John Bennison Words and Ways | 2014 | November

Defining Progressive Christianity

An Open-Ended “Creed” for a Progressive Christian

Above: Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine, accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325), holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

[A pdf copy to print or read is here.]


Recently the secular press was all in abuzz around the Vatican. It appeared Francis had implied the remote possibility that there might be an ever so slight change in the long-standing and seemingly rock-solid teachings of the Church that might one-day recognize the blessings of same-sex unions; as well as permission for divorced Catholics to once again receive communion.  The institutional Church, of course, has long claimed the exclusive authority to dispense or deny divine blessings and what it asserts to be the sacrament of salvation to whomever it deems worthy.

But even before the Synod of 200 bishops before whom the Pope had intimated such possibilities had scurried to walk it all back, I’d muttered to myself, “Who cares?”   Even as the Church was hanging tough, only a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square, Ignazio Marino, the Mayor of Rome, was registering sixteen same sex couples who’d been married abroad.

I thought to myself, poor Francis. He is a well-meaning twentieth century leader of a medieval Church. The only problem is we’re living in the twenty first century.

At the end of the last century (in 1998), Jack Spong wrote his national best seller, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile.” It was a continuation of his efforts to “rescue” the Bible from the fundamentalists. But in my mind, his do-or-die title for the survival of the Church raised an important point and distinction. The institutional Church may indeed die under the weight of its own antiquated intransigence; not as the result of the message it was originally inspired to proclaim, but rather the refutation of that message by the very shepherds of the flock whose job it is to defend it.

In a word, it seemed to me that a religious tradition founded upon the proclamation and affirmation that new and abundant life will always arise from the death of the old, should not waste its time wringing its hands over the remnants of a dead past.  Move on.  At its core, that’s what  a progressive movement is all about.

A religious tradition founded upon the proclamation and affirmation that new and abundant life will always arise from the death of the old, should not waste its time wringing its hands over the remnants of a dead past.  Move on. 

While the institutional Church’s habitual posture is so often one of intractability – like the Rock upon which Peter presumably stands clutching the keys to the Kingdom in his tight fist – the individual believer and their life is always a matter of ever-evolving change. So it’s not so much a matter whether the Church will change or die, bur whether one’s individual faith journey will stagnate, regress or progress.

So it is that one can speak of one’s faith that surpasses one’s beliefs, and indeed call it a grand adventure, instead of the rote recitation of arcane notions. So it is that one can try to imagine the lives of those earliest, pre-Christian believers who first came to be known as followers of the Way of an itinerant preacher. And so it is that some of us acknowledge our own separate paths; and at the same time seek to share a common path, reflective of that way of life.




I have often said so-called “progressive Christianity” is a notion forever in search of its own elusive definition; and that’s as good a way of explaining it as we may be able to find.

The use of the term “progressive” may appear to be relatively new to this religious tradition, in terms of its explicit use to describe a general approach to the study and practice of Christianity. But it’s different from its more generic or secular use of the term – as in politics or openness to expanding and shifting social values – that often connotes someone with liberal leanings trying to avoid being branded with the ‘L’ word.

We live in a post-modern world that considers the age of Enlightenment (that began four centuries earlier) to be a post-facto reality. As such, “progressive” thinking in an age of Reason has pushed the boundaries of nearly every facet of life, except one: those ‘traditional’ or ‘orthodox’ beliefs, based on certain creeds, doctrines and dogma that still dominate what it presumably means to be “Christian.”

It hardly needs to be said that it is also why so many one-time believers have outgrown their one-time faith. Calling them merely “lapsed” is misleading. So much has elapsed in the world we have all come to know and take for granted, that the once-dominant Church — — despite all its denominational varieties — has fast become a post-modern relic.

This is especially evident whenever the secular press wades into the shallowest waters of what is culturally assumed to be the singular belief system of anyone, and everyone, who would profess to call themselves a Christian.  Earlier this year a fairly knowledgeable writer for a fairly sophisticated magazine wrote an article around the high holy day of Easter; making the perfunctory observation, “of course all real Christians believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.” Hogwash! It drives me nuts.

I have progressed so far beyond what I take to be such a wooden and stultified approach to the rich origins of the earliest gospel traditions that such routine sophomoric assumptions rob us of the gospel story’s mythic powers. In its place, this kind of lazy quip offers the kind of slight-of-hand magic that merely peddles the allure and illusion of certainty to the un-inquisitive; meant to simply relieve us of our mortal fears, if we can only shut our eyes, tap our toes together three times, and just “believe.”  In the post-modern world in which we live, there is a term bandied about in the daily news cycle when such a notion is carried to the extreme. It’s called violent radical religious extremism.

read more