For the past couple of months, Bruce Epperly has been introducing readers to aspects of Progressive Theology. Although in some ways I may be more conservative than Bruce, I have enjoyed his gentle presentation of an alternative view point. In today's offering, Bruce reminds us that there is a need for contrasting voices. If you go to Larry King or some other talking head or media outlet you are likely to be introduced to Pat Robertson or Al Mohler or someone like them, and they become for many the spokesperson for Christianity. Of course, they have no qualms about being so identified, and folks like Richard Dawkins are in agreement with them, but there are other ways of looking at the faith that are faithful to the Christian tradition. So, the question is: why is important to have these voices and who might these voices be? Bruce is, obviously, one of those voices. Philip Clayton, John Cobb, Gary Dorrien, and Walter Brueggemann are others. So, I invite you to read, respond, and make some suggestions as to why, how, and who (and maybe even where).
Why Progressive Theology is Important?
Bruce G. Epperly
In my theology classes, I often begin with the question, “What would you think of Christianity if the only theological statements you heard were those of Pat Robertson and other preachers, who assert that the earthquake in Haiti, the 9/11 attacks, and Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans reflect divine punishment for America’s immorality?” Most of my students note that it would be difficult for them to be Christians if that was the only message they heard. Then, I surprise them by saying, “For most people, Robertson and others are the only Christian voices they hear – on Fox, CNN, Larry King, and network television.” Progressive voices tend to be neglected by the leading media outlets that prefer to focus on more controversial and immoderate Christian voices or new age/new spiritual movements leaders. While many people find solace in a God who punishes evil-doers without mercy (Pat Robertson) and who determines all the important events of our lives without our input (Rick Warren), others are in search of God who hears their cries, listens to their questions, and loves and accepts them in their imperfections.
Now, progressive Christians don’t have all the answers. In fact, God and the world are too large to be contained or fully described by any one theological viewpoint. One of the things that makes progressive theology so important for people today is its basic theological humility. While progressives are affirmative of their beliefs, they recognize that diversity is built into the religious life in the same way that diversity is built into the evolutionary process. More than that, some progressives, like myself, believe that a living and creative God is the source of both diversity and new forms of spiritual experience. This is a far cry from the strident, exclusivist voices we hear in the religious public square today.
Nevertheless, progressive voices need to be heard as a clear alternative to traditional understandings of God, the world, salvation, and the nature of human existence. Many persons are in search of a living theology that welcomes religious, ethnic, and sexual diversity; affirms the insights of science, medicine, and the humanities; and invites doubts and questions as part of the spiritual journey. Many persons are waiting to hear the voices of a “Christianity worth believing” (Doug Pagitt) that will provide a vision of reality, a commitment to social justice, and spiritual practices that will enable us to experience God’s presence in our lives.
I believe progressive Christianity preaches, teaches, and transforms. Where there is no one progressive theology, there are a number of progressive theological distinctives that speak to the needs of a diverse, interconnected, dynamic, and uncertain world. These are not creeds to be accepted without question or doctrines that require assent in order to escape divine punishment, but pathways to deepening our encounter with God and one another.
- God is lively, active, relational, and loving.
- God seeks wholeness and healing for all creation.
- God welcomes diversity in its many forms, including ethnic, spiritual, sexual, and theological diversity.
- Other faiths reveal God’s presence; and can illuminate our experience as Christians.
- The gospel of Jesus transforms our lives by revealing new possibilities for faithfulness and giving us the energy to change the world.
- Our calling is follow the pathway of Jesus in its focus on healing and wholeness, justice, personal transformation, and Shalom.
- Wherever truth and healing are present, God is its source, regardless of its origins; medicine, science, and other religious traditions reveal divine insight.
- God calls us to freedom and creativity in the context of an open-ended universe.
- The future is open and we have a role in shaping it.
- We are God’s partners in healing the world.
- God’s salvation embraces all creation; everlasting life is God’s gift to all humanity.
I believe that progressive Christianity provides alternative visions of salvation, evangelism, religious diversity, and human liberation that speak to seekers and pilgrims in our time. Our task is to be bold in sharing our open-ended and open-spirited affirmations, to develop practices of healing and spiritual formation, and to connect contemplation with social action in the transformation of this good earth. Progressive Christianity has a vocation to be a factor in shaping the spiritual landscape in North America and throughout the world. With a humble spirit, then let us who call ourselves progressive let our light shine.
Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary and co-pastor of Disciples Community Church in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.