The Shape of Progressive Theology, Epilogue
I hope the Holy Spirit descends on you like fire. I hope it for all of us. Come, Lord Jesus.— Preston Yancey (@prestonyancey) May 4, 2017
Something has changed in the last six months. Can you feel it? Because I can.
See, here's how it worked prior to the coming of Trump. There were people that called themselves progressive Christians, who voted for more or less progressive parties in political elections (which, in the United States, means the Democratic Party). They often shook their heads at some of their co-religionists, at some of the political and social positions they took, and tried to do what they could to limit or mitigate the damage they saw those positions causing. But, at the end of the day, these progressive Christian folks believed in a "big tent," and in the slow and steady approach to getting their co-religionist to come around.
Then you had the conservatives. Often, perhaps regularly, they would say that the progressive Christians were not really Christians at all--that they were heretics or schismatics or "worldy" or whatever term of art they were using that day. They had gotten very good at, and showed a willingness to engage in, "farewelling" people, to use the term that came into vogue in the wake of Love Wins-gate (an incident which, for reasons I have previously discussed in this series, might mark the end of one era and the beginning of another in many ways, especially in the evangelical world in the United States). But the point is that there was a one way flow of "farewelling"--conservatives to progressives, but not the other way around.
That's gone now. Trump, and similar events around the world, seems to have been a clarifying fire for many people who consider themselves progressive Christians. When the look across the divide at the their conservative brethren and sistren, they are increasingly not seeing people who are too uptight, or too rigid, or have unpleasant political opinions--they see people that they no longer believe to be Christian in any meaningful sense. They see people who have abandoned the message of the Gospel in favor of a set of political and social positions that are either incomparable with or diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ. While they may not use this term, they see their conservative brethren and sistren as heretics. And, increasingly, they no longer see them as brethren and sistren at all.
For a while I have suspected this was true, but now I am essentially convinced--Phyllis Tickle (God rest her soul) was 100% right. We are at the beginning (and maybe more like the end of the beginning) of a Reformation. The Christian world is in the process of dividing itself up, just as it did 500 years ago. And the people playing the role of the Reformers this time around are the progressive Christians. Martin Luther traveled to Rome at the height of its late Renaissance decadence and said "this cannot be the product of the true message of Jesus Christ." People like Preston Yancey in the tweet quoted above look at what is being done in the name of, and cheered by, the white evangelical world and the white Catholic establishment and say "this cannot be the product of the true message of Jesus Christ." And they are acting, and will continue to act, in a manner consistent with that conclusion, just as Luther and those he inspired did.
Luther may not have actually said "here I stand, I can do no other," but his actions were consistent with that sentiment. People are starting to stand where they need to stand to be consistent with their convictions. The truth is, just as was true at the height of the Reformation, we don't believe in the same religion, not really. Indeed, one of the signs that the old order is passing away and a new one is beginning is that they things that seemed so fundamental and so unbridgable between Catholics and Protestants now seem mostly irrelevant and historical. Our divisions are very different now, bringing with them a new set of alliances, both institutional and personal.
Presuming that Trump does not obliterate us all in nuclear hellfire, we will continue to sort ourselves out based on our theological convictions. This series was my attempt to put some structure to the diverse set of convictions that are animating the Reformers of the 21st Century. No one knows how this all will shake out. But I am pretty convinced that it will involve two massive groups of people who call themselves Christians, each of whom believing that the other is not fit to bear the name. The divide won't be perfectly clean (it certainly wasn't during the Reformation), but it will be real and it will be deep. We can talk about how it is a tragedy and a scandal to the Body of Christ, and I suppose that is true, but I see no other alternative or way to stop it. Whatever could have been done to prevent this outcome would have needed to be done long ago.
Maybe it will take one (or both) sides to fade away to a remnant for the divide to be bridged. Maybe it will take another 500 years and another Reformation to create another division over topics we can't even begin to guess at. But the divide will not be bridged soon, and it will not be bridged easily.
As Yancey suggests, sometimes the fire needs to come down.
Previous Posts in the Series
1. Experiental Priority
2. Contextual Theology
3. Rejecting the Salvation Industrial Complex
4. Franciscan Hermaneutics
5. Christ versus Empire
6. Christian Realism