The Folly of “Progressive Christianity”

Recently a book entitled Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity came across my desk. Written by David M. Felten and Jeff Procter-Murphy, it’s a companion to the dvd series Living the Questions. I had explored that series as a possibility for adult Christian education programming some years ago but found it unsuitable for reasons that now escape me (although it’s pretty pricey).

In the preface, the authors suggest that unlike the dvd series which was intended for use in churches, this volume is directed at a somewhat different audience, it’s for seekers, “those who seek to go beyond the stagnant clichés of faith and pursue the questions that deepen your understanding as you make your way through a lifelong spiritual journey.”

Many of the talking heads that appear in the dvd series and are spokespeople for liberal Christianity and popularized New Testament scholarship also figure prominently here: Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong. The book offers lengthy quotations from these and other writers who seek to offer a compelling vision of liberal Christianity for the twenty-first century.

The authors themselves claim that they want to take scripture “seriously, if not literally.” Unfortunately, one gets little sense of a serious engagement with scripture. They are quick to scoff at the gospels’ accounts of the appearances of the Risen Christ to his disciples, for example, calling the Jesus who appears in these stories “resuscitated” and the accounts as a whole as “jumbled.” They discount Paul’s discussion of resurrection in I Corinthians 15 as a “tortured discourse” and seem to think Paul himself discounted the importance of the reality of the Risen Christ (even though his own encounter with the Risen Christ was the basis of his faith, call, ministry, and claim to apostleship). Oh, there was some sort of experience, the authors (quoting Spong), seem to admit, but let’s not worry too much about the empty tomb or those fanciful tales written in the gospels.

In fact, the authors seem not so much interested in offering a compelling account of the Christian faith and life for contemporary readers. They are much more concerned with taking potshots at conservative Christians, conservative politics, and, when they bother to mention anything in the Christian tradition between the New Testament and the present, it’s to criticize things done in the name of the church, or outmoded theological doctrines. So Augustine of Hippo is blamed for the doctrine of original sin; Anselm is criticized for his doctrine of atonement, and they joke about Luther’s belief in the reality of the devil. It struck me that like many fundamentalists, these authors think there is nothing meaningful or important in Christianity between the New Testament and the present moment. Unlike Fundamentalists, they don’t seem to think scripture bears witness to the faith of early Christians, or that the faith of those early Christians bears any relevance to contemporary humans.

The authors conclude with the following:

When mystery is embraced, freedom is embraced. Openness is embraced. The journey is embraced. Far from being cast adrift, those who embrace mystery are set on a lifelong path of discovery, growth, and gratitude for the wonder of it all.

There may be a great deal of wisdom and truth in that sentiment, but if it’s the wisdom of progressive Christianity, count me out. The words of St. Paul resonate much more powerfully with me today:

 We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (I Corinthians 1:23-24)


3 thoughts on “The Folly of “Progressive Christianity”

  1. Jonathan: This is really helpful to have your insights into this topic. So tell us (me): what authors or works do provide a useful Christian response to fundamentalists and/or conservative Evangelicals? Though I don’t always comment, your posts are always insightful, and I greatly appreciate your voice in the church’s ongoing theological conversation. Blessed Eastertide to you!

    • That’s one of the reasons I blog! But I don’t think “response” is necessary. It’s much more important to articulate an attractive, compelling, and orthodox position that begins with relationship with Jesus Christ and open to the body of Christ.

  2. Pingback: Discounted He Is Risen Christ

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