You may not believe me after reading my latest columns, but there was a day when I was a flaming fundamentalist.
Enrolled in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1993, I arrived on campus between the theological and ideological mindsets of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Influenced by conservative rhetoric that warned of the dangers of liberalism and expressed a strong commitment to “Judeo-Christian values,” I was ready to save the world with the Bible in one hand and the U.S. Constitution in the other.
Unfortunately for the “Little Limbaugh” inside me, I met some folks at Southwestern who changed my life forever. Boo Heflin — my Old Testament professor — dared to use the Bible to confront patriarchalism and advocate for egalitarian leadership in culture and the church.
Karen Bullock brought church history alive, retelling old stories in fresh ways. Listening to her talk about each era of the church, one thing became crystal clear: traditionalists never came out looking too good as history progressed.
In fact, throughout church history, traditional conservatives — those seeking to keep the status quo through manipulation, power, and control — were often presented as those holding the church back. Even the world, for that matter. Traditionalist conservatives wanted to conserve their power and privilege.
Finally, there was Russell H. Dilday, the seminary president. Dilday declared on my first day on campus that the seminary did not exist to teach students what to think, but the seminary would prepare us and offer tools for us to think.
Because of his commitment to academic freedom and academic integrity, a group of traditional conservative men fired Dilday during my second semester. They even had the hubris to fire him after giving him a vote of confidence the previous afternoon.
They changed the locks on his office door and escorted him from campus as though he were a common criminal. It was one of the most disgraceful acts I have ever witnessed with my own eyes.
On that fateful day in 1994 – Wednesday, March 9 — my life changed forever.
Dilday died a few weeks ago, flooding my mind with so many significant memories and my heart with warm regards. His commitment to faith and freedom set me on a life’s quest to discover truth and relevance.
The seminary Dilday led years ago no longer exists – at least not theologically and ideologically. In its place, Southwestern has given in to the fundamentalist mindset.
However, back in the day, my old professors and president taught a few lessons that remain with me to this day:
- Read the Bible through the criterion of Jesus from Nazareth.
- Evaluate issues and situations with love, compassion, mercy, humility, and justice.
- Commit to learning history to move the world forward into a brighter and enlightened tomorrow.
While my former professors and president may not have considered themselves “progressive” by today’s definition, they certainly inspired me to move forward and seek a better tomorrow.
Because of those tenants, and a few more, I am now unashamedly progressive, doing everything in my power to push, pull and will the world towards a better tomorrow.
But don’t misunderstand me, I do not believe I have all the answers. It’s quite the opposite. Today, I have more questions than answers. Therefore, I simply want to invite fellow sojourners along for the quizzical journey of discovery.
As I travel along, people often ask me to define what I mean when I refer to myself as a “progressive faith follower of Jesus.” Before I get into how I define progressive faith, let me first offer these personal evaluations of what I contend progressive faith is not.
- Is neither conservative nor liberal.
- Does not reject the Bible.
- Is not a denial or reinterpretation of history.
- Is not focused solely on deconstruction.
- Does not abandon the faith to advocate for inclusion, equality, and justice.
- Does not turn away from the teachings of Jesus.
With these clarifications and qualifications, the question persists: “What defines my progressive faith?”
First, my progressive faith can be conservative, liberal or both at the same time.
This initial thought is a tad difficult for those used to defining theological and political landscapes through a dualistic lens. Instead of thinking about faith as conservative versus liberal, let’s think about the transcendent purpose of faith.
Faith provides an individual and/or community with a path toward wholeness. A universal truth seems to persist within most faiths that humanity and the world feel broken. This brokenness is a result of whatever we want to call it: sin, injustice, exclusion, inequality, oppression, persecution, imbalance, dominionism — you get the picture.
Therefore, the purpose of my progressive faith is not to convert someone to my way of thinking or belief but to help myself, others and the world become more whole from the brokenness in which we all live.
It’s what my colleague, Lakota Spiritualist Lenore Three Stars, calls a “Theology of Wholeness.
Faith should never be about labels. Even more so – and this is where I get into trouble with traditionalists – faith should not even be about conversion.
Conversion is a colonial idea birthed from a Western mindset of rhetorical debate. Faith should be about helping people, institutions and systems heal from the brokenness of evil.
Jesus said, “Love God, love others, and love yourself.” Only then can we truly aspire to live toward a kingdom of God, a celestial community, a heavenly dwelling, nirvana or whatever you want to call this new reality.
Faith should never be about winning the argument; it should focus on moving humanity towards a more loving and just existence.
Second, my progressive faith approaches the Bible with seriousness and respect.
I read the Bible seriously, but not literally. I attempt to utilize the best tools possible through historical and literary criticism to ensure I interpret the Bible to the best of my ability.
Even so, I must always hold to the possibility that I might get it wrong. Karen Bullock taught me this during all those years of studying church history.
As a follower of Jesus, I cannot help but listen with an open mind when the rabbi declared, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”
We must always be open to new understandings and faith practices gleaned from a more thorough way to read and interpret the Bible. How disappointing it would be to think we have learned everything we will ever know about our faith. We do not practice a dead faith but a living faith.
This is where biblical literalists hold the faith back. Biblical literalists do not take the Bible seriously because to do so would jeopardize their preconceived notions and beliefs. Reading the Bible with open eyes and hearts might mean they may be forced to change their minds.
Third, my progressive faith takes an honest assessment of history to uncover foundational truths.
We forget that we learn history through someone else’s interpretations of events. Often, history is written by the victors, making them look more noble and virtuous than they were during their days.
For example, America’s founders were brilliant people, constructing remarkable political ideas and institutional practices, but they were also humans — susceptible to evil and hypocrisy.
Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and others can be both brilliant and flawed. While we celebrate their brilliance, we must also be honest about their flaws. Thus, it is no wonder why the great country still tilts in favor of the ones who created it – white males.
The same can be said about the church and any other system where humans dare tread. Let’s just be honest about our history to strive towards that more perfect union that Jefferson wrote about.
Fourth, my progressive faith utilizes the practice of deconstruction, but deconstruction is not its only purpose.
Being honest about history, institutions, and systems in which we exist requires that we embrace the practice of deconstruction.
Oxford Dictionary defines deconstruction as “a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.”
In other words, deconstruction is an honest exercise of peeling back preconceived notions to ensure historical and philosophical accuracy. By deconstructing history and systems, we learn about their origins and lingering effects on society.
However, deconstruction should not solely be about tearing everything down and walking away. There must be a larger objective and purpose.
We deconstruct so that we can reconstruct. We deconstruct history, attitudes, laws, and policies not to burn everything to the ground but to rebuild and progress toward a better existence for everyone.
So, while deconstructionists are sharpening their axes and upgrading their sledgehammers, make sure to throw some hammers and nails into the toolbox so that we can rebuild a better church, a better community, a better state, a better nation, and a better world.
Fifth, my progressive faith advocates for inclusion, equality, and justice not despite faith but because of faith.
I have grown weary of people telling me I have abandoned and lost my faith because I believe and advocate for ecological justice, queer justice, racial justice, economic justice, and every other kind of justice that favors the privileged while oppressing and harming the marginalized.
I believe and advocate for these issues not despite my faith but precisely because of my faith. Why? Well, that question leads to my sixth and final reason for why I am a progressive faithful follower of a rabbi: Jesus of Nazareth.
Sixth, my progressive faith embraces the teachings and examples of Jesus of Nazareth.
My colleague Elizabeth Lott wrote in Good Faith Media’s most recent book True Colors: Stories of Baptist Inclusion, “I was radicalized by preaching Jesus.”
Why am I a progressive? Simply stated: Jesus.
The teaching and examples of Jesus are challenging. Jesus challenged me to move forward, never to be satisfied with the status quo of the powerful, but to continually progress forward, inviting more people to experience the love of God through inclusion, affirmation, and justice.
For me, being progressive is an invitation from Jesus to move forward — to progress with him, striving towards a better tomorrow for everyone.
To the lame man, Jesus invited him to get up and walk (Matthew 9). He offers the same invitation to me, to you, to the church and to the world. We must get up and start walking forward.
Why am I unashamedly progressive? Because Jesus invited me to be so.
CEO of Good Faith Media.