For a long time, progressive Christianity was quiet, humble and inarticulate. Many of our churches were small and struggling, and our leadership was turned in on those small struggling churches, too caught up in budgets and bottom lines to have energy for making a bold public witness to the expansive and radical faith we practiced.
In the vacuum, the megachurches and their mouthpieces on the Christian right began to dominate the airwaves. Since Pat Robertson and his buddies began going to Ronald Reagan’s prayer breakfasts in the 80s, white conservative Christian fundamentalism has cornered the market on Jesus.
But the times, they are a’changing. Young progressive clergy and lay leaders are masters of social media. And young evangelicals are being won to the wiles of a more progressive and inclusive theology: embracing civil rights for LGBT people, getting serious about environmental stewardship, relieving the suffering brought about by poverty and income inequality, addressing human trafficking and other global evils, and coming to terms with the racism intrinsic to American culture, including the white supremacy embedded in Christianity, what Dr. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach calls “slaveowner religion.”
Hopefully by now putting the words “progressive” and “Christianity” into the same phrase already seems like less of an oxymoron, as we banish the messages of homophobia, racism and exclusion that have dominated the airways for decades. But in case a liberal read of the Bible and the Way of Jesus is still a mystery to you, here’s a very brief orientation.
Progressive Christians take the Bible literately but not literally. We don’t believe the Bible is inerrant, and we don’t take it literally. How would it even be possible to do that? When Jesus said “I am the bread of life,” did he mean he was a simple fermentation of flour, yeast and water? Nyet. Metaphors, people! Multiple authors, people! Multiple editors, lost fragments, contradictions, anachronisms, and ideas we have outgrown (chattel slavery--any day now, homophobia--getting there, patriarchy--maybe 2019 is our year): they are all at play in the Bible. That doesn’t mean it’s not an important, even essential, book--but we have to take it with a mine of salt and a good grounding in context.
The Bible is an ancient game of “Telephone.” We recognize that the Bible was first passed down orally, for hundreds of years (in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures) and dozens of years (in the case of the New Testament gospels and letters) before being written down. Most importantly: the Bible was not written in English! It has passed from one language into another (Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin to modern languages). Every time it passed through a language portal, the translators made decisions (to wit: Joseph was not a carpenter. There were, in fact, no trees in first century Israel. Still aren’t many. Houses were made from stone--therefore Joseph was a tekton, a builder--but not of wood. A stonemason.).
We recognize that since thousands of people first wrote down and later translated the Bible, we may have gotten some things wrong. A little bit wrong, or dead wrong. We listen to the Bible to understand its wisdom for our lives, but we take it with a grain (or a mine) of salt. If we are Bible geeks, we do word analyses, side-by-side comparisons, historical-critical analyses that take into account the mores, cultures, laws and events that shaped the historical moment that scripture was born into.
If we are ordinary every day Bible-readers, we use common sense, and we also practice getting quiet and hearing what the “still small voice” of God inside our own consciences is saying about the text. Every time we read a particular bit of the Bible, its wisdom is different--because we are different. We are in a different mood, we have had new experiences and insights since the last time we read it, we face different problems and opportunities.
We call this discernment, a word you’ll hear us return to again and again because it applies equally to parenting as it does to our Christianity. Discernment is different than proof-texting, which is picking and choosing scriptures to hew to our already-formed ideas and prejudices--using the Bible to confirm our biases. Discernment involves a lot of humility, sometimes some agony, being willing to do some homework (reading further or getting second or twelfth opinions), being enormously patient while we wait for meaning, being comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, and most of all: being willing to swallow our pride, admit we are wrong, and do the hard thing we don’t think we can do (but oh, you can. You really can).
The Bible is full of contradictions. We don’t have to get very far into its very first book, Genesis, to realize that there are two conflicting stories of the creation of human beings. In the first, ad’ham, “humankind,” is created, male and female at the same time, “in the image of likeness of God.” This means God is all-gendered! (By the way: you will hear us, from time to time, use female pronouns for God. We do this cheekily, to counter thousands of years of the patriarchy-inspired factory-setting of male pronouns for God.) (Also by the way: God in the book of Genesis often refers to themselves in the first person plural, a royal We. Neither male, nor female--and deeply abundant).
In the second book of Genesis, a mere chapter later, God is making humans again--but this time created Adam first, and fashioned Eve out of Adam’s rib. Clearly, Genesis has at least two authors. Which one is telling the true story? Both stories seemed valuable, so the early editors kept both. But you can already see the conflict brewing.
We recognize that God is still speaking. One of the founders of our branch of Christianity, pilgrim John Robinson, said “There is more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.” Or, as the motto for the United Church of Christ puts it, “Never put a period where God has put a comma,” because God is still speaking.
Some of the Bible’s wisdom was wise for another time (avoiding shellfish in the age before refrigeration, or non-procreative sex during multiple pogroms against the Hebrews when it was important to make the tribe as large as possible), but foolish for our time. The litany of obsolete rules and regulations has been well-rehearsed by now, including the rule against gay sex alongside the rules against planting your fields with two kinds of grain, and weaving your fabrics with two kinds of thread. Included in activities listed in the Hebrew scriptures as worthy of the death penalty is: talking back to your parents! (Leviticus 20:9) How many of us would be alive and well and holding this book in our hands if we still lived by a fifth-century BCE rule of law?
We listen to understand the Bible’s wisdom, but in the context of our evolution as moral creatures, and with the greater knowledge and understanding we have from science, art, culture, and philosophy.
God is speaking through Black Lives Matter activists, and 13-year-old transgender kids, and Malala Yousafzai. God is speaking through Daniel Goleman and Brene Brown and even Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who doesn’t believe in God! Speaking of which...
Science is cool, and a gift from God. We don’t believe there is any inherent conflict between religious faith and scientific belief. Science has one function, faith another. As a friend John Gage puts it: “Science asks how. Spirit asks why. Wisdom seeks both.”
Gay people are beloved children of God. Queer folks are made in the image and likeness of God, and let’s face it, fabulous. Every single queer person we knows has said to us, in one form or another, “I was born this way.”
Our church is 40% LGBT, many of them refugees from more conservative expressions of Christian church. But God would not let them go. They fought and searched and wept and winnowed and finally found a spiritual home with us, where they are treasured as leaders and full partners in the kin-dom work we do in our community.
There are more and more churches out there taking radical, unmitigated stands on the sacredness of people who identify as queer. Look for them, even if you are not queer yourself, because those churches will teach your children all kinds of good things, not least among them, how to wield a hot glue gun to make over-the-top flowered church lady hats for your next Pride Parade. Everybody is a star…
The Bible, and the world, has all kinds of beloved and blessed families.
Fundamentalist Christianity wants us to believe there is only one kind of family acceptable to God: cisgender, hetero, legally married with well-behaved children and a strong patriarch at its head. But there are few mirrors for this in the actual Bible, which names and claims all kinds of families and protagonists throughout its meandering odyssey: never-married, divorced, adoptive, bio, blended, childless, chosen. Jesus himself had two dads (think about it!) and a teenage mother who got pregnant out of wedlock.
We believe there is more than one path to God, and to salvation. We have friends who are deeply moral atheists and soulful agnostics. We believe that God has spoken through many expressions of the world’s religions and our varying traditions teach and talk to each other. We believe God’s “salvation” is not for one person at a time--individuals “getting right with God” and then trying to convert others to their way--but for everybody, all together. Jesus came to save the entire cosmos, not one human at a time, nor even all humans as a species, but “all flesh” as the Bible says--the entire created order. We are co-creators with God, called to deep enjoyment of all that God has made, and to responsibility for all of Creation, and all creatures. God has called us to different expressions of faith, different sacred stories, many paths to one Light. And, as Jesus said, the tree (in this case--the integrity of any one school of thought, or religious community) will be known by its fruit.
Jesus was groovy, baby. Jesus’ kingdom (or even better: kin-dom. Because in a kin-dom, the org chart is flat) is inclusive and expansive. Jesus hung out with folks on the margins, the left-out, lonely and lost. People with actively infectious diseases who had been banished, religious and other minorities, sex workers, and Jewish tax collectors for the Roman Empire who were considered, in Jewish culture, the worst traitors to Jewish society. Some of Jesus’ best friends and most reliable leaders were women (highly unusual companions for an unmarried men in polite first-century Jewish society). He loved kids, who were considered non-people. And because Jesus’ theology of who was “in” was so roomy...
There is always room in heaven for one more. We believe, essentially, in universal salvation. Heaven is full of people who are different from us (even those who voted for the other guy in the last election), and so if we are going to enjoy it, we should start cultivating and learning to enjoy that kind of diverse community here and now: diversity of age, religion, color, class, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
Molly’s view of universal salvation comes more or less unedited from the last book in C.S. Lewis’ incredible series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The morally repugnant turncoat dwarves (“the dwarves are for the dwarves!”) have passed through the same portal as everyone else, into the New Narnia (read: Heaven), of which the old was just a mere shadow and a copy.
But because their selfishness and greed have blinded them, literally, they can’t see, smell or taste where they are. They think they are in a pig barn, being forced to eat slop instead of the most delicious fruit the others have ever tasted. Sin has been defined as a person turned in on themselves, in a vicious cycle, that they, quite literally “screw themselves” into a hellish state of mind, one that reality cannot puncture or change. But we also believe that, in the fullness of time, God can turn us back outward, toward each other, in love for all and embrace of justice.
Karl Barth said there is only one person in Hell, and it’s not who you think it is. It’s Jesus, who has gone there to set free everyone who has gotten there first.
Sin is real. In some progressive Christian circles, sin has become a bad word, too associated with our fundamentalist counterparts to have value for us. But sin is real: in cheating, gossip, slander, selfishness, greed. Evil, sin concentrated into systems of oppression, is real: in wage theft, systemic racism, mass incarceration for profit, human trafficking.
It’s important for progressive Christians not to vitiate the power of faith to compel self-reflection, a fearless moral inventory, repentance and redemption. We can reclaim words like sin and atonement from the religious right as a robust part of our spirituality and theology. Only when sin is acknowledged can it be repented, and can a human life, or a human race, begin to change and live differently.
A word about cafeteria Christians. We have had our share of heated theological debates with Christians who think differently. We have been accused of cherrypicking the scriptures to suit our opinions. Maybe that’s so. We’ll find out when we meet Jesus, and stand corrected.
But if we are, so are they, carefully tweezing out ambiguous phrases about judgment, who’s in, and who’s out. We understand the appeal of religions that offer clarity and certainty about the price of admission to heaven, but certainty might be the greatest sin--because it claims to know the mind of God. Humility, and curiosity, are more on order for those who truly believe that God is still speaking--and who might want to know what God is actually saying.
For a brief and brilliant summary of progressive Christianity, read UCCer Glennon Melton’s blog post: http://momastery.com/blog/2016/03/29/waiting-or-working/
And if you are interested in doing further reading, here’s a very truncated list of Molly’s favorites:
Marcus Borg, THE HEART OF CHRISTIANITY
Richard Rohr, EVERYTHING BELONGS
Nadia Bolz-Weber, PASTRIX
Glennon Doyle, CARRY ON WARRIOR
Brian McClaren, WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING
Anne Lamott, TRAVELING MERCIES and SMALL VICTORIES
Rob Bell, LOVE WINS and WHAT IS THE BIBLE
Sarah Bessey, JESUS FEMINIST
Barbara Brown Taylor, AN ALTAR IN THE WORLD