Fear of a Fundamentalist Planet
So quick, what is a Progressive Christian?
I can come up with two answers.
First, we are a bunch of Democrats who like to go to church and talk about God.
Second, we are NOT evangelicals/fundamentalists.
One of my favorite site to visit is Patheos. I tend to read from three channels: Progressive Christian, Evangelical and Catholic. It’s interesting to not how varied the Evangelical and Catholic sites are. I don’t agree with everything on their blogs, but they do leave me thinking.
When it comes to the Progressive Christian site, however, I never feel as challenged. Most (but thankfully, not all) of the bloggers seem to be not talking about the Christian life as much as being glad they aren’t fundies. Bloggers like Nadia Bolz-Webber, Bruce Reyes Chow and Steve Knight tend to write things that tend to be a little more thoughtful and a lot less strident and I am thankful for that. But most of the bloggers tend to be defined by being against conservative politics and fundamentalist Christians. What I don’t hear from many is talk about who God is, or what the Church is all about.
Another progressive blogger, Frederick Schmidt wrote a provacative column a few weeks back about how Progressives talk about God. Riffing off a challenge by Tony Jones, he lists various reasons why we have a hard time talking about God. His final reason is probably the most important:
Hidden behind the other dynamics that have made us reluctant to speak in a direct fashion about God is something more amorphous, but infinitely more powerful: the Progressive fear of being thought of as fundamentalist. Listen for any time at all to Progressives talk about their faith and you will learn far more about what we don’t “believe in” than you will learn about what we do believe: We don’t believe in being bigoted. We don’t believe in being homophobic. We don’t believe in creationist assumptions about the origins of the universe. We don’t believe in literalist readings of Scripture.
It’s not surprising then, to find that we are reticent to claim that we can or have heard God speak. It’s one more thing “those crazy, ignorant fundamentalists do.” So we certainly don’t do it.
None of this is surprising, of course. The label, “Progressive,” screams “not-fundamentalist” and implicitly makes the really rather silly historical claim that we became progressive thanks to a faith that—if it weren’t for our generation’s synergy of faith and learning—would continue to be narrow, repressive, and worst of all, fundamentalist. Frankly, I find the label self-important and a complete misreading of history which—without Christianity’s influence (not fundamentalism, just garden variety orthodoxy)—would not be marked by the characteristics we have supposedly “discovered.” Read, for example, Marcello Pera’s book, Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. But because we are hell-bent on making sure that no one thinks we are fundamentalist, we have jettisoned the notion that God speaks—wreathing it round with false humility and skeptical reserve.
It’s interesting to note how some of the folks I hang with tend to make fun of folks who talk about God. They go into some fake Southern accent and start talking about “Jeeeesus.” On one level it is funny, but scratch deeper and one wonders. I mean okay, so you don’t like their take on faith. But what is your faith? Can you talk about it? And if not, why?
I think that instead of running away from the label of Christian, progressives should be embracing it unapologetically. To talk about God, to state that you are a Christian doesn’t have to mean that you have to be a fundamentalist.
The funny thing is we progressives have a heritage that thought deeply about what it meant to be Christian in the world and they weren’t afraid to be Christians. We have a heritage of theologians like the Neibhurs and Paul Tillich and Karl Barth that is both progressive and orthodox and yet we have jettisoned it for some that is far more shallow.
If Progressive Christianity is to thrive then it needs to develop a theology, an understanding of God. We need to be able to define ourselves not by what we are not, but by who we are as children of God.
Being not-fundamentalists is not enough. It’s time to be Christians.