What Is Progressive Christianity—And Why Do We Need It?

It’s the logical outcome of 200 years of biblical and scientific findings that lead us to a time and purpose where Christianity is understood anew as being informed by our age and informing our age.

Rev. Steve Kindle

In a nutshell, Progressive Christianity recognizes that the world has moved on in its understanding of how the world works—and that Christianity hasn’t. Most denominations and many Christians still live in the 4th century of the church. That is, they accept the creedal formulations of that age, as well as the prescientific worldview, as relevant to our own, even though they are based on understandings that our age longer finds credible.

Since the Nicene Creed (325 CE), we have learned our planet is round (spherical), and the sun is the center of our solar system; the earth is billions of years in the making; that humans, as all of life, emerged through a process of biological evolution; that germs cause disease, that the universe is expanding and there is nothing beyond it. All of which is not only unknown in the Bible, but it teaches the very opposite. Unfortunately, many Christians refuse to accept these realities. They deny evolution, teach that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old, and still live in a three-tiered universe with God “up there” and hell below us. (Yes, and some even refuse medical help and prefer “faith healing.”) 

We no longer go to a doctor to get bled or to rebalance the humours that cause disease, but we accept the formulations of 4th-century bishops who relied on notions of Greek philosophy to determine the nature of Jesus’s substance. We know the rotation of the earth is what causes the sun to appear to cross from east to west, but accept the story as literally true that Joshua commanded the sun to sit still.  We know from centuries of archeological evidence that there was no Israelite conquest of Canaan, but continue on as though it happened.  All these examples (and plenty more) are not intended to demean the Bible. Rather, they point to an important truth: We have forgotten how to read the Bible as it was originally conceived and, instead, expect it to deliver literal truth, when this was never its intention.

Progressive Christianity offers searchers who accept the modern scientific worldview a way of respecting it and how the Bible and Christianity can be relevant in this world. Many of our churches advertise themselves as a place where you don’t have to leave your brain at the door. In fact, Progressive Christians revel in the questions life presents and understand that whatever we think we know is always tentative and in need of further clarification. You may find principles among us but not creeds that define what you must believe. That’s that old way of doing Christianity that only leads to triumphalism, elitism, and division.

What are some of the principles that unite us? We need to be clear that Progressive Christianity is not monolithic, and represents many different points of view. But there are some things that most would find hospitable. Here are a few:

How one understands God is the source of how one understands self, others, and the world. Progressive Christians tend to be Theocentric, that is, they ground their theologies in the nature of God. This is the approach of the Synoptic Jesus, after all. The following sentence is not designed to shock, but to clarify. God does not exist. God is not an object, a thing that exists like every other thing. Rather, God is the subject of all things. Perhaps Paul Tillich summarized it best with, “God is the ground of being.” It is out of God that all things exist. Luke has the apostle Paul favorably quote a Greek poet that “it is God in whom we live and move and have our being.” To put it succinctly, if we see God as Creator, we are not; to try to assume the role of our own god is to succumb to hubris and ultimately fail. As creatures, therefore, we are part of God’s creation and are obliged to treat it as such. If we see ourselves as loved by God, we must also know that this same love is bestowed on all; therefore, we love our neighbor, even our enemies. These are simple, yet profound, truths that invigorated the church for centuries but have been lost in our day. Progressives seek to restore them.

God is seen as transcendent and immanent. God is wholly other than any aspect of creation, yet resides wholly within it. Since the universe is a self-contained whole, God must be not only part of it but within all of it. God does not reside beyond it “looking down upon us.” Being in touch with every aspect of creation means that God relates to all things, and this certainly includes you and me. God is as close as our breath. 

Jesus lived as close to God as anyone can and, consequently, is able to model what a life fully devoted to God looks like. This includes his teachings and actions. You may recall that the Apostles Creed (accepted in the late 4th century) moves from “Born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” with no mention of his teachings or acts.  This creed occurred at the time when Jesus’ humanity was being eclipsed by those who elevated his divinity.  We see the movement away from Jesus’s humanity as significant, as it further removed him from humanity in general. As disciples of Jesus, we seek to model our lives after his. This is all the more difficult if he is seen as divine, a reality we humans can never participate in. To recover Jesus’ humanity is a particular emphasis of progressive Christianity.  In this, we move away from a religion about Jesus and into the religion of Jesus: God-centered, love-driven, and inclusive of all. 

Just as people of the Bible lived according to their understanding of the world, we must live according to ours. This is not a repudiation of the biblical worldview, but a recognition that there is no other way life can be lived. To try to do otherwise is ultimately self-defeating. The differences between the biblical world and ours illuminate why we need to move on from it, yet offer us ways to make sense of our own. The fact that ancients wrote that God created the world in six days may miss the evolutionary point (as well as the poetic sensibilities), but it does point to God as the reality behind creation.

The Bible is the record of certain humans’ encounters with the divine, and as such is a rich source of spiritual wisdom that can transcend the ages. It discloses points of view about God and humanity that resonate today. The inspiration of the Bible comes from our relationship with the stories and the people, not from any supernatural input from God that directly resulted in its words. The sense that God dictated the Bible turns it into a legalistic text that functions more like law than grace. Rather than seek the presence of God in our lives, as is the case of the biblical characters, we then become those who must obey the text. Progressive Christians see these as mutually exclusive.

Salvation is oriented to this life, not the hereafter. This is not to deny an afterlife, but we believe that God’s purpose is for the earth not only to prosper but thrive. The Kingdom of God is to be found “on earth as it is in heaven.” Therefore you will find many progressive Christians assisting in various programs intended to move people out of poverty, promote equal rights, establish economic justice, and promote world peace and unity. Progressives also work against the despoliation of the earth, recognizing that it is for everyone’s benefit, not just for those who have the means to exploit it. The continuation of these unjust situations creates for millions of people what can only be described as a “hell on earth.” Progressives want to save people from this hell.

It should be obvious by now why progressive Christianity is needed. The problems of our world are great and not abating. Under the auspices of Christendom (post-Nicene Christianity), the world continues on its way to destruction. Progressive Christianity is not a magic wand that will make all our problems disappear, but it offers a new beginning, one that envisions a “this world” orientation that can inspire others to rethink their standing in the world and unite with the God of Jesus in whom all are equally loved and whose wellbeing is the first concern. And where all are committed to living as though this is true—because it is!

Of course, there are hundreds of more topics we could include. In due time, we hope to get to most of them. Stay tuned! We have a free gift for you. See below.

We at Faith on the Edge provide pastors and congregations with means to develop these progressive themes. We do so through a series of videos that lead viewers through the process of seeing the Bible in new ways. Ways that enlighten and transform.

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2 thoughts on “What Is Progressive Christianity—And Why Do We Need It?”

  1. Amen to everything here! With a two year old and a four year old and a farm it may take me a while, but I do look forward to working through your offerings. Blessings upon you as you continue to create content.

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