Progressive Christianity—is Christianity

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Years ago, I sat on a panel discussion on “Progressive Christianity”.

The host’s first request of the panelists was to describe what Progressive Christianity meant to them. My new friend, the Reverend Vince Anderson took the mic and said, “Let’s be clear: Progressive Christianity is just Christianity. We are Christians—and we are progressing in our knowledge and understanding.”

We could have stopped there.

This is the heart of what it should mean to be a Christian of any designation; the desire to continue to move and grow and learn and change, even if those things place us in opposition to the person we once were or the beliefs we once held firmly or the testimony we once gave. As we move through space and time, our faith should be in continual evolution. We should always look back at the previous version of ourselves and realize how much we didn’t know then. We should be able to see how far we’ve come in matters of spirituality.

Progressive Christianity is about not apologizing for what we become as we live this life and openly engage the faith we grew-up with. There are no sacred cows, only the relentless, sacred search for Truth. Tradition, dogma, and doctrine are all fair game, because all pass through the hands of flawed humanity, and as such are all equally vulnerable to the prejudices, fears, and biases of those it touched.

It’s fashionable for more Conservative folk to dismiss Progressive Christianity as some cheap imitation version of the Christian faith; a watered down religion of convenience practiced by people who found “real Christianity” too difficult or demanding. 

Progressive Christians know the truth of our story, and so these lazy caricatures are of little concern.
We know the authenticity of our faith.
We know the depth of our study.
We know the sincerity of our prayers.
We know the road we’ve traveled—and we don’t need to justify it.

The truth is that Progressive Christianity is so diverse that it simply cannot be neatly defined or summarized, but here are some things that most who claim the label probably agree on:

We believe that a God who is eternal, isn’t land locked to a 6,000 year-old collection of writings, unable to speak in real-time to those who seek. Revelation can come within and independent of the Bible.

We believe that God isn’t threatened or angered by our questions, our doubts, or our vacillation born out of authentic pursuit, even when those things are labeled heretical by other people. God is more secure than they are in who God is.

We believe that Christian tradition is embedded with thousands of years of misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, and that our task as Christians in these days is to remove those cumbersome layers and uncover the very essence of what it meant to follow Jesus.

We believe that in the Scriptural command to “watch one’s life and doctrine closely” (1 Tim 4:16), the former is as important as the latter; that faith isn’t only about what you believe, it’s about whether or not your life reflects what you profess to believe.

We believe that social justice is the heart of the Gospel, that it was the central work of Jesus as evidenced in his life and teachings; the checking of power, the healing of wounds, the care for the poor, the lifting of the marginalized, the feeding of the hungry, the making of peace.

But what is as notable as what Progressive Christians agree on—is all that we do not.

We differ widely with regard to the inerrancy of Scripture, the existence of Hell, intercessory prayer, salvation by atonement, abortion, the death penalty, and gun control. 

There is no party line to tow. We don’t all identify as Democrats or pacifists or socialists. We identify simply as followers of Jesus; carefully, thoughtfully, seriously seeking to understand more today than we did yesterday, and to live lives that as best we can discern, resemble Christ’s.

Progressive Christianity is not the path of least resistance, but often the road of greatest turbulence. It places us in the decided minority in the larger Church. It creates conflict in our families and faith communities. It costs us friends and ministries and holidays with loved ones. It brings silence and shunning and separation from those we once were welcomed by. It makes us feel like strangers and orphans in the religion we used to call home.

But these things are the worthy tax on living a fully authentic faith; one where we are confident that all that is not God will fall away as we walk. We are on a continual pilgrimage toward what it looks like to perpetuate Jesus, and we don’t distinguish our road from that of Christians who may be more Conservative or more secure in orthodoxy. It is the same road.

We are all Christians moving.
We are all Christians listening.
We are all Christians learning.
We are all Christians believing.

We are all Christians progressing.

 

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Confessions of a Recovering Christian Know-it-All

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Hi, I’m a Christian—and I don’t know anything.

Well, I know a whole heck of a lot less than I used to, and the simple fact that I’m okay admitting that to you is growth.

I’ve been serving as a pastor in the local church for the past 19 years, and for much of that time my job was to be certain; to radiate an unwavering confidence in the things I believed, the teachings of the Church, and whatever I was preaching at a given moment. Not only that, but my ministry success was partly based on my ability to persuade other people to agree with me, whether I agreed with myself or not. I learned to defend my position convincingly and vehemently, even if there was unsteadiness within me.

I could doubt things privately, or I could publicly make reference to the questions I used to have. That is to say, I could share my faith crises with our community, but only framed as a past tense experience that I’d victoriously walked through. Vacillation in the present was a career liability.

I learned over time, that the three dirtiest words I could ever utter from the platform or pulpit were: I. Don’t. Know.

It isn’t just pastors and other “professional Christians”who feel pressured to have an iron-clad apologetic and to be doubt-free. People sitting in the seats on a typical Sunday morning church service or gathering for a Tuesday home Bible study or having debates online, all live with the same dangerous potential for duplicity. We all learn to read the room when it comes to our theological questions, to carefully couch our uncertainty so as not to alienate ourselves from everyone else. We see the way certainty is worshiped in the Church and we adjust accordingly.

And as a result our faith communities, which should be the places where we feel free to be the most authentic version of ourselves, are often the places we do the most pretending. Rather than bringing the full contents of our hearts to the Church, we conceal them. Instead we work to craft and maintain a careful manicured persona: the passionate, steadfast, faithful Christian know-it-all.

I’ve been this person, this pastor, this youth leader for a long time, but I’m glad to say that I’m currently in recovery.

Three years ago a pastor I worked for gave me the incredible gift of unceremoniously firing me. In the moment it was devastating and painful, but it began my slow journey out of Christian Know-it-Allism. Untethered from the expectations others had of me as a leader and minister, I was free to ask anything and to say everything. I was able to be honest with everyone (even with myself) about just how much I was no longer sure of; what I believed and didn’t believe.

And the oddest thing about the path toward spiritual authenticity, has been seeing how my admission of all that I don’t know or am not sure of, pisses off more Christians than my bold, confident, unwavering preaching ever did.

I think that’s because when they hear another follower of Jesus share their doubts or deviations, whether about theological concepts or Church doctrine or even regarding the fundamental issues of God and faith, they’re forced to consider their own questions, if even for a moment. They have to confront the things they may passionately argue, yet not be quite certain of—and that can be terrifying.

The road to recovery is decidedly turbulent. There’s all sorts of residual guilt and the lingering fear of Hell to contend with, along with the loss of many people who used to treat me like family—not to mention the profound disorientation that facing the world with a spiritually sober mind brings.

But so many wonderful things have happened since I knew everything:

My table has expanded. I’m much more open to people of other faiths, and those with no religious belief systems at all. Rather than spending my time trying to convince or convert them, I can simply listen to them.

I live with my guard down. I don’t need to check my surroundings or censor myself, or worry about who I need to please or impress or dazzle. I get to be—normal in all its inconsistent glory.

I have a faith that feels deeper, even if it comes with a lot less clarity. I know that probably sounds counterintuitive but it’s been my experience that when I don’t have to be an expert on God I am able to experience God.

God has left the building. Spiritual community has become far more than an hour somewhere on Sunday. It’s the daily act of being present and looking for the sacred stuff disguised as ordinary life, which is everywhere.

I have more patience for other Christian Know-it-Alls. I know what it’s like to be in those shoes; to see doubt as some moral defect, to feel secretly fraudulent. I understand the tremendous fear of being less than certain, especially when it seems as though your livelihood or social standing depend on it.

I’m less of a judgmental jerk. (Well, that’s probably more aspirational.) Not that I was aiming for that back when I had to have all the answers, but when you live with the pressure to be right and sure, you tend to be fairly intolerable to the people who you’re trying to convince of the fact. I’m still repenting of this, daily.

Yes, I get called all sorts of nasty things by other Christian Know-it-Alls now: heretic, false prophet, fallen soul, devil, (wizard, which was pretty cool). I get threatened with a Hell I’m no longer sure exists. I get addressed with condescending air quotes, as “Pastor” and “Christian” (Bless their “hearts”). But these things largely don’t bother me, because the flip side is being less than fully authentic and having to live two different spiritual journeys simultaneously. I’ve been down that road. I wore the mask. I sold it. Those days are over for me.

I now get the privilege of sharing other people’s questions as my life’s work, of giving them a safe place to be real without judgment. I’m part of an amazing global community and a loving local church family that both allow me to unearth the uncertainty and be okay with it all. And I believe I have a God who understands everything I know and don’t know.

If you’re reading this and you can no longer pretend you have it all together, be encouraged you’re in good company. You can begin recovering right where you are.

Today I still seek to know, while gladly embracing all that I do not know.

Maybe this is actually the truth that sets you free.

 

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The Shoulder (For Those Who Want to Give Up)

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Live at a little and you’ll surely come to learn something: living hurts.

There is collateral damage that comes just from showing up. The simple act of breathing and stepping into each day brings things that will and do wound you.

Little by little we all collect the painful marks of time. We acquire the gradual scars of our participation here.

And the cumulative effect of it all; the adding up of all the defeats and disappointments, and the unexpected land mine disasters our feet land upon can sometimes bring us to the point of exhaustion, right up to the very precipice of desperation.

They can leave you just wanting to stop; stop working on that relationship, stop pursuing that dream, stop seeking justice, stop caring so deeply, stop breathing altogether.

And in those moments, sometimes the only thing you need is to feel a shoulder pressed up against your own.

Some days all you need, is to reminded that someone stands alongside you and in the closest of proximities is present; hurting with you, rooting for you, waiting with you.

Sometimes it is simply that gentle pressure against your upper arm that saves you.

It turns out misery doesn’t really love company. Misery flees from it.

The myth of our own isolation is always our greatest adversary here. It is the mortal enemy of Hope. We can sustain all manner of horrible things as long as we feel we are sustaining them with help.

When we feel truly alone, giving up always becomes easier, almost better. It often feels like the only option.

This is a reminder that you are not alone in this.

These words are a shoulder pressing firmly up against your own, to let you know that you do not face what you face by yourself, even if it feels that way.

There are people who hurt and strive and weep and sweat and bleed right along with you. You may be temporally unable to see them or they may be less obvious from where you are standing, but they are there.

There are those whose names and faces you know well, whose lives are intertwined with yours and who are right beside you (or would gladly be if you were to invite them).

And there is a massive army of those whose names and faces you’ll never know, who in this very moment stand in silent solidarity with you from their own place of great hurting.

There is a strange comfort to be found in the realization that all of us feel alone; an odd community of imagined orphans.

You are one among many, even in your profound loneliness.

Yes, there is great pain to be found here, and yes you may be right to be discouraged and angry and frustrated to the point of collapse right now.

But you would not be right to be hopeless.

To be that, would be to believe the lie that you are alone, that you always will be alone.

To be that, would be to allow yourself to be fooled by your pain into thinking it is your only companion.

To be that, would be to ignore the truth that there is a shoulder pressed firmly against your own.

See it.

Feel it.

Lean into it, and keep going.

 

 

 

A Letter From a Backsliding, Prodigal Heretic, To My Christian Friends Still on the Inside

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To My Dear Christian Friends on the Inside*,

I know that you love me.

I know that because you love me you’re worried about me right now.

I know that you feel that I’ve been led astray down the rebellious path of the prodigal, that I’ve somehow been deceived into darkness and you are gravely concerned for the eternal destination of my soul.

I know you believe that I am currently quite lost and you’re praying tirelessly for me to find my way back before it’s too late.

I know this because when I believed what you believe, I feared the same things about people like me.

I remember looking at those who stand where I now stand and feeling what I believed was a holy compassion for them. I remember well, wanting with great urgency to save them from the destruction they were choosing.

I realize now how arrogant it was for me to assume that because they’d reached different conclusions than I had, that their faith journey was any less valid, and less life-giving, any less true, that God was any less present.

That’s why I’m writing you today: to thank you for worrying about me, for praying for me, and for loving me.

And because I love you, I want to share with you what it’s really like here on the outside, because back then I couldn’t have known and I wish I had. It would have changed my prayers and my words and my very heart toward those who were in this same place.

Here on the outside, yes the answers are less clear than they were inside, but there is great wonder in the search. It is the unpredictable journey of an expectant child exploring a new patch of untouched forest. The path now wildly meanders into places I was told never to go when I was comfortably inside; to new understandings of the Bible, to ancient spiritual practices and different faith traditions, into Science and Philosophy and Art. And the most glorious discovery is finding out that everywhere we plant our feet, God is there waiting. This great big God is indeed far too big to be relegated only to the inside.

Here on the outside Certainty isn’t as treasured as Authenticity. The questions are not character flaws, the doubts not deficiencies, the vacillations not moral failings. They are all the symptoms of a humble heart which realizes the search itself is a sacred thing; that when Jesus tells us to “ask and seek and knock”, he is inviting us beyond the confines of whatever container we might previously have fashioned for God. Once we began to step outside of that constrictive space, we found ourselves moving into the wide expanse of a life fully saturated with Divinity—and we could breathe there.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the outside is that it is a dark place; that there is a coldness and heaviness and sadness here. I used to believe that when I was on the inside, but in truth it was more wishful thinking. I needed to believe that because it helped reinforce my story that I was one of the few enlightened and they among the masses lost in shadow. It made it far easier to assume a posture of moral superiority that way and to subjugate my own nagging soul questions. All I can tell you is that there is brilliant light here. There is laughter and discovery and warmth and community and goodness and grace—and God.

When I was on the inside I remember how important labels were for those who were different. They helped quickly and easily delineate the saved from the sinners, the lost from the found, the righteous from the wicked. These words formed the very clear wall between insiders and outsiders; the wall I fortified and defended.

When people stepped beyond whatever I saw as the inside, I labeled them:

Heretics.
Backsliders.
Prodigals.
False Prophets.
Lost sheep.
Deceived.
Rebels.
Sinners.

So trust me when I tell you I understand why you use these words for me now. I know they give you some comfort and offer some sense of control, so I don’t take offense at them and I don’t have malice toward you for using them.

I can only tell you that these words do not define me.
They do not stick to me.
They are not labels deserving of me or my journey, or any of those out here with me who are seeking and searching with as much care and integrity and diligence and faith as you are there.

I realize it is likely that these words will matter very little to you. I suspect they will not change your mind about my eternal destination or my moral condition or the legitimacy of my current conclusions. I know that you may not be willing or able to see that we are actually on the same beautiful road, just in different places.

I am still a Christian and still the Church and still beloved by God, and I rest in those truths as I continue to navigate the journey even when other things seem less clear. I am confident that unorthodox is not ungodly. 

I know you will probably continue to worry about me and pray for me, and in your way love me—and I am grateful.

And I will love you, by remembering what it was like to be on the inside; to see your heart even in the times your words or your silence damage me.

I will that pray you find compassion and mercy for those who do not believe exactly as you believe, and that you come to trust that God is large enough to speak to both of us simultaneously; whether on the inside or the outside.

Most of all I pray that we will both see this God fully from where we currently stand; wild, untamable, uncontainable, and remember that in this shared orientation toward Love—we are the same.

Peace and Love,

A Backsliding, Prodigal, Heretic, Chasing God Here on the Outside

 

 

 

*The Inside, may be Christian orthodoxy or rigid tradition or any place where one has determined they have all the answers to the deepest questions of this life; where or when they view those outside of that place as morally inferior or as less intelligent, sincere, or faithful.