by Steve Bush from GenerousOrthodoxy.net
Progressive evangelicals just don’t seem to fit in anywhere. We find the political and theological conservatism of U.S. evangelicalism too confining. But we’re too evangelical to be anything else. We’re not Roman Catholic. We’re not Orthodox. Many (most?) of us aren’t mainline Protestant. We like all those folks, and we have a hard time distinguishing ourselves theologically from our creed-affirming friends in those worlds, but those worlds just aren’t our world.
So are we destined to alienation and spiritual homelessness? Often we feel isolated and alone. But this is not accurate. Millions of evangelicals don’t wear the political conservatism badge. And theologians like Stanley Grenz, Roger Olson, Nancey Murphy, and John Franke have forged a path toward a postconservative evangelical theology. Activists like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider represent an alternative vision of evangelical social engagement. Bloggers like Anthony Smith and Christy Lambertson apply a bold Christian vision to vexing social issues. Authors like Brian McLaren tap into the dissatisfactions and hopes of churchgoers. Communities like Communality, the simple way, and Camden House challenge our set notions of Christian discipleship.
Nevertheless, the institutions of evangelicalism—churches, para-churches, seminaries, colleges, societies, media outlets—for the most part represent evangelicalism in its most conservative guise. Too frequently, these institutions are actively hostile toward moderate and progressive versions of evangelicalism. The postconservative mood is, as Roger Olson puts it, “embattled but thriving.”
We don’t resent the conservatives’ control of evangelical churches and organizations. After all, it was conservatives who formed those organizations. Evangelicalism, in the current sense of the word, was birthed in the 1940s when a group of pastors and church leaders broke from fundamentalism. They immediately set about building from scratch churches, para-church organizations, educational institutions, and ministries of all sorts. We readily acknowledge their labor, courage, and innovativeness. And yet…we can’t help but believe that their break from fundamentalism was too small a move.
Conservative evangelicals and postconservative evangelicals are not so different that they cannot inhabit institutions and organizations together. But they are different, and their differences are in large part theological. Postconservative evangelicals believe that the conservatives’ privileging of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is mistaken. Inerrancy is a data-centered approach to Scripture, whereas postconservatives practice a person-centered approach. In our view, the Bible is not a repository of facts, but rather a witness to a living person: the resurrected Jesus Christ.
We have other theological questions for our conservative friends. Conservative evangelicals tend to see salvation as an individualistic affair, postconservatives emphasize the communal dimension. Conservatives tend to see hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment after death; postconservatives are concerned about this-worldly hells of genocides, slums, and diseases. The postconservative attitude towards non-evangelical and non-Christian thought is an attitude of critical but receptive openness. We are not zealous to debunk non-Christian views, but instead seek to find what is valuable in other perspectives.
And we postconservatives have social and political differences, too. We’re not trying to fashion America into a Christian nation or put God’s stamp of approval on the imperial ambitions of the United States. We do not think that one's gender disqualifies one from any position of leadership in home, society, or church. Further, within progressive evangelicalism, you will find not uniform prohibition, but a variety of opinions, regarding the moral status of committed homosexual relationships. Our response to poverty goes beyond charitable gifts and soup kitchens. We want to talk about and practice justice. We’re concerned about educational funding disparities, inner city unemployment rates, and global trade inequalities.
Despite all the differences, we refuse to demonize or despise conservatives. We seek an honest conversation with them, so we can acknowledge our commonalities and respectfully dialogue about our differences. Postconservatives view conservatives as reasonable people of good faith and good will.
Insofar as postconservatives subscribe to the positions I have attributed to them (and I confess I have had to over-generalize), the motivation behind their theological and ethical stance is not to accomodate to popular culture or water down the gospel, but to be faithful to the gospel.
Few forums exist for conversation among progressive evangelicals, so we are excited about Emergent. In this conversational space, we’re finding that we’re not alone. We’re finding a spiritual family. And we’re grateful that the Emergent conversation brings us together with conservative evangelicals and non-evangelicals. We support Emergent, and we hope for its continued flourishing even as we contribute to that end.
Now a new forum for the progressive evangelical conversation exists. Generous Orthodoxy, a nod to the same Hans Frei quote that inspired Brian McLaren’s latest book title, is designed to foster networking and dialogue among progressive evangelicals and their friends. The highlight of the site is Generous Orthodoxy ThinkTank, a collaborative blog whose authors are all progressive evangelicals in the academy. Please stop by and check the site out.
The hope in all of this is that someday progressive evangelicals will find a welcome place to share institutional space with conservatives. Also we hope that progressive evangelicals will match their conservative forebears’ creative energies and form new churches and organizations. Finally, we hope that the term “evangelical” will return to the sense it had in a previous era, before the twentieth century and its fundamentalisms, when “evangelical” was a broader, more inclusive term, spanning the Protestant spectrum. Then the need for the label “progressive evangelical” will be no more, and we will celebrate its demise. Until then, our work is cut out for us.