Response: We Might Need the End of Progressive Christianity

The following was written “in response” to today’s feature, “God Needs You To Get Out of the Bubble”: Riverside Controversy Exposes Christian Progressive Fault Lines, a discussion between Rev. Peter Laarman and Dr. Jonathan Walton.

The theologian John Cobb issued a challenge to the United Church of Christ, arguably the most progressive of the mainline Protestants. He asked us to offer a compelling vision of the society we need to create in the face of the economic, ecological, and political challenges facing the world. It is a great challenge, but I have my doubts that progressive Christianity can do this.

I don’t think progressive Christianity can offer a compelling vision because we are at the end of the fumes of the Protestant reformation that created us. We carry in our bones its reductionism, focus on individual salvation, and visions of the elect and eschatology. 

We need a new paradigm.

Progressives, especially, value tolerance, which creates dispassionate, lay-them-side-by-side-respectfully-as-equals approaches to ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. They have a smattering of shallow ideas about other religions that are largely intellectual. They dabble appreciatively. 

Yet, I know that it takes a lifetime to understand a single strand of one religious tradition, if one studies it carefully and shares regularly in its community life. Most progressive Christians don’t even know the strand of their own tradition well enough to have a a clue about the vast and profound cultural differences involved in encountering another religion. Instead, they like to dabble in an eclectic “spirituality.” This same tolerance applies to their view of race: side-by-side, respectful, and profoundly unintegrated and unengaged, so they tend to be kindly and paternalistic or admiring and fawning. 

Western Christians—conservative, fundamentalist, evangelical, and progressive—share a root problem in addressing racism. They are more concerned with their own goodness than with profound transformation or intense emotional engagement that can survive the inevitable conflicts around difficult issues (unity being key and conflicts being scary and bad). They want people of color who will raise the racism issue to be part of their communities, but not if they are too different and don’t already fit in, or if they actually try to get at the root causes of white privilege and systemic white supremacy.

Now, I can hear some progressive Christians protesting that a passion for justice takes us well beyond mere tolerance. True, a prophetic strand of progressive Christianity is always itching for a fight. This strand takes a self-righteous, Jeremiad approach to ranting about social injustices. Condemning what is wrong and demanding change lies at the core of their identity as progressive Christians. They approach social change for the underclass in benevolently paternalistic ways because they know what is wrong and can speak truth to power on behalf of “the least of these.” They neither make themselves vulnerable nor offer positive alternatives to those whom they denounce. They are impatient with other Christians who don’t see as they do because they are so convinced of their rightness and the urgency of their cause. 

Progressive Christians are often both lousy community builders and maintainers and bad listeners, though they are often charismatic and greatly admired for their courage at speaking out so aggressively. They attract and keep similar folks, with side-by-side relationships, and, if things don’t go their way, they often leave in disgust. Their predictable prophetic bromides and slogans have grown so thin that they are no longer nourishing or interesting. 

I recognize myself in much of this description—I was educated in college and graduate school to this kind of Protestant Christianity, though I have roots in Buddhism and fundamentalism. I hang in there with progressive churches, despite the paucity of community and nourishing worship I find in them, and the ignorance of other cultures deep in American life. I hang in there because leaving is less interesting than puzzling through these parts of my own background and figuring out what can be salvaged and recycled—and leaving to seek personal salvation with others of like mind, too, is a bad Protestant habit I am trying to break. 

Unfortunately, I don’t see huge change, or great talent in the clergy—conservative or progressive—even in new seminary grads. I’ve met a few bright lights, but most new clergy seem to me to be a different chapter and verse on narcissism, intellectual shallowness, and a lack of imagination or joy, so, no bold thinkers or visionaries to see a way forward. 

If Western Christianity finds a new, post-enlightenment, post-colonial, feminist/womanist/mujerista, anti-white supremacy paradigm, it will have the energy needed to carry something else forward. I have caught some glimpses of this outside mainline white churches, but that work is virtually ignored in them. The old paradigms have huge momentum and force, not just in the minds of clergy but also in liturgical materials of hymns, prayers, and texts that embed them deeply in the psyche. We lack the resources, tools, and time to engage the profound transformation required to move beyond our comfort zones and set points.

I think the wrong question of progressive Christianity is “what makes it Christian?” We’ll only know what questions to ask of it when we get a glimpse of the different paradigm.

This essay is itself a rant and, therefore, a bit ironic. I confess it is as much an argument in my head with myself, as it is a call to other progressive Christians. I have become clearer about what might need changing only as I have caught a glimpse of a new paradigm, but changing the old one is going to be really, really hard. To get there, we have to consider the end of progressive Christianity and the birth of something else.