Fundamentalism wasn’t pressed upon me as a child.
No, I chose it for myself.
While I did grow up in a Christian household, my dogmatic approach to faith was more a result of a well-intentioned – but misguided – attempt to be recognized as the smartest person in the room.
I also loved to read. I devoured the works of Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, R.C. Sproul, C.S. Lewis, and Lee Strobel. At a moment’s notice, I was ready to defend my faith with precision, clarity, and cool level-headed logic.
Growing up in East Texas, I didn’t actually know a Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, Jehovah Witness or an evolutionist, but I could tell you where they went wrong and why they were going to hell for it.
While my classmates fretted about prom dates and drivers’ licenses, I fantasized about debates in which I systematically humiliated atheists with my pre-packaged arguments about the existence of God.
I was a weird kid.
Stepping outside of my Christian bubble for the first time on my way to college, I felt well prepared to stand firm against the rising tide of secularism that originated from the liberal halls of higher education.
But the funny thing about learning how to undermine other people’s beliefs is that no one teaches you what to do when all those arguments decide to turn against you.
All the loaded weapons I had used to target other secular worldviews and religious philosophies suddenly (and violently) whipped around and wreaked their havoc on my own convictions.
I knew all the right responses to every possible objection to Christianity, and yet when I held my answers up to the same standards I leveled against other beliefs, I found that most of them didn’t hold up.
To add salt to the wound, around this time a trendy movement of performance-based religion swept across college church communities. Now I had to worry if my faith was “radical enough” for a God I wasn’t even sure I believed in anymore.
A Holy Heresy
During that time in my life when my faith was the most frayed, it wasn’t a trendy apologist or reformed theologian who helped me rediscover my religion.
It was writers and thinkers like Rob Bell, Donald Miller, Anne Lamont, Rachel Held Evans, and Brian McLaren who opened my eyes to new ways to experience and express my faith.
The very types of people I had warned others about.
But in episodes of The Liturgists, RobCast and Bad Christian podcasts, I felt a kinship and freedom I had never experienced – a space where no question too heretical and no topic off-limits.
I drew strength from the quiet and meditative faith of Frederick Buechner, Richard Foster, and Marilynne Robinson.
Through the bracing honesty of Sarah Bessey, the activism of Shane Claiborne, and the inquisitive mind of Science Mike, I discovered my heart was too small, my politics too narrow and my application of God’s mercy too limited.
It’s a beautiful thing to not feel alone.
Does this mean I subscribed to all their beliefs and unbeliefs?
But here’s the kicker: They never presented the expectation that I had to agree with them.
And for the first time, the Bible felt alive in my hands, crackling with energy and potential. I began talking about my faith journey with believers and nonbelievers alike, without the fear of sounding too gullible or narrow-minded. Instead of living in a state of constant anxiety about the afterlife, I learned my job as a Christian was more about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth through self-sacrificial acts of love, justice, and mercy.
I discovered that if fighting a “culture war” meant the further oppression of another historically marginalized people group, then I would lay down my weapon and tend to the wounds of the other side.
Progressive Christianity gave me permission to ask questions – the hard questions – about science, suffering, the Bible, and the afterlife that I’d been conditioned to believe were too dangerous to speak out loud.
But my newfound “enlightenment” came with a cost.
Just like any belief structure, progressive Christianity can be used to unfairly judge, stereotype, and marginalize other people groups of other belief systems.
A progressive Christian can be just as dogmatic and blind to their own biases as a fundamentalist Christian. No matter your position on the religious spectrum, an echo chamber is still an echo chamber.
One of the unintended consequences of embracing progressive Christianity is I found myself trading one form of fundamentalism for another. I was as self-righteous as ever; I just had new targets.
Being human, we’re drawn to absolutes. It helps us make sense of a chaotic world. But I was losing what I had attracted me to this new expression of faith to begin with – its embrace of mystery, wonder, and possibility.
Another peril and pitfall of progressive Christianity is its inherent desire to de-evangelize or delegitimize people already satisfied and inspired by their traditional belief system.
Most people don’t want to deconstruct their faith. The worst mistakes I’ve ever made came from my incorrect assumption that other people needed or even wanted to be on the same road I was traveling.
Intentionally pushing a Christian audience toward an unwanted existential crisis of faith can be just as (if not more) damaging as a fundamentalist preacher telling his congregation that if they don’t believe in literal 6-day creation they’re all going to hell.
Most movements are born out of frustration and disenchantment, but if the progressive Christianity doesn’t move beyond its angsty beginnings it runs the risk of self-parody or irrelevance.
In his book What Is the Bible?, controversial (former) pastor Rob Bell includes a note on changing and growing. In it, he writes,
Watch your heart carefully, because if you aren’t more compassionate and more kind and more understanding, then you haven’t grown at all. If a new idea or understanding or interpretation doesn’t help transform you into the kind of person Jesus is calling us all to be, then it isn’t worth much.”
If progressive Christianity is unable to transcend cynicism and partisan animosity, then it needs to seriously rethink its motives and methods – or if it’s really any different at all.
Mending the Divide
Every generation has had its own brand of progressive Christianity. And some of it sticks and some of it doesn’t. But God has always used the voices of so-called heretics to challenge and reform his Church (see: Martin Luther, St. Francis of Assi, John Wycliffe, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., just to name a few).
And while it’s not uncommon to spot different church denominations occupying corners on the same city blocks, we tend to forget that most denominational splits originated from “heretical” differences and resulted in widespread bloodshed.
The larger question at play is whether the traditional church will dismiss the entirety of progressive Christianity based on the uninformed words and actions of a few, or will it pivot to address the needs of a new generation of Christians?
The bloggers, writers, pastors, and thinkers of Progressive Christianity have a diverse and engaged audience – most of it millennials – for a reason: They are filling an intellectual, emotional and spiritual void that many people are experiencing within the modern Church.
The world is changing. We are exposed to different ideas, thoughts, and cultures through the internet, globalization, immigration, and travel at a level never experienced in history.
The mission of God is too big for any one church, denomination, or doctrinal statement. The plurality of Christian denominations across the world and throughout history are proof enough of that.
In A Flexible Faith, Bonnie Kristian writes,
“We can get so stuck in our little pool that we never notice the stream of orthodoxy is wide and deep and beautiful. Without even realizing it, we can become convinced our own tradition is the one Christian alternative to nonbelief.”
This is not a call for the Church to abandon its principles, but an invitation to embrace the diversity of thought and experience of those who are rediscovering their faith in a new context. The Gospel is Good News, even to those who don’t quite believe or experience it the same way.
But both sides have a lot to learn from one another.
I used to believe the world wanted an argument for Christianity. I thought they wanted proof, historical analysis, and a belief system that holds up to logical scrutiny. I couldn’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t want a free ticket to Heaven.
But what people really want – what they really need – is for the Church to be the body of Jesus – in all of its messiness, hopefulness, and grace. Even if that means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who has opposing political views or uses different metaphors to express their relationship with God.
Because the story God is telling begins in a garden,
and it ends in a city.
Always developing. Always evolving. Always progressing.
My wife and I still attend a fairly traditional church.
I find it healthy to keep a foot planted in both worlds.
And if you ask my position or stance on a particular topic or issue – be it theological, political, or Biblical – I’ll offer to grab lunch or drinks, and then we’ll have a conversation.
Because I don’t want to convince you.
I just want you to understand.
Addendum: Supplies For the Journey
Navigating your own faith deconstruction or don’t know what to think about God?
Here are a few (dangerous) books that helped me the most.
Velvet Elvis – Rob Bell
Faith Unraveled – Rachel Held Evans
Out of Sorts – Sarah Bessey
Falling Upward – Richard Rohr
A Generous Orthodoxy – Brian McLaren
Blue Like Jazz – Donald Miller
The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales – Peter Rollins
Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – Brian Zahnd
The Bible Tells Me So – Peter Enns
Surprised by Hope – N.T. Wright
Finding God in the Waves – Mike McHargue
The End of Religion – Bruxy Cavey
What’s Wrong With Religion? – Skye Jethani
Here are the faith-based podcasts I listen to on a regular basis.
The Bible Project
Exploring My Strange Bible
Theology in the Raw
Ask Science Mike
Bad Christian Podcast
Burned out of traditional church music? Here are the artists that deal honestly with faith and the world.
John Mark McMillan
And here are some more ‘traditional’ voices I’ve been drawn to recently.
John Mark Comer
Joshua Ryan Butler
Also, for all the people who feel frightened and ashamed by their questions or doubts about God, or feel as if they’ve been pretending for years, I promise you are not the only one.
You are never alone.
10 thoughts on “A Love Letter (and Warning) to Progressive Christianity”
What a journey! I really appreciated the breadth of your search. Have you come across Richard Rohr’s stuff yet? Something else that helped me a long time ago was James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. At the moment, I am not able to attend church. I miss being with other believers, however it is my connection with God that keeps me going.
Yes, I love Richard Rohr! But I have to be in the right mood for him because he can sometimes go over my head! And I’ll check out Fowler’s Stages of Faith…that sounds right up my alley! I’m sorry it’s been difficult for you to rediscover Christian community – just know that you are never alone and you should never be asked to sacrifice your vulnerability for a community! Don’t lose hope and continue to abide in Christ.
I know what you mean about Richard Rohr, I heard him in person years ago (some friends invited me) but it all went straight over my head, but a phrase remained with me, “emerging church” which were Christians not connected by denomination but something else. Thank you for your kind words, and understanding. It means a lot!
Thanks for this. I was looking for perspectives on Rob Bell’s What is the Bible? and Google gave this as one of the results. I skimmed…and kept reading the whole thing. You show a lot of wisdom and good perspective. I particularly liked your caution to fellow progressives about not pushing persons “toward an unwanted existential crisis of faith.” And that you listed “some more ‘traditional’ voices I’ve been drawn to recently.”
You mention both Brian Zahnd and Joshua Ryan Butler. Do you happen to catch their conversation on “Is God a God of wrath?” on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley (25 June 2016)?
This totally resonated with me! I just began my faith journey after being a closeted atheist for years, and then an open atheist for the last 5. I find it so comforting to hear other’s experience with deconstruction and reconstruction. I listen to Inglorious Pasterds (I’m very behind, episode 38) but they led me to Science Mike’s Finding God in the Waves, which I devoured. I just ordered 3 Rob Bell books, Blue Like Jazz, and Peter Enns. Seeing those authors listed at the end of the post and in the comments makes me feel certain that I am on the right path! My only concern now is trying to find a church that will embrace me and nurture the flame. You see, I’m in Southern Baptist country and I fear attending any church under any denomination down here will extinguish that flame. But I do long for community with people of like minds and beliefs. Thank you again!
To the author: Joe, hi interesting article and others you have written. Would your move to progressive Christianity also have been influenced by not finding answers in your traditional church or feeling not able to ask questions re doubts? I am also mostly self-taught re apologetics etc – don’t see it as a threat to my faith but confirms my faith. Do you believe it is still essential to believe in things like the Resurrection to be a Christian and to provide answers to serious doubts which are perfectly normal – especially for new and young believers? Please take a look at this also – makes some good points https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNLE41iPdUc&t=136s
I’m sad you didn’t see my previous response worthy to post. (I noticed you posted one that came after mine.) Was it because I challenged your thinking with a biblical response? I realize that this blog is meant to reach a younger audience — but this old lady had something to say which hopefully and helpfully gave you food for thought.
If you post only affirmation or inquiring posts? It’s not honest. You should be willing to engage those who are kind in differing with your opinion, as well. If they aren’t kind? That’s a different matter altogether. But I was kind.
And to the person above, “Do you believe it is still essential to believe in things like the Resurrection to be a Christian?” The answer is yes. No wavering on that one. If you can’t understand the finished work of Christ on the behalf of his beloved — and can’t believe that the resurrection accomplished that work through the Passive and Active Obedience of Christ, then you are wandering in that lost world of “Progressive Christianity” that doesn’t seem to like to accept reasonable theological definitions. There are some things that are not negotiable. The resurrection is one of them.
Much food for thought, thank you for sharing.