A Progressive's Three Great Loves

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Editor's Note: This article is part of the symposium, "What Is Progressive Christianity?" presented by the newly launched Patheos Progressive Christian Portal and in partnership with the Wild Goose Festival (June 23-26). Like us on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christianity.

Years ago, a sign mysteriously appeared in the sanctuary of my hometown church: "If a government hostile to Christianity took over and put you on trial for being a Christian, would they have enough evidence to convict you?" I had to wonder why our sleepy little congregation would show so little evidence of their faith since they prayed the Lord's Prayer each week. Didn't they realize that praying, "Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven" is tantamount to praying for revolution?

In 2004, I set aside my natural reticence to add any modifier to the word Christian as a personal referent and adopted the "progressive" label because it seemed that Progressive Christians did, in fact, know what they were praying for. I also felt that "progressive" might be a way for some of us to indicate that we are "post-liberal," and others of us to indicate that they are "post-evangelical," bringing together the best of both sides of the theological swimming pool while leaving behind the worst.

My personal definition for Progressive Christianity, which found traction with some, was: "A progressive Christian is one who takes seriously the Three Great Loves identified by Jesus (God, Neighbor, Self) in his command to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. I felt that a progressive Christian is one who rejects the notion that 'two outta three ain't bad.'"

This assumption is most fully reflected in the Phoenix Affirmations—twelve principles that are widely acknowledged in the Progressive community as constituting the backbone of their faith. I had the pleasure of writing the first commentary on the Phoenix Affirmations, and a follow-up book, Asphalt Jesus, that chronicles a walk across America by Progressive Christians to raise awareness of the Phoenix Affirmations and explores the Affirmations "in action."

In recent years I've become more skeptical that Progressives are any more attuned to the revolutionary power of Christian faith than others.

Progressives place great emphasis on loving God and neighbor through acts of compassion and social justice, which I applaud and try to embody, but many seem also to believe that any attempt to develop one's spiritual path, or a personal relationship with Spirit, is a waste of time and energy at best, and a subverting of the call to seek justice at worst. Personally, I have no hope that social justice, as Jesus would envision it in our day, has more than a cheese ball's chance at a rat convention, apart from serious and sustained attention to personal spiritual disciplines and self-care.

While I've become skeptical of the Progressive label, I am increasingly confident that the revolution envisioned by Jesus—or at least the revolution envisioned for our day—is actually occurring.

What follows are twelve areas where I find Christians letting go of old orthodoxies and embracing a more expansive, revolutionary one. If the term "Progressive" holds these areas together, then I'll gladly recommit to it as a personal label. But really, I'll be glad to call myself by whatever term does it best.

Love of God

  1. Christians are letting go of the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet. They are embracing an understanding that Godis greater than our imagination can comprehend, and thus may very well speak within other faiths.
  2. Christians are letting go of literal and inerrant interpretations of their sacred texts. They are embracing a more ancient, prayerful, non-literal approach to these same texts, and finding new sacred texts as well.
  3. Christians are letting go of the notion that people of faith are called to dominate nature. They are embracing a more organic understanding of human relationship with the earth.
  4. Christians are letting go of empty worship conventions and creeds. They are embracing more diverse, creative, engaging approaches, often making strong use of the arts.