The Shape of Progressive Theology, Epilogue

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 


Carl said…
Something has changed in the past six months. For me personally, and also for Christianity. So yeah, I agree.

Six months ago, my family and I were attending a small Methodist church in a small town in a small county in Kentucky.

My wife was lay leader. I had been lay leader for a few years. I led FPU there. We tried and tried and tried to make the thing work. But the demographics were just too brutal. It’s all going the wrong way.

So why did we try? Well, we believe(d) in community. We had a real community there. People who really cared about us.

But sometimes, the maintenance and upkeep of a community just becomes too much. It starts taking more than it’s giving. And then a few years go by, and you’re broken. You have nothing left to give.

I was married in that church, and both of my kids were baptized there. We had good times during the seven years we spent there as a family. But reserves of energy eventually run dry. And the demands of an aging congregation in an aging building with an aging theology just become too much.

A few days after Christmas, I lost it. After years of wrestling with whether we should stay or not, I just totally lost it.

I was talking to my sister on the phone about Buddha and how Buddha said something about how we should imagine that things that we value are already broken. And I imagined that my kids were old, and I lost it.

I started crying. Just like the whole weight of the thing and the thinking that goes into justifying propping the thing up just fell down on me and then away from me.

And what was my takeaway from this?

That Rob Bell is right. There isn’t a Hell, not in the sense that everyone thinks. The “afterlife” can’t be bad. It’s not. I feel like I’ve had a couple “transcendent” experiences, and they were nothing like what you would think. (Click here for my “falling in a void of bliss” experience).

We know what’s right. The Christianity that we “know” is wrong.

Rome made that religion to justify its political agenda. Sorry, everybody. Constantine did it. We all know it. It’s time to admit it.

Farewell, Christianity. I am following Jesus. I don’t have time or energy for anything else.

Michael, what you have laid out in these six posts has helped me put words to a lot of what has been sloshing around inside my head and heart.

Yeah, the scriptures have wrecked me, too. Jesus is too radical for Christianity. Sorry, everyone. Your churches are on the wrong track.

Speaking of Rob Bell, though, let’s be honest: Rob Bell is a force of destruction. He is bringing a sword. He’s nice, but don’t be fooled. He is wielding a sword.

"Love Wins" is the 95 Theses of this Reformation.
Carl said…
Full comment with links here:
Michael Boyle said…

Thank you for your kind words. And I think you are right. Everyone wants to believe that they are in the midst of special times (because it makes us special by extension), so much so that we tend to discount the possibility that it might be true. But sometimes it is. Sometimes things do change.

I said this in my post today, but I believe it--sometimes you have to wander through the wilderness for a while. And wandering through the wilderness is tough, and it is scary. The Israelites cried out to God and wished to be returned to the comfortable slavery of Egypt, but Moses wouldn't let them. People like Moses know that sometimes you have to cut the cord of what is behind you. I think, as you say, that people like Rob Bell have a similar sword to cut our cords.

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