Since I finished my recent review of Roger Olson’s book Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity (July 15 and 19, 2022), I’ve wanted to write something on “progressive Christianity.” As you might recall, I criticized Olson’s book for not describing “Progressive Christianity” in detail. In the intervening month I looked for books, podcasts, and essays to see if I could detect a central theme or principle in self-described “Progressive Christian” materials. I discovered that progressive writers are quite diverse theologically. And this can be very confusing because liberals are always progressive but progressives are not always liberal. That is to say, some progressives deny outright or radically reinterpret traditional Christian dogmas while others confess them. What, then, do all progressive Christians (liberals and non-liberals) have in common that makes them “progressive”?
What Makes Progressives Progressive?
My answer to this question must be somewhat tentative at this point. But I will advance an opinion that may need refinement with further study: The “progressive” label as it is applicable to both groups refers to moral rather than theological matters. All progressives believe in the possibility and the fact of moral progress. Christian progressives believe that certain moral insights of modern progressive culture are morally superior to the church’s traditional moral teaching even if that teaching appears to be based on the Bible. Among these progressive changes are looser attitudes toward divorce, gender identity, casual sex, abortion, and homosexuality.
I dare say that most Christian progressives could not explain why modern progressive morality is superior to traditional moral teaching. Tradition just “feels” wrong to them whereas progressive morality “feels” right. Traditional morality “feels” oppressive, intrusive, judgmental, unfair, unrealistic, inhumane, and antiquated. And it produces unhappiness. Progressive morality breathes freedom and allows each person to seek happiness in their own way. And it frees Christians from having to play the role of the “morality police.”
It won’t come as a surprise to readers of this blog when I charge that Christian progressives find progressive morality compelling because they have–whether they realize it or not–internalized the fundamental anthropological principle that has animated the progressive movement for over 300 years:
In its inner essence the human being is free from all alien limits. Its self-appointed task in life is to liberate itself from all external limits and actualize its unique, inner self in the world. Its happiness depends on completing this task.
According to this principle, moral progress in a society is measured by how much self-determination it grants to individuals to pursue their happiness through self-actualization of their inner selves. Needless to say a progressive society will not inhibit the individual’s quest for happiness and, indeed, it will fight against all who would hinder this quest.
Are Progressives the New Evangelicals?
Modern evangelicalism was invented (perhaps reinvented) after WW II by evangelist Billy Graham and theologian Carl F. H. Henry. Between 1925 and 1947, “fundamentalism” had become a term of abuse hurled at conservative Christians. After the Scopes Trial, it became abundantly clear that the fundamentalists had lost the cultural battle and had been exiled from the mainstream to the cultural “backwater” of small town and rural America. Many fundamentalists dusted off their feet and retreated to their cultural islands. Fundamentalists were pictured by the national media as Bible-thumping, science-denying, overalls-wearing hillbillies. After the War, Carl F. H. Henry called on conservative Christians to return to the cultural center of American life under the name of evangelical. Evangelicals founded journals, learned societies, and colleges. They became professors, doctors, and lawyers. By 1976 they had become a significant force in American politics.
After 1990, however, the cultural influence of evangelicalism leveled off and began to decline. After 2010, that decline accelerated so much that the term “evangelical” has become in 2022 analogous to the term “fundamentalist” in 1922. For those enamored by progressive culture, evangelicals are homophobic, transphobic, climate-deniers, and white supremacists. Are such contemporary progressives as Jim Wallis, Jen Hatmaker, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Rob Bell attempting to do to evangelicalism what Carl F. H, Henry and Billy Graham did to fundamentalism? Do progressive Christians aim to become the new evangelicals?
I conclude with a quote from a recent critic of progressivism:
For many departing evangelicals, progressivism feels new, fresh, and relevant. But it is actually not new at all—progressivism is only a replay of old-line Protestant Liberalism. This matters because their Protestant Liberalism is among the fastest dying religions in the world. Evangelicals are coming to Liberalism at exactly the moment that Liberalism is proving to provide no real life (David Young, A Grand Illusion: How Progressive Christianity Undermines Biblical Faith, Renew, 2019, p. 14).
I belief Young is correct in his contention that progressive Christianity is unstable and will lead inevitably to liberalism. Let me make a prediction: Progressive Christianity will not become the new evangelicalism. When a departing evangelical runs out of evangelicalism they achieve too much inertial force to stop in the half way house of progressive Christianity. They will move rapidly into liberalism and from there on into secularism. The progressive principle is not consistent with any philosophy resembling Christianity, for it is the deification of humanity.
Thanks for all the thoughtful essays. I am thankful for your research and perspectives. In reading this one, I thought I would suggest an edit–perhaps it would be best to refer to “the late Rachel Held Evans” since she passed away in May 2019.
Thank you. I did not know this. I edited the essay to reflect this sad news.
Yes, this topic is not just interesting- but can affect and lead us to question our fundamental beliefs, which as Christians is possibly the most important thing in our being? Is it not?
And so, i’d like to beg an indulgence from readers (and Ron). It can be hard to think about, let alone visualize these matters upon which we focus our ‘being’. Especially with the complicated words and their meanings which are often used, with this in mind, why not try making a diagram (as follows)? …
Go on have a go! Try this and please let me know what you feel.
Turn a sheet of A4 paper sideways and draw four small dots, equally distanced along the centre of the paper horizontally. Use a ruler it will help [ . . . .]
Along the bottom of the page, number the dots 1-4 left to right.
Now. Draw a spiral circle starting 3cm (1.5 inches) around dot 1 and move the spiral inwards until it reaches the dot. If you can, keep it regular so that the spiral lines are a uniform distance apart (see legend later). Make the dot in the centre a bit larger.
Now, dot 2. Do a similar thing but start with a 3.5cm ( straight line above the dot, and keep turning the line through 90° ( like a zig-zag maze) making the line shorter atfter each corner, until it reaches the centre dot. Make the dot bigger.
Now dot 3. Draw a complete circle centred around the dot at about 3cm (1.5 inch) radius, draw another at 2cm, and a smaller third one with a dotted line only. Enlarge the dot.
Lastly, dot 4.
Draw any shape you like, say a hexagon if you can, and rub out the centre dot. It’s the process that counts here!
Finally, let’s write the legend on our diagram. Underneath dot 2, the maze, you can write ” representation of a practical religious path to transcendence, or conversion ( or even God if you like) by study, worship and faith”. You may notice that if you put a point P, in the midsection of any straight line with an arrow marking along your route- that on the second part of the line, you are moving AWAY from God. Thusly, we can think of dot 2 as a practical and empirical, arguably scientific, representation of a Pauline- Christian epistemology.
No more work from me now. It’s all yours.
YOU NOW LABEL YOUR OWN DIAGRAM.
One dot is a ‘perfect’ path or unattainable ‘church’; one dot is ‘the’ church ( past, present and future), and one dot is progressivism.
Blessings to all. Enjoy!
pure mathematicians may note that in the limit, ( x= side length) dx=>0, dot 2 is indeed dot 1.