Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series in which Drew Smith, director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., examines what it means to be a progressive Christian.
Labels are interesting things. They are attempts to define what something, or someone, is. More often than not, we put labels on others as a way of trying to define them, even though we will inevitably misrepresent who they are.
In the most extreme cases, we put labels on others with whom we disagree or on those we do not like in an attempt to create a caricature of them. In this sense, labels can be used as weapons to disparage those not like us.
Often, however, we try to find labels to put on ourselves in an effort to define who we are so that others will understand us. But finding the right label to describe who one is can be a very troubling introspective experience.
Many of the evolutionary changes that have taken place for me over the years are those related to what I believe about God and religious faith. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian environment in the Bible Belt, I rarely encountered diversity.
If I did, I was probably too ingrained in the approved way of thinking that I did not even recognize another point of view, and I certainly would not have recognized it as valid. Yet, at this point in my life, as I look back, I am far removed from who I was and what I believed then.
Such evolutions can cause consternation within oneself, as one tries to find the right label to use to describe who one is. This is certainly true for religion, for once you designate yourself as a member of a particular religion, you are to some extent lumped into a larger stereotype of that religion that is mostly known by the bad representatives of that religion.
For me, I am particularly not happy to be lumped in with those on the closed-minded conservative to fundamentalist side of Christianity. But neither am I thrilled to be associated with some of the willy-nilly liberal brands of Christian faith.
Yet as I have examined who I am, I have come to accept a label that adequately fits me. This is not to say that this is the final labeling of who I am as a person of faith, but I can say with some measure of confidence that I am happy with this label.
I am a progressive Christian.
Many may ask what this exactly means, and some will conclude that it simply means a liberal Christian. After all, as the logic goes, if you are not a conservative, you must be a liberal.
For me, the label of progressive communicates something more vibrant and more fluid. In an attempt to define what I mean by progressive Christian, I will first address why I remain a Christian and then follow this with the reasons I am progressive in a second post.
My being a Christian has a lot to do with growing up that way. I am certainly not the same person I was, and my Christian faith has changed in some very dramatic ways – too many to detail here. But I still remain a Christian, and by this I mean a follower of Jesus, though I am frequently very much the failure.
I must be honest, however, that I often think seriously about abandoning my faith. My own doubts, the intolerance I see from other Christians, and the blatant neglect of many of Jesus’ most central teachings by some Christians are just a few reasons I have often turned away from being a Christian.
But I have made, and so far I continue to make, a conscious choice to be a Christian. Indeed, as I understand it, being a Christian, a follower of Christ, is not a one-time choice. It is a day-in and day-out conscious decision to follow Jesus; one that I struggle to make each and every day. In fact, each day presents the possibility that I will not make that choice ever again.
Yet I continue to make that choice for two primary reasons. First, Jesus represents for me not so much a savior, but more than anything what it means to be authentically human, and thus if I seek to be the best human being I can be, then I choose to follow Jesus.
This does not mean I am very good at it, nor does it mean that it has to be this way for everyone else, but the humanity of Jesus speaks volumes to my own existence in a world of chaos and pain.
Second, I am Christian because it offers to me a community of identity in which I can find fellowship along the journey of life. The Christian community, much like other religious communities, offers a way of finding meaning in the midst of struggle.
Sadly, I don’t find this kind of community in most churches, except at a superficial level, but overall my life is made better through being in community with other Christians.
I very much could have discarded my faith many times, probably with little regret. Moreover, I could have replaced my faith with other ways of finding meaning. But to this point, I have not.
Instead, I have found a new way of embracing my faith that for me represents a more honest and authentic way of following Jesus. And that is where the progressive part becomes important.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.