We live in the age of the superhero, cinematically speaking.
As a point of reference if, in the age of Billy Madison, you weren’t cool until you pee’d your pants, then in this current age you’re not a legitimate actor or actress until you’ve assumed the guise of a famous Marvel or DC Comics property.
Or, in the case of The Guardians of the Galaxy, an obscure property.
But I’m old enough to remember a time when famous thespians were often slow to sign onto costumed crime fighting roles for fear of being typecast, forever associated with the then-laughable label of the superhero genre.
And they certainly had reason for pause, two reasons at least in the case of George Clooney’s nippled bat-suit.
To wit, Chris O’Donnell, who played Clooney’s boy wonder in the irredeemable Batman and Robin, resurfaced from his two-film stint as Robin only to play Meredith Grey’s ultimately rejected distraction from McDreamy in the early seasons of Grey’s Anatomy (don’t ask me why I know that).
Donning the cape and tights was a career defining role for him. But not in a good way.
For every Chris Evans (he was Johnny Storm before he was Steve Rogers) there’s a Chris O’Donnell.
For every Ben Affleck (Daredevil, anyone?) there’s a Topher Grace (has anyone heard from Eric Foreman since he tryst with the symbiotic Venom goo? Is he alright?).
For every Ryan Reynolds….you and Brandon Routh get the idea.
Labels have a tendency to take on a life of their own. The same can be true in other professions as well.
Sticking with the superhero theme for a moment, I was labeled the “nerd pastor” early on in my tenure at my former church.
And to a point, the label fit, as they often do.
One needn’t spend more than a few minutes on this very blog to discovery that I am a tad nerdish in my affinities. And in the year 2017 ATDK (After The Dark Knight), nerd is the new Miles Davis.
But in leaning into the “nerd-pastor” label, a relatively narrow facet of my greater identity became larger than life.
So much so that I was later able to theme an entire sermon around the scandalous reality that I actually also like sports. Imagine that.
Fair or not, labels can become all or nothing ventures, exercises in missing the point.
Since starting this blog I have come to be associated with the “Progressive Christian” label. This isn’t terribly surprising, especially since I have claimed the moniker (noun: a name) more than a few times.
And many of the doctrinal stances I have articulated certainly correspond with those of the larger, albeit often vaguely defined movement dubbed progressive Christianity.
But I don’t love the term “Progressive Christianity”, and long before I begrudgingly claimed it for myself, it was placed upon me, unsolicited.
If it fits though, even if imperfectly, what’s the big deal?
On the one hand, there is a lot of hubris in assuming that one corner of the ideological spectrum has a monopoly on progress.
On the other, it must be acknowledged that progress in itself has historically proven to be something of a fickle and subjective savior. One person or group’s “progress” so often comes by the silencing or stifling of another.
There is also the presumed association between the term “progressive” and the term “liberal”, a correlation that problematically ignores the precise ideological, theological, political, and philosophical categories and movements that have been historically associated with the latter term.
Put simply, the term “progressive” has too much baggage to be so neatly tied to a movement that is in itself far too diverse to comfortably rest under a single label anyway.
Any number of professing Christians might be identified with Progressive Christianity who, apart from a (presumably) novel rejection of (actually novel) evangelical orthodoxy, may actually demonstrate an incredibly diverse spectrum of doctrinal positions.
But there is a yet greater reason that I dislike the progressive label, one that brings me back to my own journey. And that’s the assumption that “progressive” stands in contrast to “orthodox”.
A few friends noted, early on, that my blog didn’t seem all that progressive to them.
In fairness, these remarks came before I publicly denied the inerrancy of scripture and called for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the Church.
But most of the pushback I have received (and it honestly has not been much) has come from readers who feel as if I am embracing the progressive label uncritically.
Their charge to me is that in following my convictions on one topic, evolution for example, I am unreflectively taking on so-called progressive positions on a number of other topics – such as LGBTQ affirmation – when a more nuanced stance would be more appropriate.
The suspicion here is that some of my positions are being held because I wrongly assumed I have to hold them to fit within a particular ideological group or to adhere to the expectations associated with a certain label, in this case, the progressive Christian label.
I guess that makes sense.
For many in my life, the content of this blog has probably come as something of a shock. I very consciously (and I’d argue, tactfully) withheld my convictions – at least publicly – while employed at my former church.
And I don’t say that to disparage my old church.
Most of my journey was known privately among the pastoral staff. And I greatly appreciated their willingness to navigate the tension of employing a pastor who wasn’t doctrinal aligned with the rest of the church. Being tactful about my convictions was the least I could do.
Until I couldn’t. And neither, any longer, could they.
So I left, friendships in tact.
But the presumption that, in my new found freedom, I’ve taken to a sort of unrestrained progressive gluttony, shamelessly discarding the faith of my past for the shiny, edgy new faith of tomorrow does violence to a long, cautious, prayerful, and still ongoing journey.
And that same presumption carries with it additional assumptions about the nature of right Christian belief (i.e. orthodoxy) that are – ironically – themselves uncritically taken for granted.
The problem is a historical one, manifesting in two related but ultimately unique ways.
The first is simply an ignorance to the long and diverse history of Church (big ‘C’) doctrine. Many of the positions that modern (western evangelical) Christians assume as simply given are actually historically novel, having come to prominence in the last century or so, if that.
In many instances it is the evangelical position that is more revisionist and/or (ironically) “liberal”, at least in the proper, academic sense of the term. But that’s a topic for another post.
The point here is that the first mistake many Christians make when they throw around the progressive label, usually pejoratively (adverb: expressing contempt or disapproval), is a failure to realize that many so-called progressive stances have rich histories in the early, medieval, and/or pre-modern Church.
But there is a second mistake, also related to history, that is more sinister. And that is the utter failure to account for history itself.
The idea here is that many Christians equate history and/or tradition (and by extension, scripture) with divine revelation itself.
To be sure, in distancing myself from this stance I am planting my flag in a very particular theological camp.
There are many Church historians and theologians who would have no issue identifying divine revelation with some combination of history, tradition, and/or (a particular interpretation of) scripture.
Some of these thinkers pull it off more consistently or compellingly than others. And many of them would (and do) certainly garner a progressive label of their own were their work examined alongside what generally passes for evangelical theology these days.
But I want to be very clear that I do not count myself among their ranks.
I am, in protesting (spoiler alert for the next post) their stance, of the opinion that revelation can never be directly identified with its historically bound medium.
More simply, God transcends the means by which we come to hear or experience God. Or, rather, God speaks God; everything else it witness.
And witness is always filtered through a lens, a culture, a context. No one witnesses neutrally.
Which means every historically bound interpretation of God’s revelation is open to re-interpretation in a different time and place.
That’s not license to say anything goes. Nor do we just pick and choose from scripture and bend doctrine to fit our culturally influenced whims.
But it’s an acknowledgment that the traditional is conditional.
I’ll say that again so you can fill in the blanks there in your sermon notes. In will also be up on the screens. The traditional is conditional (a little mega church humor).
It’s also, ironically (there’s been a lot of irony in this post), evidence that perhaps some of those accusing me of uncritically adopting certain positions to fit a perceived label are actually guilty of that very misstep themselves.
But to hear me unpack that claim, you’re going to have to wait until the next post.
In the mean time, check out these excellent Twitter threads by my blog’s unofficial resident professional theologian, David Congdon.
These are on the academic side, but they are also presented in 140 character or less intervals for easy reading!
On Tradition – This is basically a smarter version of a lot of what I wrote above
Leaving Evangelicalism – Thoughts on why people (like me) become disenchanted with the faith that was passed onto them.
Evangelicalism and Postliberalism – This thread discusses different movements in the modern (western) church and spills into a lot of what my post above addresses.
Universalism, God-talk, and Appropriation – Not directly related (though not unrelated), but if you enjoyed the first few, might as well keep going.
Evangelicalism, Authority, and Exclusion – More loosely related to my post, but definitely on theme with the rest of these threads.
Evangelicalism, Sexuality, and Christ – I’ve already posted on this one here, but it’s worth another look (or a first look if you missed it).
And if you’re enjoying this Twitter thread format, check out these great posts by Richard Allen. We’ll call him one of the blog’s adjunct theologians and compensate him accordingly.
Tillich, Event, and Revelation – This one actually touches on the some of the same content and my post.
Evangelicals, Apocalypse, and Ideology – This one does more loosely, but if you’ve made it this far, finish the set.