There was a time when I considered myself a liberal Christian. As I made a break with the Evangelical church, it was very natural for me to seek out more progressive expressions of the faith. I still believed in God. I still read the Bible. I still wanted to follow Jesus in a lot of ways. Ultimately, though, after several years of trying to be a liberal within the Church, I had to stop. Either the churches I attended were too conservative, in which case I was always "in the closet" about what I believed, or they were too liberal, to the point where I didn't see any real center or driving passion to what these churches were doing. These liberal churches just seemed "wishy washy" to me. I didn't want to hear a 10 minute homily on "love" and be fed democratic politics every week. At the end of the day, I didn't even really know why I was coming.
Right now I am comfortable outside the Church, practicing Centering Prayer. I do occasionally attend Quaker meetings, which consist of one hour of silence. No dogma, no real doctrine, just an openness to the Spirit. I continue to believe that the experience of God is real and that I can be led and changed by that experience.
But I also like to keep my finger on the pulse of the Christian world. Even though I didn't feel like I fit going to a liberal church, I do still enjoy reading Christians from the progressive side of the faith.
Defining a progressive Christian is a difficult task. Typically, when someone says they are a progressive, it means they are reacting against some doctrine of the conservative Church. In The Evangelical Experience, I contrast conservative vs. liberal/progressive Christianity as follows:
"A conservative is more likely to believe that: (1) the doctrines of the church are literal and true, (2) the Bible is literally the Word of God in a way that is unique among religious literature, and (3) their tradition, or perhaps Christianity as a whole, is the only valid faith and path to salvation."
"A liberal is more likely to believe that: (1) the doctrines of the church may have to be re-interpreted figuratively or symbolically and may not be literally true; (2) the Bible is a collection of books that records Hebrew and Christian religious thought about God, but is not literally the inspired Word of God; and (3) their tradition is one appropriate response to the Divine, but other religious paths are also valid."
I still think these statements fairly summarize the differences in thought between conservative and liberal Christians. These labels, however, aren't always hard and fast. Some who identify as progressives are still fairly traditional orthodox Christians, while some conservatives stretch the boundaries of Evangelical theology in one area or another. Regardless, this "looseness" in understandings of Christian doctrine and the Bible, as well as an openness to religious pluralism continue to be defining characteristics of progressive Christianity.
Although I am more comfortable outside the bounds of official religious structures, I think progressive Christianity provides an important alternative for those who can't affirm some part of the conservative faith they grew up with. The challenge for the progressive Church is to clearly define what they believe, rather than define themselves only in contrast to their conservative counterparts (i.e. we don't believe the virgin birth, we don't believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, etc.). What doctrine are they actually committed to? A related challenge, and a main reason why I do not count myself among progressive Christians, is to answer the question: How do we do Theology? Once you give up an inerrant text, I don't know how you can say anything theologically about God. Personally, this lack of a firm basis for theological reflection leads me to pure contemplative practice, hence this blog. Probably the most common answer to this objection is that progressive theology is "Jesus centered." The problem is that progressives can't agree on who Jesus was, what he said, or what he did! The issue of theological method is one that the liberal Church has no clear consensus on, and I don't see any consensus coming soon.
Regardless, here are some (my own personal Top Ten!) Progressive Christian writers, bloggers, and podcasters who you should check out if you are so inclined.
Marcus Borg was a historical Jesus and New Testament scholar who taught at Oregon State University. He passed away in 2015. Borg, maybe more than any other author on this list, articulated what progressive Christianity could look like in contrast to conservative versions of the faith. Specifically he addressed how the Bible can be used in liberal Christian communities, advocating for its use as a sacrament – a means of experiencing God – not necessarily as a source for theology. His book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time is very helpful for understanding the liberal/conservative divide. He also wrote often about the historical Jesus, and presented a "wisdom Jesus," a Jesus who was primarily about dispensing general religious wisdom. Resources from Marcus Borg can be found at the Marcus Borg Foundation.
John Hick was a religious scholar and a highly philosophical writer. He was also a religious pluralist and advocated for a progressive Christianity in which traditional Christian language such as "Jesus is Lord" would be understood in a metaphorical sense. Probably his most famous work is The Metaphor of God Incarnate, and here he clearly presents how Jesus can be understood from a progressive Christian perspective. I also find The Fifth Dimension to be a fascinating read where he argues to a secular culture that a spiritual worldview makes sense, more sense than an atheistic or agnostic worldview. Reading Borg and Hick together provides a very clear paradigm for what a logical progressive Christianity can look like. They address both how Scripture and Jesus can be understood from a liberal perspective and that is probably their most valuable contribution.
Dale Allison is a historical Jesus scholar who presents Jesus primarily as an Apocalyptic Prophet. That is, Jesus expected the world as we know it to come to an end, followed by a final judgement and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God on earth. In Allison's view, Jesus was wrong about the end of the world. This picture of Jesus isn't advantageous to liberal (or conservative) Christianity and Allison knows it. But his historical studies, for better or worse, have radically changed the way he thinks about the Christian faith. Allison has written several volumes in the field of historical Jesus studies, and has also documented his own spiritual reflections in The Luminous Dusk and Night Comes. His The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus has had more impact on my own theology than any book I have ever read. Read at your own risk. Allison teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Walter Bruggemann is an Old Testament scholar who has written widely on themes from the Hebrew Scriptures. His most well known work is The Prophetic Imagination, in which he analyzes the prophetic Hebrew tradition from Moses to Jesus. I also really resonated with his Spirituality of the Psalms. His paradigm of Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation as seen in the writings of the Psalmist was helpful for me as I was going through my own deconstruction and reconstruction of faith. Brueggemann is part of the liberal United Church of Christ denomination and regularly speaks within that tradition and others. His content is centralized at www.walterbrueggemann.com.
Richard Rohr is a Franciscan Friar from the Roman Catholic Tradition. He runs the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. Rohr is a prolific author who focuses on the contemplative dimension of the gospel. Although he does not overtly deny traditional Catholic and Christian doctrine, he stretches his tradition to the limits and seems unconcerned with maintaining orthodoxy. Rohr draws heavily from the Christian mystics and the world Perennial tradition. I think his What the Mystics Know is a good introduction to some major themes in Christian Mysticism. For a deeper introduction to the Christian mystic tradition, I recommend Carl McColman's The Big Book of Christian Mysticism. Rohr's work includes The Divine Dance, Falling Upwards, Everything Belongs, The Naked Now, and Immortal Diamond. For more on Rohr, check on the Center for Action and Contemplation.
Peter Enns is a biblical scholar who created waves in the Evangelical world with his Inspiration and Incarnation in 2005. Due to this book, he was suspended from his teaching position at Westminster and eventually resigned. In most of his work, Enns emphasizes the ancient context of the biblical writings. He is unafraid to address where there are tensions and contradictions in various biblical texts and this puts him at odds with many conservative Christians. Enns has become more and more bold in addressing contradictions in the Bible as the years have progressed as seen in his more recent books The Sin of Certainty and The Bible Tells Me So. Enns blogs and podcasts at peteenns.com. Another scholar who addresses very similar issues is Kenton Sparks, specifically in his God's Word in Human Words.
Richard Beck teaches psychology at Abilene Christian University. He also runs an extremely popular blog called Experimental Theology and is a fascinating author, writing about topics ranging from The Devil, to disgust psychology, to the fear of death, to the authenticity of faith in God. As the range of his book topics suggests, Beck is kind of all over the place. He doesn't need to fit his theology into any particular box and this can be both freeing and frustrating for his readers. He's orthodox enough to appeal to conservative Christians, but liberal enough to cause them some significant hand-wringing. There is hardly a better place to go for an articulation of a highly biblically informed, progressive Christianity. He accepts the label and speaks often to his fellow progressives though his blog.
Rachel Held Evans
Rachel Held Evans came on to the scene in 2010 with her Evolving in Monkeytown (now repackaged as Faith Unraveled) in which she documents her journey of faith. Evans grew up within Evangelicalism but found herself questioning many of its core tenants through her ongoing life experience. Reading her memoir was really helpful for me as I was going through my own unraveling of faith. Evans has also recently written Searching for Sunday and A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I'm not sure if Rachel would accept the label Progressive Christian. I get the sense that she's just done with labels. But she certainly represents a non-traditionally conservative/Evangelical voice from within the Christian tradition. Evans blogs at rachelheldevans.com.
Rob Bell was a mega-church pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. He's not anymore. When Bell was in the Evangelical world he was highly controversial, pushing more and more Evangelical boundaries through his books and preaching until the bubble pretty much burst with his Love Wins. Many Evangelicals distanced themselves from Bell after this book in which he seems to accept, or at least is highly open to, some type of universal salvation. Bell now blogs, speaks, and podcasts at robbell.com. His books include Love Wins, How to be Here, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Velvet Elvis, and his upcoming What is the Bible? Bell is another thinker who doesn't seem too interested in labels. If he still considers himself Christian, he is definitely on the progressive end of the faith.
The Deconstructionists was a new podcast in 2016. They have the most impressive guest list of any podcast I have ever listened to. Adam Narloch and John Williamson host discussions with scholars and thinkers from across the faith spectrum including several of the authors listed above. These two come from the Evangelical world, but emphasize an openness to new ideas, especially as previous understandings of the faith fall apart or become "deconstructed." Check out their website at www.thedeconstructionists.com.
A few other authors on the progressive side of things include Karen Armstrong, John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, Brain McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Diana Butler Bass, and Mike McHargue.
These writers, bloggers, and podcasters represent a diversity of thought. Some are self-consciously outside of "orthodox Christianity" while others are not. Some may even reject the label Progressive Christian or simply be done with labels altogether. But each is worth interacting with if you find yourself on this end of the faith. I'm pretty sure they all hang out together on the weekends.