Recently an ordained United Methodist who heads a campus ministry in Colorado blogged in Patheos about what he disbelieves as a self-described Progressive Christian:
Friends, Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us. God isn’t wrathful or vindictive. There isn’t a hell (other than ones that we create here on this earth). Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about. God didn’t write the Bible.
He also explained:
I do believe that Jesus was divine (in the way that you and I are), and that he’s the 2nd person of the trinity. Christians rightfully honor and celebrate Jesus as a unique and fully incarnate manifestation of God. I don’t believe that he’s literally God (at least not what most people tend to mean by that word). We live and move and have our being in God, so did Jesus. The trinity is a beloved Christian poem of who God is to us. But poems don’t literally define things. Like all art, and theology, they point to what is beyond them.
And he offered an updated version of liberal Christianity:
Progressive Christianity isn’t progressive politics. Progressive Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of historic mainline liberal Protestant Christianity and it is an heir to the Social Gospel movement. It first took on this name in 2000. It draws from process theology, liberation theology, feminist, womanist and eco-theologies as well.
His column is succinct and informative about a current version of liberal Christianity. I’ve observed across my last three decades of engagement with church controversies that the old modernist Protestant liberalism is mostly dead. It deified science and rationality, while dismissing the supernatural. Jesus wasn’t literally divine, wasn’t born of a Virgin, didn’t physically arise from the dead, and doesn’t sit at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. There were no miracles. The afterlife was unknown and/or unimportant. Christianity primarily was about ethics and justice.
The old Protestant liberalism was embodied by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, who gained celebrity in the 1980s writing books denying supernatural Christianity and insisting rationalism was the old way to “save” the faith for younger people. Meanwhile, his Newark Diocese lost nearly half its members under his watch, and the seminars he taught in retirement attracted only old people.
Spong in later years joined the Jesus Seminar, which in the 1970s and for several decades gained headlines by assembling revisionist scholars who, supposedly representing the latest scholarship, denied all supernatural themes in the Bible. Years ago I attended Jesus Seminar local seminars, which attracted old people, seemingly mainly retired Protestant clergy.
What Spong and the Jesus Seminar espoused was conventional wisdom in Mainline Protestant seminaries and elite circles for most of the last century. A poll in the 1960s found that half or more of Mainline Protestant clergy disbelieved the Virgin Birth and physical Resurrection. But largely these clergy withheld their heterodox views from congregations. They knew such revelations would be disruptive.
United Methodist ethicist and pastor J. Philip Wogaman, a devoted liberal Protestant, penned a column during that era urging these clergy finally to be candid with their flocks about what they did not believe. As a then tenured professor, he could afford to make this call. When he later became a pastor, he did not fully carry through on what he advocated, though he did further liberalize his urban congregation, which declined but did better than most.
Most liberal Protestant clergy for decades, instead of openness about their heterodoxy, preached vaguely to avoid controversy. They commonly used orthodox language while intending different meanings. Most laity didn’t fully understand what was happening. But across decades millions of church members quit Mainline churches. The vague generalities were not motivating. Some drifted away from organized religion. Others joined evangelical churches where there was more clarity.
Rarely do I encounter such a liberal Protestant similar to Spong or Wogaman who’s under 60 years of age. Their “modernist” views, which supposedly represented the future, are now long since passe. Liberal Protestants under age 50 whom I encounter typically are more orthodox. They often can recite the Apostles Creed with at least believability. They believe in Christ as God. They believe in miracles. The believe in an afterlife and sometimes even Hell.
Today’s postmodern liberal Protestants of course reject historic Christian teachings about marriage, gender and the human body. They embrace Western leftist identity politics. Their preference is still, like the old Protestants, to focus on systemic rather than personal sin. And for them, America and the West are more sinful than the rest of humanity. Like the old liberals, they still dream of a utopia achieved through good intentions.
The United Methodist campus minister quoted above seems to be in between the old liberalism and the new liberalism or Progressive Christianity, although he’s still closer to old modernism than he realizes. He rejects orthodoxy but seems to want some qualified supernaturalism. Or as he explains: “Progressive Christianity…emphasizes God’s immanence not merely God’s transcendence; leans toward panentheism rather than supernatural theism…” Panentheism, a term popularized by the late postmodern Protestant Marcus Borg, asserts God is a part of all creation but also something beyond, as opposed to strict pantheism, which equates creation with God.
Old modernist Protestant liberalism depended on the confidence of longstanding denominational institutions to sustain it across decades before it largely expired. New postmodern Progressive Christianity lacks strong institutions but is still mostly attached to the what remains of organized but now much reduced Mainline Protestantism.
Postmodern Christian liberals, to the extent many of them cleave to some supernatural orthodoxy, at least have a longer shelf life than the expiring old modernist Protestants. But their situational theology and ethics still limit their outreach to a largely highly educated and mostly white upper middle-class constituency in the West. Many of these postmodern Christian liberals are themselves the children of orthodoxy who rejected their upbringing but still cling to spirituality. They are unlikely to generate many converts.
The beliefs, or lack of belief, evinced by the above described United Methodist campus minister, are far too similar to old Protestant modernism to have any widespread appeal. Good news to an extent. But also sad news, as liberal theology in all its forms, by denying or minimizing the Gospel’s full message and power, has typically and tragically crippled or killed churches and well-intentioned ministerial careers.
Contra that campus minister’s assertion, God as Father, Son & Holy Ghost, as both Judge & Savior, is much, much more than a “beloved Christian poem.”