Liberal, Conservative, Evangelical, Mainline, Progressive

Last week at the Transforming Theology confab, these terms came up again and again.  And, as usual, much frustration was expressed about the lack of meaning in these words.

One debate was over the words “liberal” and “progressive.” Some in the room wanted to recover the word “liberalism” from those who’ve made it to mean a “Tax-Raising,
Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading,
Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show
.” My advice: too late.

Others expressed dislike of the word “progressive” because it implies human agency in our ability to progress over against divine agency. My take: that’s a good point, but I still like the word…for now.

Interestingly, many in the room like the word “evangelical” and would like to reclaim that appellation.  They hearkened back to the 19th century when that word was used to describe liberals, and the African American theologians present told us that the black church is, by definition, evangelical.  In general, everyone agreed that the gospel we represented is ultimately more hopeful, more good news, than the conservative version of the gospel, thus we were, by definition, more evangelical.

These things are particularly on my mind because this weekend I’ll be at the Christian Book Expo, which will be populated by tens of thousands of Christians more conservative than I.  And I’ll be on a panel with Scot McKnight, who has recently written about what it means to be evangelical (in his opinion) and three Moody authors who have written disparagingly about me and my friends.  The panel will be moderated by Mark Galli, who has his own take on evangelicalism.

It will be interesting to see if on that panel, “evangelical” is defined theologically or culturally.  And it will be interesting to compare my experience there to my experience last week.  It’ll be another in a long series of theological whiplashes in my life.

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  • Be strong, Tony. I know you’ll be tempted to wring their necks, but thankfully you won’t have the chance because these guys heads are so far up their own a**es the necks won’t be wringable.

  • Your Name

    Have fun Tony, these conversations are needed, altough I hate the labels we seem to attach to things. (Wow Matt, way to show that Christ-like love, perhaps this is why discussions turn into screaming matches)

  • To second “Your Name’s” comments, lets take the high road, people. Sure, we can agree that some conservatives come across as mean-spirited in their critiques of Tony and others. But let’s not succumb to the temptation to go tit for tat. If the world is going to buy this idea that we’re empowered by the spirit of Jesus, then its going to have to show (first of all) in how we handle enemies and critics.

  • Carl Ruge

    Hey Tony I know the problem. The definitions are so limited & restictive & in the crazy Christian world can mean radically different things to different people.
    I’m not in the EC conversation as far as in a church with that kind of progressive thinking like you said,but when I found you guys(mostly authors & some Pastor/leaders) I totally felt at home intellectually.
    In my circles I was considered a rebel & I “ask too many questions” “just trust God” brother. I never saw my self as other than Evangelical,but having been in groups that were dominated by Fundamentalists (not the Pastors)but the Fundies ruled the church thinking & cultural reactionary responses some how above the Pastor’s views & preaching of the opposite. Have you ever heard of that?
    I don’t like Liberal,theologically cuz it’s people who haven’t ,in my mind had a transformative radical conversion narrative to share. They are not living out of their Spirit but only out of their intellect.The Bible says plenty about a wisdom not of this plane & that we can’t lean to our own understanding;things are spiritually discerned!
    I’m not at peace with Evangelical,because culturally the non
    Christians use it in the media as a slang for stupid idiot & fundamentalist. I don’t like progressive cuz in the political world it’s basically people to the left of liberals. I live out here in the crazy radical leftist San Francisco Bay area. I think the politics of “progressive” really taints the EC conversation out here on the west coast as well as most Evangelicals of different stripes. CONCLUSION? I have always felt the term that best describes me Theologically/Politically/culturally is >> Independent! I was registered for years like that after having voted for Reagan the first term.I just registered as a Libertarian 2009 election. Voted for Ron Paul in the primaries & Bob Barr for President. Obama was too socialist for me & his abortion on demand was too much & I’m not a single issue litmus test kind of guy.But come on voting for partial birth abortion is cruel. McCain was too much of a man pleaser & vague on his economic vision.
    Good luck Tony don’t you think independent is good ? Iknow it’s not sexy like progressive butll those other terms have too much negative bagggage

  • Sorry Darren, my name should have shown up, not “your name”, (but I’ve been called much worse). Thanks for your “second”, I am really convicted that we need to start to take away the labels and the name calling and come together. The non-believing world just sees a bunch of Christians who argue and ask “why should I follow that?”

  • Kenton

    Frank and Darren-
    Excellent, excellent thoughts. Very Phil 4:8 of both of you.
    I got my ticket paid for and I’m *so* looking forward to being there. Bare-knuckle fist fighting on Saturday morning! Yee-Haw!

  • Larry

    I don’t like Liberal,theologically cuz it’s people who haven’t ,in my mind had a transformative radical conversion narrative to share. They are not living out of their Spirit but only out of their intellect.
    A common misconception in conservative circles, I know, I used to share it. The cure is reading and maybe even actually getting to know some “lib-ruls” personally (you won’t, most likely, be condemned to Hell for doing so). This characterization is simply untrue, and while I can’t really blame the conservative rank and file for holding to it, since they are just parroting their leaders, I do blame the leaders, they should know better. I don’t know if the leaders are themselves just ignorant or are consciously lying, but either way they should do better.

  • I still prefer “progressive” over “liberal” too but not without some misgivings. In my opinion it denotes too much faith in the modern myth of progress. And if the 20th century as taught us anything it’s that that just ain’t true. Some pretty heinous things have been done in the name of “progress.”
    So I think progressive is the lesser of two evils, but I really want to find a new word.

  • Nathan

    Blessings as you go, Tony.
    I had a great chat with John Thatamanil about the confab at Claremont today.
    (He’s my thesis advisor.)

  • Wellsy

    Why the need for words? Obviously they make communication easier, but when you tell someone you’re a “liberal,” you’re essentially summing up all your beliefs in one easy-to-open box; all the stereotypes, cliches, and bad stuff comes packaged along with it.
    The alternative is that you don’t use a single word to describe yourself or your views and simply allow people to discover who you are through conversation. Is it possible?

  • Fred Plumer

    Tony, I am glad that you still like the word progressive. When we started The Center for Progressive Christianity in 1994 we could find no other organizations, scholars or even historians using that term after a diligent search. Today it is a common term but is used by literally dozens of organizations, scholars and yes historians. It was originally intended to represent the idea that as our information and understanding of science, religion, the universe, and reality changed so should our understanding of our faith…to “progress” in other words. That is why we encourage religious education, pluralism and awareness. Have fun with the boys but be aware they come from place fear.
    Fred Plumer, President TCPC

  • xiananarchist

    Hmmm. I wonder…
    Why the assumption that the “insiders” get to define the term?
    I think it’s important that people consider deeply the language they use to identify themselves. Yet, I think that the perspective of outsiders is potentially more important here than that of insiders. I say this because I believe that there is no “Christianity” outside of the lives of Christians. When outsiders are asked what an “evangelical” or a “progressive” Christian is like, what are their answers? Maybe the best way to understand the terms is to consider primarily how outsiders experience different types of Christians.
    Could it be that discussing (ad absurdum?) what we would like the terms to mean is to insulate ourselves from more important consideration of how the spirit of those terms is experienced when embodied in flesh and blood? Personally, I suspect so.