I grew up steeped in conservative Christianity only to make a 180° turn to cold, hard atheism in college. I took no detours in progressive Christianity, but I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be both a Christian and an open-minded, accepting person. Luckily, I’ve lately been enjoying Brenda Marie Davies’ YouTube channel, which is a glimpse into the lifestyle, opinions, and beliefs of a progressive Christian. If you can achieve a messy but confident faith in God and a loving call for equality and recognition for all, then why not embrace both?
I can see the intrigue of progressive Christianity when one’s alternatives are authoritarian religious denominations on one hand and atheism, which is often associated with nihilism, on the other. Although it apparently has a website, I’ve never really thought of progressive Christianity being any kind of definable sect. It seems more like if you pair stripped-down Christian beliefs with a Unitarian Universalist Humanist lifestyle. In other words, a typical progressive Christian would believe in the resurrection and teachings of Jesus without dragging along the traditional Christian dogmas of young-earth creationism, tribalism, homophobia, and sexual repression. (They might even vote Democrat! Egad!) Any progressive Christians reading this are welcome to give your own perspectives on what it means to you!
What a nit-picky skeptic I am that I still have a problem with progressive Christianity. To spoil my analysis for you a bit, I’ll say now that it isn’t a big problem. I’ve just always wondered at people like Brenda and even my own good friends: doesn’t being a good person, in a way, contradict your faith? I mean, the Old Testament just says horrific things. Never would I advocate for someone to, say, condemn gay marriage, but I just wonder if those who are both LGBTQ-affirming and bible-believing Christians ever feel cognitive dissonance about the two matters?
This brings me to a decision I made where, hypothetically, if I were a Christian, I decided I would be a progressive Christian rather than a conservative one, or a biblical literalist. I know the two options aren’t neatly packaged together (because, well, the bible isn’t entirely clear on everything), but this was the question I asked myself: is it better to be morally correct but intellectually/theologically inconsistent or theologically consistent but morally repugnant?
Granted, you may believe—or say you believe—everything in the bible, but you can’t live out its every word because there are parts that contradict each other. There just are. One command that comes up a lot is circumcision: in general, it is required in the Old Testament but condemned in the New. One might see this as an example of the tension between Judaism and Christianity, but the fact is that you can’t obey the commands of both Genesis 17:11 and Galatians 5:2.
Even so, I would venture to say that people like the Westboro Baptist Church take the bible way more literally than progressive Christians like Brenda. She says herself that she sees it with more nuance and doesn’t believe that it is literally true. But to phrase it biblically, look at the fruit (Matthew 7:16) of these extremists’ fringe biblical beliefs versus Brenda’s. It is a night and day comparison of hate versus love.
It gets more complicated yet. You see, the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t act they way they do just to be hateful. They truly think that they are enacting God’s will. At the same time, progressive Christians don’t just throw out the window any bible verse that contradicts their modern worldview. Perhaps some do, but throughout her videos Brenda justifies her sex-positive, anti-purity-culture beliefs biblically. If I were a Christian, I might see some of her interpretations as a bit of a stretch, but if that’s how you live as both a Christian and a good person, does a little cognitive dissonance really hurt?
In the end, I would choose a loosely biblical, humanistic Christianity over an authoritarian, sectarian Christianity any day. But it seems that if you are a Christian, you do have to make a choice, and you can’t have both true consistency and commendable moral values. This is one of the many times that I’m just glad that I don’t have to choose. As an atheist, cognitive dissonance really isn’t an issue. That isn’t to say that atheism has no cognitive dissonance at all; is there any worldview without it? But I prefer to live with the abstract philosophical nuances that come with reconciling humanism with nihilism than trying to reconcile the worship of an angry patriarchal god with the command to love thy neighbor.
I like not being bound by any doctrine, even loosely. If I believe that my gay friends deserve the same rights that I daily enjoy, I don’t have to worry about how this will affect my interpretation of Leviticus 18:22. If I read a scientific book teaching that humans are made of star-stuff and are a product of billions of years of cosmic evolution, I don’t have to work to wonder if Genesis really meant six days or try to hold two beliefs that clearly cannot both exist in the same paradigm of reality.
Many conservative Christians would argue that I just want to “do whatever feels good,” but instead I just want to believe whatever is true and do whatever is right. And without religion, I can.
Some related blog posts for your perusal:
No True Christian – why, if I were to become a Christian, I wouldn’t know which type of Christian to be since there are so many different “flavors”. An interesting juxtapose to this post, written two years earlier.
What is Unitarian Universalist Humanism? – similar to this post but with Unitarian Universalist Humanism and not progressive Christianity.
Answers in Genesis? – an analysis that I made almost four years ago as to why it is easier to dismiss a claim entirely than to twist it unrecognizably.