What Does Progressive Mean?

July 15, 2016

The slogan of my hometown is “progress through cooperation.” Our city website refers to the “progressive attitude of Sioux Center.” The visionary city leaders partner with other entities such as the community school and the area college to pursue cutting-edge endeavors. So in this Iowa town of about 7500 people, we have a state-of-the-art track-and-field complex, a two-year-old health facility, an indoor swimming and hockey center, and even an indoor shopping mall. Under construction is a regional airport. Municipal support is given to entrepreneurs seeking to develop land or technological infrastructure. In other words, the people driving this town understand that to stand in one place is to be left behind.

Whereas many small towns in the Midwest are dying, Sioux Center is growing in terms of business, housing, and population. Being progressive in this context means seeing how we could be better and anticipating positive change. Of course, we don’t always agree on what healthy progress looks like. (I won’t go into the three-to-four-lane highway debate. . . . .)  But most citizens appreciate a town that takes calculated risks for the sake of growth and a sustainable future.

Of course, our word for the day is used in other contexts. It’s interesting that people who are economically progressive may fear that approach in the political or theological arena.

“Progressive” is often equated with “liberal.” (And as you know, “liberal” is a curse word in some circles, said with the same derision that my dear mother-in-law said “liquor.”) It is better to associate “progressive” with the word “reformer.” During America’s Progressive Era, reformers emerged from both the Republican and Democratic parties—people who believed that certain conditions should not be tolerated and may need to be regulated through laws. Progressives led movements for banking reform, labor protection, universal suffrage, and the elimination of Jim Crow laws.

Like these historical reformers, political progressives today are often concerned about issues of justice, such as equal pay for equal work, the rights of all people to marry whom they choose, equal treatment under the law, and the right to healthcare. Progress must mean progress for the polis, for the entire community, not just the elite.

Here’s the thing: progressives expect difference and they expect change. These lived expectations really scare some people, especially when it comes to religion, as in progressive Christianity.

What is progressive Christianity? It depends on whom you ask. There are people within the evangelical family who call themselves progressives, but there are also progressives who step outside evangelical boundaries and still claim Christianity. With the understanding that Progressive Christians don’t agree on every issue, let me highlight a few points that tend to define this spiritual approach. (For more information, I recommend www.progressivechristianity.org.)

A place to start is with the United Church of Christ’s symbol of the comma, along with its slogan “God is still speaking,.”According to progressives, God’s revelation did not end centuries ago, but truth continues to unfold through new readings of the Bible and through study of the created world. How does one apply faith in a constantly changing world? There is no “period.” If I had to select a punctuation mark to represent progressives, it would actually be the question mark. Progressives deeply acknowledge the mystery that is faith. The mystery that is the divine or sacred. The mystery that is the after-life. The mystery that just is.

Progressives recognize the complexity of biblical interpretation. They acknowledge the historical context of passages, the time lapses between the stories described and when they were written down, the different genres included in the canon, the humanity of the writers, and the seeming contradictions within the covers. Loving God with one’s mind means facing up to these realities shown to us by biblical scholars and bringing a more humble approach to interpretation than is often heard. For the progressive, understanding God’s revelation in scripture is more of a quest than an achievement.

That quest lends itself to an intellectual humility open to genuine interreligious dialogue. (I am not talking about evangelism disguised as dialogue.) Recently an anti-Muslim speaker made a circuit through Northwest Iowa. He spoke of the dangers of what he called “interfaith tolerance” as he tried to sell the fear that Muslims are trying to take over the United States. Contrast this speaker to the work of the Al Amana Centre in Oman, “Bringing religions and cultures together for the common good of all.” Progressives support efforts to build bridges rather than deepen chasms; they recognize that other religions may have elements that can enrich their own tradition.

A progressive Christian also tends to emphasize action more than belief—not that one is saved through what one does, but that actual living reflects one’s true beliefs. Believing that sin is structural as well as personal, communities of progressive Christians work for a just peace where there is conflict, for protection and restoration of the earth’s resources, for programs of compassion to hurting people. Obviously, these efforts are not exclusive to progressives, but they flow naturally from what they value: engaging positively in the world, here and now.

Earlier I said that progressive Christianity scares some people. But for others, learning about this expression is an incredible relief. “Do you mean that I can be a Christian and still embrace science? Do you mean that I can be a Christian and not condemn people of every other faith to hell? Do you mean that I can be a Christian and see Jesus primarily as a source of wisdom rather than a source of atonement?” Many progressives would answer “yes” to these questions.

These people of faith may not be the loudest voice in the American Church, but they are here. You might find them participating in racial reconciliation rallies or cleaning polluted streams or tutoring in public schools. Comfortable with the question mark, progressives walk inclusively and incarnationally in their desire to follow Jesus.

About the Author
  • Kim Van Es teaches English and serves as a freelance editor. She experiences joy from reading, running, traveling, and serving in community.

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  1. I’m conservative. Let’s just throw that out there right away. 🙂 And I’ll admit that the term “progressive Christianity” scares me. Mainly because it seems that those who label themselves as such overlook the truth of scripture to advance social or political ideas. Now just calm down. . . I already told you I’m conservative so that statement shouldn’t surprise you. 🙂 I do not condemn people of other religions. Jesus did. I do not condemn people in the LGBT community. Jesus did. I love science. It tells of the wonderful creation that our Heavenly Father gave us. I look to Jesus as my source of wisdom. Knowledge without wisdom is meaningless, and Jesus was with the Father when this whole crazy thing called life started, so who better to look to? “The word was with God and the word was God, He was with God in the beginning.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” and so on so forth. Now, I’m no Biblical scholar, but I’m beginning to understand truth more and more. And it’s my belief that the truth found in Scripture does not change. It is not relative to a person’s feelings or social movement. It has been the same since the earth was formless and empty and it will remain the same until Jesus comes again. So I’ll just keep putting my faith in that. And while I’m at it, I’ll continue to love my neighbor and pray for those who persecute me. 🙂

    1. Thank you Jason.

      I too think myself a conservative Christian. And by that I mean nothing more or less than I believe with all my heart in the Solas of the Reformation and all that follows from there. This is, in my view, where “progressive Christians” and “orthodox Christians” divide.

      “‘…Do you mean that I can be a Christian and see Jesus primarily as a source of wisdom rather than a source of atonement?’ Many progressives would answer “yes” to these questions.” Yes, they do.

      I”m not “scared” by such assertions or the people who make them; I’m deeply saddened by them and my heart aches for those who make them, as they seemingly hold the claims of Jesus himself about himself…and/or the Bible in which God has revealed and preserved those cliams…in disdain.

      There truly is nothing new under the sun…either we submit to and honor the revealed truth of God or we fashion a god in our own image. Either we accept and honor God’s place above all, or we elevate ourselves and our right and ability to define truth, justice, compassion and love for ourselves. I believe orthodox Christians seek the former; progressive Christians adopt the latter.

      Professor Van Es speaks of the humility of progressive Christians. For my part, I see genuine humility in orthodox, confessional, creedal Christianity, and I see progressive Christianity as the antithesis of genuine humility.

      Placing a question mark after God’s Word isn’t humility, it’s classic human arrogance. It’s the pot questioning the potter.

      1. The idea that there is a fixed, transhistorical consensus on a biblical, creedal, or confessional “Christian truth” is simply not tenable, nor is the idea that “progressives” are necessarily some kind of “revisionists” or “relativists” if they disagree with a particular tradition of interpretation. Via extremely literal readings of scripture even the most conservative Jewish denominations have long identified a basis for seeing evolution described in Genesis, a primary emphasis on the welfare of the mother in abortion-related texts in the Pentateuch, and Leviticus quite plainly describes female homosexuality as a minor peccadillo, not a sin, just to mention a few modern hot button topics that are commonly read very differently (or ignored), in modern times, by many Christian conservatives. What do we say to Hasidic Jews of east European descent, many of whom have a genetic predisposition to have children born with Tay-Sachs — a terrible, terminal, deforming disease — as they have concluded it is permissible to screen and abort in these cases, for the welfare of the mother, family, and community?

        As Evangelical historian Mark Noll has pointed out, the Bible supports slavery and Abolitionists had to use historicist, revisionary reading and ideas about ongoing revelation to support their case. Few conservatives today would defend slavery on a biblical basis. Similarly, Baylor religious historian Philip Jenkins has pointed out how the Old Testament supports far more violence against rival ethnic and religious groups than the Koran, but few Christians and Jews today would approve these messages as a basis for how they should live and treat others. Christian confessions too exist because of division and competing, incompatible claims made by different sects. In this situation we cannot say there are no question marks, that revealed truth is clear on all issues, or that our own interpretive judgments don’t exist because we have direct access to the mind of God through scripture. If we do say those things, it makes dialogue impossible and guarantees maximum conflict over differences that have always existed and always will exist among Christians and other people of faith.

        1. Thanks for your thoughts Gerry, however, I would disagree with you. Historically, Christians of all traditions, whether that be Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox have held to the same basic doctrinal creeds: the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Belief in these statements has been the measuring line of Christian orthodoxy for centuries. The different sects that you speak of were declared to be heretical, outside the bounds of scripture, and are still considered so today.

          Furthermore, the Bible describes God as just. In Psalm 9 David describes the wonderful deeds of the Lord, including justice. He writes, “But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with uprightness (v. 7-8).” The book of Joel describes the “Day of the Lord” as one of judgement upon the wicked, while God still offers mercy to the repentant. God’s reply to Job describes His awesome power and utter supremacy over all creation. God is sovereign, just, and righteous. Therefore, before the triune God, the One who is perfectly just, there can be no “minor peccadillo”, sin is simply sin: a transgression against God’s perfect will. God’s righteousness and justice are absolute claims.

          1. I think you’ve misunderstood me and gotten a few facts wrong. The eastern and western churches have disagreements over trinitarian theology coming out of the Nicene creed, in terms of what key terms in it mean and what is included in the text. Anabaptists and many post-Reformation Protestant churches often don’t do much with the creeds at all. There is no theological consensus between most divided Christian churches (otherwise they would not be divided) and even those that have been most successful in ecumenical rapprochements now find themselves agreeing more on faith than morals. Moral teachings, which cover most of the cultural-political hot topics and those considered here are different from the points of faith in the creeds. The ecumenical creeds do not touch on moral life issues at all.

            I did not refer to any “sects” let alone heretical ones. If you are referring to Jews and Muslims, they are not and never have been understood by Christians as “heretics.” Heretics were baptized Christians who were judged to be teaching false doctrines, who refused correction. Islam and Judaism are separate religions that recognize a common heritage through Abraham. The heritage Christians share with Jews is extensive and foundational of course, and Jewish understanding of the texts they wrote has always been relevant to how Christians understand them.

            The Leviticus material I was referring to was a bit vague in my memory. It’s not particular sexual acts that are described in the Torah where there’s no mention at all of female homosexuality. It’s the tradition of how Lev. 18:3’s general instruction not to follow the customs of the Egyptians was interpreted to cover things including same sex relations among women. Basically it was frowned upon, but the important question was whether it rose to the level of impurity to make a woman ineligible to be the wife of a priest. The Talmud considers the issue and finds it doubtful virginity is lost, or that the women are akin to prostitutes. Major Jewish sages suggested it be discouraged and punished with whipping but not death, and it was decided not to make a woman ineligible to marry a priest.

            The point here is not that the Jewish laws and history of interpreting and applying them in communities should apply directly to all Jews or Christians today. The point is that it’s historical material from a very different time and people, so that if it has relevance today, it needs to be adapted to the needs and situation of the present. That is how even the most conservative Jews look at their scriptures. They may prefer conservative interpretations, but they do not pretend there is an unchanging law that ought to be imposed on all congregations uniformly or promulgated through the state. Saying this as a Christian is often dismissed as “liberal” or “progressive” by those who think of themselves as “conservatives” or “traditionalists,” but it is really just a difference in what is being conserved and how tradition is being used.

            In your own theological reasoning if you think that all sins are equally bad, then you have no basis to single out particular ones for special attention. it seems to me that a great division in the conservative-progressive split today has to do with conservatives elevating moral issues to the level of canonical doctrines of faith, like the trinity, but without any necessity or logical reason to do so. This in itself is a huge theological innovation, unprecedented in history, and a kind of revisionism aimed at responding to contemporary church conflicts.

  2. “Progressive” means good things for those who like or adopt the label. It means bad things for those who perceive it to be a label of those with whom they disagree. The ambiguity in the word “progressive” outweighs, even overwhelms I would suggest, the denotative meaning. Its a bit like the word “smurf” that those little blue cartoon characters used. You could fill in your word whenever they said “smurf.”

    But for that matter, I would suggest “liberal” and “conservative” are highly ambiguous as well. Note the present great divide in the Republican Party between those who call themselves “conservative” and those who call themselves “conservative.” The Stalinists in the former Soviet Union were referred to in this country as “conservatives.” “Liberal economics” (often referred to as “classical liberal” to help distinguish) is a perspective about political economics that these days is dominantly referred to as “conservative economics.”

    Respectfully, this article is making a political/worldview pitch (for the author’s preferred political/worldview disposition) more than it is helpful in finding the precise definition (or lack thereof) of the word “progressive.” My view is that doing this with words, at least when discussing politics and worldviews (which seem to often be somewhat correlated) serves more to divide people — and I would say needlessly — than to help create whatever unity might be possible, or even the actual discussion.

  3. Like Jason, who is just a few miles down the road from me, I will start with throwing out my biases. If I have to choose between calling myself a progressive or a conservative, I would have to choose progressive.

    In that light, I mostly appreciated how you defined what it means to be “progressive.” It isn’t the same as liberal. Sioux Center, which votes overwhelmingly Republican, is in many ways, a progressive community–maybe more progressive than my current community. People are regularly shocked when I tell them stories of how my tiny little hometown has the amenities of a much larger community (from TePaske Theater to the All Seasons Center to the wonderful walking/biking paths I like to use when I get back to visit). This is a result of the progressive vision of many community leaders.

    I do have a qualm, though, with the use of the United Church of Christ’s symbol and motto, something I see every day on a large banner the outside wall of the church across the alley from my home. I think it goes too far to say “according to progressives, God’s revelation did not end centuries ago, but truth continues to unfold through new readings of the Bible and through study of the created world… There is no ‘period.'”

    Now, I will grant that God goes continue to reveal himself even today through general revelation–in His gifts of the created order and in the endeavors that God has empowered humans to do with those gifts. In the area of general revelation, there are all sorts of commas. But special revelation has ended. There is a period. And while we certainly learn more and more about God and his plan for His creation and his people through our study of general revelation, and that additional learning can (and according to progressive Christians, ought to) shed light on our understanding of special revelation, we cannot go beyond the period in special revelation. If we do, we reduce the importance of Scripture.

    Now, none of this really detracts from an excellent discussion of how progressive Christians think. And the rest of what you write puts paid to the idea that progressives don’t care about Scripture. You write: “Progressives recognize the complexity of biblical interpretation. They acknowledge the historical context of passages, the time lapses between the stories described and when they were written down, the different genres included in the canon, the humanity of the writers, and the seeming contradictions within the covers. Loving God with one’s mind means facing up to these realities shown to us by biblical scholars and bringing a more humble approach to interpretation than is often heard. For the progressive, understanding God’s revelation in scripture is more of a quest than an achievement.” I would argue that this method of wrestling with Scripture is one that takes a very high view of Scripture.

    Too often some of us Christians simplify things too much. Conservatives accuse progressives of not taking Scripture seriously. Progressives accuse conservatives of not taking general revelation seriously. Neither is true across the board; many progressive Christians spend hours studying God’s word and applying it to their hearts. Many conservative Christians study very seriously God’s revelation of Himself in science and literature and art and every square inch of Creation. Vive la difference, but thank God for what we also have in common.