What is Progressive Christianity?
This project began as response and thinking through of some material from the recent Common Dreams 2 conference in Melbourne, Australia. It has developed into a project for living Progressive Christianity within the local parish.
Like any movement, “Progressive Christianity” is not neatly definable in the way we can define the formula for sodium chloride. I’m bemused by people who would never think, for example, that the Australian Labor Party was a monolithic group of people subscribing to the same ideas, but who want the church to be manageably monolithic in its theology.
There are some common themes within Progressive Christianity. Universally accepted among these would be the two which follow. People can name themselves as they like, but disagreement with what follows indicates an understanding of “progressive” which is quite remote from what Common Dreams was about.
At the very least, in common with many other Christians, progressive Christians are offended by the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. They find deep contradictions in the notion that God essentially had to be paid off for human sin by the death of Jesus. This barbaric view of the nature of God holds more in common with a feudal baron who needs to be mollified, than anything worthy of being called Divine, and which is the epitome of Love. Western Christians are often astonished to find that substitutionary atonement is not the universal view of all Christians. Indeed, in the West it is often the only understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death that people will have heard! Progressive Christians seek to understand the significance of Jesus in other ways.
We can expect Progressive Christians to be Universalist. That is; the death of Christ will “save” all people, not just those who have subscribed to some set of propositions or live some set of behaviours. That this is still a contentious view in many Christian churches, is perhaps indicated by the Wikipedia article to which I have linked. (Wikipedia flags the article thus: Its neutrality or factuality may be compromised by weasel words. ) Progressives, and many others, understand that a limited salvation; ie the sending of some people to hell, or some other kind of exclusion from heaven, means that God’s love is itself limited, which is contradictory. There are also severe questions of justice associated with a theology which essentially says some people will never repent. Progressive Christians, whatever they think of the word “salvation” will not limit it to some select believers. Progressives have radically rethought ideas about heaven and hell, and often abandoned the terms altogether.
A very gentle view of limited salvation is here in a fictional account by Gordon Atkinson.
It is worth reading for the picture Gordon paints of an honourable man. The man's compassion and decency does not, however, rescue the traditional views of salvation and atonement from their problems. Again, people can name themselves as they like, but not to disagree with Foy’s father, indicates an understanding of “progressive” which is quite remote from what Common Dreams was about.
I think it was Gretta Vosper who said at the conference, that the generations who wrote the gospels cannot name an appropriate spiritual response to God for all time. Progressive Christians would agree with this. They also understand that much which is traditionally labeled Christian is not even based in the gospel writers’ generation, but on the thoughts and practices of thinkers from many centuries later.
This article barely begins to deal with the insights of Progressive Christianity. It is merely an indicator of a moral and ethical sensibility that eventually results in a new paradigm of belief. Also involved in this new paradigm is a thorough reassessment of previous theological understandings and assumptions caused by the insights of modern science.