Who are these Progressive People of Faith?

Rita Nakashima Brock
September 4, 2006

This article was originally submitted to Pacific School of Religion as part of Progressive Christian Witness, a 2006 initiative of PSR designed to bring voices of progressive Christianity to churches nationwide.

Commitment to a common good grounds virtually every religious tradition. This bedrock commitment, now called "progressive," is motivating people of faith to be more outspoken by the day. Newspapers, magazines, and a growing stream of internet bloggers demonstrate that a progressive interfaith movement is on the rise. The narrowness and negativism of the religious right, whether Christian or some other form of fundamentalism, have inspired others to witness openly to their progressive faith. But it is a mistake to understand progressive religion simply as a reaction to the right wing's infiltration of the language of our faith traditions.

Progressive people of faith are characterized by two traits: their orientation to the world around them, and their engagement in it. They relate to the world through openness and unrestrained inquiry. They do not hesitate to consider new things and to engage them on the merits of what they offer. A religion unable to open itself to new ideas and visions freezes itself in the past, and inevitably it becomes devoid of the guidance and insight for which people yearn.

Progressive Christians believe Jesus Christ opens them to the entire world because the entire world is the sphere of God's creative love. Therefore, Christians can eagerly explore the manifold structures and symbols of human meaning--science, art, philosophy, and even other faiths--that guide human life. The religious beliefs of others are sources of wisdom to be examined for what they might teach us, not enemies to rouse suspicion or to be disdained. In addition, progressives believe that all religious claims about the world should be open to critical examination, including the Christian tradition itself. Christian faith needs no protection from inquiry; it benefits from critical questions.

Progressive Christians believe that the biblical tradition compels a commitment to the common good, especially for those whom the Bible calls "the least of these." Therefore, our churches--our communities that claim to be the body of the risen Christ--must live out these biblical values. Today, the values that most embody the love of Christ for the world include:

respect for diversity and difference,
reverence for life,
love of beauty and the wonders of creation,
care for vulnerable people,
sustainability of the environment,
international cooperation,
religious liberty,
human rights, and
nurture of the feeling as well as the rational dimensions of life.

Progressive people of faith have a long history of engagement with their worlds in the pursuit of ideals such as these. Social transformation is an intrinsic part of religious transformation. To seek social change is a religious vocation--for the progressive Christian it is a Christian calling. This is why progressive people of faith have been leaders in secular movements of transformation as well as in efforts to overcome the restrictive dimensions of their own traditions.

Movements in American history fueled by the energy of religious progressives include the Abolitionist Movement, Women's Suffrage, the Social Gospel Movement, Conscientious Objection to War, Trade Unions, the New Deal, Civil Rights, opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, the elimination of racism, and many aspects of contemporary feminism including reproductive rights, marriage freedom, equality for gays and lesbians, and the inclusion of sexual minorities. Progressive Christians continue to engage in these movements, within their own religious communities and around the world.

Progressive religious people have a global vision. Christians in recent years have been involved internationally in such organizations as the World Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. With these and other groups they have sought to encourage cooperation among churches, to end colonialism in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to support liberation movements of oppressed peoples across the globe, to promote nonviolent approaches to conflict, and to improve the lives of women and children.

Progressive people of faith are not characterized by a particular set of religious beliefs, uniformity of institutional forms, shared personal practices, or agreement on specific political and social policies. They don't need to be. What unites them, what defines them, is an open-ended search for truth and an untiring pursuit of justice for all--and the conviction that these commitments are mandates of their faith. These are their commitments, not because they want or need to be called progressives, but because they must be committed to these values as people of faith.

About the Author

Rita Nakashima Brock is Founding Co-Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good. She has served on the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Religion and on national boards of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. During 2001-2002 she was a Fellow at the Harvard Divinity School, and from 1997-2001 Dr. Brock directed the Fellowship Program at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.