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'Progressive' Christianity: Even Shallower Than the Evangelical Faith I Left

'Progressive' Christianity: Even Shallower Than the Evangelical Faith I Left
I was an #exvangelical who left the faith of my youth for progressive Christianity
The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus
Progressives had become just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists they despised
We need more theology, nuance, grace, compassion, and understanding in our churches, not less

By IAN HARBER
https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/
March 5, 2020

In John 6, Jesus's hard teaching causes a large number of his followers to abandon him. After they leave, Jesus asks his remaining disciples, "Do you want to go away as well?" (v. 67). Peter, whom I assume is heartbroken and embarrassed from seeing so many he knows leave the one he calls Lord, speaks up: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (vv. 68--69).his is my story, too. I've walked in both shoes: the shoes of those who deserted and the shoes of Peter who couldn't leave, no matter how hard it seemed to stay. I was an #exvangelical who left the faith of my youth for "progressive Christianity." Then I returned. Here's my #revangelical story.

How My Faith Crumbled

The Christian tradition I grew up in--for all the wonderful things it gave me--was not prepared for a generation of kids with access to high-speed internet. Not that the critiques of the Bible we discovered online were new, but they were now at the fingertips of curious folks who grew up in evangelical bubbles. Like me. The answers given in church seemed shallow compared to the legitimate critiques that were a Google search or YouTube video away.

What about the contradictions and scientific inaccuracies in certain biblical stories?
• How have we shrugged at the passages where God commands Israel to slaughter their enemies and their enemies' children?
• How could a loving God condemn his beloved creation to eternal torment? What about all the other religions? Aren't they all saying basically the same thing?

These questions, among others, began to chip away at the authority of the stories I was handed as a child. Not only did I have questions about the Bible, I also had questions about how it squared with my faith's political culture:

Why did our policies seem to particularly disadvantage poor and marginalized communities?
• Why was it common in the church to see Christians degrade immigrants, made in the image of God, who were simply seeking a better life in my Texas town?
• As important as abortion is, surely we're supposed care about those suffering after birth as well, right?

I couldn't help but think it had to be more complicated than the story I was being told. So eventually, I left the faith completely. I wanted nothing to do with Jesus or the church.

Interestingly, it was in a time of mourning--when I learned that my mother, from whom I'd been estranged, had died--that God began to reenter my life. But my evangelical environment lacked a substantial theology of suffering. Suffering was something to avoid or suppress, not a means of God's transforming grace in our lives.

This triangle of questions--about Scripture, politics, and suffering--laid the foundation for me to explore progressive Christianity.

Deconstruction Without Reconstruction

I read Rob Bell's books Velvet Elvis and Love Wins. I read Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. I still remember the paragraph from Blue Like Jazz that opened me up to a world of grace I hadn't before experienced--but also to a world freed from orthodox doctrine. As a fan of Michael Gungor, I began listening to his newly launched podcast, The Liturgists.

The views I encountered were thrilling. Science did not have to be discarded because of the Bible! When prayer felt like a coin toss, mysticism provided a new way to encounter the divine! Faith could inspire politics that included care for marginalized groups! Most importantly, in hearing Gungor and "Science Mike" McHargue's stories of deconstruction, I heard my own story. I found people who understood what it was like to deconstruct your faith and rebuild it from scratch.

But then I ran into a problem. As I kept listening and reading, I realized I didn't have the tools to rebuild--and I wasn't receiving any from these voices. Every belief I held had been neatly disassembled and laid bare on the floor for examination. But there was no guidance for putting something back together. Helping people deconstruct their faith without also helping put it back together again is lazy, irresponsible, dangerous, and isolating. The goal of deconstruction should be greater faithfulness to Jesus, not mere self-discovery or signaling one's virtue.

As The Liturgists' journeys progressed, they became increasingly lockstep with the progressive platform of the political Left. It reminded me of the conformity of conservative Christians to whatever the Republican Party told them to believe. When the 2016 election ended, I had a strange experience. I shared the progressives' concern for the country, but I also saw them using the same litmus tests that the conservative evangelicals of my youth had used--just now on the other side of the aisle. Now, if you held to a historic Christian sexual ethic, you were a backwards bigot. If you considered abortion morally wrong, you were anti-woman.

Progressives had become just as fundamentalist as the fundamentalists they despised. Only now, instead of traditional values being the litmus test, it was wokeness. If you didn't tow the party line of progressive orthodoxy, you were an outcast. A heretic.

'Progressive' Brand, Same Superficial Pitch

I'd heard about the dangers of moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD), the default American religion where God simply wants you to live a decent life and not be sad, and doesn't intrude on your life. I originally ran to progressive Christianity to counter that kind of shallow belief. But what I found was just more of the same, only with new definitions.

Wokeness was the new morality. Therapy was the new path to happiness. Cancel culture was the new church discipline. And like MTD, there was, conveniently, no personal God to place demands on your life in any meaningful way. In this "progressive" MTD, Elizabeth Gilbert's trope is the only thing left: "God dwells within you, as you." There's no way to distinguish between ourselves and God. In this paradigm, we are God.

I'm not anti-woke or anti-therapy. Systemic injustice is real, and we need the conversations that wokeness has brought us. I was in therapy for almost two years while in college, and I think it can benefit almost everyone.

But these are not adequate replacements for the eternal love of the triune God.

Mark Sayers describes the progressive vision of the world as "the kingdom without the King." We want all of God's blessings--without submitting to his loving rule and reign. We want progress--without his presence. We want justice--without his justification. We want the horizontal implications of the gospel for society--without the vertical reconciliation of sinners with God. We want society to conform to our standard of moral purity--without God's standard of personal holiness.

Journey Back to Orthodox Faith

After the 2016 election I became convinced it was time to begin rebuilding my faith. A few months later, two things happened simultaneously: I began formal theological education and, in a tragic accident, I lost the grandfather who had raised me. This death plunged me into another season of intense suffering, but this time in a theologically rigorous environment.

One of my teachers said, "We do theology in the light so we can stand on it in the dark." I was doing theology and standing on it in the dark. For the first time I really learned the doctrines of the Trinity and of Scripture as a unified story, and how to read it as inspired literature. I was taught how doctrines that I assumed were contradictory--like penal substitution and Christus Victor--actually need each other to form the full, beautiful, biblical picture. I learned about union with Christ and all the blessings it brings. I learned about spiritual disciplines and the life-giving freedom that flows from a disciplined pursuit of God. From there, the wide and rich world of historic Christian orthodoxy swung open for me to explore.

My story is hardly unique. In fact, it is becoming more and more common.

My petition to pastors, then, is twofold:

1. As Jude says, "Have mercy on those who doubt" (1:22). Don't meet doubts or questions or concerns with harshness, dismissiveness, or shallow answers. Be patient with hard questions, and work with your people for comprehensive, nuanced answers.

2. Teach the richness of the Christian tradition. Don't settle for feel-good MTD platitudes as guidance for a better life. Give complicated answers to complicated questions. Show how Jesus, the most brilliant person to ever live, speaks to every aspect of life and society with compassion, love, and grace.

We need more theology, nuance, grace, compassion, and understanding in our churches, not less. But these things are made possible by orthodox doctrine, not in spite of it. Doubt and questions need not catalyze a pendulum swing from belief to unbelief. If worked out in healthy, thoughtful Christian community--and with an abiding connection to Christ, our true vine (John 15)--they can actually deepen faith and strengthen roots, producing a life where we bear fruit and withstand the fierce winds of a secular age.

Everyone's faith journey is winding and complex. But God is God and his path remains, even when we've wandered off it for a time. There are more paths than ever before in today's world--more options for spiritual "enlightenment" or curate-your-own-beliefs faith. But no path leads to true happiness and everlasting life except the "Jesus alone" path (John 14:6), which is narrower than we might like (Matt. 7:13) but more satisfying than we can imagine (Ps. 16:11).

In my journey I discovered, with Peter, that God's "divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence" (2 Peter 1:3). In Christ, we have everything we need. Why leave the boundaries of faith "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3) in order to find life? Jesus has the words of life. He is life. Truth. The way. Where else would we go?

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