For the past weeks I’ve been writing about specific features I’ve encountered in ‘progressive theology’—specifically, a certain view of love and relationship, and a concept of blaming tradition itself for certain abuses. In discussion with a few people, I’ve been pressed to provide a definition of what I mean when I talk about ‘progressive theology,’ and I’m going to try to do that today. Please note that while I disagree quite strongly with what I see in progressive theology, my goal today is to attempt to give it a charitable rendering. In other words, I hope that a progressive reader would find himself or herself unobjectionably described herein.
Before anything else, let’s talk about the word ‘progressive.’ For most of my life, and in an ongoing way in political discourse today, the dividing line between ideologies is rendered most often in the terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Liberal politics, like liberal theology, is theology ‘of the left,’ on the socialist and ethically progressive side of the scale, while conservative politics (and theology) is ‘of the right,’ and espouses some kind of capitalist, ethically traditional perspective on politics and theology. For a variety of reasons, I find these labels unhelpful when describing theology. First, because they are so trenchantly tied to political blocs, it seems all too easy to associate—and perhaps even identify—a theological position with a political one. In this, it is worth remembering that there is a long and upstanding tradition of Christian Democrats (e.g., Billy Graham), as well as a long a sordid tradition of Pagan Republicans (e.g., fill-in-the-blank). Some of these associations dispose us to errors in describing theological positions when we describe them as liberal or conservative. Second, many features of the ‘liberal’ agenda are deeply Christian—such as care for the poor, prioritization of human rights, and a disposition that aligns itself (at least ostensibly) with those members of society most likely to be abused by powerful systems of government. Whatever problems we might identify with ‘liberal’ theology, they aren’t these, and therefore I think it might be helpful to separate what is ‘liberal’ from what is ‘progressive.’
For similar reasons, I also find ‘conservative’ to be an unhelpful theological label. ‘Conservation’ can imply retreat and protectionism, and can sometimes reflect nothing more than a doubling down on the status quo such that ‘conservative’ can imply simply ‘opposed to change in any form.’ Another label to be avoided is ‘orthodox,’ if only because to use it implies an automatic value judgment for its opponents (i.e., they are unorthodox). Additionally, to claim a position is orthodox, in a formal theological sense, means that it falls within the boundaries of creedal and conciliar Christianity. The proper antonym for orthodox is heresy, and to be a heretic means to adopt a theological position that has been declared a heresy by the Church (e.g., Arianism, or Nestorianism, or the like). For these reasons, and many others, I prefer the label ‘traditional’ as an opposite to ‘progressive’ in describing theology. Moreover, ‘traditional’ theology (as we will see shortly, I hope) differs in each of the key aspects which define ‘progressive’ theology.
A final aside before we begin. Naturally, these are my observations about the features of progressive theological thinking. They are formed from my reading, my conversations with progressive thinkers, and especially from my quiet observation of a few highly progressive online communities. Nothing that I say, of course, amounts to the level of a kind of formal sociological study—these are simply the things I see when I observe this phenomenon.
I perceive five characteristics that define ‘progressive’ theology:
#1) Progressive Theology operates with a certain conviction of the progress of theology. In some ways, this may seem obvious (since progress is embedded in the name), but it is worth making explicit. As a methodological lynchpin, progressive theologians view the theological task as a developing, progressing one. We know more now than we knew then, and that which we know now ought to have significant impact on how we formulate theology. For example, we know more about evolution than did the author(s) of the Genesis account, and that new knowledge ought to shape our reading and interpretation of the text. We know more about human rights and dignity, and that ought to shape our reading of texts which permit slavery in the Old Testament (and fail to condemn it in the New!). We know now that women and men are equals in every respect, and that equality ought to shape our praxis and belief regarding women in the church. We know more about human sexuality, and our new knowledge ought to force a readjustment of our teaching and attitudes towards persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. However you may feel about these individual issues, in each of them a similar methodological turn is at play—new knowledge forces a reinterpretation (sometimes radical) of what was previously thought. At their heart is a belief in a certain kind of progress. Put theologically, the Scriptures and councils of the Church spoke for their times but do not necessarily speak for our time. In this way, the Spirit continues to speak in fresh expressions (much like an ongoing fulfilment of the Acts 2/Joel passage) which continuously develop our theological understanding.
#2) Progressive Theology prioritizes experience on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. If you don’t know, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a way of viewing sources of authority in Christianity. It has four sides which together support Christian belief: scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. In its original formulation, scripture sits at the bottom of the quadrilateral as a foundation, while tradition, reason, and experience form secondary considerations in theological discourse (i.e., they each answer to scripture). For progressive theologians, however, experience is given a position of priority. Put simply, the lived religious experience of individuals has more value than an ancient text. If I encounter a homosexual individual who has a robust and visible relationship with the Lord, that lived experience ought not to be invalidated by a text or a tradition. Alternatively, in stories that are quite common, Christians with traditional views of human sexuality change their minds when one of their children comes out as gay. In fact, to validate the text over against the person is viewed as a form of dehumanization, and may even look (to the progressive theologian) a lot like Pharisaism (holier-than-thou adherence to a tradition that is far removed from and neglects the lived experience of the people). Within this preference for experience seems to be embedded a deep suspicion of religious authority, manifesting itself in distaste for traditional arguments from scripture, and for expressions of hierarchy or patriarchy. It may be from within this metric that progressives find themselves viewing traditionalists as oppressive, or even repressive.
#3) Progressive Theology prioritizes a certain interpretation of the love commandment in all theological/ethical thought. In line with a belief in progress and a prioritization of experience, progressive theologians/Christians emphasize the love commandments as the final word in Christian ethical debates. Since the Old Testament is full of commandments we don’t follow (boiling goats in mother’s milk, wearing mixed fabrics, etc.), and since the New Testament appeals to a new law of love which transcends those old commandments, all we need to think about is the new commandment. God is love, and love is all. This ought to manifest itself especially in love for one’s neighbour, particularly one’s downtrodden, poor, or oppressed neighbour. When a traditional Christian critiques the progressive Christian on scriptural grounds, this ethical prioritization activates, and the question of ‘which is more loving?’ is commonly utilized to navigate the dispute. For the result of the dispute, see the comments above on Pharisaism.
#4) Progressive Theology commonly prioritizes its progressive elements in witness. When progressive Christians witness, they commonly foreground those elements where they believe progress has been made—they preach inclusion, and LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality, and advocate for female clergy, are often pro-choice, and may describe themselves (and their theology) as “woke.” This makes sense—if you believe that the Spirit has moved in a new way in the present, and that this new way includes all of these elements, then you will want to celebrate these new elements in your public witness. Personal sin and salvation regularly plays a reduced role in progressive Christian witness.
#5) Progressive theology is impatient with ‘regressive’ theology, viewing it as a kind of bondage. This is of course a clear parallel to #4, but to the degree that you are convinced that a) you are an agent of progress, b) that the lived experience of individuals is of more value than dead tradition, c) that the love command is paramount, d) that this ought to be preached loudly and clearly, then it follows, e) that you will regard traditional theology as a kind of bondage. In fact, you may well view traditional theologians as modern day Pharisees, attempting to bind the common man to a law he cannot keep, and which God does not mean him to keep. Progressive Christians sometimes view themselves as liberators, and in line with that there is commonly an impatience, if not an outrage bordering on vilification, with which they regard traditional Christians.
There is, doubtless, much more to be said about progressive Christian belief than this, but perhaps this is a helpful start. I have refrained so far from criticizing any of these features, if only because my intention has been to maximize the charity of my presentation. In view of this, I will limit myself to the briefest of criticisms now. First, most importantly and essentially (and as I mentioned before), I am deeply suspicious of the narrative of ‘progress.’ In the past two thousand years there have been a host of ‘advances’ which were not advances at all, or at least were not advances that altered Christian belief. I struggle with a narrative that invites so much discontinuity not only between the Old and New Testaments, but between Christian belief and practice from the ancient world until today. ‘Progress’ very often is simply a representation of what is ‘popular,’ and as Inge said, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” Second, as a traditional Christian theologian and thinker, I am disposed from the start to distrust experience. That’s the reason we prioritize Scripture—it provides a foundation against which to measure the vicissitudes and changes in personal experience (which is fickle), as well as with tradition (which occasionally goes wrong), and reason (which can be deceived). Third, while there is great merit in focusing on the love commandment in Christian life and practice, it still means that we have to define what ‘love’ is, and to define what love is we’ve got to appeal to a source of authority. That source for traditional Christian thinkers is a complex formulation based on love as it is defined in the Bible (manifested especially in love for God as our sovereign Lord), and then worked out in theological history. Fourth, traditional theology prioritizes the saving event of Christ in its witness (whether through preaching or eucharist) and views the prioritization of any other issue—no matter how valuable in itself—as a serious impediment to the proper work of the Church. Fifth and finally, traditional theology sees itself as forming an allegiance with God against the world in its bondage, while progressive theology often appears to align itself with the world against the Church.
So, what do you think? If you identify as progressive, does this describe you? If you identify as traditional, does this help you to better understand your progressive friends? I’m curious to hear your response.