“Good orthodoxy leads to good orthopraxy” is a common aphorism wielded among conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. It’s frequently worded in a more aggressive manner: “without proper orthodoxy, there can be no proper Christian discipleship.” These claims intend to convey that unless people believe certain doctrines and dogmas – and in a literal way – they are incapable of engaging in doing good in the world. Moreover, such declarations also seek to convey that if, for some freakish reason, some humans do happen to engage in good acts in the world without giving intellectual consent to a proscribed set of truth claims, those good acts are accidents and “don’t count” – they aren’t enough to be saved (get into heaven).
Examples of these truth-claims that conservatives claim must be agreed with include:
– Jesus is literally God – one and the same.
– Jesus’s mother was literally a virgin when she birthed him.
– Jesus literally walked on water, turned water into wine, and raised people from the dead.
– God is all-powerful and intercedes in the world, performing literal miracles which defy the laws of physics.
– There is a literal hell where some souls spend eternity in fiery torment.
– Jesus was born to be killed as the requisite sacrifice needed to atone for human sins, and that the literal shedding of his blood was necessary to meet this need (any form of execution that didn’t involve him bleeding would not have been sufficient).
These beliefs require subscribing to the theologies of supernatural theism and the penal or substitutionary theory of the atonement.
Progressive Christianity rejects both supernatural theism and the substitutionary theory of the atonement. Such rejections are considered blasphemous and heretical to conservative Christians, as they have no form of Christianity that doesn’t embrace those theologies. Such Christians have lived sheltered lives, oblivious to the reality that the 66 books of the (Protestant Bible) – convey an even greater number of theologies. They are uninformed about the variety of Christianities which existed prior to the era of the creeds and doctrines that began when the Roman Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity (in 313 A.D. – and eventually co-opting it to give Divine sanction to Empire). They are unaware that no Church Council in Church history has ever ruled that any one theory of the atonement is the “one, right, true,” and/or “correct” one. And they are unaware that the moral influence/example theory of the atonement is fully supported by verses in the Bible.
Given that state of unaware dogmatic slumber, we progressive Christians who are unjustly rebuked and condemned by conservative Christians can take heart in recalling words attributed to Yeshua of Nazareth as he was dying on the cross – “forgive them for they know not what they do.”
I provided the following working definition of progressive Christianity in my book Kissing Fish:
“Progressive Christianity is an approach to the Christian faith that is influenced by post-liberalism and post-modernism and:
-proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as Christ, Savior, and Lord;
-emphasizes the Way and teachings of Jesus, not merely His person or his death;
-emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence;
-leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism;
-emphasizes salvation here and now instead of primarily in heaven later;
-emphasizes being saved for robust, abundant/eternal life over being saved from punishing hell;
-emphasizes the social/communal aspects of salvation instead of merely the personal;
-stresses social justice as integral to Christian discipleship;
-takes the Bible seriously but not necessarily literally, embracing a more interpretive, metaphorical understanding;
-emphasizes orthopraxy more than orthodoxy (right actions over right beliefs);
-embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery — instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines -and dogmas;
-embraces the insights of contemporary science;
-doesn’t consider homosexuality to be sinful;
-and does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God (is nonexclusive).” p. 63
You’ll notice the mention of panentheism above. It’s a form of theism that has a long history within the Christian faith and is fully grounded in the Bible; e.g., the apostle Paul’s describing God as the one “in Whom we live, move, and have our being.” This theological perspective recognizes that the Divine is fully immanent within all Creation as well as being fully transcendent from it. As I shared in Kissing Fish:
“Panentheism doesn’t embrace traditional Christian understandings of the “Omni” qualities attributed to God by some of the early Christian theologians who were influenced by pagan Greek philosophical ideals. God isn’t understood as omnipotent (all powerful). Rather, God is viewed as very powerful – as powerful as God can be and be in authentic relationship to us. It might be said that in creating humans God relinquished some of Her power to us to allow for the possibility of real and genuine relationship.
Similarly, in the panentheistic view God isn’t understood as being omniscient (all knowing) either, at least not how that’s been traditionally understood. If God has given us free will and agency, and genuine relationship with God, then God can’t know everything in the future. In other words, God knows all that is possible for Her to know given that She’s turned over some of Her power and agency to humanity. This is still an awful lot of knowledge. It is with this knowledge of the past, the present, and the likely and probable future that God seeks to influence us through the Holy Spirit toward the most ideal and beautiful options in each and every moment.
I can’t speak for all of progressive Christianity, but (as I wrote in Kissing Fish in 2011, p. 85) I would like to introduce a new “omni” quality for God, perhaps to override the “omnis” that have been displaced or reinterpreted – “omniamo” or “omniamare” or “omniamant”) – all loving. If there is one essential and consistent theme throughout the whole of the Bible it is God’s love (“amo”). We see that God loves us unconditionally like a protective parent, like a wooing lover, and like a committed lover. God loves us incarnationally, down to earth, and relationally. God loves us like a friend. In sum, God loves us like a God worthy of humans loving Her. We also see that God calls us to love in these same ways, to love ourselves and to love others, as God loves us. Indeed, one of the shortest verses in the Bible is one of the most profound: “God is love.” (1 John 4:8).
Progressive Christianity tends to endorse this form of theism because it corresponds better with the fullness of the biblical text, the writings of the earliest Christian theologians and mystics, the insights of contemporary science, and with many people’s lived experiences of God.”
Yes, orthodoxy does matter, yet our conservative friends don’t have a monopoly on it. Moreover, I suggest that what they hold as orthodox is often an adventure in missing the point, a missing the forest for the trees that leads to the bad fruit of a false orthopraxy of being judgmental, rigid, and inquisitional, – even to the point of the sin of sodomy – being unwelcoming, inhospitable, and oppressive – which is the last thing we need in the Church.
Many progressive Christians embrace the first Creation myth found in Genesis Chapter 1:26, where it says, “And God said, let us create humans in our image,… and God created them, male and female.” The Hebrew word for God here is Elohim which conveys the plurality within the Divine – including the masculine and feminine. We also celebrate how the Divine self-references with the expansive pronouns “us” and “our.” This, coupled with Jesus’ call to embrace non-gender conforming persons (Matthew 19:12); and Paul’s reminder that “in Christ there is no male or female,” helps us embrace and celebrate the full diversity of humanity – including all sexes and genders. Good orthopraxy.
The doctrine of the Trinity is paramount to conservative Christians and some of them claim that progressive Christians reject it. That may be true for those who are unitarians, yet many progressive Christians can and do believe Jesus was Divine (in the way that you and I are), and concur that he’s the 2nd person of the Trinity. Progressive Christians honor and celebrate Jesus as a unique and fully incarnate manifestation of God. We live and move and have our being in God, so did Jesus. Many of us view the Trinity as a beloved Christian poem of who God is – ultimate reality which is in dynamic, loving relationship. This view doesn’t see the Trinity as asserting literal ontological reality, but rather as deftly worded devotional poetry. Yet poems don’t literally define things. Like all art, and theology, they point to what is beyond them. Viewed in this way, we see the Trinity reminding us that we exist in relation to others – and that we are called to love ourselves and others dynamically and lovingly. Good orthopraxy.
Taking the Bible seriously is another tenet of conservative Christian orthodoxy. And, while progressive Christians don’t consider the Bible as inerrant, infallible, or dictated by Jesus or God, we do just that – take the Bible seriously. We see Jesus’ repeated instructions (and actions that demonstrate them) to love – ourselves, our neighbors (especially those in great need), and even our enemies and those teachings lead us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to prophetically speak truth to power and work to reduce the number of people who are hungry, naked, unhoused, or in prison. Good orthopraxy.
It’s important to realize that none of the people described as experiencing salvation in the Gospels – and in the entirety of the New Testament – subscribed to any of the “required truth claims” our conservative friends insist upon. The orthodoxy that matters is an orthodoxy of the heart – not the head. It’s being open to the inner knowing of God’s omniamo all-loving presence in our lives and living accordingly.
XX – Roger
Adapted from the original article “All-Loving – A Better Doctrine,” Progressing Spirit newsletter, January 19 2023
 I refer to these as “pagan” Greek ideals with a bit of sheepish delight. I don’t normally use the word pagan as it’s usually judgmental conservative Christians who wield that term – and they use it in a dismissive manner. I appreciate the irony of pointing out a truth such persons aren’t aware of – that what has become “traditional” Christian theology is greatly borrowed from non-Jewish and non-Christian sources. During the Middle Ages, the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers were “discovered” by the Church – writings that had been kept preserved by Muslims. Much of what has come to be considered “Christian orthodoxy” is actually Platonism. See: Daniel W. Graham and James L. Siebach, “Philosophy and Early Christianity,” 210-212; Cook, “How Deep the Platonism,” 269-286 in Farms Review of Books, vol. 11, no. 2 (1999).
Adapted from the original article “All-Loving – A Better Doctrine,” Progressing Spirit newsletter January 19 2023
Rev. Roger Wolsey is a certified Spiritual Director, United Methodist pastor, and serves on the Board of Directors of ProgressiveChristianity.Org. He is a contributing writer for the Progressing Spirit newsletter, and author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity
His new book, Discovering Fire: Spiritual Practices That Transform Lives, will be released April 4, 2023.
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