Will progressive Christianity shortly be a thing of the past?

Note: I use the words “progressive” and “liberal” interchangeably. It’s not my intention for “liberal” to have a negative connotation.


Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

Over the last ten years there has been something of a renewal of progressive Christianity. It’s difficult to tell precisely how much is actually numerical growth (are there actually more progressive Christians today than ten years ago?) and how much is the perception of growth on the basis of increased awareness (do progressive Christians have a louder voice today than ten years ago?).

Perhaps its both.

Spend any time around progressive Christians and you’ll realize that they see themselves as the future of Christianity rather than a flash-in-the-pan expression of it. They see themselves as people who recognize that the fundamental questions that are being asked by humanity have shifted and that the answers given by prior generations in the faith cannot suffice. I disagree with this assessment.

Rod Dreher, however, argues that today’s Christian progressives will be tomorrow’s secular progressives. Where doctrine and practice develop, it is likely they will develop away from any notion of theism:

“A lot of people don’t want to hear it, but it’s true: in the future, you will either be a religious conservative, or secular. The religious left will evaporate.”

You can read his blog post here. He relies on research by Daniel Cox, head of the Public Religion Research Institute [link]. Cox reports that there are actually fewer religious (not exclusively Christian, note) progressives today than a generation ago. Since the 1990s the number of religiously unaffiliated liberals has doubled. Nearly half of liberals under 30 are religiously unaffiliated [see “Don’t Bet on the Emergence of a “Religious Left'” (link) at ¶ 3.]

Dreher quotes the late Cardinal George in support of his (Dreher’s) contention that liberal Christianity is not sufficiently substantive to survive intergenerational transmission:

“Behind the crisis of visible authority or governance in a liberal church lies a crisis of truth. In a popular liberal society, freedom is the primary value and the government is not supposed to tell its citizens how to think. The cultural fault line lies in a willingness to sacrifice even the gospel truth in order to safeguard personal freedom construed as choice. Using sociology of knowledge and the hermeneutics of suspicion, modern liberals interpret dogmas which affront current cultural sensibilities as the creation of celibate males eager to keep a grasp on power rather than as the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the successors of the Apostles. The bishops become the successors of the Sanhedrin and the church, at best, is the body of John the Baptist, pointing to a Jesus not yet risen from the dead and, therefore, a role model or prophet but not a savior. Even Jesus’ being both male and celibate is to be forgotten or denied once the risen Christ can be reworked into whomever or whatever the times demand. Personal experience becomes the criterion for deciding whether or not Jesus is my savior, a point where liberal Catholics and conservative Protestants seem to come to agreement, even if they disagree on what salvation really means. Liberal culture discovers victims more easily than it recognizes sinners; and victims don’t need a savior so much as they need to claim their rights.”

George continues,

“All this is not only a dead end, it is a betrayal of the Lord, no matter the good intentions of those espousing these convictions. The call to personal conversion, which is at the heart of the gospel, has been smothered by a pillow of accommodation. The project for a liberal Catholic church is as unoriginal as the project for a liberal reinterpretation of the mission for the church. A church, all of whose ministries, construed only functionally, are open to any of the baptized; a church unwilling to say that all homosexual genital relations are morally wrong; a church which at least makes some allowance for abortion when necessary to assure a mother’s freedom; a church accepting contraception as moral within marriage and prudent outside of marriage; a church willing to admit the sacramentally married to a second marriage in complete sacramental communion; a church whose teaching has to stand the acid test of modern criticism and personal acceptance in order to have not just credibility but legitimacy—there is nothing new in all this. It already exists, but outside the Catholic church.” [See “There will be no religious left” (link) at ¶ 5 citing “How liberalism fails the church” (link) at ¶¶ 22-3, emphasis mine].

Religions are rooted and expressed in cultures. There is no such thing as an a-cultural religion. This is problematic if, with Dreher, you argue that ours is not a culture but rather than anti-culture [See Dreher at ¶ 8]. Appealing to Philip Rieff, Dreher argues:

“…[C]ulture, of which religion is a part, is defined by what it prescribes and what it forbids. A culture based on knocking down taboos, on forbidding to forbid, is an anti-culture. It cannot do what a culture must do. Aside from advocating for the legitimization of homosexual desire and the approbation of sexual permissiveness, what does liberal Christianity really stand for? If it amounts to just the desiring individual and the sacrosanct quality of his own personal interpretation of Scripture and the Christian tradition, then liberal religion cannot do anything other than dissolve.” [Dreher at ¶ 8, emphasis mine].

Dreher’s analysis seems to rest on the validity of his claim that progressivism creates an anti-culture. I see where he’s coming from, and as a traditional reformed Christian I too am tempted to see progressivism as simply permissiveness universalized. Surely, however, that’s something of a caricature. 

Progressive Christians might argue that their vision of the faith and of the world isn’t ultimately predicated on a negation as Dreher insists. After all, it’s becoming clear that progressive culture isn’t about getting rid of taboos as much as it is about changing those beliefs and practices that constitute them. A transgender man (i.e., a woman) using the women’s bathroom is not taboo; it is perfectly acceptable. The taboo isn’t the practice, but rather it is the objection to the practice. In this sense then, progressive religion is establishing a rival set of values which often begin by expressing a negative in order to get to a positive.

Regardless, where progressivism ultimately fails isn’t in the culture (or anti-culture) that it seeks to create. It fails because it is not connected to anything ultimate or real. The content of its speech and act is not ultimately connected to God, it is ultimately self-referential. In other words, when liberal Christians speak about God they are actually speaking about their experience of God. And this experience of God is not necessarily connected to Scripture or tradition because those things are simply shorthand for others experiences with God.

For traditional or conservative Christians Scripture is revelation.  It’s source is ultimately God and it comes through the mediation of a firsthand experience with God. Revelation shows us God as God wishes us to behold him which shifts the center of authority from the self to God as the giver of revelation. This is not simply subjective knowledge (i.e., knowledge that comes through experience) but it is objective knowledge in that it points to what is actually the case. 

This is a critical difference that is more easily seen by analogy the placebo effect. Many years ago I worked with a woman who when she felt sad would take a single dose of a family member’s antidepressant medication and claim that it made her feel better. This is subjective knowledge.

My understanding–such as it is–of pharmacology suggests that a single dose of prozac doesn’t provide immediate elevation of mood. My coworker likely experienced the placebo effect: she felt better because she believed that she was taking a medication that she believed would make her feel better. This is progressive faith–it works for me, it may not work for you. Who am I to say? Orthodox faith points to something beyond experience and ultimately posits that the truth isn’t knowable solely on the basis of experience, that experience can lead us astray.