The Progressive Problem
“… progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.” ~C.S. Lewis
I tend to relate to a lot of people who fall under the “progressive” Christian category, probably moreso that most other categories in current use. I’m definitely not a fundamentalist, and am not a good fit in the contemporary evangelical category either (something which will be the subject of another post). I’m too conservative to be liberal, and too liberal to be conservative. And “moderate” is just too lukewarm-ish. Like I said, I tend to relate the most to people who fall into the progressive category, but unfortunately I don’t belong there either.
The term “progressive” obviously comes from the root “progress,” and I guess that’s my issue. I simply reject the enlightenment notion of progress. A wise man once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.” I tend to believe that assessment. While progressives may be moving on from the status quo (which is usually the remnants of the last progressive movement), I don’t believe they are actually “progressing.” Moving is not necessarily going forward, and not all evolution is a step forward.
Progressing implies improvement, or leveling-up, if you will. Each generations progressive movement has moved away from the status quo of its day, but it’s debatable whether any such movement has actually moved forward, or if Christianity has actually gotten any better because of it. Luther’s Evangelical movement (which I do identify with) did not claim to be progressing, but the goal was to actually regress (i.e. reform) to the gospel evident in the New Testament that had been lost in years of Western nonsense. As the Lewis quote above indicates, moving backwards can be progress from a certain point of view. But, nothing that Luther taught was new, at least intentionally. If a movement does, in fact, come up with something new and different, I would argue that it’s not progressive, it’s just possibly heretical.
There are some contemporary progressives which I think may be borderline heretics, having thrown out too many things with the bath water. Perhaps more importantly, I think there are more than a few non-progressive evangelicals who are possible heretics as well–at the very least, they are terribly mistaken about a number of things. Conservatives, for the most part, are those who hold on to yesterday’s progressivism. The thing I like the most about those under the current progressive banner is that they are willing to toss out the heresies of the status quo evangelicals, and in the process discover some of the attitudes and truths that were expressed by Jesus and the early church. But as far as becoming “a new kind of Christian,” that simply isn’t happening.
Jesus, and Paul, perhaps, were the only true progressives in that the revelation of Jesus was a new understanding of something old. The Gospels, especially, are very progressive books, from Jesus’ interpretations of the Old Testament to how he viewed people. Referring to the Law of Moses as “you have heard it said?” Refusing to judge sinners? Forgive, turn the other cheek? A Samaritan is your neighbor? Then, of course, there’s Paul, breaking down racial, cultural and sexual barriers even further, and declaring the Law, for all practical purposes, dead. I suppose, in that sense, anyone who follows this radical gospel of grace and reconciliation is a progressive, in that Christianity is itself the only true progressive movement. Humanity has always been going to hell in a hand basket, and we’re not any better or worse than at any prior age. However the New Covenant is the progression from the old, and sets the only way of true progress: redemption of creation and the full revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the only way of true progress. Apart from this, mankind has not progressed at all, in spite of science, technology and knowledge.
I really dislike labels, but understand why they are necessary, or at least convenient. “Postmodern” was a very unfortunate term, and “emerging” was even more so. Postmodernism was post-nothing, and you can only be emerging for a moment before you become the past. As hard as people try, we can’t escape the past, or we risk following the flight path of Icarus. “Progressive” is somewhat unfortunate as it is a relative term; the challenge, it seems, is not defining “progressive,” but rather to define what it is you’re progressing from, and what you think you are progressing to.
I can’t claim to be a progressive, because I am not sure that I am in fact progressing. I’ve thought I was many times in my past, and I’ve spent a great deal of time doubling-back to venture out in a new direction, hopefully just a tad bit wiser. But, the only thing I can be really sure of is that I’m probably wrong about a great many things.