This essay is the first in a projected series of reviews of books that claim to present a progressive view of Christianity. Some of them may be familiar to my readers but others will not. Today I will examine a book on the far-left end of the theological spectrum: David A. Kaden, Christianity in Blue: How the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Theology Shape Progressive Identity (Fortress Press, 2021, pp. 168). Kaden is the “senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Ithaca, New York.” (from the back cover). His congregation is affiliated with the United Church of Christ. Kaden is highly educated (M.Div. and Ph.D.) and has taught religion in colleges and universities. He is well positioned to represent the left most extreme of progressive Christianity.
Kaden first describes progressive Christianity in general and then in succeeding chapters deals with the progressive view of Scripture, God, Jesus, Paul, and the church. I will summarize each of these chapters as concisely and faithfully as I can. Afterward I will make some observations.
Chapter One, “What is Progressive in Progressive Christianity?”
This chapter weaves autobiography into his explanation of progressive Christianity. Like many progressives, Kaden began his journey in evangelicalism. He holds degrees from Messiah College and Gordon-Conwell Seminary. As he continued his theological education at Harvard and Toronto, he abandoned evangelicalism and adopted progressive views. The first mark of progressive Christianity, then, is rejection of evangelical/traditional Christianity. Unlike evangelicalism, Progressive Christianity focuses on “this life and on changing this world for the benefit of people now” (p. 10). Progressives do not accept the Bible and the Christian tradition as authorities by which to determine Christian truth but “as compelling conversation starters” (p. 13). Everyone is welcome to join the conversation and continue the journey of life together. Emphasis falls on acceptance, diversity, and compassion rather than repentance, conversion and discipline. This first chapter raised a question that kept coming up as I read the book: Why bother with the Bible and the Christian tradition at all?
Chapter Two: “Of God and Bubbles”
Kaden begins chapter two by disabusing us of the idea that the Bible, the Christian tradition, theologians, or anyone else can speak about God directly. Kaden quotes approvingly a statement by Peter Rollins: “Speaking about God is never speaking of God but only ever speaking about our understanding of God” (p. 25). Language about God is language about language about God. In Kaden’s own words, “The Bible and Christian tradition recount what ancient people said about God, morals, and religious practice, not what any of these things actually are” (p. 47, emphasis original). The Bible is full of contradictory statements about God and God’s actions. God is the God of war who orders the genocide of his enemies and the God of love seen in the self-giving of Jesus. Our task, argues Kaden, is to “struggle” with Scripture:
Progressive Bible interpreters and preachers who speak to and for communities of faith have an ethical responsibility to privilege those elements of biblical God-talk that highlight the best in God and God’s relationship to people, especially society’s most vulnerable: the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed, the gender nonconforming, and the hated (p. 46).
The word “God” means different things to different people, and there is no normative statement of truth about God one must confess to embrace Progressive Christianity. The word “God” is evoked by our sense of connection to the mystery at the heart of being and life (p. 61).
In reading this chapter I kept thinking, “Why bother with the Bible and the Christian tradition at all?” Drawing on his theory of language as symbolic expression of our sense of mystery, Kaden explains how he can embrace traditional Christian language even though he does not believe it imparts propositional truth:
But it is also why we can fully embrace our rich heritage as Christians, including its most orthodox manifestations. God incarnated in human flesh in the person of Christ is quintessentially relational—a God who dwells among us and is discovered in the faces of the people we meet…is fully present with us, breathing life into and through our communities and our personal interactions. And God as triune implies that God is an eternal, interacting relationship (p. 55).
That is to say, Progressive Christianity claims to be authentically “Christian” because it uses the language of the Bible and the Christian tradition as its central symbols to expresses its sense of the mystery of life and being. Bear in mind that Progressive Christianity does not claim that these symbols (God, Christ, Trinity, Incarnation, etc.) are true in the way a proposition can be true or false; nor are they superior to other religions’ symbols in expressing the mystery of life and being for those religious communities. To use a common postmodern expression, Christianity is “true for me” or “true for us” Christians but not true for everyone.
Chapter Three: “Pictures of Jesus”
As the title of the chapter foreshadows, Kaden views the four Gospels as different portraits of Jesus comprised of impressions, memories, and traditions about Jesus interpreted in light of the experience of the early Christian communities. “The gospels,” Kaden, opines, “are presentations of Jesus written decades after he died and thus reflect the values and interests of the writers and others who compiled them” (p. 75; emphasis original). They differ in narrative detail and in emphasis and often conflict with each other. But this historical problem does not matter to Kaden:
To state the matter plainly, the Jesus who matters is not the Jesus we think we can reconstruct from the sources of the ancient past but rather the Jesus we proclaim today using the pages of Scripture as our starting point (p. 78).
We are not bound by the gospel writers’ pictures of Jesus. Progressive Christians “creatively borrow, edit, update, and rework those same gospels that are grounded in tradition to make Jesus speak to us today” (p. 82). And what is the criterion by which we reconstruct a Jesus that can speak to us today? In addressing this question, Kaden borrows a phrase from the 2016 film Their Finest. It tells the story the screen writers of a WW II propaganda film promoting the war effort. They discovered to their dismay that the central event of the film was apocryphal. One of the writers Tom Buckley justified producing the film anyway because “we pick our truths” (p. 64). What matters is not the historical truth but the emotional impact of the story. Kaden applies this theory to the stories of Jesus:
When we pick our truths as we interpret the New Testament gospels, our responsibility as progressive Christians is to privilege those portions of the gospels that depict (or paint) Jesus in ways that are consistent with the boundary-crossing message we find in Mark’s story of the touching of the leper and Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan” (p. 88).
It does not matter to Kaden whether it is historically true that Jesus touched a leper or told the story of the Good Samaritan. What matters is the way these stories dramatize a view of human relationships—compassionate, tolerant, and affirming—that progressivism takes as normative. That is to say, we have a progressive message and we “pick our truths” from the traditions about Jesus that can best serve that message.
That recurring question surfaces again: if you do not come to know or ground your “truth” in the historical words and deeds of Jesus, Why talk about Jesus at all? Why Christianity?
To be continued…
What another eye-opening, almost “eye-poking” start you make with this continuing topic… quite superb thank you!
– Shall try not to go off on a tangent.
Your thoughts on this current book are thought provoking.
Immediately, you send me to John 16:7-8 et alia. And how we might fondly preach, in the words of Jesus, perhaps at the supper table, or recounted in Acts, etc ” – prepare ye to receive the Holy Spirit!”.
Oftentimes it’s the “prepare” that we neither read, understand nor act upon.
Increasingly, one meets the type you mention who don’t or haven’t even thought about examining scripture for exactly how they might begin to do so.
It would ” be better for them if…”
Thanks again Ron.
Blessings to you and all yours.
As always, thank you for your encouragement! These issues require careful thought and much self-control. I hope to maintain these standards throughout this series.
Just to be absolutely clear.
I’ve many friends, acquaintances, church goers and christians that i respect very much. Love them too!
In our intimate conversations, group meetings and prayers there is now an abundance of opinion and confession amongst the more ‘progressive’ ones that they admit to being disappointed- to put it politely- that “they feel nothing” when regarding what they come to believe shines from others.
Whilst they’ve done everything that their churches, preachers, and elders prescribe, still, they have nothing at all like what they feel others’ describe as “the Holy Spirit indwelling.”
This was my point.
You’ve alluded to this as something which stems from a ‘pick and choose’ attitude of fundamental trinitarian doctrine allied to these types.
May i stress this, in relation to what i replied first. And didn’t want to seem overly critical. It was Jesus who declared ” it would be better for you, that i send the HS”.