Connectional Table

The multifaceted nature of progressive theology

Many of us have said that the division within The United Methodist Church goes beyond the issue of homosexuality. We recognize that our division goes to the very core of our theological divide and is rooted in our biblical interpretation and our understanding of the nature of the Bible as a sacred text. Wesley Allen, a United Methodist scholar, has pointed this out in an article in The Christian Century. He writes:

United Methodists answer the following questions in significantly different ways: What is the root problem of the human condition (i.e., what constitutes sin)? How does the good news of Jesus Christ’s birth, ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation both reveal and address this problem (i.e., what is salvation and how is it affected)? What is the mission of the church as the Body of Christ in cooperating with divine salvation in addressing the human condition (i.e., what ecclesiology is to be affirmed in light of answers given to the first two questions)? And underlying all of these questions: What is the proper understanding and use of scripture in answering these questions? 1

Within such a recognition is often the call to articulate our progressive theology succinctly. However, before we jump into such an articulation, we need to take into consideration what that will mean and what it can lead to. It has been pointed out that one of our problems as progressives is our lack of cohesiveness or a unified voice. Nonetheless, instead of seeing that as a problem, should we not openly embrace that as a strength and a gift for the broader church and not succumb to the pressures to be like the religious right, which tends to speak with a unified voice and with a univocal and universal theology? That diversity of thought and multiplicity of theological voices and perspectives is to be valued is not really anything new. Our scriptural tradition has much to commend itself and teach us in this arena. In the Hebrew Bible, the authors of the books of Job and Ecclesiastes propounded theological ideas that contradicted the dominant theological perspectives of their days. In the New Testament, the four gospel writers did not tell the story of Jesus from a unified voice, but with very different perspectives. Even Paul seemed to be contradicting himself in his letters. For example, Paul expresses a more positive view on the law in Romans than in Galatians. Thus, if we take our scriptural tradition seriously, we need to learn how to appreciate diversity of thought and multiplicity of theological voices as a gift to the church rather than as a hindrance to communal life. In its most basic form, a progressive theology understands the concept of Imago Dei as one in which God has created all of humanity in God’s own image with all of its diversity. Within that understanding, each of us has different questions for God which come from our experience with the Divine and with humanity as we move forward to learn how to be in community with one another. As each person’s experience with community is different, so is our experience with God. As we create walls and division in that community out of the projection of our personal, contextual theology onto another person, we inhibit our own full experience with God, as well as constrain another’s experience with God out of our own understanding.

There is, on the other hand, grave danger in uniformity of thought and theology. It not only stymies creative and critical thinking, but is also often used as a form of control of a faith community. In such situations, those who dare to venture outside the boundaries of such thought and theology pose a threat to the community and thus are often dealt with quickly and harshly. This is evident in the treatment of stalwart evangelicals like Randall Balmer, Jack Rogers and Jen Hatmaker by others on the Christian right because they dare to rethink the theological views they once held on same-sex relationships and abortion.2 This kind of rigidity, not altogether uncommon in the Calvinist tradition, is inconsistent with the Wesleyan spirit.

It should be clear, then, that progressive theology by nature is not uniform, univocal nor universal, and, especially in The United Methodist Church, it should not attempt to be. While it is important to articulate what a progressive theology is, we must be equally careful not to articulate a theology that will eventually be used to claim univocality and universality and thereby be used to judge and devalue other theological expressions. We are very wary of notions of univocality and universality, which often imply that someone else’s voice and agenda set the standard by which all others are measured. We know and have experienced how the textual interpretation of a dominant group has been used as a means to silence and delegitimize the interpretations of other groups. In context of the question of theology and how our understanding of, and response to, God shapes our engagement with questions about LGBTQIA+ justice and inclusion in the life of the Church, a progressive theology is one that continually considers one’s context and life experiences in relationship with God. It is sometimes impossible to understand God's presence and engagement to the entire world when we consider it within our own scope alone, and therefore unanimity can be dangerous, colonialist and oppressive. The same is true of theological discourse. Instead, what we need to do, as progressive theological thinkers, is to set the framework and parameters of our theological discourse. Simply put, how do we do theology?

In The Book of Discipline (2016) of The United Methodist Church, a section in ¶105 spells out “Our Theological Task” as United Methodists. It begins by defining theology as “our effort to reflect God’s gracious action in our lives,” adding that “our theological explorations seek to give expression to the mysterious reality of God’s presence, peace and power in the world. By so doing, we attempt to articulate more clearly our understanding of the divine-human encounter and are thereby more fully prepared to participate in God’s work in the world.” Our Book of Discipline states further that our theological task is both critical and constructive, individual and communal, contextual and incarnational, as well as practical. What this implies is that our tradition recognizes that doing theology—knowing God—takes effort. While we do have a set of Articles of Religion, our ever-changing contexts necessitate that every generation engage its own theological task and rethink God anew. If our theology is to be critical and constructive as well as contextual and incarnational, no one theological articulation can pretend to be univocal and universal. If the reality of God’s presence in our lives is indeed mysterious, we cannot pretend that anyone of us at any given time and place has a full comprehension of God that is not in constant need of rethinking. We each have a story to tell about God and what God is doing in our lives, but all of these stories are ongoing.

In addition to the criteria set forth in The Book of Discipline, we would argue that progressive theology must work within the framework of pluralism, feminism, liberationism, post-colonialism, queer theology and ecological and environmental responsibility. Each provides something of importance for an authentic progressive faith.

Societies and communities have become increasingly religiously pluralistic. As Christians, we have to come to terms with the fact that we are not the sole possessors of religious truth and values. Thus, there is great value for a progressive theology to be constructed in dialogue with other religious traditions, whereby we can learn new modes of religious discourse as well as come to a better appreciation of our own traditions.

It is hardly necessary to rehearse the contributions of feminism to theology. A progressive theology within the framework of feminism will continue to be attentive to destructive powers of patriarchy and a patriarchal concept of God and the damage they have done to women and the church as a whole. Feminist perspectives, thus, will continue to help the church to affirm the whole and not only parts of it.

A liberationist framework, with its attention to issues of class, race, gender and economics, will prevent a progressive theology from being an elitist theological formulation and enable it to become a theology that is shaped by the lived experience of the people. For example, if “God’s preferential option for the poor” is not to remain a mere slogan, such a theology would move into action. 

A queer theological framework is one that does not fear boundaries, but rather understands them as fluid mile markers that are open to reinterpretation. It is a framework that the church needs to help de-center, challenge and dislodge the rampant heterosexism that persists to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ people and relegate them to second class citizens. Such a framework will help to liberate us from our heterosexism and lead us to affirm God’s mystery and the complex, beautiful and diverse mystery of human sexuality.

A post-colonial framework can be a helpful reminder to Christians of Christianity’s destructive colonial past and to help work against colonial assumptions, representations and ideologies that were so much a part of earlier theological thinking. It will also help to dislodge western theological formulations from the center.

Finally, a progressive theology must address ecological and environmental issues more than ever before. Kathryn Tanner notes: “Contemporary Christians are citizens of a planet gravely troubled by the reckless and rapacious enterprises of its human inhabitants. Human industries, spurred by the technological innovations of the last several centuries, have turned the earth into a commodity for human purposes.” 3 Hence, a progressive theology must address our human responsibility for and accountability to our planet earth.

Yes, there is an agenda that drives progressive theology and we need to embrace that openly. Such an agenda will lead us toward justice for all of God’s people and God’s creation. Within such a framework, we must be willing to allow for variety in theological articulations. If not, we will end up with fundamentalism on the left. The late Doug Adams of Pacific School of Religion had always reminded students and colleagues alike is that fundamentalism, either on the right or on the left, is still fundamentalism and equally oppressive and harmful. 

A progressive theology must be willing to consider the expanse of God's work outside of one’s own mental framework and understanding. In that sense, progressive theological thinking provides space outside of our own experience for God to work. Furthermore, it is an invitation into the greater liberative work of God for ourselves, as a journey toward community with others through expressions of love, mercy and grace. If we cannot conceive that God works beyond our own scope with that framework of understanding, it will be impossible for us to understand how God includes all within the work of salvation. If we use our human lens to conceive God's inclusion, we will always continue to exclude based on our systemic sin. However, if we formulate God's engagement based on the life of Jesus, who as God in the flesh lived, died and resurrected, then we can move away from the legalist tendencies to create community in our own image, and we move into a life of compassion. That compassion, according to Pema Chödrön, “is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals….Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” 4 With the lens of Jesus, which is based on compassion, we can see an egalitarian community. God calls us to be formed in God's image and in God's community. God calls for justice throughout the Hebrew Bible, and God brought justice to earth through the life of Jesus, and God issued the Holy Spirit to us so that we can continue to seek justice—the justice where all persons have a place at God's table and can experience the work of justification and sanctification. Justice in pursuit of a greater community is the foundation of a theology grown out of compassion, and it is based completely on the life of Jesus.


The Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain, M.Div, M.A. (Claremont School of Theology ‘19), is the Leadership Development Specialist with the North Alabama Conference Office of Connectional Ministries. She is a deacon with provisional membership in the North Alabama Conference and co-recipient of the Jeanne Audrey Powers Award from the Claremont School of Theology.

Erin Grasse, M.Div (Claremont School of Theology ’19), is the Minister of Administration at First Christian Church Pomona, a Certified Candidate for Ministry in the Virginia Conference and co-recipient of the Jeanne Audrey Powers Award from the Claremont School of Theology.

The Rev. Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan is President and Professor of Hebrew Bible at Claremont School of Theology. He is an elder in the California-Nevada Conference.

Content originally published July 30, 2019 by Emerging: God Is Doing a New Thing in United Methodism, an online forum sponsored by the Connectional Table.

References

1 O. Wesley Allen, Jr., “Let’s Talk Theology: How Divided Are United Methodists?,” The Christian Century 121/12 (June 2004): 11.

2 The Associated Press, “Biblical Disputes Revive Question: What is an Evangelical?,” Faith in Public Life Newsletter, August 17, 2006; Jonathan Merritt, “Why I’ll take courageous Jen Hatmaker over her cowardly critics any day,” https://religionnews.com/2017/05/02/why-ill-take-courageous-jen-hatmaker-over-her-cowardly-critics-any-day/ (accessed July 25, 2019).

3 Kathryn Tanner, “Creation, Environmental Crisis, and Ecological Justice,” in Reconstructing Christian Theology, edited by Rebecca S. Chopp and Mark Lewis Taylor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 99.

4 Pema Chödrön, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2001).