Is Progressive Christianity the Last, Best Hope for Christianity’s Future?

An interesting article that was shared on Facebook argues that progressive or liberal Christianity is where Christianity is headed in our time. John Shore, the author, makes some good points along the way, regardless whether you find his point about the alleged inevitability of what he depicts less than persuasive. Here’s a sample:

In the old days, it was easy for the vast majority of American Christians to believe that, say, Jews and homosexuals (to name but two of the many, many groups Christians traditionally so destine) are going to hell. And what made it so emotionally and spiritually comfortable for so many Christians to assert that? Because none of them knew any Jews or homosexuals. No Jews or gays had a nearby farm; no Jews or gays were at the county fair; no Jews or gays attended the local PTA meetings; you never ran into either at the hardware store. The Jews were (however involuntarily) sequestering themselves in places like New York City; and while you may have interacted with a gay man over in the pipes department, that was his secret…

It’s a great deal more troubling to condemn to hell someone for whom you have affection than it is an abstract member of an abstract group. Growing up in my white suburban neighborhood, I didn’t know a single person who was Hindu. Today there are five young men who are Hindu living right next door to me. Those young men have become friends. If part of my theology insists that my Hindu friends are going to hell, you better believe I’m going to reassess that part of my theology. I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t.

It’s typical to think that theology is static and permanent. It’s not, though. What’s true instead is that theology follows sociology. And slowly but surely we are all becoming members of one big society. At the very least media, generally, and the Internet in particular, has made world travelers, and culture tourists, of us all.

I’d be interested to know what readers think of the article. The main reason that I am hesitant to presume that Shore is right is because Liberal Christianity has been in the ascendance before, and fundamentalist Christianity emerged as a backlash – and much the same phenomenon can be traced in the Islamic world and in other religious traditions. But it is not inappropriate to hope that Shore may be right…

On a related note, Brian LePort shared this cartoon about Christian jargon and immaturity:

Daniel Kirk blogs about the Bible in Evangelicalism without fundamentalism.

Jim West shared two provocative images (one of which he seemed to like more than the other):

Finally, Justin Topp discussed Christian theology evolving along with science, and Joel Watts managed to challenge Ken Ham’s lies about science and the Bible directly enough that not only Ham’s supporters but even Ham himself responded.

Stay in touch! Like Exploring Our Matrix on Facebook:

Reenchantment after Skepticism
Adjust Your Priorities
Struggling with Homosexuality
The Scepter and the Star
  • Anonymous

    So is it a fact of history that Jesus of Nazareth was homeless?

  • Anonymous

    Liberal Christianity is the only hope for those that want a means of manipulating people into conformity for social goals.
    I agree that the world is connected and that people are more exposed than in the past, but religions still breed problems, because whenever “God” justifies anything, even a PURPOSE, then there will be abuse of it! Groups, no matter how alturistic, are STILL groups that will define and limit how those concerns will be “played out” for that group’s purposes!

    Social or religious bias will always exist in the world, as without bias, groups disintegrate. So there is no such “universal concern”, or ultimates or Utopias, there is only the question to the individual about what, where, when, how and with whom!

    An academic job upholds the standards of the discipline, as a means of defining or limiting who will be granted a job based on a degree that is also granted by a group that defines and limits. So it becomes a matter of which group one wants to belong to and work for. Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes!

  • Anonymous

    But it is imperative that Christianity find a way to re-orient their theology with science! That is for sure, if they want an audience at all!

  • HC

    I would encourage Mr. Shore to visit sub-Saharan Africa before he makes any conclusions about the nature of the future of the Christian faith.  American and Western European Christianity does not equal Christianity. This article is way to “west” centric to be of any significance.


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  • admiralmattbar

    Not a great quote on that second one.  Afterall…

    “How can you worship a bearded man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”
    “How can you worship a guy in sandals on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”
    “How can you worship a carpenter on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”

    Is this the inverse of the internet Hitler argument?

  • John Mc

    It would be interesting to know how typical Christian theologians regarded pagans in the first three or four hundred years of the church before it became the dominant faith in the west and middle east? Did Christians write off all non-Christians as destined for hell? Or did they have a more generous hope for them?

  • James F. McGrath

    @John Mc , the views varied, much like today. There were in ancient times a plethora of views, from universalists who thought that even the Devil could be saved, to elitists who doubted whether even ordinary Christians would be. 

    @admiralmattbar , I’m not sure that if one worships a bearded man, they should not learn from that to appreciate other bearded men. :-)

    @HC , it certainly is the case that the perspective of the article is centered on a particular part of the world. What you’ll find is that in other parts of the world, Christians may be very conservative on certain issues, while being very liberal in others. But it is definitely a fair point that the type of experience Shore points to as transforming “Western” Christianity is not characteristic of other parts of the world, and thus not going to lead to the same developments, at least in the short term.

  • Jr

    Did not the Christianity of the Middle Ages have as doctrine that most people, even Christians, would go to hell? 

  • Elbryanlibre

    I think conservative Christianity can survive without progressive Christianity. I don’t think progressive Christianity can survive without conservative Christianity.

    James, what kind of church do you belong to? Is it progressive? Whenever I’ve visited more progressive churches they’ve never seemed like they were thriving and growing. And they’ve never been very diverse.

  • James F. McGrath

    My church is American Baptist, and while that denomination is itself quite diverse, the congregation in fact reflects that range of diversity, so that we have liberals, conservative fundamentalists, and a range in between, although I would say that the majority are probably more in the moderate range of the spectrum.

  • Pseudonym

    Think of the issues of the past: slavery, miscegenation, racism, universal suffrage… today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals. There’s no reason to think this won’t change.

    Having said that, it’s crucial to recognise that “liberalism” in Christianity lies along multiple axes. Of the people I know, those who are most liberal theologically are also some of the most conservative liturgically. That includes myself.

  • Elbryanlibre

    I was meaning diverse in more socioeconomic terms.

  • James F. McGrath

    Sorry I misunderstood. The congregation is more diverse in those terms than theologically.

  • lac

    I attended a large, diverse and thriving progressive Methodist church near our university recently….and for once, I finally had a decent experience. The irony is that many evangelical Christians do not consider the churches near the university as Christian…and in fact, plant churches in the area.

  • Anonymous

    I know I’m certainly hoping that Mr. Shore is right. But .. mostly because I’m him. So, you know. (Hello–and thank you for talking about/linking to my piece as you have, James.)

  • James F. McGrath

    Well, I’m hoping he’s right and I’m not him…er, you! :-)

  • Anonymous

    Let’s trade lives. I’LL be the guy with the mighty impressive title after his name, and YOU be the guy who, after his name, is constrained to put nothing but “blogger.”

  • Anonymous

    I have a lot of neo-pagan and atheist friends. I have no idea who “gets saved” and who “goes to hell” but I’m certain it has something to do with Jesus, directly or indirectly. So I encourage everyone to just pursue Christ in their lives. To my Bacchus-worshiping friends, I try to show that Jesus is the “real” God of Wine. My Earth-worshiping friends, that He created the earth. To my atheist friends who think Jesus was a “great teacher,” I encourage them to go with that and learn more about His teachings. I just cannot get to universalism because I see people choosing Hell on earth every day, and choices have to count for something. But scapegoating and divisiveness can never achieve anything.

    • Johnmccauslin

      Do people really choose Hell, or do they make the bet choices they can given what they know is true, and hope is not?

      I think that once people are confronted with the reality of God, Hell is no longer a viable option. Until then they just think they are playing the odds.

      • Anonymous

        I’d like to think you are right, John. I just don’t know.