Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 17, 2011

“Progressive” Politics & Emergent Faith

Cover of "Oh Mercy"

Cover of Oh Mercy

“We live in a political world…” – the prophet Bob Dylan, *Political World*

Once again, commenting on somebody else’s blog (Tony Jones’ Theoblogy) gave me a spark I wanted to carry over here to Marking Time. It’s nice to have digital friends, no?

As a non-theologian/layperson with more of a background in philosophy, linguistics, public education and the Anabaptist critique, I feel compelled to remind us that in English (and historically), the word “progressive” (small p and capital) had a political association long before it began to acquire a more direct theological connection (especially within the emergent church movement).

I have never minded the term Progressive. In the political realm I found it useful to somewhat break out of the U.S. “two party system” – which broke down too much gray area into black/white. To overstate perceived American norms:

Republican=conservative=white=law-and-order=people of the Book=”real” Christians (etc.)


Democrat=liberal=inclusive=mainline or ecumenical=social justice/people of praxis=”TRYING to be real Christians” with an eye on the Common Good.

Meanwhile, for decades in the U.S. there have been misfits –either the monkish/interior-oriented discipleship types like Henry Nouwen or Richard Foster, or the outward-facing and creative/sociopolitical/academic types (Frederick Buechner? Wendell Berry? certainly semi-Baptist Tony Campolo…) — who felt a bit uncomfortable within either party.

I’ve felt that discomfort/tension too, as a non-cradle Mennonite (the so-called Third Way), with Roman Catholic roots that I have never cast aside, and charismatic or pentecostal tendencies (to make things even fuzzier).  Thus I have enjoyed –but then sometimes been aggravated and impatient –in watching and helping as Sojourners and other Progressive/faith-based efforts tried in fits and starts to bridge that two-party gap (mostly a false one, from a Scriptural standpoint).

All that activity, and the roots of current changes/debates in both politics and theology, started well before Emergent existed as a term. As for “missional”, a term on the rise in emergent circles, that seems vague and tricky also. It seems like a re-purposing or co-opting of traditional or “safe” church terminology, to try NOT to lose the more conservative evangelicals.

We can talk about what person, school of thought, or denomination gets co-opted or dismissed through this working out of our faith, but I agree with the suggestions above that being a little unsafe or uncomfortable really IS the Way of Jesus.

Also, I think it’s the idea that emergent theology has been *changing* (or reacting to the conversation, maybe re-adjusting its essential foundational evidence sources, i.e. *re-learning*), that many evangelicals have a hard time with. If one believes in God and scripture and truth as being mostly fixed (my shorthand definition of conservative or orthodox theology), then the idea of holding things in tension –the postmodern instinct to say “Maybe yes, but what about this over here?”– is grounds for dismissal by self-proclaimed evanelicals. I’m not claiming they are or are not living out the gospel or doing God’s mission. I just feel rank-and-file evangelicals like to table these “academic” questions a lot, so that they can get on with their faith-filled business –without the distraction of having to rediscover or tinker with a vision/version of the truth, or a reason to get motivated for action.

Speaking of action: the first time I heard the term “praxis” was in discussions about liberation theology at either a youth minister’s or Intervarsity leadership training conference… conducted at the conservative Moody Bible Institute, of all places… but by an outside group renting space.  So every tradition has its brave, isolated reformers (or realists) who work within the boundaries, but try to stretch them. However, it’s in publishing and seminaries that all the big battles are fought.

Rage on, nations!


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