By Whose Authority? (Progressive Christianity Symposium)

By Whose Authority? (Progressive Christianity Symposium) June 8, 2011

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.

I often begin any attempt to define Progressive Christianity by contrasting it with so-called “Orthodox Christianity.”  As a Progressive Christian, when I am presented with a theological question, my first instinct is usually to consult my personal experience. In contrast, many orthodox Christians have been formed to begin theological reflection by asking, “What has been the creedal confession of church tradition concerning this issue?” These two different starting points prompt these two camps to move in different theological trajectories, and usually to land at starkly different end points.

To further clarify the orientation of Progressive Christianity, theological historian Gary Dorrien has written a magisterial three-volume history of Progressive Theology in the United States titled, The Making of American Liberal Theology. Volume 1, “Imagining Progressive Religion” covers 1805-1900; Volume 2, “Idealism, Realism, and Modernity” covers 1900-1950; and Volume 3, “Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity” covers 1950-2005. As a related sidenote, Dorrien has also published a landmark history of U.S. Social Ethics titled, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition. And having surveyed the sweep Progressive Christian Theology and Ethics in the United States, Dorrien defines progressive theology as “based on reason and critically interpreted religious experience, not external authority” (2006:1).

I hear Dorrien’s definition as related to the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (attributed to Methodist founder John Wesley), which looks to four equally-important sources of authority: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Personally, I understand scripture as one among many parts of Christian tradition; hence, I name three major sources of authority (Reason, Tradition, and Experience) instead of the four named by Wesley or the two named by Dorrien (Reason and Experience). I would also add that an example of Christian theology “based on reason and critically interpreted religious experience, not external authority” is Marcus Borg’s excellent and accessible book The Heart of Christianity.

Most importantly as a Progressive Christian, I do not want to abandon my brain at the door of the church; therefore, in regard to the orthodox deference to creedal tradition, I find it insufficient merely to refer to a historic creed as an answer to a theological question; however, I also do not want to dismiss outright central Christian confessions without asking how we may understand them anew today. To adapt a famous phrase, you should preach “with the Bible in one hand the newspaper other hand.” These words are famously attributed to twentieth-century Protestant theologian Karl Barth, but I was unable to find an attribution.  According to the website of Princeton Theological Seminary’s Center for Barth Studies, Barth did not encourage others to hold the Bible and the newspaper in tension (a classic progressive position that I am espousing); instead, Barth taught his students to “interpret newspapers from your Bible.”  In other words, Barth understood the Bible as a higher authority than personal, contemporary experience; thus, he thought Christians should use the Bible as a lens through which to interpret contemporary events.  In Barth’s day this perspective was known as Neo-orthodoxy.  Today, the closest version of this perspective is called postliberalism.  An alternative view, which I am advocating, is to hold both the biblical account and contemporary, personal experience in dialectical tension.

The polar approach to progressivism is seen in reactionary fundamentalists, who, in the face of twenty-first century science, cling to biblical literalism. For example, the proprietors of the Creation Museum in Kentucky explain the existence of dinosaur bones with an exhibit featuring dinosaurs roaming around the Garden of Eden.  After reading news stories about this display, I wanted to yell, “Stop! You’re not doing Jesus any favors.  You’re not making Christianity better. You’re only making science worse.”

Just as one traditional response from the religious camp has been to reject the stories science tells, many scientists have rejected the stories religion tells.  The promise of progressive theology is to hold both sets of stories in tension, inviting both camps to be appropriately humble in the face of pluralism and the limits of human knowledge. As a counterexample to my criticism of the Creation Museum, an example of progressive theology embracing science is the celebration of Evolution Sunday or “Evolution Weekend” as the event is becoming known. For the past five years, an increasing number of individuals, churches, and faith communities have recognized the Sunday closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday (February 12) as an annual opportunity to reflect on what religion has to learn from science, in particular how Christianity can embrace the insights of evolution.

As I move to a conclusion of this brief piece on Progressive Christianity, I will add that committing ourselves to what Jesus called the Greatest Commandments, loving God and neighbor, is at the center of what it means to be a progressive Christian. I will also add that my personal “growing edge” in regard to Progressive Christianity is an exploration of Process Theology.  As the name implies, “Process Theology” is a field of theology that invites us to see all aspects of our world and our experience — including God — as perpetually in process: always growing, always changing, and always evolving. Process Theology helps me make sense — looking to both Reason, Tradition, and Experience — of our twenty-first-century, postmodern world of Pluralism and Quantum Physics. Process Theology is, however, only one of many branches within the invigorating and challenging world of Progressive Christianity.

Browse Our Archives