Tracing the Theological Core of a Movement

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.

Every so often, there's a family squabble among Progressive Christians. Over the past month, the tempest has been between the Rev. Jim Wallis and his magazine, Sojourners, and the Believe Out Loud campaign urging Christians to acknowledge publicly their support for LGBT rights.

To date, The Progressive Christianity (the online magazine I edit) has stayed out of the debate, but this week two columns appeared that we found appropriate to reprint. One is by a regular contributor, the Rev. Jim Burklo, associate dean of religious affairs at the University of Southern California, who pleads with Jim Wallis to reconsider his public stance. The other column was written by the Rev. Frederick W. Schmidt, an Episcopal priest and columnist at Patheos. It's of the latter column that I now write.

Disclosure: I know Dr. Schmidt and respect his work; several of his books sit on my shelf. In addition, I'm currently enrolled in a spiritual direction program that he leads at Perkins School of Theology. Consequently, what follows may seem foolhardy, if not downright suicidal academically, but it's offered in a spirit of healthy theological debate.

Questioning Theological Validity

In his column, Schmidt questions Progressive Christianity's validity as a faith movement. He argues that responses to the Believe Out Loud dispute show that the movement has no theological core and therefore does not qualify as religious. As TPC editor, I chose to reprint such a highly provocative column because I think he raises the kind of uncomfortable questions that all Christian movements should ask themselves from time to time.

Nonetheless, with some trepidation, I now must say that I find Schmidt's thesis—that Progressive Christianity has no expressed theological core—flawed. Here's why.

Today's Progressive Christianity has many stars: Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Diana Butler Bass, and Brian McLaren, to name but a few. Each of them comes at progressive Christian theology from different, but often converging, perspectives. Over the past decade, McLaren and writing partners Borg and Crossan have been particularly adept in the areas of Schmidt's critique, especially the nature of God and the reign of God.

Yet even with the exciting work of these contemporary thinkers, I contend that Progressive Christianity's theological foundation rests on the work of two often-unsung giants: James Rowe Adams and Delwin Brown. To learn about these two men is to discover how Progressive Christian theology has developed over the past quarter of a century.

Jim Adams, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, founded The Center for Progressive Christianity in 1994 while rector at St. Mark's Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. He's credited with coining the term "progressive Christianity" and with devising eight points that define the work of the center. Adams' original goal, "to keep churches from drying up and blowing away," has evolved through the past twenty-five years to include developing both adult and children's Christian curriculum that focuses on building relevant, effective, and inclusive faith. As expressed in the recent second edition of his book, So You Think You're Not Religious? (2010, Saint Johann Press), Adams' basic definition of "God" is not an all-powerful being "out there," but the experience of living in a community in which individuals struggle together to find meaning in life.

6/13/2011 4:00:00 AM
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