On being a progressive conservative (or a conservative progressive)…

Posted by on Jun 30, 2021 in Blog | 26 comments

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Is the world so simple that we can quickly attach a valid label to everyone?

We often act as though it is – or certainly we do in the world of theology, where we try to separate between those who are theologically conservative and those who are progressive – although we might use slightly different language, and suggest someone is a liberal or a fundamentalist or an evangelical or whatever.

Single descriptors (conservative or progressive) usually make the error of assuming a world without nuance, a world where things fit tidily into a box… but when you dig a little, it becomes obvious that such a world does not exist.

I asked the question of myself. Am I a theological progressive or conservative? The best I could come up with was that I am progressive conservative (or a conservative progressive, if you think the first descriptor is more important than the second). Terms are relative – progressive compared to whom? The most conservative representative of a view, or some impossible to define middle ground? Likewise conservative compared to whom?

Perhaps I should say why I insist on being called a conservative just as firmly as I insist on being called a progressive.

I am a Christian conservative because I believe there are many (many) things from our past which need to be conserved. And that is what conservative means – someone who wants to conserve things they view as being of value.

I absolutely believe that:

God is

God is love

God was in Christ

In Christ all things hold together

Christ is the hope of the world

Jesus was raised from the dead, the first fruit of all who will be raised from the dead

If Christ has not been raised from the dead, we of all people are most to be pitied

God is at work in the world

God’s work in the world has done immeasurable good

The Church is the creation of God’s Spirit

The Church is called to be the body of Christ in the world

The Bible is a trustworthy record of God’s encounters with humanity

The Bible reveals the essential aspects of God’s nature, personality and purposes

God can transform the life of an individual, a community and the world

And much more beside…

These are important truths, and the Christian faith would be dramatically poorer if any were abandoned.  Indeed, if they were abandoned, they would be no less valid – for they remain true regardless of our belief or disbelief. Without them, however, we would have much less light to guide us.

I am a Christian progressive because I believe that God’s work in the world makes a difference – there is progress. A progressive is someone who believes that things happen gradually and in stages. Should our understanding of God be richer and deeper than it was a hundred years ago? I certainly hope so!

Yesterday I read Deuteronomy chapters 19-26. Why? Because I drew the short straw for my local churches preaching series on Deuteronomy and was assigned them. They are “interesting”. Parts you read with gentle pride, thinking “for a plus 3000 year old text, this is remarkably insightful and points in a valuable direction.” I said parts… for there are other passages where you have to say, “Oh my goodness! Does it really say that?” Actually Deut 22:28-29 does say that if a man rapes a virgin he must pay her father 50 shekels and then marry and never divorce her. Sorry, I am never going to suggest we take that passage literally. Or what about the instruction in Deut 25:11-12, that if you are in a fight with an assailant and you wife attempts to help you by grabbing the other man’s testicles, you are to chop her hand off. Lest you think the writer is joking, he (and it must have been he) adds, “Show her no pity.” No – I am not going anywhere near those two verses when I preach on these chapters! And there is more, but I’d prefer this site not to be given an R18 rating.

When you read Deuteronomy you instantly know you are a progressive – and if you don’t, that’s a serious worry! Some will quickly add, “But of course! Christians read the Bible with a Christological lense, and that is why we read these passages in a different light. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was the progressive leap ahead, but we are now a community of faithful remembrance and should expect no more.”

Really? Here’s the thing. Though we read some of the instructions of Deuteronomy as being barbaric, in their own time they were considered reasonable and, dare I say it, progressive. But human society evolved, and some broad principles took root. Many of them come from the Bible itself, like the conviction that all people have been made in the image of God, and that we should love our neighbour as ourself. It has been a slow slog – but progressively (there is that word again) we have faced the ever-deepening implications that flow from these beliefs. We also better understand their import because the Spirit is at work in the world, and the Spirit’s work in the world bears fruit. Much of so-called progressive theology flows from thinking through these convictions more carefully. According to the font of all wisdom (Wikipedia) “Progressive Christianity is characterized by a willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity, a strong emphasis on social justice and care for the poor and the oppressed, and environmental stewardship of the earth.” What’s wrong with that? And why does that threaten conservative faith when it simply invites us to think through the implications of some core beliefs (validly conserved) more deeply.

Of course, nothing is entirely simple. Some who claim the title progressive want to downplay the uniqueness of Jesus, the need for conversion, the reality of evil (a strange conviction given that poverty, human enslavement and the degradation of the environment are the direct result of human evil). And some who are conservative want to pretend that the Church has never done any wrong, and that faith is simple and that conventional ethical wisdom can never change – even though the context does. And none of that is ok – or not in my book.

So I am a conservative progressive, and there are times when I critique the conservative part of the equation, and times when I lament the progressive part of it. But more often I celebrate, for there is much that is good in both conservative and progressive Christianity.

And God is, and God is good, and God is love, and God is in Christ, and Jesus is the hope of the world, and justice matters and all people are precious to God, and the earth is the Lord’s… and that’s enough to go on with.

As always, nice chatting…

26 Comments

  1. As always, a great read! Thanks for adding context to everything we discuss!

  2. Love it Brian.
    Breaking down the walls.
    Drawing us together in following the Lord who is saving his world.

  3. Thank you Brian. Excellent thought provoking read as usual.

  4. Thanks Brian. I share a similar space. Without progression we don’t learn and change. Without conserving we lose our centre. But it’s a balancing act and wherever we inhabit we seem to attract sticks and stones from those in the opposite place. A challenge to navigate but a much better option than pure conservatism or pure progressivism.

    • Thanks Andrew. I guess it’s important that we don’t join in the stick and stone throwing. It can be tempting especially when people sometimes make outrageous and clearly silly comments.

  5. This is great! I like the list of things you affirm and want to conserve. I’d love to see a list of ways you want to progress in the next decade or two. If you think that’s wise…

    • Great question Yvette. I guess your qualifying comment “if you think that’s wise” goes to the heart of the problem. Why should we view putting some agenda items on the table as a cause for potential fear… something is badly wrong if that’s the case (and sadly, in some circles it is).

      But to get to your question, my list is long, but includes the way we think about minorities (and our responsibility to especially look out for them); how we think about what it means to be human in a world of increasing dependence on AI – and our appropriate interaction with AI; how we nurture the faith of those who find it difficult to be part of the institutional church; the future of work and the responsible use of leisure; the nature and appropriate expression and celebration of human sexuality; what human flourishing looks like; what it means to be reverent in a cynical age etc, etc….

      • Yeh, sad, I know. I guess it’s my reflex to be fairly guarded about my beliefs because, well, cancel culture/ a culture of silencing dictates that I’m cancelled or silenced quite quickly. Here’s to creating environments where we (women, minorities, those with a generous theology) don’t have to be so guarded.

  6. 1) its important to not uncritically accept these categories in how we define ourselves or others
    2) we don’t have to adopt the allies and enemies of the category we find ourselves put in

    • Both those points are valid Gary, but the second one especially needs to be underlined over and over again.

  7. Thanks Brian, good that you could tease the issues apart and address them personally. Thinking about them, I would have to admit being part of a theological culture that my College Principal helped to shape and looking back the positive that came from that was the freedom he instilled to break out and journey theologically. That’s been a real plus for me. Appreciate you opening up on the matter.

    • Thanks Garth. Great your experience was so good – a gift indeed, and one which you have passed on to others.

  8. Comment Brian, I so value your writing – capturing complex ideas and distilling them in language that all can read and understand. They may not all agree but at least they will know what it is you’re claiming. Thanks as always. From one Con-Prog to another.

    • Thanks David. Very good to hear from you. Hope you are keeping well in these strange times. We are currently in lockdown – though overall we have got off very lightly.

  9. Thank you Brian for your thoughtful (as always) reflection. And for your willingness to speak about how you orient yourself on what people can see as a divide but is merely a spectrum of perspectives. A significant list of challenges to think through in response to Yvette’s great question. If you could have those solved by next week it would be very helpful to all. But seriously, it strikes me that if we were able to spend less time defending a perceived position – often because we are just starting to ask better questions, daring to venture from certitude, or being concerned about expressing our thinking for fear of being piled on, we may be able to come up with better and more compassionate answers to the challenges that we are facing today – some of which you have noted. Thank you again for opening a thoughtful space to do just that – hopefully together with many other thoughtful and compassionate minds and hearts. We may even find out that we need each other!

    • Thanks David. We do indeed need each other and we should help each other to ask better questions. With compassion as one of the guiding principles we could reach conclusions that do good in the world. Oh, and I will do my best to have all the questions solved by next week ?.

  10. So enjoy your writing and thinking Brian. Are your sermon on a website so we may listen to them? If so, please share the link with us.

    • Thanks Ruth. Always good to hear from you. Here is a link to the first in the Deuteronomy series I preached a week and a bit ago (the more difficult passages come up Sunday week!) https://youtu.be/2HTw9rpcaTc It is for Youtube and if you search Carey Baptist Church Harrisdale there are several sermons i have preached on the site there. I tried to send you the link on Messenger as I thought that it might be easier, but am not sure if it went through.

  11. Thanks Brian. A very thoughtful and helpful précis. Looking forward to having you as guest preacher at Perth Keswick Convention ?

    • I’m also looking forward to it. I love exploring key Bible characters and perhaps no one is as interesting as Jacob. Should be a great time.

  12. Wonderful post Brian. It has helped me think through my own journey. We certainly do need to think progressively as we wrestle with the challenges of today but in the context of conserving the truth as best we can understand it.

    • Thanks Phillip. I guess we also need to give ourselves the freedom to review decisions – sometimes we might pull back, other times push further ahead. It’s about getting clarity on what really matters.

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