Progressive is not Liberal

This has been an exciting couple of weeks for evangelicals. Well, at least the term evangelical.  Kurt Willems started it all with a post about being an evangelical “reject” and a guest posted  about C.S. Lewis being one.

I responded by putting forward a progressive  re-interpretation of the classical definition with my  Nine Nations formulation.

Then, this week Roger Olson (from Podcast episode 96) had a guest post-er Brandon who was a little confused about his experience at the Wild Goose Festival. He asked some questions about the Emerging Church that Tony Jones responded to … which led to Dr. Jones (Podcast episode 105 ) to suggest that we abandon the term ‘evangelical’ to the conservatives and go a different direction.

The hitch seems to be that both Brandon and Tony (as well as Roger) have real concern / apprehension about the distinction between Liberal and Progressive.

The problem seems to come when people fail to make a distinction between Progressive and Liberal – even equating them.

Dr. Jones says :

The problem with both “liberal” and “progressive” is that they are not inherently theological categories.  They are sociological and political. “Evangelical,” on the other hand, is inherently theological.

As odd as this seems – I actually disagree with Jones on all three points. Liberal and Progressive are both thoroughly theological terms and everyone from Carol Howard-Merritt to Austin Roberts has been trying to tell me that Evangelical is a sociological distinction and not inherently theological. ( I still hold out hope)

In Podcast episode 101 John Cobb makes an important distinction by explaining it this way:

  • Liberal simply means that one recognizes human experience as valid location for the theological process.
  • Progressive means that one takes seriously the critique provided by feminist, liberation, and post-colonial criticisms.

I know that when many people think of Liberals they think of a caricature of Marcus Borg and have him saying something about the laws of nature and how no one can walk on water or be conceived in a Virgin so we know those are literary devices that need not be defended literally. It is someone  stuck in the Enlightenment who puts more faith in physics than in the Bible.

Similarly, I often hear a flippant dismissal by those who don’t get the Progressive concern so resort to the cliche that “progressive is just a word non-conservative evangelicals who don’t like the word ‘liberal’ hide behind as camouflage.”

Both are woefully cartoonish.

Tony Jones, on the other hand is addressing a real concern. So if he wants to say “Those of us who are not conservative need a new label.” That is fine and I would probably even  join team TJ – whatever it says on our uniform.

Just don’t say that Liberal and Progressive are not theological. They are inherently so and the distinction between the two is worth the effort. They, along with the term ‘Evangelical”,  come with a historical framework, a theological tradition and a social application. They are not interchangeable nor are they disposable. They come from some where and the represent a group of some ones.

I think that they are worth clarifying, understanding, and maybe even fighting for – and over. They matter.

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15 comments
dgsinclair
dgsinclair

Also, can you upgrade your comments feature to include email notification? Discus or IntenseDebate will do it.

dgsinclair
dgsinclair

I agree with Dr. Jones, which is why Christians that use the term progressive seem to me to be making a political/theological pairing, not really distinguishable from liberal politics. I would expect a 'progressive' Christian to be part of the evangelical left where gay-affirming Campolo and activist Jim Wallace - i.e. with somewhat liberal theology and social justice politics. While Progressive Christianity may not be a political movement, Political Progressivism predates it by a century, and because they share a commitment to 'social justice' and environmentalism, good luck explaining how you're not politically or theologically liberal, even if you're not! Every time you use that word, I hear Obama using it in my mind. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Christianity And I must take issue with your claim that Evangelicalism is merely a modern social construct. The history of Evangelicalism is that it grew out of the Fundamentalist movement (which in turn was a reaction to the higher criticism which started in the Enlightenment and threatened bible belief starting in the late 1800's), leaving behind the fundamentalist disdain for intellectual pursuits and higher education, as well as it's cultural isolationism rooted in dispensational theology (why get involved in society if Jesus is coming soon). Heck, just check wikipedia ;) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical I think the term evangelical HAS become associated with the rise of the 'religious right' in politics, but that's not its roots, and many evangelicals today (theologically speaking) are being forced to pick another moniker because of that strong association.

Ken Silva
Ken Silva

Deacon Bo, thank you for proving my point; you're quibbling over words. You do know there is such a thing as a dictionary, no? You think there's no argument; but progressive Christianity preaches a different gospel than the orthodox orthodox Christian faith. Have at it trying to redefine words until you confise even yourselves but the Gospel remains the same, repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus' Name as salvation is by God's grace alone, through faith alone, in the finished work by Christ alone on the Cross. For anyone who preaches otherwise check Galatians 1:6-9 to see what God Himself has to say on the matter in the Bible; and I hope you do have one D-Bo.

Ken Silva
Ken Silva

The point is, all you're doing is quibbling about the meanings of words. People who peach a false gospel can call themselves progressive, liberal, whatever; their message is still wrong. A person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ can call themselves an egg if they want to but they're still lost.

Ken Silva
Ken Silva

You guys ever read - he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions (1 Timothy 6:4).

jim
jim

I'm just happy that the Evangelical Progressives are finally getting recognized.

Carol Howard Merritt
Carol Howard Merritt

I agree that progressive and liberal are theological terms as well as sociological ones. I like "progressive" as a theological term, because the most vital aspect of my faith is a liberating one. As someone who moved from evangelicalism, a key to my spiritual evolution has been understanding the freedom of God and God's continual liberating process. As we move from abolitionism, to the child-labor movement, to anti-poverty, to civil rights, to gender equality, to creation care, to affirming LGBTs, this has been an incredible, liberating time in our American theology. It's exciting how our theology has often been at the forefront of making these changes. "Progressive" recognizes and celebrates God's expanding freedom. That said, I think that Tony's right in wanting a new term. "Progressive" did seem to move directly from the political sphere to the theological one, so I'm a bit uncomfortable with that. Also, I believe in the *ideal* of progression and expanding freedom, but I'm afraid that the ideal does not always match with reality. For instance, our business practices no longer allow for child labor in the US, but we thoughtlessly employ children overseas. Is that true progress? When we use the term "progressive" are we feeding a modernist mindset and deluding ourselves into thinking that everything is getting better? Those are my concerns...

Russ
Russ

Historically, Progressive means faith in the inevitability of progress accomplished through the wonders of the modern world - social science, technology, and governmental action. The Social Gospelers were the quintessential Progressive Protestants, and they were, in almost all cases I know of, theological liberals. Terms like this aren't static, so of course it can be redefined, but it should be recognized that it's a redefinition. Not all liberals were progressives, but progressives were liberals, so it doesn't make sense to get too upset if people equate the terms even if you want to redefine one (or both). I almost like Cobb's definition of liberal, except that of course many (John Wesley, or for that matter, Pentecostals) had no problem recognizing experience as a source of theology, though one secondary (or tertiary) to revelation and confessions. I think it would be better to say that for liberals, experience (including reason) is at least an equal, or in some cases primary, source for theological reflection. 19th c. American and English Unitarians, who had a high regard for Scripture but used reason to trump what they saw as unreasonable traditions (the trinity, original sin, etc.) were liberals but their liberalism was of a different sort that German liberalism. And of course, evangelical can mean all kinds of things.

Dan Hauge
Dan Hauge

I mean Bo. Sorry for dissolving your identity into Tripp :)

Dan Hauge
Dan Hauge

Tripp, the distinction that Cobb makes between the two terms is an interesting one, and I'd be down for learning more about the history of those terms in the theological world. But if the issue before us is picking a new term for 'emergent' for public consumption, I would dare say that 99% of people out there do not hear the words 'liberal' and 'progressive' in the way that Cobb describes. So it will take a heck of a lot of education and repetition to make that the widely understood usage. Even if both terms do have theological underpinnings, in the wider culture they are heard primarily as political categories. Conservatives rage against the 'liberal' Obama and I listened to 'Seattle's Progressive Talk' when I wanted to hear Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz (before they both went TV). I'm pretty sure there is historically a distinction between liberal and progressive in the political sphere as well, but it's a nuance that is pretty much lost on most observers, in my opinion. I recently listened to Cornel West interviewing Bill Maher on his radio show, and West made the case that "liberal" referred to middle of the road compromising Democrats in Washington, while 'progressives' were those who really cared about making radical change for poor and working people in this country. He's also making a disctinction, but one very different from that described by Cobb in the theological realm. As much as the terms may have theological content, they are also very political terms, and I'm not sure if the distinctions in each realm completely match up. So there's bound to be confusion. I do actually like the idea that 'progressive' refers more to integrating the perspectives of feminist, liberation, and post-colonial theology, mostly because I think all three (and particularly the last two) are still under-represented in the emergent movement currently. I would like to see non-white, non-Western perspectives come to influence and help set the agenda of what the emergent conversation looks like, more so than is presently the case.

Philip K
Philip K

"It is someone stuck in the Enlightenment who puts more faith in physics than in the Bible." That's a simplified cartoon for sure. If the point is to construct a workable ethic or a contextual view of the world (and therefore the divine), then give me observable science and social-science any day over an ancient text. I don't mean "instead of" but "over". Progressivism isn't simply warmed up liberalism. Rather Progressivism, as I see it, understands that assumptions of truth seem to ignore data and often ignore the plight of the marginalized (poor, women, minorities). So while I would mostly agree with Cobb, I would add that the progressive inclination to hear those voices stemmed from a fleshing out of what it meant to take human experience seriously, that is, they began to look at the world through someone else's human experience.

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

Ken, you are being funny! You are playing the role of "After the Fact" guy. You are taking English words that have been constructed, adapted, modified, and translated and then saying (after the fact) "DUH, these are the most obvious words - just look them up!" You're like the guy who shows up at the party, after the venue is booked, the tables and chairs are all set up, the food is cooked, the entertainment has rehearsed, and the servers are coordinated and says "I don't see why everyone was making such a big deal about planning and meeting and discussing. Look at how great this is!" But that is after the fact. It's great because of the stuff you are complaining about. Ken - you argue and contend and dissect every word of every sentence (currently on your website: John Piper, Rick Warren, and Mark Driscol for instance). But you don't allow comments. IF you did someone would come on and say "you are being argumentative and contending about definitions". Brother - you are THAT guy. Can you see that? Language, words, and the canon of scripture are all things that have been debated, navigated and constructed - I say this as a good thing. This is how it works man. This is what it means to live in community with other humans. This is how revelation unfolds. You can't show up after the fact and say "this is how it has always been". You can't be so blind as to not see the process by which these truths have been delivered to us.

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

Ken, you talk about eggs and peaches but unless we DEFINE what those words mean, people can not rightly use them in conversations like this. Do we just assume that everyone KNOWS what an egg and a peach are? Now - you throw around a word like 'deity' and we all assume that we are using the word the same. No one here denies the deity of Jesus. You are making an argument where there is not one, certainly there has to be a Bible verse about that in your memory bank.

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

Ken, I'm not sure that YOU are in a position to call John Cobb argumentative or conceited . ever read Acts 5:39 ?

Deacon Bo
Deacon Bo

Dan, lucky for you that I have a big enough personality that I'm never in danger of getting lost or overshadowed BUT a small enough ego that I don't mind anyway ;)

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