What Does it Mean to be Theologically Progressive?
by Randy Fairfield (6/2/15)
One of the games I like to play with my children is I Spy. During the game, I find something within eyeshot and ask them to ask yes or no questions to figure out what it is. Often my children will ask me if whatever I spied is big or small and I have to remind them that these are relative terms that need to be qualified relative to something else to have any meaning.
The same might also be said of terms such as conservative and progressive; that is, these are terms that mean very little unless they are used in context and in relation to something. During my last blog post, some took issue with the following statement by my rector, which I support: “The congregation is adaptable in making adjustments to life in a changing world. All Saints’ is considered theologically progressive.” In this blog post I hope to bring some definition to what it means to be theologically progressive and consider theological progressivism in a number of different contexts.
Upon reflecting on some of the thoughts other people shared with me in regards to my last post, I realized that much of my post could very well be summed up as follows: I have come to appreciate that the Episcopal Church is theologically progressive yet conservative in their church culture whereas most Evangelical churches are theologically conservative and progressive in their church culture. However, these blanket descriptions do not really reflect the whole picture very well.
Indeed, there are some ways in which the Episcopal Church is even more theologically conservative than most Evangelical churches. For example, I have been taken aback at the very literal interpretation the Episcopal Church takes in regards to Communion amongst some other things. As far as Communion is concerned, most Evangelical churches have taken a very theologically progressive approach in using grape juice as opposed to wine. The switch from wine to grape juice largely stemmed from a cultural abstinance movement here in the United States during the Prohibition Era. Further, the idea of individual Communion cups as opposed to the use of a common cup was largely an American Evangelical response to a cultural obsession with hygiene when science began to inform the public about how disease spreads. Thus, one can say without equivocation that, among the 30,000+ Christian denominations in the world American Evangelicals are amongst the most theologically progressive in regards to their theology on Communion.
I do not make this point to start a debate about Communion, but rather to make the point that there are many theologically mainstream positions today which were at one point considered theologically progressive. It has taken cultural responsiveness and theological progressivism to bring the Church of two thousand years ago to the wildly different place that is today. Indeed, the interplay between religion influencing culture and culture influencing religion is fascinating. For conservative American Evangelicals that argue that their theology is not at all influenced by culture, I submit that currently Fox News and conservative talk radio might very well have a greater cumulative influence than Evangelical pastors on informing the worldviews of most American Evangelicals. That influence, in turn, has most definitely had an impact on Evangelical theology in ways that left me longing for a return to mainstream Christianity.
My disappointment with some Evangelicals is that they often seem to place an emphasis on theological purity on far more than core beliefs and doctrines. Whether it be the literal ten percent tithe, speaking in tongues, or whatever the issue might be—this emphasis on theological purity often comes at the greater cost of causing division in the body of Christ. The idea that you can’t be good Christian if you vote a certain way, don’t accept creationism, or believe that women can serve as ministers—well, I reject those notions entirely and, because there are enough Evangelicals that think along those lines, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable inside the Evangelical community. I have appreciated that the Episcopal Church is extremely rooted in historically mainstream theology when it comes to the core of Christian belief, placing emphasis on the Nicene Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the two Greatest Commandments amongst other things. And, yeah, I'll be honest and admit I'm not totally sure about transubstantiation and eucharistic mystery, but there is one thing about taking Communion together in the Episcopal Church that is no mystery at all: That is, it is a beautiful way to unify the body of Christ together as one. Along with Communion, the Episcopal Church's approach to Common Prayer is another unifying factor that brings believers together out of all kinds of diversity.
So what does it mean to be conservative? What does it mean to progressive? What does it mean to be mainstream? Well, today I taught a history lesson during which I showed a film clip regarding the Little Rock Nine and the persecution and racism they faced as the first black students to integrate the segregated schools of the South. Following the clip, I showed another from Oprah from nearly forty years later. In this clip a number of white adults bravely apologized to those African American students for their role in the bigotry perpetuated towards those African American students. Isn't it fascinating that in both clips the views expressed by the whites were more or less culturally mainstream? The clips were powerful and moving and got me thinking about what our society might need to apologize for when we look back on the history we are living today. To bring it back to my previous post, I think there are many theologically conservatives that will look back with regret at their support of Arlene’s Flowers and Memories Pizza in Indiana.
So, what does it mean to me to be theologically progressive? Well, consider this: For those that think along the fundamentalist lines of, "God said, I believe it, and that settles it," I concur—but I think someone who is theologically progressive also takes into consideration the fact that there is a great deal of room for interpretation when it comes to what exactly it is that God has said. The history of the Christian church reveals a history of many different interpretations over many different doctrines, often in response to the culture or counterculture of the day. To me, being theologically progressive means being out in front of history rather than caught behind it. True story: I had a had an evangelical youth pastor once tell me that the world wasn't round because the Book of Revelation references the four corners of the earth. Now, is there danger in being too theologically progressive? Absolutely. There are some that have become so theologically progressive that they have progressed themselves out of Christianity (here's looking at you, Unitarians). As such, I believe it is important for the core doctrines of the faith to be continually reaffirmed and kept at the forefront of any discussion about any particular theology.