When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge

The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.
The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum.  That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have).  But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains.   Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion.  Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism.  It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.

Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”

Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later).  On my reading, these 8 points say:

  • Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
  • There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
  • Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
  • We should all be really, really nice to each other.

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs.  And of course, no mention of the Trinity.  Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity

Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:

“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”

Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on.  Did it take a while to work out? Yes.  The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia.  No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that.  Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course.  But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us.  Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.

There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days.  Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge.  I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”

Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge

I have many friends who are progressive Christians.  By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus.  Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church.  They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.

But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity.  Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin  veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found.  They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.

That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity.  Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union.  Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal.  Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.

So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you.  The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.

16 thoughts on “When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge”

  1. I’m on board with you. And I think it’s easy to get on board while we are talking about the Trinity. However, I think this critique immediately becomes much more unacceptable to progressives when we speak of other equally orthodox doctrines like Original Sin/The Fall, the Parousia, the Resurrection of the Dead, and other concepts progressives as a rule reject. So what doctrines should be considered essential for Christian identity, and which ones can be bent/broken?

    1. I would say anything in the ecumenical creeds is non-negotiable. For United Methodists we would also include the Confession of Faith and Articles of Religion that we inherited. But it should start with the two prime doctrines of the Christian confession: the Trinity and the Incarnation – if those are up for grabs, we have left the realm of identifiable Christianity in continuity with Jesus and the Apostles.

  2. I think this post could have used some more specific examples, but in general I like it. You have one sentence here that is solid gold: “Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Ghandi or Steve Jobs.” There’s the rub. I believe what you hit upon here is the most fundamental divide in our church(es), which lies (imperfectly and crookedly) beneath the other questions which divide us haphazardly into different camps concerning specific interpretations, morality, and politics. Our wisdom about the world differs from one another and always will, but spiritually and ultimately, Christ is either our Lord or he is not. There are those who believe Jesus is both actually God and the fullest revelation of God, and that the story of the salvation of the world revolves around Jesus Christ and what He did, does, and will do. And then there are those who do not – who instead believe Jesus is, as you said, “a window,” one particular story among many different stories by which one can access the ultimate reality of love and awesomeness in equally loving and awesome ways. As nice and well-meaning as many of those folks are, they are, to be blunt, false teachers.

  3. I would say that Sider, Wallis, and Campolo are liberal Evangelicals – who are the forerunners of the emerging Christianity movement.

    Emerging Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of evangelical Christianity (McClaren, Bell, Claiborne, et al). Progressive Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of mainline liberal Christianity (Borg, Crossan, Butler-Bass, etc.). Similar, yet different lineages and starting points. Progressive Christianity has greater consensus about women’s role in leadership, that homosexuality isn’t a sin, and that there’s no need to convert people of other faiths to Christianity.

    Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

    p.s. let’s also make sure not to confuse progressive politics with progressive Christianity: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogerwolsey/2012/09/progressive-christianity-isnt-progressive-politics/

  4. Frankly, I don’t see Sandlin’s remark to be in contradiction with TCPC’s “The 8 Points.”

    In many ways, many progressive Christians seek to reclaim the pre-Constantinan richness and diversity of the faith – before things became codified into homogenous doctrines and creeds.

    Roger Wolsey, Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity

    1. Oh I wasn’t suggesting the Sandlin piece and the 8 points were in conflict; they both jumped the shark and cease to be identifiably Christian – they were both examples of what I termed Christian progressivism in distinction to progressive or liberal Christianity.

      Also, what you expressed is a horridly simplistic (overly Protestant) reading of Church history. Constantine did not invent orthodoxy. Polycarp in the 2nd century is referring to to Father, Son, and Spirit even if the full Trinitarian doctrine is not fleshed out. Shortly after him Irenaeus is fighting the Gnostics, because they were already claiming heretical views both of revelation and the incarnation (doctrine was far from a post-Constantine invention). As far the creeds, they did not “invent” settled doctrine either, but expressed the wisdom that the Spirit had handed down through the apostles and was found true to Jesus and the witness of his earliest disciples (like Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, etc.).

    2. Roger,

      “the pre-Constantinan richness and diversity of the faith”

      The Trinity existed before 325. And while there was a diversity before 381 regarding the Trinity, even then there was orthodox and not-so-orthodox which is what led to the Ecumenical Councils. BTW, councils existed before the EC’s as well. The EC’s were natural developments given the amount of synods and local councils held for the previous 100 years. The Trinity was likewise a natural development preceding the Council of 325. It is one of the first doctrines to begin the long development phase, right after the proper hierarchy.

      What Sandlin said was rooted in fundamentalist manipulation of actual history and a complete neglect of facts. I’m not saying he is a fundamentalist, although it seems his attitude is tracking that way. Rather, he somehow ignored in his rush to declare himself free of post-Constantinian “homogenous doctrines and creeds” such things as the fact that the very thing that tells him about Jesus (which he claims to base his whole departure from the Trinity upon) was handed down to us by the same people who developed the Trinity.

      Not everyone, but many seem to dismiss the role of the Holy Spirit in developing these things. This is the point of what Chesterton said about the democracy of Tradition. And this is the exact outcome Rome warned the world about when Luther drunkenly nailed his Hurt Feelings Report to the Wittenburg Door. We are now free to dismiss everything before us and set up our own church free of any external authority, relying solely up that which we are told governs least and governs worst, the human heart.

      Joel L. Watts — so awesome I’ll assume you’ll just click the link on my name so I’ll leave this space free of extra, needless self-promotion.

  5. I have one request of this conversation: Everyone, please learn how to spell the name of India’s great spiritual and political leader properly. It’s “Gandhi,” not “Ghandi.” Not making the effort spell his name properly is highly offensive to those of us who revere him, just as offensive as it would be in misspelling our Savior’s name as “Je-Hee-zus.”

    I also have one question for the author: Drew, what’s behind all these hits you’ve taken lately at Progressive Christianity? I realize that your personal blog isn’t Via Media Methodists, but of late it seems to have tipped far over to the “let’s bash the Progressives” side.

    For the record, I have no idea how to label my own Christian faith at this time. If anything, I’m siding with Phyllis Tickle in her book “The Great Emergence:” Christianity is going through one of its every-500-years “garage sales” when we shake up everything we believe and see what sticks.

    Got no problems with Incarnation and Crucifixion-Resurrection (can’t have one without the other), but I reject Anselm’s doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Jesus didn’t “die for our sins” but because God so loved us that through Jesus, God experienced human life in all its fullness, including the evil that we do to one another and the death that results from it. The Resurrection is God’s love bursting through those bonds.

    Got no problems with Jesus being both human AND divine, “one integrated personality in dynamic union,” as Amos Smith writes in “The Jesus Paradox.” Being grounded in science requires me to acknowledge that there are realities beyond empirical observation that can’t be “proven.” If anything, I’ve had too many of my own mysterious, mystical experiences to discount their existence, but I can’t explain them.

    Got no problems with the Trinity, but I embrace Jurgen Moltman’s interpretation that the Incarnation was accomplished by the divine feminine (“the Holy Spirit will come upon you”) and the divine masculine (“the power of God will overshadow you”) in cooperation with a human, Mary, who gave her flesh as the vessel for this divinity.

    Got BIG problems with “conservative” “orthodox” theologies that limit Jesus to his divine identity when his teachings are clearly meant to instruct his followers on how to live eternally HERE and NOW. This is accomplished through love and service that transforms individuals and societies. Got BIG problems with the “pie in the sky by and by” mindset that keeps people from addressing urgent human needs. Got BIG problems with any so-called doctrine of the church that oppresses anyone for any reason, especially those that confine women. If God trusted a woman, Mary, to bear God’s offspring, then how dare men say that women aren’t equal to the tasks of incarnating Jesus as priest and prophet, as most orthodox theologies claim?

    And this has gone on far longer than I originally intended. Enough for now.

  6. Cynthia,
    Thanks for your response. I have changed the spelling of Gandhi (spell check didn’t catch that one) and appreciate you pointing out that mistake.

    As I said at the beginning, I try to be an equal opportunity critic. When I critique conservatives, they think I’m a progressive. When I critique progressives, I get accused of being a conservative. If you look a couple of posts down you’ll see I very recently compared conservative evangelicals to the Sopranos (and not in a good way). I tend to respond to what I’m seeing, so it isn’t always a critique of one and then the other on an even basis. This post came from some things I saw on social media that genuinely disturbed me – and frankly, while I have no issue with Christians who happen to be progressive, I think they should do a better job policing their borders and being on the lookout for folks who wish to make Christianity so open-ended that Jesus becomes unimportant and salvation is little more than social progress.

    I don’t have any particular problem with emergence Christianity, but I don’t think Tickle is a particularly good historian. Here’s why: https://pastormack.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/john-wesleys-case-against-phyllis-tickle/

    No issues with penal substitution, if done well, I just don’t think it should be the only theory. There’s a good reason the Church catholic never made one model the definitive version. Incarnation for me is non-negotiable; the language of “personality” seems a little weak to me, but I don’t know the book you’re referencing and the context is probably important. I don’t know much Moltmann, but I don’t know of any good Biblical sources that suggest a gender for the Holy Spirit. (Sounds more like William Paul Young from The Shack or Dan Brown; most say the feminine in the incarnation came from Mary.)

    I’m not sure what you’re getting about vis-a-vis “limiting” Jesus to the hereafter. That is certainly a feature of some forms of evangelicalism, but the Catholics and Orthodox and other orthodox folks in the Mainline understand that discipleship, not to mention salvation, are matters for this world and not just the next. Wesley was excellent at emphasizing the already of the Kingdom. I don’t like that conservatives have tried to claim the term orthodox; when I use orthodox that is not what I mean, anyway.

    Again, thanks for your feedback. Peace.

  7. Great article, but Exhibit A is begging to be taken one step further. Specifically you should have asked the question “Why?”

    One can start to tease out the answer by simply looking at your summarized four points. One thing is readily apparent from them: There is no “truth”. Thus, nobody has a “correct” answer to anything and nothing can be judged. Again, it is not a religious philosophy or belief system, but a political philosophy that is masquerading as a religious doctrine. The unfortunate part is that it’s religious doctrine by popular consensus, not by divine inspiration.

    The basic idea here is that the liberal political philosophy demands that everybody be included. Again, as I have pointed out before, religions are inherently exclusive, which is why liberals have a problem with them. Think about it. If liberals like Dawkins constantly make fun of people for worship an imaginary “spaghetti monster” then the question arises, WHY does he care so much about it? Simple. Because a liberal cannot tolerate exclusivity because that inherently means some people are excluded and that is “de facto” oppression.

    Which brings us to the last bullet point in your list. If there is no truth and no “correct” answer to anything, do you have a religious doctrine? This is a problem for liberals because they still seek to have a moral high-ground which is why in all liberal religious doctrines the main point you see is “we should be nice to each other”.

    It’s what is called “moral license”. And both sides are guilty of it. Your post about fundamentalists details this with the conservatives: They may have gotten divorced but it’s ok because they don’t like gays. And it’s shown here in the liberal form: As you put it “Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi”, but it’s ok because they’re nice to everyone. Fine, that’s a good point, but the problem is that it flies in the face of actual doctrine that says there is only one true way, and it’s not winning the “nice Olympics”. If the point is to follow a doctrine, but then filter that doctrine through the lens of “progressiveness” then the question you ultimately arrive it is: why have a doctrine in the first place? This reduces the religion to a code of conduct that is dictated NOT by faith, but by politics. Which is why the exclusivity of religion must be eliminated, because it violates the liberal belief that one cannot have the “correct” answer, because the “correct” answer is that everyone has the “correct” answer. Which is a meaningless, but it serves one main purpose: preventing anyone from judging anything as being “bad”.

    What ends up happening because of this is the liberal doctrine attempts to make Christianity so open-ended that the actual religious doctrine becomes irrelevant – you have text book moral relativism. The “old ways” are bad, says the latest Rasmussen poll, thus we must change because change is good. It’s frantic action against impotence. Change becomes the religion in an effort to justify a political belief that you can’t call people out for being wrong. Thus, every time a doctrine emerges that allows that, said doctrine must be changed.

    This is, again, how Cynthia can justify feeling the same towards Boko Haram as towards the kidnapped girls. That they are both worthy of “concern”. The Bible certainly says you should forgive your enemies, but I can’t think of a place where it says you should excuse their actions based on the belief that judging them is wrong.

    I point Cynthia out because she so clearly demonstrates the liberal political philosophy masquerading as religious doctrine.

    If you asked her if ISIS is evil, she wouldn’t say yes because to say yes is to judge, and judgement is anathema to liberal political philosophy. You must make excuses for their behavior so it’s not really their fault. Thus it becomes a problem created by the Western support of Israel or the “oppression” of Muslims. This manifests itself elsewhere. As a quick quiz, who do you think has more of a problem with the ban of women drivers in Saudi Arabia? 1) A Fox News stenographer in a Kentucky man cave, or 2) Chris Hayes?

    We all know the answer to that.

    And don’t tell me it’s Chris Hayes, I watch him every night in an exercise in not throwing a brick through my TV and he’s never mentioned it. And the reason liberals never do is that liberal philosophy requires that one cannot judge other cultures; so you have a sort of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, oppression of females is bad, on the other hand, judgement of another culture is also bad, which is why liberal Christians spend more time hating on Chick-fil-a than they do questioning whether the Saudi oppression of women based on the Koran is a good or bad thing. Sure, they’ll give lip service to “oppression” in general, but they will never call Islam flat out for it.

    The Church doesn’t oppress anyone, it simply has a list of rules that it wants you to follow. If it didn’t, what’s the point? Salvation requires giving something up, making an effort. If you can just stamp your feet and say “uh huh, this oppresses X, I’m not going to follow it”, where does it stop? It doesn’t, and that’s why Religious liberals are always agitating for relaxed doctrinal adherence; because eventually everyone will be included in a religion that stands for nothing.

    1. Section8Hypo: I call BS on your comment, because you have no earthly clue to who I really am or what I believe. You’re simply projecting your own prejudices onto my comments.

      For what it’s worth, Boko Haram IS evil, and deserves judgment. HOWEVER, Jesus’ message is that God enacts both love AND justice, and that God never executes one without the other. God’s ways are far beyond human ways, which is why it’s so hard to live up to Jesus’ teachings, which are about personal AND social holiness as God envisions it. That’s the doctrine that I follow.

  8. The 8 Points of Progressive Christianity originally had much more Christian content than they do now. I had liked that list and when I looked again a few years later, it had changed to its current “soupiness.” The Trinity and the Incarnation are my two most favorite teachings; they make me fall in love with God over and over again!

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Nancy. It would be interesting to see the original list. And I agree…of all Christian doctrines the Trinity and Incarnation are our two most sublime – and important! Peace to you.

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