It wasn’t true, of course. In the reactive dialectic that is the relationship between fundamentalist and progressive Christianity, each one has its object for judgment. Only the criteria and the targets differ. And, over eight decades of strife, those judgments have inevitably included their opposite number in the Protestant world. The prejudices are so pervasive that they are now unexamined – fixed positions in a reflexive battle.
Not surprisingly, in this volatile atmosphere the debate between them has also distorted the message each offers. Broadly speaking, fundamentalism has stressed personal salvation and the private benefits of the Gospel – healthy homes and families, personal fulfillment, purpose-driven lives – heaven hereafter. Meanwhile, Progressive Christians have stressed the social relevance of the Gospel – care for the poor, justice, social transformation – heaven here and now. Fundamentalists have privileged theology and Progressives have stressed social engagement.
But like other groups locked in such formative conflict, they also share at least one common characteristic: Their argument for embracing the Christian faith is pragmatic, utilitarian and anthropocentric and therein lies the reason that both risk distorting the Gospel.
Let me explain: I have no doubt that the Gospel has implications for our personal lives. I have no doubt that it has implications for the shape of the world in which we live. But I am also clear that the work of God should be seen from a theocentric, not an anthropocentric perspective. Put another way: The redemptive work of God is larger than my life or yours. It is also larger than our society.
So, while the Gospel is incarnational and is enfleshed in time and space, it is never divorced from the larger will of God and no one moment – personal or social captures everything that God hopes for humankind. Stretching across millennia and around the globe, the redemptive purposes of God are ultimately about bringing us and, along with us, both heaven and earth into conformity with God’s intention for us. So, it is only in giving ourselves to the purposes of God that we learn exactly what that might look like.
The task of remaining available to the redemptive work of God requires both rigorous theological work and social engagement. In a world that is increasingly spiritual but not religious, Christians need to be clear about the distinctively theological reasons we are who we are and, equally, our common life should reflect a rigorous, if inevitably imperfect effort to live in faithful response to what we believe.
What ought to give both Fundamentalists and Progressives pause, is the humility that comes with recognizing that the will of God is larger and far more demanding than either side imagines. It’s that lack of humility that has kept Fundamentalists and Progressives locked in a conversation that distorts both group’s proclamation of the Gospel. It is time that they looked beyond the arena shaped by their differences.
But will they? I doubt it. Both sides feed on it too deeply. But both sides should remember a few things:
One: It is not a debate of any interest to those outside their circles who are Christians. Roman Catholics and the Orthodox could care less, never mind Christians of any stripe beyond the confines of the church in the United States.
Two: People outside the church don’t care. As long as Fundamentalists preach a Gospel that makes promises that can be achieved through good therapy and Progressives preach a Gospel that can be achieved through the right kind of politics, why would they?
Three: The global church will move on. There is nothing that is failing faster than the white church in the United States, right and left, preoccupied as it is its own shared animosity. And in a world that is far larger and far removed from that almost century old debate, Fundamentalism and Progressive Christianity are on track to batter away at one another in ever shrinking numbers and strength.
If things don’t change, the future of both camps will be in the hands of the actuaries and the paleontologists.