What Does It Mean to Be a Progressive Christian?

I sat with a small group of colleagues one Saturday to engage in the discussion.  We describe ourselves as “Progressive Christians,” but we wondered:  what does that really mean?  As expected, there were a wide range of opinions and insights.

It helps to know that all the members of the group have been engaged in ministry for a couple of decades each.  The group is diverse:  African-American, Korean, Japanese descent, and Caucasian women and men.  We each have very different theological education but we all agree that the traditional theological categories make little sense today.  The traditional categories we learned represent social contexts and understandings about life that are no longer held today.

For example, the foundation of much of Christian theology was articulated when people believed that Earth was the center of the universe and that humanity was the height of God’s creation.  Today we know that Earth is a minor planet in the far reaches of the universe and circles an ordinary star.  In addition, we understand that the ages of humans as the dominant creature characterizes this geological era, but there have been other era and other dominant creatures. Also, homo sapiens are only one species of humans in the genus of human beings.  In other words, the understanding of the human context in the universe has changed.  As Progressive Christians, we recognize that our understanding of God must also change.

As a group, it was easy for us to affirm that Christianity is but one wisdom and faith tradition that holds truth for human living.  It’s the tradition of which we are part, but that doesn’t make it better or worse that other paths, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, or Islam.

We also agreed that the essential importance of Christianity is found in the teachings of Jesus as a moral and ethical guide to living.  Throughout the teachings of Jesus, major themes are quite clear:  carrying for others, giving of self, and treating those marginalized in society with deep respect are hallmarks for what it means to be Christian.

As I thought more about this, it struck me how essentially different Progressive Christian is from the very popular American Evangelical Christian understanding of Christianity.  Among American Evangelicals, salvation in the after-life is more important than anything else.  Salvation is achieved by asking Jesus to come into one’s life and heart.  The funny thing about this Evangelical concept of salvation is that it’s not something that can be found in the teachings of Jesus.  Instead, the teachings of Jesus were real life and practical.  It’s pretty clear in the Gospel attributed to John, where Jesus is recorded as saying, “By this will others know that you are my followers:  by your love for one another.”  Even in the Gospel attributed to Matthew, the final judgment at the end of time is based on what people did for others.

I think that the faulty foundation of American Evangelical Christianity has resulted in Evangelical Christians holding positions that appear to be askew from the Biblical tradition and life in the twenty-first century.  American Evangelicals believe that Jesus was born to die for the sins of the world and so that individuals can go to heaven. If that’s true, then essentially everything that happened between his birth in Bethlehem and the cross of Calvary has not merit.    Instead, as is the practice of Evangelicals, a person can simply ask Jesus to save you and it’s all good.  There’s no need to do the difficult work of putting oneself in second place and put those in need ahead of my interests.  If a person isn’t bound to follow the mandate of Jesus to care for our neighbors as exemplified in the story of the Good Samaritan, then there’s no need to root our prejudice from one’s own life.

For me, as a Progressive Christian, what’s fundamental for being a Christian is striving to embody the way of life Jesus taught.  It’s not about pie-in-the-sky-when-we-die.  Instead, it’s the realization that God’s realm is here and now. As a Christian, it’s critical for me to live in a way that’s rooted in the care of others, our planet, and those who will come after me.  After all, that’s the way of living taught by Jesus.  In the end, my colleagues came to the same conclusion.  It’s that which makes us Progressive Christians.

What’s most important in Christianity?  Going to heaven or treating people well on Earth.

(Photo credit: the Italian voice via Foter.com / CC BY)

© 2017, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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4 Responses to What Does It Mean to Be a Progressive Christian?

  1. Donald Nickerson says:

    It’s good 😊 to make clear the two majors of liberalism: care for the poor, sick, disenfranchised, and marginalized; and care of creation! So often responsibility is translated into dominating instead of management based on intimacy with the managed! The big difference that I really think should be considered is the attitude and practice of intimacy, empathy! Intimacy with others leads to intimacy with my self and to a transformation in our view and vision for life!
    Thanks for opening this discussion!😎

  2. Wendy Caduff says:

    I am a lay ecclesial minister in the Roman Catholic tradition, and have been ministering for 25 years. Your thoughts are spot-on for a Catholic lens of the world, salvation, and how to approach discipleship. Building the Kingdom in the here and now; this life matters! And caring for and advocating for the refugee, the immigrant, the poor, the marginalized.

  3. Lou says:

    Thanks for your response. I appreciate it. Lou

  4. Lou says:

    Thanks, Wendy. Indeed, there’s a great deal of consonance between Catholic social teaching and Progressive Christianity. Lou

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