I am a progressive Christian. I did not choose this, like selecting which kind of ice cream my wife is most in the mood for (as long as it has chocolate but no nuts, I am probably safe). It is probably more accurate to say I grew into it.
I have always been a follower of Jesus. I suspect I always will be. But the way I understand the nature of that “following” has evolved.
In short, I am a progressive Christian because of Love. I think you can also have Love and not come to think as I have. But I think that Love has been the driving force behind every “progressive shift” in my spirituality. Six examples come to mind:
- The shift from exclusive to inclusive salvation. I actually don’t think about universal reconciliation—my unoriginal belief that if any of us are saved for eternity, all of us are saved for eternity—all that much these days. I’m not really as concerned with who is or isn’t “saved” as much as how we can better love our neighbors.
But the dividing line between eternal blessedness and damnation increasingly felt unloving, no matter how many ways I heard it justified (“God’s ways are mysterious” or “God loves us by giving us free will”).
I now believe two things: 1) belief in Jesus doesn’t save you, God’s love does; and 2) I do not receive eternal life because God preferred me or because I chose God because A) I don’t believe God’s love is preferential and B) I believe I am only partially responsible for my choices, sharing such responsibility with, for example, my family, my social influences, and plain luck.
I follow Jesus because this is the truth as I’ve experienced it. I don’t believe the consequences of your different beliefs warrant a different ultimate fate. We’re in this together, no matter our present understanding of “this.”
- The shift in my understanding of the Bible. I strongly resist verse wars—where we each pick the verses which most support our point and, typically, don’t convince one another of anything. I think it reflects a misunderstanding of what the Bible is. I don’t believe the Bible is a constitution to be taken literally. Of course, who does this? Even conservatives who recoil at progressives’ use of the Bible actually demonstrate a selective literalism, overemphasizing what conveniently supports their present beliefs and values.
Rather, the Bible is a record of numerous individuals and communities’ experiences with God. They encountered God and wrote about it. Now we can read about their very valid experiences of God understood within the limitations not only of their own historical-social context but their own personal biases.
We don’t have to accept that God slaughters others because “he” is angry (nor do we have to accept that God is masculine). We can instead recognize that people often resort to violence and assume God is on their side to feel at ease with such violence and because we are biased toward “our own.”
We don’t have to accept that women should not be authoritative. We can instead recognize that someone like Paul was either A) prejudiced against women or B) concerned for the survival of early Christian churches and so had to carefully navigate between maintaining the status quo or rejecting it.
Where the Bible supports Love, I follow it. Where it conflicts with Love, as I understand it, I reject it. Where the Bible calls into question my present understanding and character, I hope I have the wisdom to see it and the courage to act upon what I see.
- The shift in my view of sexuality and gender. God’s “design” is love. Love respects, challenges, cares, endures, and liberates. Since I believe the greatest commandment is love, I “read” every other situation or possible moral conundrum as it relates to love. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and every other sexual or gender identity in themselves are not only not bad: they are good.
This issue also exemplifies how conservatives can misjudge themselves when claiming the Bible as their ultimate authority in condemning LGBTQ+ identity and sexuality. No, the Bible is not your ultimate authority. It is a secondary (if that high) authority that affirms your primary authority: your present, right-in-this-moment combination of your likes and dislikes, worldview, hopes and fears, knowledge, biases and preferences, sense of right and wrong, and conglomeration of lived experiences.
You know what ultimately “saved” me from my prejudice toward LGBTQ+ persons, more than any philosophical or scientific or biblical argument? People. Like, actually having friends who are LGBTQ+. Turns out they are just like me! Their love is really love—not selfish, twisted, or God-hating.
Real people mess with your theology. And that’s how it should be. Theology can help, but it can also become a blinding idol, distracting us from really loving others.
- The shift in the importance of social concerns. In fairness, there are a lot of socially conscious conservative Christians, acting to alleviate poverty, racism, environmental degradation, et al. But many of them know they are in the minority, fighting not just for these good causes but perhaps also to redeem the conservative “brand.”
I have found, however, that progressive Christian communities more naturally nurture our human impulse to help other people. I think there are many reasons for this. It could be that progressives have abandoned the “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through” mentality ingrained in their minds from their youth and have come to see that, no, God cares very deeply about this world. And so should we.
There’s a propensity toward resignation to the status quo in conservatives that tends to turn people inward and upward—toward our personal, private relationship with God and/or toward the next life. Progressive Christians can believe faith is both personal and eternal but also communal, social, and ecological.
We are stewards of the earth and all its forms of life. There’s no room for neglecting the planet and ignoring the impact our lifestyles have on the earth. There’s no room for saying “the poor will always be with you” as though Jesus meant we should not work to eradicate poverty. There’s no room for accepting racial and gender inequities and saying with a shrug “must be God’s plan” or anything remotely like it.
Stewardship means taking care of what God has given us. Does your “care” for your children involve a total indifference to their needs, knowing that it doesn’t matter what they become as long as they know God loves them? Of course not, unless you’re the worst! Our love, while it will always (naturally) be strongest for those closest to us, should extend to all creation.
- The shift to a welcoming rather than defensive posture toward science. I grew up assuming evolution was a farce, a view supported by well-meaning and kind-hearted spiritual mentors who wanted to build my confidence in the truth of the Christian faith. It was energizing for a time—learning how to defend my faith against doubters and persecutors!
Except, I’ve had a relatively privileged life, and most of the religious persecution I received was in my mind and vastly over-exaggerated. Most people accept my Christian faith, as long as I’m not a jerk about it. I increasingly grew out of this defensiveness, which for some conservatives extends beyond a fear of science: “they’re taking away our prayer in schools! They’re taking away our marriage.”
Progressive Christianity is not anxious about what “they are taking away” or fixated on my religious freedom; it is anxious about the fact that someone will die tonight because she either has no food, no shelter, no caring persons in her life, or because her community and society do not have “space” for or value her.
As for science, to say what has been said countless times: the Bible is not a science book! No science should be based off of anything in the Bible. Science should be based on what actual, real scientists are doing. Moses was not a scientist. Jesus was not a scientist.
Science is, of course, provisional. Paradigms change, understanding grows. But I can’t imagine we will ever discover something about the galaxies or the neurons in our brains that threatens my belief in a very real love of a very real God.
I think Christians would do well to recognize their religious tradition in the same way scientists do: as an ever-developing story, listening to and drawing upon the past but creatively building upon it. We have nothing to fear.
- The shift to an emphasis on practice over doctrine. I think this is why my Quaker meeting (our name for a local congregation) works as well as it does. Our meeting is, on the whole, progressive, but it’s not as simple as that. We actually have a range of theologies among us, from people who sound more like traditional evangelicals to others who sound more like Unitarians or even agnostics. What binds us together is not a particular doctrine on which everyone signs off.
What binds us are our shared practices. We are Christ-centered, but there are no boundaries that you must cross to suddenly be “in.” We practice listening—to God, to Christ as our present teacher, and to one another. We practice corporate discernment in our decision-making, valuing unity and dialogue over voting or argumentation. We practice silence, recognizing the value of simplicity in worship and the need to counter the constant wall of sound in our day-to-day lives. We practice justice, knowing that love not expressed practically in our community is not really love at all but a cheap imitation of it.
We may follow Jesus and worship God, but have spacious understandings of what it means to do these things “rightly.” What matters most is practicing love for one another.
This is also why I, and many others, welcome the spiritual guidance of Muslims, Buddhists, and other non-Christian spiritualities. What most interests me is not what to think about God but how to experience and live out the love of God. If Muslims and Buddhists can help me in my journey of love, then they are my allies. Love is not automatically “tainted” if it’s not explicitly Christian love. Love, if it is Love, is Love.
I cannot speak to where your experience of God’s love has taken you theologically, but I can speak to my own. I am not defensive about my theology, but do seek to defend the way of Love by walking it. Even though it is, at times, a rather bumbling walk.
Matthew A. Boswell is the pastor of Camas Friends Church, a Christ-centered Quaker Meeting in Camas, WA.