Who’s Afraid of Progressive Christianity?

Who’s Afraid of Progressive Christianity? June 6, 2020

Clearly, Alisa Childers is. Obviously, I write on the Progressive Christianity platform created by Patheos. However, I’m not especially fond of or enamored with the label. Labels are boxes that too often hide more than they reveal. I would hazard to guess that many Christians feel the same way, whatever the label, whether “conservative,” “evangelical,” whatever.  All of us are more than the labels used to describe us. The only thing a label can do is offer a tendency, a bent, a somewhat accurate but hazy glimpse of where a person lands in relation to a number of different topics and views. They never exhaust or do justice to the depth of any one of us.

My point is that I don’t care to defend the label “progressive.”  I do, however, care about the misrepresentations or misunderstandings of those who take it upon themselves to attack progressive Christians, who either identify as such or who are labeled thus by others.

After watching her video interview, I would like to address some of her points:

Around the 8 minute mark, After describing the experience she had with a pastor who was clearly struggling with what he had been taught and raised up in (fundamentalism/evangelicalism?), she talks about going through a “dark night” of the soul. She talks about “deconstruction,” and how she was doing this almost unconsciously because of what she had learned from the pastor of their church, which they have since left.

She fails to consider that key characters in the Bible from Job to Paul, went through a remarkably similar process.  All the disciples did. They each learned that what they had been taught, what they had been led to believe about God and God’s story, was very distorted, even false.  In fact, one could even see being “born again,” as a deconstruction. What she assumes is a negative, is actually what any authentic encounter with God requires.

Around the 8:45 mark, she begins to talk about the “reliability” of the Bible and equating that term with whether it is true or not. But that is to entirely miss the point. Only a fundamentalist type hermeneutic requires such. The early Christians, the church for centuries, could care less whether or not the written scriptures were “reliable” in any sense moderns care about. They only wanted to know if they were true. All Ms. Childers does here is reveal how modern she is.

Shortly after, she claims progressive Christians have redefined Christianity to the point they might as well just say it’s false. She brings up Tony Compolo’s son, who has recently come out as an atheist. Do we really want to go down that road? Do we need to name prominent fundamentalist/evangelicals, whose children became progressive or agnostic? Regardless, that one example is hardly representative.

She goes on to talk about progressives, “getting rid,” of things like the resurrection, the virgin birth, etc., and if so, then why shouldn’t one just come out and say the Bible and the Christian faith is false? She makes the common mistake all fundamentalists do, which is they can’t fathom the idea anyone could possibly interpret the Bible differently than they do. And the fact they do so, doesn’t mean they are, “getting rid” of those things or that they think they are false.

At the 10-minute mark, she tries to contrast her rather misguided view of progressive Christianity with what she thinks is the true version. She calls it, “historic Christianity.” I think my irony meter just shattered. Here we have a thoroughly modern take on Christianity (fundamentalism/evangelical) and we’re told it’s the original historic Christianity. Really?  So far, everything she’s told us isn’t “historic” in the least. It’s purely modern. In fact, it’s a religious copy of modern secular thinking applied to understanding the Bible and Christian narrative. Unfortunately, she’s oblivious to all this.

Around the 11:39 mark, she begins to tell us what she thinks progressive Christianity is all about, especially when it comes to the Bible. She seems to think the idea of “progress” put forth by progressives means God’s eternal truths change over time to fit what we want, rather than our changing to conform to those eternal truths. Such is not an accurate representation.

First, what most progressives believe is that while God’s truth (the ontological/intrinsic truth of God’s being and character) does not change (remember, truth is a person: John 14:6), but we as finite humans do change, over time, and that causes us to see, understand, and interpret those truths differently. This is what mature, healthy, growing people do.

At about the 13:20 mark, she begins to tell us what, “historic” is, with the caveat she is going to be selective in naming what is “historic” or not.  Oh, okay. There is talk of the ancient creeds, but she singles out 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 and the idea it was recorded not long after the death of Jesus.  She then reals off the beliefs contained therein. My response: So what? Many progressive Christians, I included, affirm those beliefs.

Somehow this segues from that topic into talk of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). What-huh?  How does the affirmation that Jesus died for our sins, translate to that single theory of atonement—and the idea this was the only view held by the early church? Exactly: It doesn’t. In fact, the earliest views of Christ’s death on the cross were articulated by the tradition we now call Eastern Orthodoxy and they certainly did not then, nor do they now, hold to PSA.

And yes, most progressive Christians do not hold to a view of PSA, because most of the early church fathers/leaders didn’t either. So much for the, “historic” view. PSA as articulated and understood by evangelicals like Ms. Childers, comes much later.  Yes, I’m aware of arguments to the contrary, but, again, it is mostly a modern view, or as currently understood, at least 16th Century.  You will forgive me if I take New Testament scholar/theologian/philosopher, David Bentley Hart’s view regarding PSA over Ms. Childers’s.

At the 17:40 mark, she tells us why she thinks progressive Christianity is dangerous. Her first reason is that it’s “infiltrating,” the church. Well, that alone doesn’t make something dangerous. If love were to “infiltrate,” the church, it would be a good thing. Using the word “infiltrate,” doesn’t make something dangerous; it is to assume something already is dangerous, without telling us why.

Then she mentions the cross/gospel and the Bible as where she sees progressive Christianity as dangerous. I will respond to each point:

  1. The Bible: She claims that progressive Christians do not consider the Bible “authoritative.” That’s just not accurate. None of the examples she gives demonstrate that progressives hold a low view of the Bible. What truly upsets her, like it does all fundamentalists/evangelicals, is that progressives interpret the Bible differently and view “authority” differently.

 

  1. The Cross: This is just the assertion, again, that PSA is the only true view of the atonement. Well, we disagree. So did the early church. Read some Eastern Orthodox theologians and historians. And the assertion there is no thought to the afterlife is false too. All one need do is read Rob Bell’s “Love Wins,” or David Bentley Hart’s “That All Shall be Saved,” along with too numerous other similar works to mention.

At 23:56 she attempts to tell us about the “classic” view of inspiration. Her understanding is no more “classic,” than thinking the book “Twilight” is “classic.”  She’s simply regurgitating fundamentalist/evangelical understandings of inspiration, which are thoroughly modern, and calling it the “classic,” view, which is just false. For more accurate information on inspiration and the Bible, see here and here.

At around 29:35, she claims that progressive Christians have a low view of apologetics. She doesn’t really explain why she thinks that, but then the discussion devolves into the idea that being “certain,” is better than harboring or expressing doubt. Interestingly enough, that sounds exactly like something Saul would have told us right before his Damascus Road conversion.

And progressive Christian are not afraid to, “land on an answer.” What they are afraid of is the people who land on answers, without a hint of humility or self-awareness they may be wrong, and then try and force those answers on others.  The world is tired of those type people.

I’m sure there are some who identify as progressive Christians who perhaps Ms. Childers describes accurately. However, I’ve never met one or read anything by them. She mostly flails here at a caricature of her own making, a myth mostly. It’s a question-begging interview for an audience who already agrees with her, conducted by an interviewer who is in, clearly, way over his head.

I will let whoever has the patience and fortitude to listen to the rest of the interview on their own. What I can say is this: When we think of the carnage in our culture at this present hour, the racism, sexism, violence, poverty, income disparity, failed response to the pandemic, and abuse of power at the highest levels, what is it that is truly dangerous? You know what has significantly underwritten this present moment? 81% of white evangelicals who view their faith much in the same way as Alisa Childers.

So which tradition, which view of Christianity, is truly dangerous?  I think we are actually living out the answer to that question presently.

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