Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series in which Drew Smith, director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., examines what it means to be a progressive Christian.
In my last column, I told briefly my story of being a progressive Christian by first describing why I am a Christian and why I continue to choose to be a Christian. The thing that has been my saving grace, that which has kept me from abandoning my faith, is that I have chosen to identify myself as a progressive Christian.
As a way of describing what I mean when I say I am a progressive Christian, it might be helpful to begin by differentiating, at least from my perspective, how being a progressive Christian is dissimilar to being a conservative or liberal Christian. I do not consider myself either, although I might identify more with the liberal side if I were forced to choose between only those two. Yet neither of these is satisfactory as a label I apply to myself.
In my effort to describe my impressions of conservative and liberal Christians in such a short space, I will inevitably stereotype both groups. My intention, however, is not to suggest that either group is homogeneous. Rather, I am attempting to highlight what I view as basic characteristics of each perspective.
Conservative Christians remain resolute in holding onto the traditional beliefs of the Christian faith and typically believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. They are rarely, if ever, open to new ways of understanding the faith and are usually resistant to seeing the truth in other religions.
They tend to exclude others who think differently from them. In their minds, if the Bible says it, that settles it, and no one should question it. I reject this perspective as being too rigid and antiquated.
Liberal Christians, for the most part, tend to reject any notion of the supernatural. Many liberals discard the notion that the Bible has any real influence on our faith. Their approach to faith is very individualistic and they tend to promote the idea that whatever one wants to believe is acceptable. They may also view all religions as essentially the same, which they are not. I find this approach to faith too weak and to some extent unthinking.
For me, the term progressive Christianity suggests a faith that is moving forward; a faith that is progressing toward what God desires from and for humanity. Yet, at the same time, progressive Christians do not negate the value of the past and especially the sacred text of that past.
Indeed, when it comes to the Bible, progressive Christians are different from both conservatives, who place too much authority on the Bible, and from liberals, who reject the Bible as having much validity at all.
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Instead, progressive Christians take the Bible seriously but not always literally. As a progressive Christian, I am interested in doing the serious work of biblical interpretation that values the Bible as a sacred text, but that also understands these texts as having a human origin.
Progressive Christianity is not about intellectually accepting a set of propositions about God, Jesus and the Bible in order that we might go to a place called heaven when we die. In fact, being a Christian is not about life after death, whether in a place called heaven or a place called hell, if these even really exist. Rather, being a progressive Christian is about being transformed by Jesus’ teachings and way of life. It is about finding one’s existence as a follower of Christ in this life. It is about living one’s life here and now.
Moreover, the idea of being a progressive Christian implies one who is open-minded to new and different ways of knowing and experiencing God. Instead of simply declaring that this or that religious idea is truth, as a progressive, I am more interested in the conversations about what truth is and how we find it. I am more interested in the journey on the path that will lead to truth than in saying I have found that truth.
Thus, as a progressive Christian, I cannot assume that the way I think about God or the way my religion tells me to think about God is definitive. Human knowledge about the divine and the language we use to describe the divine are limited, and any revelation a religion may claim to have about God is also limited. No sacred text is any more valid than the other in the claims it makes about God, for all of them, including the sacred text of Christianity, are human ways of expressing how humans understand God.
But perhaps the greatest reason I am a progressive Christian is that I find at the heart of Jesus’ teachings not a message of forensic salvation from one’s sins, but rather a message of transformation that leads me to deny myself, take up my cross and follow him in self-giving service to others.
Thus, as a progressive Christian, I accept the reality that it is humanly difficult to love, serve and embrace others. But instead of being a conservative who judges, rejects and condemns others or a liberal who preaches an ineffective message of tolerance, I must struggle in my journey of faith to be more inclusive and embracing of those I am called to serve.
In this sense, progressive Christianity is certainly about spiritual transformation, the transformation of the self. But it is also about social transformation – transforming our societies in ways that reflect the central ideas of Jesus: love, compassion, inclusion, justice and peace.
Thus, I make no apologies for being a progressive Christian. I am happy in my own skin. But more importantly, as I continually reflect on the central teachings of Jesus, I find progressive Christianity to be a more faithful reflection of Jesus and more realistically relevant for our world.