When I was in grad school I took a seminar on ethnography. The professor was a scholar of South Asian religions, with a focus specifically on Buddhism. He told us that when each semester ends, after all the lectures and readings and exams, he tells his students something in the ball park of: “Now, forget everything you’ve learned. You know nothing about Buddhism, because no one actually practices the way you’ve been taught. There’s no such thing as Buddhism; there are only Buddhisms.”
Each semester the students sit in a kind of hushed shock. What had they been doing all semester? This lesson is an important one: there is a difference between an attempt to summarize the basic tenets and practices of a tradition and the lived experience of the people who participate in that tradition.
This revelation led me to think about the way this same lesson applies to the Christian tradition, which has been my home for almost four decades. There are somewhere around 36,000 different Protestant denominations. Which is a lot, by the way. All 36,000 of these denominations claim to be Christian, to have a biblical grounding for their beliefs and practices, and to be a carrier of the true and correct Christian tradition. Further, each of these 36,000 plus denominations are unique and nuanced, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing with the others. This isn’t just true between denominations, but it’s actually something that happens within church communities. If you were to sit down with my community and ask every single participant what they believe about x, y, and z, you will get conflicting and divergent responses.
The point is that there’s no such thing as Christianity.
There are Christianities.
The stream of the Christian tradition in which I have come to feel most at home is Progressive Christianity. This, too, is a broad category that collects a diversity of belief and interpretation. However, I do think there are some things we can say about this approach to the Christian tradition that will give it a rough outline, without creating a rigid and inflexible dogma.
As we begin to ask, “What is Progressive Christianity,” I think it may be helpful to just talk about those two words: Progressive and Christianity. I’ll begin with the latter. When I say that I am Christian what do I mean? Perhaps I should begin with what I don’t mean. When I say I am Christian I don’t mean that I am an exclusivist. I don’t believe that people who aren’t Christian will go to hell. I don’t mean that I hold the Bible to be an inerrant and infallible text that fell out of the sky. I don’t mean that I embrace many of the problematic interpretations and perspectives that many Christians believe (silencing women, excluding the LGBTQ+ community, that the world is ending soon, etc.), nor can I literally affirm the creeds that Christians have recited since the fourth century.
(If you’re still reading, then I imagine you 1) share my trepidation about some of those things that are assumed to be ‘Christian’, or 2) you’re just interested in seeing what kind of heresy I am about to commit. Either way, I’m glad you’re here.)
When I say that I’m Christian what I’m saying is that I am a participant in the path, tradition, and community of Jesus. I mean that the Christian tradition is my mother tongue, it’s the language that I speak. Christianity feels like home to me. I’m choosing that language of being Christian specifically. I’m not * a * Christian. That carries the sense of arrival, of mastery. Maya Angelou summed it up beautifully when she said: “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.”
I am seeking to be Christian. By that I mean I am seeking to learn and embody as best I can the ethic and compassion of Jesus. The truth is the more my faith has unraveled, the more compelling I find Jesus. The less I know, the more I trust this Way. I’m not trying to be a “believer,” I am seeking to participate, to be transformed.
The other word that modifies Christian is important as well. What does it mean to be “Progressive” in terms of Christian faith? Does it mean having no convictions? Does it imply a lack of respect for the past? Not at all. For me it simply means that I recognize the unfinishedness of my faith. I do not see the Christian tradition as a static, unchanging system of belief. I don’t think the only meaningful reimagining of the faith happened in the fourth or sixteenth centuries. The Christian tradition is unfinished and an ongoing process of growth and discovery. Our spiritual ancestors played their part in the process, but that doesn’t mean our role is just to memorize and repeat their understandings and interpretations, even when they are problematic. Instead, we use their interpretations as a launch pad for our own engagement.
Our goal is to honor their experiences, not to blindly embrace their explanations. Too often we have dogmatically held on to antiquated doctrines, instead of understanding that those explanations were our ancestors doing the best they could with the information they had. We can and must do the same. Maybe the greatest sign of respect and reverence is to engage in the continued reimagining of faith, to take the shared tradition we’ve inherited so seriously that we are willing to leave some of it behind when a better interpretation presents itself.
In my understanding, to be a Progressive Christian is to be a person on the Jesus path, seeking to become Christian, who also knows that our faith is still an unfinished and ongoing process. It means celebrating that the Spirit still speaks, that there is still much to unlearn and to learn, and that our calling is to play our part in this developing tradition.
What does “Progressive Christianity” mean to you?
How would you define it?
I’d love for you to share this post, and to share your thoughts in the comments!