Progressive Christianity, first in a series

A while back, co-blogger abc41 mentioned she was reading “What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?,” a recent book by the late Delwin Brown.  I gently encouraged her to contribute her impressions here, and the result is posted below.  Your comments are desired!

What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?  On seeing this title, and from the perspective of a fairly new member of a so-called progressive Christian congregation, my initial response was something like, “not much.”  But that would be giving in to my inner smart-alec.  In fact, the more I read, the greater was my appreciation for what Delwin Brown has attempted to accomplish in this slender volume:  the rudiments of a progressive Christian theology, as he says, “for ordinary people, not specialists.”  As an unusually ordinary person, I will share my responses to his efforts in this and succeeding posts.  Here I consider the preface and opening chapter.

 For readers who might not know, Brown, a layperson, was dean of the Pacific School of Religion and taught Christian theology for many years at Iliff School of Theology, a United Methodist-related seminary in Denver.  He died this past September.  By all accounts, he was well regarded for his clarity of thought and irenic disposition, both of which are reflected in this particular writing.  I didn’t know him, but I wish I had.

In the book’s preface, Brown properly decries the silence of the progressive Christian voice in the U.S. public square.  “For the sake of our nation as well as the Church, we must be able to say what we believe, and why, and to say so effectively.” (p. xii)  So far, so good.  I’ve believed forever, from the earliest of the denominational squabbles over human sexuality beginning in the 1970s, that we liberals/progressives/lefties/whatever-label-you-want-to-use have allowed others to define the field and set the rules of the discourse.  So I dig the idea that we actually have to do our own constructive theological work, rather than deconstructing (or just dissing) what we don’t like or don’t agree with.

 BUT:  The first chapter, entitled “What Progressive Christianity is Not,” seems to me to be indicative of the dilemma that Brown so ably articulates.  If the aim is to say what we believe, etc., why spend more than 10% of the space, right off the bat, on “what we’re not”?  I confess to a lot of impatience with the negative approach.  For one thing, as George Lakoff has shown us, it concedes the frame to that which is being opposed.  We all remember the example, “Don’t think of an elephant.”  So, section headings like, we’re not the religious right, we’re not liberal Christianity, etc. just evoke those frames.  For another, it’s a defensive posture that is unappealing and unattractive. Tell me who you are, not who you’re not.   If I’d been Brown’s editor, that first chapter would have been taken up in each of the succeeding essays as examples of differentiation rather than simply negation.

Nevertheless, some gems are to be found within the negations, and in particular I found the following (p. 9) to be absolutely compelling:

 “The mind is not all of human nature by any means, but it is part of and essential to a healthy humanity.  Similarly, a full and credible theology is essential to a healthy Christianity.  Hence a progressive Christian movement, if it is to be more than a fad, must be resolutely theological as well as active in the pursuit of justice.”

Interestingly this passage was embedded in a discussion of the history of the Princeton fundamentalists.  Brown is asking progressive Christians to emulate, at least in some respects, the approach of these 19th-century evangelicals.  Oh, the shock!  Might Gandhi have been correct in his assertion that everyone (even an evangelical or a fundamentalist) has a piece of the truth?

In my admittedly brief experience in a “progressive Christian” congregation, I’ve observed a reluctance to engage in any sustained theological reflection.  Indeed, I’ve been told, “We don’t do theology here,” a statement I find quite astounding.  Elsewhere (p. xii) Brown stresses the urgent need for progressive Christians to “become articulate about the transforming faith that is within them.”  Do we fear that in the process, if we look too closely at ourselves, we won’t find that transforming faith?  So I applaud Brown’s commitment to the theological task, even if it took a while to get there. 

 Future posts will take up the subjects of the remaining chapters:  Bible, Christ, God, Humanity, Sin, Salvation, Church.  Hmm:  sounds like systematic theology to me.  Maybe there’s even (yikes) a creed in there somewhere.  Stay tuned.

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