Post-Progressive Christianity: Part 2, Reconstruction

The label "progressive Christianity" is vague. I hope to offer some clarity regarding that label as this series goes on. Today gets started on that work.

Some of the confusion is how post-evangelicals get lumped in with mainline Protestants under the umbrella "progressive Christianity." Both groups are "progressive" in two main ways.

First, both groups tend to adopt a demythologized reading of the Bible. Compare, for example, Rob Bell's post-evangelical What Is the Bible? with the books of John Shelby Spong from a mainline perspective. Lots of convergence between how post-evangelicals and mainline Protestants read the Bible.

A second way post-evangelicals and mainline Protestants overlap is in how they embrace Democratic Party policies along with social justice activism. Both groups tend to be politically progressive.

Those comparisons made, there is one place where a contrast can be made between post-evangelicals and mainline Protestants.

Given that they come out of evangelicalism, post-evangelicals by and large go on a spiritual journey often described as "deconstruction." As noted above, this journey tends to involve two big things: a hermeneutical change (how we read the Bible) coupled with a political change (a shift towards progressive politics and social justice activism). The hermeneutical and political changes tend to go hand in hand, each fueling the other.

This change is described as "deconstruction" as previously held evangelical beliefs are questioned and dismantled. For example, literal readings of the Bible are questioned in the face of science, patriarchal gender roles are criticized as being oppressive, and sexual minorities are fully embraced and included. This season of questioning and change is both destabilizing and exhilarating. It can also be heartbreaking as one experiences rejection from evangelical families and faith communities. Many post-evangelical memoirs document the highs and lows of this journey. For example, see Rachel Held Evan's Faith Unraveled and Searching for Sunday.   

By and large, cradle mainliners don't have or share these stories of deconstruction. Cradle mainliners have always been "liberal" and "progressive," so they lack the scars and stories of emerging out of evangelicalism. There hasn't been a season of "deconstruction."

I've gone into these contrasts to set up my first progressive vs. post-progressive contrast. I want to be clear that when I talk about deconstruction in the progressive Christian experience I'm talking mainly about the post-evangelical side of that group. That said, on to the contrast...

For post-evangelical progressives deconstruction is such a defining, seismic, earth-shattering, and paradigm-shifting experience that deconstruction has become the spiritual foundation and defining impulse within the post-evangelical experience. And this has become problematic for two reasons.

First, deconstruction continues to make evangelicalism the frame of reference, making post-evangelicalism a Christianity of negation, a faith defined by what you reject and don't believe in. This creates the unlovely scene on social media where post-evangelicals spend most of their time talking and tweeting about what's going on with evangelicals rather than about what's going on with Jesus. Post-evangelicals are stuck in a posture of negation and critique.

That fuels a second problem. Doubting and questioning are critical tools during a season of deconstruction. As Peter Enn's puts it, to be certain is sinful. Peter Rollins describes his pyrotheology as inherently destructive, a theology that burns old dogmas and convictions to the ground.

The trouble with all this, speaking as a post-progressive, is that a faith that becomes stuck in a posture of negation, critique, and doubt is not a sustainable Christianity for the long faithfulness required to carry faith through the lifespan. To be sure, there are some who are able to maintain this posture over the decades, but the general course is to either lose your faith or to practice a faith that is functionally atheistic. Many have noted these trends and outcomes as they've watched the post-evangelical faith journey unfold. Many have suggested, and I think rightfully so, that post-evangelicalism is just a rest stop on the way to agnosticism and atheism.

Again, I've become convinced that this is, indeed, the case. A faith built upon doubt and negation is a recipe for losing your faith. And to be clear, I'm progressive enough to not freak out about that. If losing a toxic faith is the worst thing that happens I'd take that as a win. I'm progressive enough to know I have much more in common with liberal humanists than with evangelical Christians.

And yet, I think liberal humanists desperately need the gospel. Atheism isn't the worst outcome, but I don't think it's the best. So I reject a Christianity that facilitates and enables, even if unwittingly, losing Jesus and the church.

And if that's so, then post-evangelical progressives need to become post-progressive. They must journey though the season of deconstruction into a season of reconstruction. The season of doubt and negation needs to be followed by affirmation and conviction.

All that leads me to the first affirmation and contrast of this series:

I AM A PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe that doubting, questioning and searching is a legitimate and mature expression of faith, and that for many Christians a season of deconstruction is a necessary and vital part of the faith journey.

I AM A POST-PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIAN because I believe a faith journey that terminates and exhausts itself in doubt, negation, and deconstruction will eventually lead to a loss of faith or to a faith that is functionally atheistic. Deconstruction must be followed by reconstruction, and while seasons of deconstruction will continue to play a vital and necessary role going forward, and dark nights of the soul always a live possibility, the reconstructed Christian experience should become increasingly characterized by positivity, joy, affirmation, praise, hope, and faithfulness.

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