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.