I’ve recently read a few articles by authors who claim to have outgrown what they refer to as “American Christianity”. Generally this perspective is taken by those who consider themselves Progressive Christians, believing they have progressed beyond the faith they were taught within the American church.
It seems essential to define the term “American Christianity”, particularly because it is often used as a vague umbrella-term to criticize traditional Christian beliefs, usually by lumping them together with a sort of prosperity-gospel-nationalistic “Christianity”, recognizable by its “guns and Jesus” bumper stickers, Westboro Baptist picketing, silent women, and enthusiastic endorsement of Trump.
Now, I can easily get behind rejecting any brands of “Christianity” that uphold political, social, national, or materialistic allegiance over (or equated with) Christ. These kinds of bastardizations of faith ought not be outgrown but rather outrun without looking back. But generally the term “American Christian” is used to encompass more than these poor (and unbiblical) representations of Christianity, using them fallaciously to criticize traditional Christianity.
This is an unfortunate and erroneous generalization, particularly because traditional Christianity and its doctrines are no more American than Saint Augustine of Hippo. Despite the fact that traditional Christianity is neither American in nature nor confined to our culture, Progressive Christians continue to liken it to being as outrageous as Jesus with a shotgun. They reject the traditional beliefs of traditional Christianity usually condensed down to the rejection of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura: that the Canonized Bible is inspired by God and ought to be our final authority on who he is and how we can know and worship him. It is a natural progression from the rejection of this doctrine to rejection or altering the rest of the beliefs of Christianity such as: Jesus Christ being known through the witness of the Synoptic Gospels; that he was fully God and fully man; because of our broken human nature he was murdered, buried, and resurrected, thus giving us freedom from our corruption and death; that upon trusting in his perfection we are given new life that is marked by our submission to him as he is described in the Canonized Bible.
It is these doctrines that Progressive Christians reject, popularizing a “growth beyond tradition”. Ironically their attempt at progress is simply a reversion, returning to the way things always have been for humans: making God in our own image, and thus worshiping an idea that requires nothing from us but our own “happiness”.
I saw the same ideas when I toured a whole host of ancient Egyptian sites, standing before towering monument after towering monument built for men who believed themselves gods.
After but a single day of looking up at each stone face and pillar it became exhausting and depressing. Perhaps because in the faces of these human-made monuments I could see my own human tendency to try and make God look like me, only to find that image crumbles—literally—to dust in the face of time.
Self-made images of God always end up like the Egyptian monuments, they erode and fall.
Progressive Christianity falls into this same self-made trap. They claim they do not accept tradition nor authority because God is more “fluid” than doctrine and they have more relevant ideas than the historical Bible offers. But by dogmatically rejecting Scripture as their authority they automatically transfer authority to themselves and thus approach God with their self as the central point of contact. When we try to understand God this way, we ultimately construct a god that looks just like us.
This reconstruction of God typically begins with Jesus: the feminist finds a feminist Jesus; the non-spiritualist finds a Jesus who is not divine; the cynic finds a Jesus who is a cynic; the political activist finds a Jesus who is a revolutionary; the white supremacist finds a Jesus with ivory skin…the list goes painfully on.
Every one of these constructs make the same mistake: approaching God as though we can reason our way to him, trying to figure out how he fits into our pre-established paradigm. We try and make even the flesh and blood person of Jesus into our own image. We begin with ourselves, looking internally to find first “what makes us happy”, and when we find something tangible we can cling to we then conclude that it must be what God wants for us. From this position we reason that any word from him that says otherwise must be either irrelevant or unreliable.
The Bible offers a whole host of truths that are difficult to accept. Beginning first with the idea that we are failed moral beings who have stood pridefully before a holy God from whom we deserve nothing but condemnation. It is very hard to accept that humans do not deserve God.
So Progressive Christians simply don’t accept it, deciding instead that we owe God nothing and he owes us everything, and ultimately just wants us to be “happy”. But in this rejection of this view of our failure and God’s perfection they are unable to know God. The truth is we do not deserve God and we fail again and again, yet God freely and sacrificially gives himself to us anyway, offering a completely underserved and outrageous love that transforms us into his people.
But instead of seeing the beauty and glory of God and worshiping him for who he is, Progressive Christianity attempts to reshape him to fit him to who they are.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his doctoral thesis Act and Being in opposition to this idea of finding God from ourselves,
It is simply not true that concrete man (including even the philosopher) is in full possession of the mind. Whoever countenances the idea that he need only arrive at himself to be in God is doomed to hideous disillusion in experiencing the utter introversion, the treadmill confinement to the self, the very loneliest solitude, with its tormenting desolation and sterility.
-Act and Being
Bonhoeffer asserts that we cannot find God apart from the witness of Scripture because any other mode begins with ourselves, and God is by definition outside of human experience and understanding and thus unreachable. Our reasoning fails and becomes confining because we cannot get outside of ourselves, as Bonhoeffer says, “the eye does not see itself”. He argues that we cannot know God apart from faith in Jesus Christ as witnessed in the canonized Scripture preached by the confessing Church.
Thus knowing God can only ever be approached by faith. Faith always begins with God coming to us rather than us trying to go to God. It is God bringing his Word through Scripture, confirmed and fulfilled in the person of Jesus, and resulting in us becoming what Bonhoeffer refers to as the “new man”,
While God knows man, man knows God. But to be known by God means to become a new man.
-Act and Being
If we do not approach him from faith that is aimed outside of ourselves the only alternative is to approach him from ourselves, resulting in a god that looks just like us instead of the real person of God; and a god who looks like us will fail as much as we do, inevitably crumbling just as every other false god before.
Trying to reconstruct God is not a novelty of Progressive Christianity, even when he walked the earth a multitude of conflicting and erroneous opinions of him flurried about him as prevalent as the dust that covered his feet. He once pressed his disciples about who he was, asking first the generalized question, “who do people say that I am?”
They answer with the common titles ascribed to him, “John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet.”
Without even addressing these erroneous titles Jesus turns the question into one that is personal, even uncomfortable, “But who do you say that I am?”
We are given only Peter’s simple answer, “You are the Christ.”
But even Peter is rebuked only moments later because he doesn’t fully understand what being the Christ really meant as he balks at the idea of his Messiah being crucified. He held his own self-made image of the Messiah being both holy priest and a revolutionary who would free the Jewish people from the domination of the Roman government.
It isn’t until Jesus is crucified, resurrected, standing before his disciples in a very real (and hungry) body, and walking them through their Scriptures to show them who he is, that they finally understand that before them is God in the flesh, crucified and risen to free them not from a Roman government, but from the slavery of sin and death. They could not reason to him, they had to experience him, not as their own made up version, but as the One who was described hundreds of years prior in the prophecies fulfilled before their very eyes.
Jesus asks us quite plainly, “who do you say that I am?” He presses us with this question until we must make a confession or a denial. We are tempted to answer in ways that allow us to hold tightly to our self-made identities, remaining just as we want to be as we claim to “follow” him. But to follow him requires faith in him and his words to us, and he didn’t leave the question of who he was unanswered. He announced resolutely, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and he punctuated it with the blood from his side, the nail-hole scars in his hands, and the promise of his presence in the confessing Church until he returns again with finality. We have the choice to either know him and submit to him through faith, or to reject him and continue pursuing ourselves, doomed to what Bonhoeffer calls, “the treadmill confinement to the self, the very loneliest solitude, with its tormenting desolation and sterility,” until we too crumble with the sands of time.