Recently I had a protracted discussion, almost a debate, with a publisher about the label “liberal Christian.” He said almost nobody calls himself or herself a “liberal Christian.” The new term for the same thing is “progressive Christian.”
I have been reading a LOT of liberal Christian theology lately—focusing mostly on 20th and 21st century American liberal Christian theologians such as: Washington Gladden, Henry Churchill King, Harry Emerson Fosdick, L. Harold DeWolf, Gary Dorrien, Delwin Brown, Peter C. Hodgson, Donald E. Miller, Marcus Borg, John Shelby Spong, Douglas Ottati. I believe, with Gary Dorrien, author of a three volume history of American religious liberalism, that “liberal Christianity” is a distinct tradition stemming mainly from German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. These are all serious theologians with doctoral degrees who have written influential books. They all use the label “liberal” to describe their approaches to Christian theology.
I agree that “progressive Christian” is the label preferred by many younger liberal-leaning Christians, but in “my world” that label pretty much just means being Christian and pro-LGBTQ (for full inclusion in church life). It may point to some other things such as women’s full equality in church life (ordination, ministry, eldership, teaching, etc.). But “progressive Christian” is NOT (IMHO) a tradition; it is a rather vague label many people use to indicate that they are NOT fundamentalist or even conservative evangelical.
“Liberal Christianity,” however, IS a tradition and has its prototypes, its theological leaders speaking for it over the past two centuries. What are its hallmarks? First, possibly foremost, a naturalistic theism, belief in a God who does not intervene supernaturally in history or nature. Second, an emphasis on God’s immanence over God’s transcendence. Third, a critical stance toward the Bible as primarily human but “our sacred stories,” inspired insofar as inspiring. Fourth, a low Christology in which Jesus Christ is NOT God incarnate but the model of humanity. Fifth, a belief that “salvation” means spirit overcoming nature; the human person becoming his or her best self in relation to God. Sixth, symbolic realism—belief that religious symbols, especially Christian ones, have power to transform persons even if they do not “connect” with historical events (except the historical reality of the man Jesus about whom we do not really know very much). Seventh, belief in eventual universal salvation (no hell except lack of God-consciousness in this life). Eighth, elevation of ethics over doctrine to the point that doctrines do not really matter very much; they are always changing in every generation and culture. Ninth, “witness” as social transformation—toward liberation from poverty and oppression. Tenth, back to “First,” Christianity devoid of miracles including the ontological incarnation, the historical resurrection, Christ’s exorcisms and healings, etc.
Liberal Christianity has much to offer in terms of what it affirms, but its weakness lies in what it denies. At the end of the day, real liberal Christianity is not authentic Christianity because it cuts the cord of continuity between itself and biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity so thoroughly that it deserves to be called its own religion. Yes, like Judaism, Islam and the Bahai Faith it has a place for Jesus Christ, but he is not considered absolutely unique or unsurpassable. He is different from other prophets and saviors in degree, not in kind. That makes it a different religion from biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity. (My book, the title of which is still uncertain, will spell this out with numerous quotations from real, self-identified liberal Christian theologians.)
I find that many people call themselves “progressive Christians” who do NOT agree with those ten hallmarks. Many are evangelical Christians who diverge from the majority of evangelicals at certain points—mainly about inclusion of LGBTQ people and women in marriage and ministry.
I think MANY (I won’t say all or even most) “progressive Christians” are on their way toward liberal Christianity because they feel like “exiles” from their fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches and families. They don’t know where to be “at home”—ecclesiastically and theologically—so they look toward liberal churches. But they MAY not understand what that involves. I see some of them throwing the baby of orthodox Christianity out with the bathwater of fundamentalism simply because they think their only alternative is liberal Christianity. “Progressive Christianity” is their halfway house. Some get stuck there, but some move on to the “left” into liberal Christianity without understanding that tradition.
I want to write a book about liberal Christianity, but one publisher is hesitant to use that phrase in the book’s title because he does not think “liberal Christianity” is a useful label anymore; people use “progressive Christianity” instead. That may be, but there are Christians who gladly label themselves “liberal Christians” and they have a tradition to which they belong.
What do you think? Are there people “out there” who still consider themselves “liberal Christians?” Or is that a dead label? Has “progressive Christian” replaced it? Are they the same? Please be as concise as possible. Only respond if you have some knowledge of the subject.