My friend Tony Jones and some other folks over at Pathos are working out the implications of “Progressive Christianity” and what it means in today’s religious landscape. They’re also talking about the differences between labels like “progressive” as opposed to “liberal” and why certain labels are better than others. I’m not really all that bothered by the use of either word (progressive/liberal) but I do tend to prefer “liberal” to describe myself in the religious and political landscape.
The main reason is that I find the label “progressive” too dismissive of those who would not call themselves “progressives” in a religious or political sense. It implies that one way of thinking or believing is progressing while others ways are not. I find a lot that I’m not a fan of in conservative, traditional Christianity but one thing I don’t find is absolutely no one progressing, growing, moving forward within their conservative world-view. Sure, there are those that regress or remain static in their ways, but that’s certainly not as universal a condition as the word “progressive” would imply.
The main difference between liberal/progressives and conservative/traditionalists is the way each group approaches boundaries or limits. Traditionalists will typically tend to respect limits and boundaries while liberals will typically question or challenge them. If I call myself a “liberal,” I’m identifying the nature of my relationship to the conventional boundaries with which we all interact. If I say I’m not bound by what Paul writes in scripture about homosexuality or the role of women, then I’ve freed myself, liberated myself from what many believe is a healthy limit that the Bible sets. Conservatives fear that we all ultimately lose something when we cross these limits. Liberals fear that something is lost if these limits are not, at the very least, questioned and challenged. This doesn’t mean that conservatives cannot progress within their world-view. It just means that limits are typically respected and revered because their perception of tradition brings with it great authority.
I realize conservatives will say that, within their world-view, they are indeed “liberated” and I’m not trying to imply otherwise. It’s certainly not up to me to determine whether or not a person feels free. But if these labels are used to indicate our relationship to boundaries, then I feel like both descriptors, “liberal” and “conservative,” can be agreeable for both groups.