Faith Palm

Faith Palm December 3, 2017


Hemant Mehta shared the image above, suggesting that this is how progressive Christians should advertise in the age of trump. I like it a lot, and yet am troubled by aspects of it. First and foremost, I am disappointed at the sense conveyed that this church merely reflects the values of its urban context. At times in the past, progressive churches have been the influence that made cities progressive. Moreover, I have never seen an example of progressive economics or politics in the United States that a Christian community ought to embrace or support uncritically because it so perfectly meshes with or represents their values. I also think the image of Jesus as saddened but passive, rather than vocally confronting the powers that be, represents and reinforces a particular vision of progressive Christianity that is quietly disappointed with current events, rather than outspoken and activist.

Even apart from those thoughts prompted by the billboard, I’ve been wondering about the terminology of “progressive Christianity.” It has become increasingly widespread and recognizable, although for some it is about a theological stance, and for others a political one. But even in those domains, there are multiple ways that the terminology of “progressive Christian” might be understood. That isn’t necessarily a problem, of course – “conservative Christian” and “Christian” on its own cover similar ranges and thus share the same ambiguity. Not all labels are precise, and it is very appropriate for the tent of progressive Christianity to be broad and inclusive.

There are of course conservatives who claim that one cannot be progressive in either sense and Christian.  And many (including myself) have emphasized that Christianity has always been inherently progressive in terms of its fundamental impetus and ethos, even if it has always had its conservative and regressive elements.

But I wonder how many people think “progressive Christianity” is the best term or label to encapsulate their viewpoint. I’ve been brainstorming lately about whether there might not be another term that is more precise or at least catchier. Do readers of my blog have any suggestions? If so, I promise to give you credit for it if I use it in a book I hope to write in the near future on this topic.

As I’ve said before, my preference would be to simply say “Christian” and leave it to others to define themselves over against the particular kind of Christianity that I represent if they are inclined to do so. But for the sake of clarity, adding an adjective seems worthwhile and perhaps even necessary. But “humble Christianity” seems, ironically, too boastful, and “spiritual troublemaker” doesn’t include the Christian part of it. And so I’d love some other creative suggestions for labels.

See my earlier posts related to this topic:

Original Christianity is Liberal Christianity

Fundamentalists Aren’t “Biblical”

Can Non-Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

Paul was not a Conservative Christian

The Well-Thought-Out Christian Rationale Behind Christian Acceptance of Gays and Lesbians

Agnostic Christianity: Faith for a New Year

Christians in Name Only

Putting the Con in Conservative


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TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Erp

    I’ve always wondered about the division of Patheos Christianity into Catholic, Evangelical, Mormon, and Progressive as though Catholics, Evangelicals, and Mormons can’t be progressive. Pew I notice uses Mainline Protestant. In addition it uses “Historically Black Protestant”, “Orthodox Christian”, and “Jehovah’s Witnesses”.

    • Yes, you are quite right that there is an oddity there, highlighted by the fact that there is no “conservative Christian” channel nor a moderate one…

    • Neko

      The Catholic channel on Patheos is downright reactionary. Having been raised in the Vatican II church I was shocked when I first encountered it. I consider it in the same league as the embarrassing Catholic TV network EWTN, devoted to culture war, conservative politics, and tedious, narcissistic ventures into theology. Several venues had a high tolerance for racists and neo-fascist commentators, but as a liberal and critic of the church I was banned from at least one site on the Catholic channel (though for what specific reason, I never knew).

      So I can certainly appreciate the need for a separate Progressive channel.

      • Erp

        I’ve noted that about the Catholic channel. What is there does not chime with many of the Catholics I know. On the other hand does having non-reactionary Catholic blogs in the Progressive channel make them “Non-Catholic”. I’ve also been confused about Fred Clark of Slacktivist who strikes me as an evangelical in the Progressive channel (he is both evangelical and progressive) and I wonder how long Warren Throckmorton currently in the Evangelical channel will remain there (he is still I think conservative by the Progressive standards but he has been quite open in bucking the Evangelical party line on certain issues and in particular not overlooking certain abuses by prominent evangelicals in the matter of money, counseling, and sex).

        • Neko

          You wrote: “does having non-reactionary Catholic blogs in the Progressive channel make them ‘Non-Catholic.'” No, and for all I know progressive Catholic blogs have cropped up on that channel. I rarely visit anymore. But from what I recall conservative Catholics dominate on Patheos, and conservative Catholics are obsessed with Catholic identity. They tear through an amazing amount of bandwidth hectoring self-identified Catholics they’ve judged not to be “real” Catholics (and they use the word “Protestant” as a slur). It’s basically tribalism, of course. Catholic tribalists have been easy marks for co-optation by “alt-right” theocrats, monarchists, born-again Russophiles and bigots. As you can see, I’m highly prejudicial. I consider the Catholic right radioactive and radically un-democratic.

          I don’t follow Slacktivist, though I admire what I’ve read of him, and, being a bit parochial, am unfamiliar with Warren Throckmorton. The name rings a bell, he’s probably well known. 🙂

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    For myself, “progressive” works insofar as it describes a philosophy and not a set of stances on issues. It denotes that what we think of as Christianity is not something static that ought to be frozen and preserved and passed down as is from generation to generation. While there might be a handful of things we think of as definitive of Christianity, we recognize that we are always coming to understand ourselves, our Scripture, and our world better as time goes on. The story of the people of God continues into different stages of world history. We should assume that Christian faith will not be composed of the same tenets, practices, or larger worldviews forever, and we think of that as a good, healthy thing that ought to happen.

    This is in contrast to the view that the tenets, practices, and larger worldviews are something static that should be more or less exported as is through the ages, and the more we tinker with them, the less faithful we become. This is a tack that became very popular fairly early on in the history of Christianity. The idea shifted from passing down our story and narrative into passing down our theology. I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that the canon was “closed” around similar time frames. Rather than seeing the Bible as a collection of helpful writings that told us the story of God and His people – something that by nature progresses and develops as the biblical texts themselves tell us – it became a comprehensive repository of trans-historical holy truth/propositions.

    Insofar as “progressive” serves as a label for a certain array of political positions or theological views, it’s less helpful to me. One person could believe every word in the Bible was specifically dictated by God, while another person could believe that there is very little relationship between God and the words that ended up in the Bible, and both could be progressive, by my lights, because it’s more a matter of how you believe the Bible (or mystical experiences, or councils, or whatever) “work” in the church in history.

    By way of analogy, we might think of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” in American politics. At core, they’re meant to describe two philosophies about governance. One group believes that we should continually be updating and improving our laws – constantly looking for good reasons to change – because our governance should fit our circumstances and knowledge as it develops. Things like the original intent of the Constitutional authors are not as important as how we need to interpret the Constitution, today. The other group believes that we should tinker with our laws and legal understanding as little as possible and only when strictly necessary, and the political reasoning of, say, our founding fathers needs to be carried over into our present circumstances as consistently as we are possibly able to do so.

    But these two philosophies produce a different body of results, and so the terms (as it seems to me) are more often used to describe people who hold to certain stances on particular issues, which produces interesting semantic combinations like the “liberal” view of gun control being more control of guns.

    TL;DR – I’m fine with the term “progressive” as long as we’re talking about a particular philosophy of history and how Christian doctrine and practice should work in that philosophy. I’m less excited about it as a descriptor for a collection of stances on particular issues.

    • arcseconds

      It seems to me the problem here is that ‘progressive’ is already in heavy use as a political label, and perhaps as a theological one, so picking out what you describe in your first two paragraphs is not how it is likely to be understood by anyone without an explanation, and of course many people aren’t going to listen to explanations, for various reasons. They will just see you describe yourself as ‘progressive Christian’ and assume a bunch of things.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Yes, you’re right. That’s been my experience.

        Unfortunately, the term “loyal opposition” has already been taken, too.

        • arcseconds

          ‘Transformative Christianity’, maybe?

  • John MacDonald

    “Critical Christianity”

    – like “Critical Scholars”

    • And like “critical mass” and “critical hit” – I like it!

      • John MacDonald

        Merry Christmas!

      • John MacDonald

        “Critical Christianity” could also carry the sense that Christianity’s message of loving neighbor and enemy, and caring for widow, orphan and stranger, is “critical” in these difficult, uncertain times.

  • arcseconds

    It seems to me that ‘progressive’ is already basically what you want here, and the ambiguity is actually an advantage? The political affiliation with ‘progressivism’ more generally is made clear, and presumably that is what you want.

    Political progressives have some broad things in common with one another, but the precise vision or relative importance of various issues do vary quite a bit, and of course there’s plenty of disagreement as well as agreement, so this also seems appropriate for progressive Christians.

    The fact that it is hazy on what it means theologically also seems like an advantage, as presumably if the point is to advance a caring society and resist hatred and callousness on the basis of Christian ethical principles, it doesn’t matter much if your allies are pretty traditional when it comes to theology. Who was it that said “I’m a theological conservative — and because of that I’m a political liberal!” or something like that?

    ‘Critical Christianity’ does sound quite good to describe your own particular brand, if you need that, but I think there are plenty of touchy-feely praise-song-singing Christians who believe in the power of prayer, Universal Love, and think they’ve met angels who would be excluded by that label but nevertheless attend places like St. Thomas and approve of the faith-palm image.

    • John MacDonald

      “Critical” is one of my favorite Philosophical words, not in the sense of “to criticize,” but rather as “to critique.” Hence, we have Kant’s “Critical Philosophy,” born as a response to Hume’s skepticism which Kant says awoke him from his “dogmatic slumber.” “Dogmatism” can be defined as “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” “Critical Inquiry” searches out dogmatism no matter where it tries to hide.

    • John MacDonald

      What do you think of this for a book title?
      Critical Christianity: Informed Belief

      • I like that a lot! I am not sure if that will be the best title for this particular book, but if not, I could envisage it being the one that follows it. Thanks so much for this fantastic suggestion!

  • Gary

    Critical Mass does indeed seem to be the best to describe progressive Christianity’s effect within a particular denomination. When the numbers hit a critical mass, the previously conservative denomination splits, becomes radioactive, and creates two totally new denominations, sometimes with explosive (or at least, detrimental effects), to the previous members (assuming “detrimental” means split, with all the accompanying financial and stressful effects upon members). Episcopals and Lutherans already split. Methodists, soon to follow.

    • Critical Mass could be what we call the liturgy at Critical Christian churches!

    • Gary

      The remaining elements (members), after reaching critical mass, have a half-life, with their numbers decreasing logarithmically, to an inactive state.

  • Paul E.

    Too bad “Mere Christianity” is already taken.