Progressive is a recognition that time is real and that history has changed the way we live and the way we understand things. The 21st century is different than the 1st century and the 16th century.
Conservative folks will sometimes say that ‘progressive’ is just a code word for ‘liberal’. This is a profound misunderstanding of both terms.
Progressive is not the same as liberal.
Liberal is a distinct set of convictions that are rooted in enlightenment principles. Two examples are:
- The primacy of the individual
- The absolute certainty in the laws of physics
The primacy of the individual is a tricky one in our era. Consumerism and democracy have so so glorified the individual that it is assumed and often not even commented on. Individualism is so deeply embedded in western society that many are completely unaware of its historical roots.
It often comes as a surprise to conservative republicans and charismatic Christians that they are the epitome and pinnacle of the liberal idea and tradition! There is a helpful entry from the Global Dictionary of Theology that explains:
“Liberalism recognizes the primacy of the individual self” and exists before it enters society. The individual decides how it will engage and participate in society – which is made up of other equal and autonomous individuals. Institutions gain their legitimacy through the consent of individuals and this is based on the conception of the right and the good. Concepts such as “all men are created equal” and the pledge that ends with “liberty and justice for all” are familiar artifacts of this conviction.
“As Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, all contemporary debates are really between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is thus little room of the criticism of the system itself.” This assumption is so taken-for-granted that the second liberal gets dropped and it becomes simply ‘conservative, radical, etc.’
Progressive Bible Study is not liberal. It does not exalt the individual above the community or the tradition. We do not relate to god as an individuals alone, but as the community of faith.
A second example is the absolutely certainty in the laws of physics. Liberal approaches to scripture start by saying “Well we know that it is impossible to walk on water, so this story can’t be taken literally. Also the Bible is not true”.
We went to avoid that kind of reductive approach to the text of scripture and take a much more generous approach that asks questions like:
- How would the original audience have understood this?
- How has it been read historically?
- Is there anything we know 2000 years later that changes our understanding?
- What literary devices are employed in this genre of literature?
- How does this text fit into the broader arc of scripture?
- Are we aware of any other works like this in other traditions or cultures?
So progressive Bible study is not liberal because A) it does not give primacy to the individual over the community and tradition and B) it does not discount texts based on presumptions and outside loyalties.
SO what does progressive mean then?
The term is used many different ways but in our context for this study, progressive means that we don’t live in the 1st century – we have been affected by history. We don’t have premodern minds and don’t live in the premodern world. We don’t want to romanticize the ancient ways and try to get back to some imagined past or reclaim some former glory.
Our hope is to be faithful to our day and our place, recognizing that things have changed – some for the good and some for the bad – as we account for and attend to the trajectory of both human activity and divine wisdom.