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My Affiliation (and Disenchantment) with Progressive Christianity

Image by hobvias sudoneighm

Image by hobvias sudoneighm

Whenever someone asks me to label my political or religious affiliations, I always tell them that I’m too liberal for my conservative friends and too conservative for my liberal ones. The truth is, I really don’t want to be labeled.

I get why we classify each other—it’s convenient. If I can quickly put you in a category, I’ll instantly know how I should deal with you (or maybe dismiss you altogether).

Of course it is dehumanizing. I mean, who am I to disregard your life experience and your ability for nuanced thought and assume that I know all about you from some rashly applied label?

I had someone in my life reconnect with me on Facebook recently. This person is proud to identify as right-wing, and she had read my blog and gone through my news feed and decided that I was a progressive. The fact that I was an ideological opponent became the whole of our relationship.

It frustrated me because there never seemed to be a desire to really understand where I was coming from. She had already determined what I believed. Eventually we just parted ways because the constant barrage of bickering became too much.

Am I a progressive Christian!?

The writings of many writers and bloggers who would be considered “progressive” resonate with me greatly. I don’t know that it’s because of their answers as much as the freedom they allow themselves in asking questions. My own conservative background handed my theology to me in freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped, ready-to-consume containers. Orthodoxy was a narrow road and free-range thinking was the first step toward wandering off it.

I wrestled with a lot of suppressed questions, and many of them remained unspoken. I can remember the frustration of feeling like my head was haunted—I just couldn’t quiet the anxiety-ridden voices struggling to make sense of all the things that I was supposed to believe. And then I read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren . . .

Through Brian’s writings, I fell in love with a savior whose kingdom was big enough for free-range thinking. I didn’t have to be afraid to question the status quo. I wasn’t alone, and thank God, I wasn’t crazy.

Do I consider myself a progressive? Well, I suppose if there’s a spectrum of dogmatism, I fall a little more onto the progressive side.

Dealing with disenchantment

Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.”—Pete Townsend

I want an inclusive faith, but in my conservative background, inclusive was a bad word—after all, the church’s purity does need to be protected. The recent struggle in Arizona for legislation allowing businesses the freedom to deny services to LGBT individuals is not foreign to my old way of thinking.

There was an often unspoken litmus test of acceptable viewpoints: were you pro-military? Pro-second amendment? Anti-abortion? Pro-capital punishment? Anti-gay marriage? Anti-entitlement program? Complementarian?

More and more I struggled with aspects of all of these stances. Embracing the charity of the progressive movement seemed like a logical way for me to maintain my sanity while working out my feelings.

But it wasn’t too long before I saw the weaknesses of the progressive movement. The same kind of vitriol that conservatives aimed at those who wanted stricter gun laws was showing up in the progressive movement. In their ideological wrestling match against the right, there was a new litmus test forming.

The movement that had drawn me in with their love of charity was far from charitable when it came to issues with the right. In some ways it was like I had stepped into a mirror of my past experience. Experience is teaching me that, although the unacceptable questions are different, it isn’t always safe to ask certain questions of progressives either.

Blessed are the peacekeepers

Like anyone else, I am in the process of becoming. I have to believe that my posture towards Christ, understanding of Scripture, and the natural inclinations of my heart are leading where I need to be. We’re not always going to agree, but does it have to always be so contentious? Do we have to demonize each other?

To my conservative friends: Maybe it isn’t your job to play referee for the kingdom of God. I wade through your often dismissive arguments often, and I can never understand how you can so glibly drop a Scripture like you’re dropping the mic (I actually had a blog commenter tell me, “I am speaking for God.”). If you spent as much time trying to understand as you do wanting to be understood, maybe we could have meaningful dialog.

Also, bear in mind that the progressive movement is a loose affiliation of individuals who are struggling with different areas of church teaching and thought. That’s often the only thing tying them together. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that there’s a collective and static progressive theology—there isn’t.

To my progressive friends: I think the onus of civility lies with us. Questioning the status quo has always brought a backlash, and to be honest, the progressive movement has often majored more in grilling sacred cows than it has in actually building a foundation of beliefs. That’s fine. In fact, that’s the typical way new movements evolve. But realize that when you begun the work of deconstruction, it’s actually painful, confusing, and frustrating for people who rely on that structure.

I realize that many of our evolving views are born out of abusive situations, but we can’t let that be an excuse for acerbic and condescending conversation. If we want to build a platform based on inclusivity and charity, it’s got to be toward all. Even those who wish us harm. Ultimately, treating those who wish us ill with mercy is the gospel’s hallmark.

We all need to remember that it’s not our homogenized conformity that’s going to show the world that we’re his disciples, it’s how we love each other.

Image by hobvias sudoneighm

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13 Comments Post a comment
  1. “If you spent as much time trying to understand as you do wanting to be understood…” Do I detect some Prayer of St. Francis? Nice.
    I totally agree with your position. I usually lean more progressive and oddly enough I’ve found more Christian ethos in a few agnostic and atheist writers than in most conservative Christian authors. But I also can’t stand the progressive tendency to dismiss the Gospel as a fable outright or all Christians as a superstitious, anti-science flock.

    March 4, 2014
    • Thanks for the comment Alex.

      I hate to come off less sophisticated than you give me credit for, but that’s more Stephen Covey than it is St. Francis—but due north is due north no matter who points it out,

      March 5, 2014
    • Gary Pete #

      “like”

      April 2, 2014
  2. Linda Doyle #

    Amazing!

    The struggle of the Christian who goes against the status quo was explained so well. Along with the pitfalls and responsibility needed to move into new territories of thinking and in doing so causing the least amount of turmoil as possible.

    Thank you!

    March 5, 2014
  3. I am speaking for God and also all of the deceased presidents when I say this post is great.

    Kidding, but really, good job.

    March 5, 2014
  4. Wow, have you been eavesdropping on my life? I grew up in a Christian family, and I have remained a Christian to this day — despite growing up in a Southern Baptist church in the ’80s. I’m literally the only one in my family who supports gay marriage. A couple of weeks ago, I sat at my aunt’s house while practically all of my mom’s side of the family talked about homosexuals they knew and gay marriage, and they all had this incredulousness as well as disdain for gays who go to their church. It’s like they could not comprehend how someone could be gay and still consider themselves a Christian.

    One of my long-time friends is a lesbian. She didn’t come out until several years after we graduated from college. Some of her “friends” wanted nothing more to do with her. Despite her upbringing in a Southern Baptist church, she no longer believes in God. She is married (not legally, of course) to a woman and they have a daughter together.

    As I listened to my family I could feel myself getting more and more upset because what if my friend ever wants to come back to the church? What if she were to come to believe in God again and renew her faith? My family would be talking about her the same way. And it crushed me.

    What was even more upsetting is that I couldn’t jump into that conversation to defend anyone. I mean, I could have, but I just didn’t want the ramifications of all that dialogue. Plus, this family gathering wasn’t about debating gay marriage. It was to support my dad because he had gotten a bad medical diagnosis.

    Yet, I couldn’t help but get upset, and luckily I was able to slip away to the bathroom.

    However, I have non-Christian friends who have criticized Christians display of their religion in public places. One friend complained that students practiced prayer at the flag pole at her daughter’s school when it wasn’t sanctioned by the school district. It was simply a group of students who gathered at the flag pole to pray.

    I do feel the tug of war from both sides. It’s extremely frustrating. You definitely hit the high points of what I feel like in the middle.

    March 5, 2014
    • Thanks for weighing in, Carla. You’re right—it’s frustrating.

      March 5, 2014
  5. I’m too liberal for my conservative friends and too conservative for my liberal ones.
    This is how I feel ALL THE TIME. Thanks for summing it up well.

    March 7, 2014
    • Me too Brenda! Sometimes I feel like I live in a no man’s land by myself, but it’s good to know I’m not completely alone.

      May 7, 2014
  6. Denise #

    “I wrestled with a lot of suppressed questions, and many of them remained unspoken. I can remember the frustration of feeling like my head was haunted—I just couldn’t quiet the anxiety-ridden voices struggling to make sense of all the things that I was supposed to believe. And then I read A New Kind of Christian by Brian McLaren . . .”
    This was exactly my experience. I’m forever grateful to Brian for helping me begin the journey I was too afraid to start, and I’m grateful for voices like yours that encourage us along the way.

    May 7, 2014

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  1. What I’m Into: March 2014 | With His Hands

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