Lessons from Blogging at Jesus Creed on Progressive & Liberal

I had the honor of guest blogging for Scot McKnight yesterday. It was a good opportunity to try something out with a different crowd. It was  instigated by last weeks post in response to Roger Olsen and Scot McKnight.Facade of St. Vitus Cathedral

It was a fantastic conversation and I learned several things that I will take with me into future engagements. Here are some observations:

  • I learned to clarify the difference between people in the pew and theologians.

I go to a mainline school and work at a mainline church. I have an amalgamation in my mind of the ‘average liberal’.  But if you are in the conservative camp, your main engagement and concern is with Liberal theologians who have a high profile.

If was starting the post over, I would address this up front and make an early distinction. I think that would have helped.

  • I learned not to use the word ‘versus’ if you don’t mean adversarial.

Neither Scot nor I think liberal is necessarily  a bad thing. Roger Olsen does. But some of the readers at JesusCreed think in adversarial binaries. I was not trying to say that progressives are good and liberals are bad. I was simply trying to distinguish the two – not pit them against each other. The argument culture is so strong – especially in conservative circles – that I should have preempted that.

  •  I learned that those in systematic approaches struggle to recognize non-systematic approaches.

This is an obvious and inherent problem. If you value systematic approaches, of corse you will criticize something as ‘not systematic’ and think that stands alone are a critique. I was trying to point out that conservative, liberal, evangelical, emergent, and progressive are not 5 categories of the same thing. Some are positions. Some are loyalties. Some are approaches.

 

Here is what I ended up with: 

Since my Cobb quick-definition was not working for folks I thought I would ‘shift’ the emphasis and see if this language worked better:

Liberal – a constellation of loyalties inherited from the Enlightenment that is settled/assumed.

Progressive – an approach that integrates such influences as Feminist, Liberation and Post-Colonial critiques explicitly.

I’m open to help refining this if you are a self-procliamed  liberal or progressive

 

My favorite response came from TJJ and it has me smiling ear to ear.

Qualities of a progressive ………as viewed by an evangelical……….

A. See more “grey” in their approach to scripture issues: inspiration, inerrancy, revelation.
B. Allow for more of a continuum on doctrinal/theological issues: hell, salvation, sin, depravity, exclusiveness of Gospel, etc.
C. More open ended on social issues : gay marriage, illegal immigration.
D. Trends more democratic/progressive politically
E. White, college degree and often more, affluent, alcohol, NPR, Toyota/Honda, MSNBC/CNN

Oh my. That is good.

At first read you may say “yeah – of course”.

But look at it again. It’s actually pretty helpful to see it all in one place.

 

I would love to hear your thoughts on any part of this whole episode. 

 

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18 comments
remliw
remliw

I suggest Paul Rasor's "Faith without Certainty" for a discussion of liberal Christianity

ngilmour
ngilmour

FWIW, @BoSanders , I think that linking Liberalism to the Enlightenment is far more helpful, historically speaking, than linking it to a concept as Procrustean as "experience."  I tended to agree with Roger Olsen's original post, but I also grant that my talking about "liberal theology" is likely analogous to your talking about "postliberal theology": when one does not self-identify with a term, one tends to frame it in terms of difference and make it less capacious than the term with which one does self-identify.  So, for instance, I'm going to tend to allow a more capacious range of possibility to the category "traditionalist" because I are one, whereas I'm going to tend to limit possibilities within the horizon called "liberal."

 

When it comes to "progressive," I'm conflicted.  I tend to think of that word, to be honest, the way that McKnight narrated it: it's a less-poisonous label.  That said, I'm trying to take your definitions-in-green above seriously.  My own history makes this difficult, though, because I think of myself as taking feminist, post-colonial, and Marxian criticism quite seriously, but the best way I've found to synthesize them is precisely in a traditionalism that I see as more adequate than a liberal framework.

 

Also, I do apologize that, since January, I've jumped into a few of these discussions and ducked out.  This semester is keeping me happy but extraordinarily busy.  Please be assured that I don't at any point consider our sparring "over."

thinking_reed
thinking_reed

I think it would be worth offering some examples of actual theologians who fit the "liberal" tag as defined above, because my suspicion is that it's a straw man. I say this because I can't think of any current "liberal" theologian who isn't engaged with "Feminist, Liberation and Post-Colonial [etc.] critiques." I think of process theology as a liberal theology par excellence, and yet it is deeply engaged with these critiques. The same could be said, I'd wager, for the type of theology being done at places like, say,  U of Chicago or Union Seminary, the other big "liberal" divinity schools.

 

It's also not clear to me what it means to say that liberals take certain Enlightenment ideas or loyalties as "settled." Again, some concrete examples would be helpful here. "The Enlightenment" isn't a univocal or monolithic set of ideas; and anyone doing theology today has to take account of certain ideas arising from the Enlightenment. That's not the same thing as uncritical acceptance.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

I don't know if everyone saw Rick Warren's tweet from yesterday: 

"Liberal theology cannot sustain a local congregation. It kills churches. In fact, it only survives due to tenured academics."

https://twitter.com/RickWarren/status/304154192652685313

 

That is exactly why we need to make the distinction! -Bo 

 

WrdsandFlsh
WrdsandFlsh

I think the key here is the issue concerning binaries of any kind. What the TJJ commenter pointed out is that (theoretically!) we on the Liberal/Progressive "end" of things see a spectrum. Not only do we see it, but we seek to figure our just exactly where we are in relation to others. And, because there is a spectrum, any number of shades can be "correct" - even when we disagree with elements of their world view.

 

I would make the case that expending too much energy slicing and dicing our terms in this respect isn't the most useful way to spend time. However, if the hope is to bring about a better (read: more respectful) dialogue then fantastic, go forth, and peace be upon you. But, what I am reminded about in the last discussion is that the more conservative mindset does not acknowledge the gray (generally) and is much less respectful of conversation.

 

So then, when our very language is incongruous how do we dialogue?

tom c
tom c

I self-identify as both liberal and progressive, but then get into debates/conversations over what that means most of the time. I take these both to be vague and loaded terms (with "progressive" being somewhat less loaded than "liberal"). I think it is possible to stipulate definitions for these terms for certain limited contexts, but ultimately I doubt the stipulations would hold in the long term. I bet linguists could tell us something interesting here on the evolution of meanings of contested terms.

 

Ultimately, these are terms I would be comfortable using in informal settings where there is opportunity to discuss and explore their meanings, but I would not use them in formal settings (e.g. academic). (In this sense, I think blog posts and discussions are more like cafe/pub chatter than classroom or conference discussion.)

 

As regards, "the Enlightenment", I think it is all too often used as a convenient punching bag (i,e, one made of straw) when setting up a new position. To some extent, one can think of the valuing of every person's moral, political and economic worth as well as their particular voices as consistent with values streaming from the Enlightenment (among other sources of values). This is my way of saying that I'm skeptical of a strict distinction between "liberal" and "progressive", unless what is meant by that is a temporal distinction (i.e. there's a lot more feminist, liberation, and post-colonial critique now than there was 100, 150, 250 years ago).

 

So, maybe these thoughts, and your experience, Bo, blogging about this issue, point to the view that both "liberal" and "progressive" are inadequate terms (as banners under which one can confidently stand). They may function as convenient or not-so-convenient shorthand in particular conversations, but their meanings are very hard to establish concretely.

 

Of course, the same thing could be said for "Christian"...

remliw
remliw

Well, I have been accused (yes, accused is the right word) of being a liberal.  I have also been identified by others as very conservative also.  I do not find myself in any of these descriptions.  When I self identifiy, religious, I desribe myself as a Christian and if pushed identify as an ecumenical Christian.  If I explained my theological ideas, I would guess most would say very liberal, although I do not think very many things are settled and I do think many things are presumed.  As far as the qualities of a progressive as viewed by an evangelical, if I go by that list I am not sure if I am progressive at all.  For myself, I see very few things as grey, while I try to be open to others making their own judgments about inspiration, inerrancy, revelation.  So, I guess I allow for more of a continuum theologically, but for myself I am pretty much on the liberal end.  I guess, in one sense I am opened minded on social issues since whatever one's views are about these issues, the various positions do not enrage me.  However, I am not open about my own view because I know what I think and am willing to listen but probably not willing to change my mind.  Politically, I would say I am moderate/pragmatic.  I am white, college with more, not affluent, ABSOLUTELY no alcohol, even NO caffeine (no I am not Mormon), TOYOTA - YES, but I drive them until they die (about 15 years), NPR (alright, but not so much - against government support for radio or TV, particularly news).  I like only SOME of MSNBC, none of CNN, and even a little FOX.  So I guess I am not to much into labels or categories because I am not sure that I fit very well into any of them.  :)

kevinwilliams07
kevinwilliams07

I did not post on Jesus Creed, but I did check into the conversation a couple of times. Bo I thought you did a good job fielding comments. Also I answer affirmative to all of the above "progressive qualities." 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @thinking_reed you think that it would ... but it wouldn't 

 

WHat happens is that somebody will come on and say "you think that they are X or Y ??  Well on page 256 of a book they wrote early on, they mention the word Z is two places - so your theory is out the window and has no credibility." 

 

That has been my experience :) When I write something like this ... I try to navigate between painting with too broad a brush and giving specifics which people get obsessed with.

 

Sometimes i will give illustrations ... other times I just let the terms do their work.  -Bo 

 

p.s. You make EXCELLENT points and I plan to do some of what you are talking about down the road 

remliw
remliw

 @BoSanders

 Well, I am sure that many will not like my response to Rick Warren.  For me, it may be a good thing that liberal theology cannot sustain a local congregation; since I am not interested in sustaining such institutions.  To sustain buildings that sit empty much of the week and to perpetuate outdated programs is not an interest of mine.  The Church lives on whether we have local congregations in their current state or not.  All Christians are gathered here on our planetary home, standing under the starry temple vault. God is here with us and our transformed lives is our worship of Her.  Much of the perspective shared by Rick Warren only smothered the creative work of God in my life.  What many would call liberal theology set me free. 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @WrdsandFlsh Yep, I get and have experienced much of what you are talking about. 

 

The one thing I would want to clarify is that I am not trying to slice and dice terms- though I see how it could look like that!  My concern is MUCH more that we need engage the critiques of feminist, liberation and post-colonial thought. 

 

Liberal is just a constellation of loyalties left over from the Enlightenment. I could take it or leave it. I am much more concerned with our approach.  -Bo 

remliw
remliw

 @tom c

 As for the terms "liberal" and "progressive", I think that many words that express ideas, and even more so for words that express a constellation of ideas, with use gather more and more shades of meaning and get various interpretations attached to them to the point that the words become nearly useless.  Unfortunately, the word "Christian" seems to have been going in that direction for a long time.  Although for now, I have not given up on the word "Christian".  I think the word liberal has become totally worthless in everyday conversation and progressive is well on its way.

remliw
remliw

 @tom c

 Oh, I so agree.  More so related to liberal and progressive.  A little, (emphasis on little) less so related to Christian.  I think it is very hard to give a definition of Christian with which every Christian would be comfortable. 

Goober11
Goober11

@BoSanders @WrdsandFlsh Whom, and by what methodology, adjudicates between competing claims concerning Biblical revelation & "secular" Liberal/Progressive epistemology? I think that would have cleared up a lot of confusion. Bo, not sure if you saw it,but Scot specifically asked you yesterday to sketch out your "approach." Now that you have more clarity on the whole mess why not respond & draw together some of the threads left hanging from that post/comment thread???

tom c
tom c

 @remliw Thanks for your comment. "Christian" means all sorts of things to different people, so there is good reason to proceed carefully with its use. Even so, I was not suggesting it should be abandoned, only that it's use may carry so much baggage that much conversation and even debate may be necessary to clarify what one means by it (something that it is, of course, not always possible to achieve). That said, to say that the word is inadequate, as I did, is just to say that it is one of those words that can raise many questions when it is used and frequently clarifies little. In that sense, it is a lot like "liberal" and "progressive".

WrdsandFlsh
WrdsandFlsh

@Goober11 To some degree wouldn't we then say that all progressives are Liberal? The Enlightenment gifted us with the numerous text and source critiques which seem to be the major chasm between Conservatives and non-conservatives. Olsen particularly pointed out that conservatives do theology "from above" while non- conservatives (however we're labeled) do theology "from bellow." it seems to me, in as much as Liberals are children of the Enlightenment; Progressives are the more nuanced children of a liberal critique. If this is so, anyone who seeks to apply these kinds of text/source/historical/etc critiques to scripture - and then develop a theology from it - are going to be non-conservative and therefore liberal. And, that distinction is going to come with negative baggage (in the minds of conservatives).

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @Goober11  I had not seen that!  Thanks for the heads up.  I was in all day staff retreat yesterday and then came out to over 20 Mumford post responses :)   I have meetings today and then the live event tonight ...   I will try to get to it Friday. Yikes.   I'm glad you told me.  -Bo 

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