Why Am I So Annoyed By Progressive Christianity?

progressive christian

Anyone who has read this blog of the years, know that I have a bit of a beef with Progressive Christianity.

While it might sound like I don’t like Progressive Christianity, or that I want to move to a more conservative denomination, let me reassure you, I’m not going anywhere.

The fact is there are many reasons that I like running alongside Progressive Christians.  I love their support of LGBT rights.  I love their concern for the marginalized.  I love that they want to really study the biblical texts.  It’s for all of these reasons that I’ve been a part of Mainline/Progressive Christianity for 20 years.  This is my home.

And yet, I want to some times scream at my fellow travelers for being self-righteous, hypocritical jerks.

I know this sounds odd, but this is how I feel.

For a while I’ve thought I must be the only guy who feels this way.  But I’ve found someone else who feels the same way.  I’ve read this person’s blog post and it felt like I was reading my own writing.  He explains what bugs him about Progressive Christianity:

I think they make the following linked set of errors about what Christianity essentially is:

  • they (in my view) “moralise” the Gospel, turning it into an ethical system or teaching;
  • they politicise ethics;
  • they reject a theocentric account of the origin, nature and purpose of human existence;
  • they have an inadequate conception of the person of Jesus Christ.

Together these flaws turn the good news of our salvation into the bad news of ethical obligation, failure and condemnation. While I share a lot with them I find their teaching to be disastrously humanist and to deny the Gospel. That’s not so terrible in some ways since I don’t think, ultimately, that to be the most important thing, but together with my closeness to them on so many things it goes some way to explain my reactions, which I’m trying hard to control.

The writer then takes each point one by one, so I’m going to share each point and add a few words of my own.  First up is moralizing the Gospel:

by this I mean the idea that Jesus’ main work was and is to tell us how to live, to teach ethics. On this account Christianity is a school of philosophy on the Hellenistic model, like the Stoics or the Epicureans, where one learns how to be a good person.

I think there is a tendency to make the Gospel nothing more than about how to live an ethical life.  In reading Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel and N.T. Wright’s How God Became King, I’ve been reminded that the four gospels really can’t be read in isolation from the rest of the Bible.  It’s easy to ignore that Jesus story is grounded in the story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of God to make them a great nation.  The Salvation story didn’t start in Matthew 1, but in Genesis 12 as God gives birth to a people, the Israelites, who would carry on the salvation story to through the time of the kings and exile and then to one man, a Jew named Jesus.  This isn’t the story of how to be good, but a story of how God healed creation; how God brought humanity back into right relationship with God.

Progressives aren’t wrong on focusing on how Jesus crossed racial and ethnic boundaries, how he taught people how they should be loving to others, especially those who are poor.  And of course, being a Christian means being Christ-like or like Jesus. But focusing only on those things is really not seeing the whole picture and I think it leads to a rather anemic faith.

Second is the politization of the Gospel:

 I don’t deny that  Christianity properly has an ethical dimension or consequences. When we respond gratefully to what God has done for us in creation and in our salvation by Christ we strive to live into the Kingdom. What I don’t accept is the characteristic short-circuiting of the work of discerning what this means that associates progressive Christianity with a moralistic left-wing politics.

I became disenchanted with evangelicalism because of its ties to right-wing politics.  In joining the mainline church, I thought I was joining a church where Jesus wasn’t a Republican.  That turned out to be only half true:  Jesus isn’t a Republican, but he most certainly is a Democrat.

I know that sounds harsh, but there is some truth in it.  I’ve seen people who rightly denounce the melding of conservative politics with religion, but then don’t bat an eye in baptizing each and every progressive movement that comes their way.  If we don’t want faith to co-mingle with politics, then it means not allowing either conservatism or progressivism to take the place of God.

A few months ago, Michael Kruse noted the fact that Progressive Christians were quick to denounce President Bush’s policies, especially those regarding the war on terror.  What he found interesting was how many of those Progressives were silent about President Obama’s drone program.  Both leaders are doing things that are considered morally troubling, but for the most part only of them received open criticism from progressives.  What this and other episodes over the last two decades have taught me is that it is good and right to speak truth to power, so long as the power is one that you disagree with.

Next is the nature of human existence and the role of Jesus:

the key thing here is whether human existence can make any sense outside of a dependant relationship to God. My sense is that much of progressive Christianity has lost confidence in God and has turned to a humanist independence in which God plays little role…

the mysteries of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension are what enables the restoration of this relationship, broken by our sin. I believe that only God’s action in Christ makes new life possible for us.

My take is that a lot of progressive Christianity is rather deist in nature.  God is around, but I never sense God is personal.  One of the sayings I was used to hearing in the African American churches of my youth was went something like this: “God woke me up this morning and started me on my way.”  Maybe God wasn’t your alarm clock or makes the best coffee, but the statement was saying that God was intimate with us.  God wasn’t off somewhere far away, but very near and very present in our lives.  The sad thing is that I don’t always sense that from others these days.  Heck, I don’t even sense that in my own life these days.

This leads to a related point.  Is Progressive Christianity less passionate about God?  Do we tend to think our faith and tend to not “feel” our faith.  Evangelicalism has its problems, but one of the things I admire is their passion.  Faith has to be engaged by the head and this is something Liberal Christians do well.  But, it has to be engaged not only with our brains, but with our hearts.  That’s where Progressives tend to fall short.  There seems at times to be a suspicion of emotion when it comes to faith.  Relying solely on emotions can be dangerous, but only engaging the mind leads to a very passionless faith.

Another issue when it comes to deism is the whole “Jesus of History/Christ of Faith” that was made famous by the Jesus Seminar.  My issue with this is that it makes two mistakes: it reduces Jesus to a historical figure and then it makes Christ an idea rather than the King who frees all creation.  The Jesus of History/Christ of Faith seems to only further keep God distant and out of our daily lives instead of someone who cares about us and is intimate with all of creation.

Our intrepid blogger leaves us with one more irritation:

This brings me to the (possibly) rational element of my irritation. My impression is that progressives tend to think that their Christianity is more mature,  more thoughtful, more sophisticated than any alternative. I disagree. I think they haven’t thought it through to the bottom and would do well to spend some quality time with Nietzsche. He would show them that ethics cannot stand alone, that it is self-delusion and hypocrisy. The explicitly or implicitly claimed superiority of the language of “maturity” and “progress” annoys me.

This paragraph comes close to some of the things that have bothered Lillian Daniel.  Progressives aren’t the only part of Christianity that thinks they are better, it’s just that they are the ones I have to live with day-to-day and I wish they would just get over themselves.  You aren’t all that.  Maybe if you go and work with the poor and don’t draw attention to yourself, I will claim you are superior, but until then, wipe that satisfied grin off your face.

This post is hard to write because it affects some good people I know.  I’m not looking to slander folks.  I like most of what Progressive Christians stand for.  But I want to see a more meaty faith lived out by humble and sincere folks who don’t look down on others and don’t come off as smug.  I want to believe Progressive Christianity can be better than what it is, I believe it has it within itself to take faith more seriously.  I have to believe that.

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8 thoughts on “Why Am I So Annoyed By Progressive Christianity?

  1. Again, Dennis, I am so thankful for your thoughtful articulation. I have also experienced and been frustrated by this, and I appreciate your observations and writing!

  2. A few brief thoughts.

    I buy lots of the criticism, especially works without grace which is a real problem with politicized forms of Christianity. Of course, the reason the left and right are such, in the church, undoubtedly has to do with our common origins in Calvin, who saw the whole world as the place for God’s redemptive work (but then we substituted us in the process).

    But I’m going to defend the Christ of faith/Jesus of history division precisely because as you say, it makes Christ into an idea. It should be. We have little or no access to the historical Jesus as a person (despite the attempts of the Jesus Seminar, I haven’t seen much luck in that venture). What we do have is an idea, a story, a way God is seen in Jesus as presented in the Gospels and throughout church history. A story of salvation. That story, as much as it describes what we, in fact, experience every day is an important one even a true one. It describes something about the world we live in as such, points out something we need to get a handle on if we would have life abundant.

    As for deism, etc. I would hope, or at least I’ve found, in my own church work, that an immanent God is one that indeed wake us up every morning, In that, process thought has helped me in speaking of a God in which we move and have our being. Thus the language of mystery and the unknown, while theologically sound doesn’t speak to me much. We have so much of God that do experience, in the known, that we have a lifetime of work to live into that. That is to me much more interesting.

    As for personal religious experience, I think a good number of progressives and conservatives and folks in between seem to have such experiences. I have little of them. I think somehow my faith is more like the old 50s model of mainline liberal protestantism that we’re all trying to get away from or told we should. As an aspie, my own take on this, is suspicion. That is, when religious faith is supposed to generate certain feelings or when feelings become the predominate mode of authenticating one’s religious faith, I’m out of the loop there. That may say more about me, but I have to think there are others as well in that boat and that finding a space for that way of being religious is important too.

    Dwight Welch
    Sheridan WY

    • As for deism, etc. I would hope, or at least I’ve found, in my own church work, that an immanent God is one that indeed wake us up every morning, In that, process thought has helped me in speaking of a God in which we move and have our being. Thus the language of mystery and the unknown, while theologically sound doesn’t speak to me much. We have so much of God that do experience, in the known, that we have a lifetime of work to live into that. That is to me much more interesting.

      As for personal religious experience, I think a good number of progressives and conservatives and folks in between seem to have such experiences. I have little of them. I think somehow my faith is more like the old 50s model of mainline liberal protestantism that we’re all trying to get away from or told we should. As an aspie, my own take on this, is suspicion. That is, when religious faith is supposed to generate certain feelings or when feelings become the predominate mode of authenticating one’s religious faith, I’m out of the loop there. That may say more about me, but I have to think there are others as well in that boat and that finding a space for that way of being religious is important too.

      Dwight, thanks for your thoughts. I should add that as a fellow aspie, feeling my faith has only happened a few times. I think for people with autism, it’s hard to describe what feelings faith brings out, though they are there. I guess what I was trying to express in my own life is that faith has to be more personal and intimate than simply a mind excercise. It doesn’t have to generate feeling per se, but it should generate concern or care in our own unique way. Does that makes sense?

  3. This is a very well written blog post and I’m pleased to discover your blog by virtue of it being “freshly pressed.” I too have had some of the same thoughts and have written about similar issues.

  4. Hi Dennis, I read your post and I think the disconnect is the definition of “Christian.” It seems that some “Progressive Christians” yearn to define progressive christian as someone slightly more socially open minded (pro-gay for instance) and slightly more open theologically (accepting that the bible is not inerrant for example). But PC has become much wider than that, and there are a lot of PC’s who are even agnostics or atheists but from a Christian background, and who want to remain in community and salvage some of the teachings, tradition, and virtue – but who dont believe a single core tenant of mainline Christian creeds or belief statements. I think progressives need to be accepting of a wide variety of understandings and focus on whats common instead of what divides.

    Btw, a few of us have started a Google+ Community called Progressive Christian Blogs where you can share posts like this and find quality discussion a good way to connect with others of like mind. You can check it out here: https://plus.google.com/b/103703198049627345452

  5. Maybe this is why someone like Nadia Bolz-Weber is gaining attention. We in the liberal church needed the reminder that we don’t save ourselves.

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