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An Alternative Voice – Part II: A Primer on the Religious Liberal and Progressive

Religious liberals are known for their tolerance and openness. They value intellectual
integrity that is born of experience and sustained by reason. God gave us brains, liberals say, and expects us to use them no less in than outside the church. Liberals celebrate their freedom from stifling literalism and authoritarian orthodoxy and so seldom pay much attention to traditional or denominational creeds. Theirs is a dynamic approach to the spiritual life, laden with responsibility, ripe with potential, pregnant with adventure.

That’s not to say that liberals get the whole of the religious enterprise. Typically, for example, liberals are not quite sure what to do about Jesus: was he just a good man with a unique message or was there something more to his Person. Liberals find the idea of sin both irritating and unavoidable, and they frequently find the Bible baffling. As a result, they overly focus on the love of Jesus and ignore the judgment of God, including the judgment of God on society. Many liberals will wince but also acknowledge, if only reluctantly, that what the prophet once said of his contemporaries, applies to them as well, that they have taken their ease in Zion and have enjoyed a much too cozy relationship with our surrounding culture (Amos 6.1ff).

Liberals dare to affirm, though, that God both needs and can use such servants in the ongoing drama of redemption and healing and salvation. In all humility, liberals recognize that they are on the path even though none has arrived at the destination; they dare
to name what needs attention in their lives; they wrestle with whatever embarrasses, scandalizes, irritates, and baffles them; they trust in the abiding presence of God and they believe God is big enough to receive their questions, doubts, irreverence, and anger.

Strong in the middle decades of the last century, religious liberalism began to lose if not its appeal, then at least its hold on both church members and seekers alike as that century drew to a close. For one thing, the liberal perspective proved to be more a rational exercise of the mind than a spiritual affair of the heart—over intellectualized and underpowered, as some put it. It was almost as if having concluded that science and religion were compatible after all, the exercise was over. 

Another vulnerability was not wanting to come to terms with the radical nature of Jesus’ ethic to love God and neighbor. It’s one thing, say, to support community programs that feed the hungry; it’s quite another to explore why there are hungry people needing  community charity. Don Helder Camera, former Catholic Bishop of Recife, Brazil, put it this way:

When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are hungry, they call me a communist. I can pull people out of the river all day, but sooner or later I must go up the river to see who is throwing them in.

The distinction introduces social justice to the discussion and liberal churches generally ignored such matters lest they offend those religious liberals who held to conservative
politics. Such churches have greatly diminished in numerical strength and social significance in the new century.

During this same period, progressive Christian churches have begun to emerge, characterized by a more vital spirituality, an intellectual approach in tune with a post-modern consciousness, and a firm commitment to social and environmental justice.
Progressives have led the way on gender and sexuality issues and interfaith cooperation. They recognize their legacy as heirs of the Enlightenment but have also dealt with the arrogance of having viewed themselves as the pinnacle of human development by virtue of that legacy and so have come to recognize other peoples, cultures, and religions in the human odyssey.

Progressives give clear voice to the relational world in which all aspects of creation (the planet and its creatures and bio-systems) are interconnected. The failure to take this
seriously lies a t the root of the environmental crisis and the threat to the systems that sustain all of life, including human life, on our planet.

Progressive Christians recognize Jesus as the transformative figure introduced in the Gospels, a Sign-bearer of God’s continuing presence in human history who invites us to
become Sign-bearers, pointing to the promise of the new age and working to  bring that future hope into the present by living a transformative love.

Not exactly interchangeable, Liberal and Progressive. Overlap, yes; equivalent, not so much. In general, they may identify that part of the theological and ecclesiastical continuum to
which an individual or church may belong, but the time has come to exercise greater precision applying words to one’s position on any number of issues, sacred and secular.

The future of humanity, if not the globe, may depend on it.