Progressive Christianity: A Few Questions with Jim Burklo

Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California and Advisor of The Center for Progressive Christianity, provides a brief history of Progressive Chrisitianity beliefs, and recommends resources for further reading.

Which earlier Christian and non-Christian philosophers had the most influence in forming this belief or way within Christianity?

Progressive Christianity is part of the long sweep of Christian history.  We are part of the historical development of the church, going all the way back to its earliest days.  Progressive Christianity owes a lot, in particular, to the mystical tradition of the faith, which is as old as Christianity itself.  The Gospel of John and the Gospel of Thomas, the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, Symeon the New Theologian, the Desert Fathers, and some of the Gnostics represent the roots of this tradition.  Later contributors to this thread in the faith include John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing, and the Philokalia and other Eastern Orthodox mysticism.   This tradition has always been focused on spiritual experience rather than dogmatic belief.  Likewise, the strong tradition of conscientious resistance to injustice and oppression has always been part of Christianity.

Early Christians lived in a world where libraries did not have separate sections for “fiction” and “nonfiction” books.  Myth, metaphor, and fact were often jumbled together until modern science changed the conversation.   Progressive Christianity today is the direct outgrowth of the scientific revolution.  In the 19th century, German theologians began to study the Bible using historical-critical approaches.  They determined that the first five books of the Old Testament were an editorial compilation of four earlier versions.  In other words, the Bible was written by humans, not by God.  This new understanding of the historical background of the Bible, along with the development of science in general, threw dogmatic Christians for a loop.  The reaction of traditionalists was to try to “prove” that the Bible was literally true – something that few bothered to argue previously.  Today’s theologically progressive Christians (as opposed to evangelicals who are politically progressive but are very traditional on doctrine) are the descendants of the Christians in the 19th century who embraced the new science and the new historical-critical approach.

When did the Progressive Christian belief start?

As I indicated, progressive Christianity started with Jesus!  It’s no news.  I think our movement represents the branch of the church that continually embraced social progress and scientific discovery, focusing on the compassion of Jesus and the direct experience of the divine in prayer and practice.   It’s experience-based faith as opposed to belief-based religion.  Again, the movement as we see it today in Western countries dates back to the early to mid 19th century, when the break between fundamentalism and “liberal” theology appeared in Protestant churches.

Who have been and are the scholars of the Progressive Christian path?

Honest to God by John Robinson, an Anglican bishop, really got the ball rolling on progressive theology back in the 1960’s.  For some foundational reading on Christianity by serious scholars:  The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, The History of God by Karen Armstrong, and The Five Gospels by the Jesus Seminar (Westar Institute).

What books and authors can you recommend to understand all of the above?

Authors I recommend re: progressive Christian thinking:  John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and John Shelby Spong – these are all serious academic biblical scholars.  Diana Butler Bass does great work, as does a new author, the poetic Canadian pastor, Gretta Vosper.  (Of course, check out my books, too!) To dig in deeper regarding progressive, academic-level interpretation of the Bible, check out all the publications of the Westar Institute (the Jesus Seminar), including its magazine, The Fourth R.  The Progressive Christian Magazine is a good source of current thinking on matters both theological and social/political.  A wonderful web and DVD based course is available,  called Living the Questions – I highly recommend it.  You can order it from .   A lesser-known writer, very important to me:  Jim Corbett, an Arizona Quaker cowboy – who wrote Goatwalking and Sanctuary for All Life – biblical theology in a class by itself, regarding conscientious action and the re-sacralization of nature.  Corbett was, to me, an avatar of John Woolman, the colonial Quaker who wrote The Journal of John Woolman – a classic of spirituality and conscientious activism for peace and justice.

JIM BURKLO is Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California and is an ordained United Church of Christ pastor.  He is the author of Open Christianity and Birdlike and Barnless: Meditations, Prayers, and Songs for Progressive Christians. This blogpost originally appeared at his blog Musings and in reprinted with permission.

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