Can progressive religion claim the center?

During the long and interesting conversation around the relative merits of NALT Christians, the larger issues of “progressive Christianity” came up. Many Christians expressed that they are involved in NALT because they want to combat the notion that all Christians are anti-LGBT. Like the It Gets Better project, participants make videos expressing their faith in progressive and inclusive ways.

In the midst of that conversation I read a very interesting piece on Religion Dispatches by my friend Brie Loskota entitled, “‘Progressive Religion’ or Just Religion?” She argues convincingly, I think, that by qualifying one’s faith as “progressive” a person concedes that the core of the faith is not-progressive. The qualifier always accepts the marginalized position. Instead, she argues, Christians and Muslims who care about the common good need to claim the center of their traditions instead of being content to be an outlier. Here are a few key excerpts which form the core of her argument.

Using modifiers to characterize spiritual commitments—whether “progressive” Christianity (for example) or “moderate” Islam— promotes the idea that groups with progressive or moderate values are outliers within their own traditions. And, conversely, this rhetoric privileges the points of view of coreligionists who adopt a more insular or exclusivist interpretation of a shared tradition.

So modifying “Christianity” with the word “progressive” tacitly accepts (or subtly asserts) that the values of progressives aren’t at the heart of what Christianity is all about.

So what to do? Stop calling broad-minded, non-exclusivist movements “progressive” or “moderate” religion. Stop asking individuals who are deeply devoted to their religious traditions to qualify their religious identity in political terms that over-simplify who they are, what they believe and what they do as a result.

Moreover, stop ceding the rhetorical high ground to groups that have no claim to it, whether they are the most conservative of evangelicals or the most radical of violent extremists. The idea that to be American is to be religious, and that to be religious is to be conservative, has been embedded in our culture for too long. Progressives must realize that this warped playing field will be leveled only when the idea that religion is inherently “conservative” ceased to go uncontested in our public discourse.  Fight for the middle, not the edges of the religious landscape.

I am very sensitive to this argument. I spent the better part of 20 years working on this redefinition from within a conservative form of Protestantism—the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I tried to claim the center for progressive ideas. After all, the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church bucked the theological trends of their day and said that the field of theological inquiry was not closed. Many were rewarded by being booted from their congregations, as many of us contemporary progressives have been. I suspect that many atheists would agree that these modifiers don’t help. As Loskota says, they simply deepen the divide and cede the center to conservatives. However, many atheists will disagree with her optimism; that religion can be fundamentally redefined in this way.

I began this Year Without God thinking that there would be a fairly easy alliance between so-called progressive and liberal religionists and atheists, but this is very often not the case. Many atheists see conservatives as the “real believers” because they believe what the Bible/Qur’an says, more literally. Atheists easily dismiss progressives as people who are simply trying to drag their (essentially conservative) religion, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Many atheists became atheists as they realized that this project was failing. Many atheists also feel that the progressives and liberals are giving legitimacy and social/cultural cover for fundamentalists and extremists. Rather than critiquing the core of the problem (belief in a God who supposedly revealed concepts taught in the Bible or Qur’an–which is it?), progressives just create space for the fundamentalists to claim the high ground. Or so goes the argument.

My current thinking is that that Christianity and Islam are inherently conservative. This is why liberals and moderates have to stake out special territory for themselves. Has there ever been a time in history when the Abrahamic religions have trended liberal and the outliers were the conservatives who were trying to pull the faith to the right? Perhaps so, but not in our time, nor for the past 100 years in these United States.

Abrahamic faiths, to varying degrees, believe that God communicated his (male pronoun intentional) will to humanity through holy writings. Liberals and conservatives differ in how to interpret these writings—hence the political spectrum within these religions. But conservatives can always lay claim to the “plain reading” whereas progressives have to engage in deep socio-cultural critiques. I think those socio-cultural critiques are valid and necessary as they would be for any ancient text (what is the “plain reading” of Beowulf, for example?). But it is hard to understand at times why liberal Christians bother with the Bible at all. After having agreed that it is a human document, full of moral and historical problems, why maintain that it is revelatory of God’s mind at all? Which parts? How can we know? And having stripped God of  all notions of “being,” why bother with the word ‘God’ at all?

I am afraid that this re-formation of religion is a losing battle. Abrahamic faiths seem firmly in the grasp of the conservatives, and perhaps inevitably so. Part of the reason for my resignation from pastoral ministry was my growing suspicion that I was trying to modernize something that was inherently non-modernizable. I decided that the conservatives were right. Adventism belongs to them. I can definitely argue a progressive version of it, but it’s always an adaptation. Historians will try to argue that the proto-Adventists were progressive and then it became corrupted. I don’t think this is true in any thoroughgoing sense and even if it is, the reality for the past 100 years is to the contrary. The same might be said for Christianity more generally.

Perhaps I am wrong. I would love for the core of the Christian movement to be progressive. The cause of human progress desperately needs the rich poetic inquiry and the sharp prophetic critique found in the Bible. Maybe this language and vision can be salvaged without resorting to the problematic aspects of faith but I see no such possibility on the horizon. When I was a pastor I might have also objected that prophetic social critique has never occupied center stage in the culture. If I were to remain a progressive Christian I might gladly cede the center to the cultural mainstream and find a new label for the prophetic vision of Jesus and the other Hebrew prophets—a movement whose natural habitat is “crying in the wilderness”

I am co-teaching a class with Kile Jones in August about how progressive Christians and atheists can work together on issue of the common good. My sense is that religion is not going away (super sharp senses, I know). Religion will also continue to be an important factor in American politics. Efforts to join hands in regard to social justice and human rights just seems like common sense to me. But I’m not at all convinced that we will witness “a cultural shift in which being a Christian means that you speak out for the oppressed, or that being a Muslim signifies that you are someone who cares for the orphan and the widow” (Loskota).

About Ryan Bell

For 19 years Ryan Bell was a pastor, most recently the senior pastor of the Hollywood Seventh-day Adventist Church. In March 2013 he resigned his position due to theological and practical differences. As an adjunct professor he has taught subjects ranging from intercultural communication to bioethics.
Currently he is a researcher, writer and speaker on the topic of religion and irreligion in America. In January 2014, Ryan began a yearlong journey exploring the limits of theism and the atheist landscape in the United States and blogs about that experience here at Year Without God.


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