progressive we all are. I’m gonna keep looking for the dark dot in the middle of the light sea.

In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Preliminary Practices for Christian Contemplatives
Pentecost and Ecstasy
Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • altonwoods

    Needless to say there are, and of course have been, many times in it’s long history that the church has wavered in it’s focus or mission,times when they’ve taken on their own vision instead of pursuing Gods and consequently have needed to be led back to the path. I can see how using a term or title to differentiate,clarify, or facilitate that is appropriate and something I would support .Having said that the virtue of being considered a “progressive” or even a radical depends on who’s agenda you’re promoting. The church is not immune to the lure of “spiritual fashion” so to speak, and peoples personal agendas can become foremost so really the error of any such movement is being self centered instead of Christ centered.

    Perhaps He’s in that dark dot you referred to?

  • David Wheeler-Reed

    Thanks so much for writing this! You’ve put into words what I’ve been struggling to say for years. Again, thanks… David

  • Mark Nielsen

    Thanks again, Carl.
    I too was sparked (while reading Tony JOne’s Theoblogy) to write a short reflection on the terminology being used in the Wild Goose/Emergent discussion, especially the religio-politically loaded word “progressive”.

    My blog article is over here:

    Keep the good news coming, brother.

  • Grace

    Thanks Carl, for articulating a very important point.

  • kissmyknits



    i think thomas merton’s last talk in bangkok shows loud and clear how contemplative living clearly has a critical view towards modern society if not historical views on society.

  • Ted

    I find just being a Christian mystifing.!
    I find it putting terms to something I can not describes confuses me.
    As Christ unfolds within us and we learn through manifestation of our life; we are driven by Passions to express and then understand that which we express.. We become aware. We add terms to that understanding, but it seems to me as we are absorbed and Immersed into the Divine as we are capable, terms have no meaning. Meaning is not needed and no meaning is adequate. Being human we still are driven to define. So I remain confused in the meanings and where it is I am in the meanings.
    However, I trust that if I allow the light to guide, nothing else matters. So as human beings gather in a field in Ashboro., ( which I could go) world views, layers of insight, degrees of open hearts and levels of eeducation will collide and openfully creation will evolve into something New that reasonates in the totality of human consciousness that moves us along the rode greated BEING within.

  • Ali

    This post sparked a whirlwind of contemplation for me, Carl, and I thought you might enjoy seeing the monster you unleashed. ;) Looking forward to seeing you soon!

    • Carl McColman

      What a fine monster it is! Hey, I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys (and I’ll have a few goodies for you, too…).

  • Jay Byrd

    I have only recently discovered your site. what wonderful activity. I’ve been out in a hermitage for the past seven years occasionally coming to town for the use of our university library and books and food. to see your work brings me much joy, it was a struggle for me to enter this way of contemplation, finding the mystics and good material to reconstruct ones inner man but by grace we abide. i’m excited to see your seed spreading out for those who are hungry for true Being. I hope in the future to enjoy physically that which i can only now perceive. maybe in the future I could have the honor of washing the dishes. Love and prayers in Jesus name, Byrd